Friday, 21 September 2012

'The Real Ale Trail is Decadent and Depraved' or 'Fear and Loathing on the Real Ale Trail'

Good afternoon! And thanks for such a warm welcome on my return. I’ve had a delightful break, but to be honest, I’ve missed the blog and I’ve returned invigorated and full of new things that I can’t wait to write about.

Well, I do believe it’s time to begin a new trilogy of pieces relating to my recent wedding. They probably won’t be consecutive, since I’m still working on parts two and three, but this week I’ll be unveiling the first one  - a tribute (of sorts) to the stag do. Part two will be devoted to the wedding itself, and part 3 will be another booze tourism account, relating to our honeymoon, so keep on coming back if you want to see those. Here we go.

Stag dos. They can be quite major events these days, lasting a whole weekend and taking place in exciting places like Amsterdam, Prague and Barcelona. If you’re less adventurous than that, you could try London, Bristol, Liverpool… or the South Pennines… more on that in a moment.

Stag dos are traditionally a ‘last night of freedom’ for the soon-to-be-married groom where anything goes (as long as you don’t tell the bride), because afterwards you’re supposed to settle down to the business of being sensible and raising children. Nevertheless, it’s the 21st century now and hopefully that’s not entirely the way marriage works. I’m planning on continuing the practice of not being sensible for some time to come. As for the children… we’ll worry about that later. They’re expensive, time cosuming, and they make people boring, don’t they? People should be banned from Facebook once they’ve had kids. Jus’ sayin’. Even CharlieBrooker’s a victim of post-parental relevancy loss… which is something I’ve just made up.

Aside from being the dividing line between youthful exuberance and marital drudgery, the stag do serves a much more useful purpose as a pre-wedding ice breaker for guests who don’t know each other. All your friends come together at your wedding, and you might find your different groups struggle to mix. Sharing an alcohol-fuelled adventure of debauchery is just what is needed to eradicate the awkwardness, and make for a fun wedding – as long as people recognise each other. I’ve been to weddings where I’ve visually recognised people from the stag, but didn’t remember talking to them. They must have thought I was being rude as I walked by, peering suspiciously at them.

 Tradition dictates that the best man decides what’s happening on the stag, and makes the arrangements and everything, but when it came to mine; I wasn’t having that. Not only is my best man, Phil, probably the worst person you could ever ask to organise anything (other than fixing your PC), but… I wasn’t really sure if I could be bothered with having a stag at all, and I certainly didn’t want to be playing It’s a Knockout in a rainy field in Bristol for four hours again.

What I needed was something that I actually wanted to do, that I wouldn’t have to stray too far from home for, that I could afford, and that would only take the one day. Something that I already have a significant pedigree in…

And that’s where the Real Ale Trail comes in. I’ve told you in a previous post or two, that I like a good pub crawl, so when I heard about the Real Ale Trail, I figured it was right up my street. How good does this sound? It’s a pub crawl… on a train. All the pubs are within spitting distance of a train station, and you just hop on and off the train all day. There’s a useful website that will help you plan your route, so all you need is some friends and a train ticket. Let’s get drunk!

Yeh, sounds good. So how good was it? Well, I’ll tell you…

Things got off to an unusual start when we arrived at Levenshulme train station for the 11.19 to Manchester Piccadilly. We were just taking it in turns to remark on how hot it was, when two station attendants ran past us, hollering at a man who I first assumed to be an idiot who was too lazy to use the tunnel to cross to the opposite platform. I’ve seen that loads of times. It turned out though that he was crouching on one of the tracks with his head covered in a sort of ‘taking cover’ position, and it quickly became apparent that he was intent on allowing a train to kill him in front of an audience.

 “He’s lost it!” yelled one of the station attendants, as he returned from an unsuccessful attempt to talk the man off the track. By now a high speed train was already approaching and sounding a warning.

The man had his back to the train, and seemed to me to have planned it that way. Other people on the platform had already begun to turn away, but I didn’t really know whether to watch or not. I knew it was unlikely I’d ever see this again, and that I only had a few seconds to make my decision, but I had a feeling I’d regret watching far more than if I didn’t watch, so I  waited until about the last second before I turned away. I think I heard a bump, but I never looked round. John did, and said there were body parts everywhere. Gary did, and said he didn’t see anything.

Our train was pulling into the station at this point, and I wondered if we’d be able to get it, but the station attendant told us to get off the platform.

We got the bus instead, and arrived at Piccadilly train station in good time to meet everyone, and for everyone to buy their tickets. Get a South Pennines Day Ranger (£20.50), if you want to follow in our footsteps after reading this. That enables you to hop on and off the train all day.

It was platform 3 for the next train to Huddersfield, then we just had to jump on the next train to Batley, the starting point of our tour. After that it would be Dewsbury, Mirfield, Huddersfield, Slaithwaite, Marsden, Greenfield, Stalybridge and back to Manchester – Victoria, this time.

I received advance warning from another John (let’s call him John G) who was meeting us at Batley, that he felt a little out of place with his Wire t-shirt and copy of The Economist at the first pub where it was all “button down shirts and union jacks”. I hoped he was joking. Jostling with idiots sounded like the exact opposite of how I wanted to be spending my stag do, but there was no turning back. I’d just have to take it how it comes.

Spirits remained high, thanks to train beers provided by Chris B and Pete, and we soon arrived at Batley, ready to start.

The button down shirts and union jacks were nowhere to be seen on arrival – they must have caught the last train out. There was a group of lads in Hawaiian shirts, but other than that, it was a relaxed and inauspicious start. We had the outside front of the Cellar Bar to ourselves.

Since this was the ‘Real Ale Trail’, I’d been joking that I would drink lager at every pub, just to be awkward. It became apparent early on though, that real ale wasn’t always to be as readily available as you might think. Reports from this first pub were that there wasn’t much choice in that regard. I didn’t see for myself, and in fact, I didn’t have to go to the bar all day, which suited me just fine, but after that first pub I didn’t fancy a real ale and ended up having lager all day anyway. Apologies if you were reading this, hoping for some real ale related information. If it’s any consolation, I understand some of the pubs do have a lot of real ale.

What I expected from the ale train was that, fair enough, it would be busy, but also that there would be a number of real ale enthusiasts in attendance – so it would be a lot like going to a mobile CAMRA festival. What I didn’t expect was that there would be no real ale enthusiasts, that it would be incredibly busy, and that it would be full of middle aged meat heads.

I don’t want to come across as a snob or anything, and I actually spent a great deal of time trying to decide how I would handle the matter when it came to writing about it, but let’s face it; there’s no point in glossing over the truth. Was it full of meat heads? Yes. Yes, it was.

I haven’t seen a crowd like this since the time Chris and I went to the Arena to see Ricky Hatton box, and it was just full of football hooligans – the kind of people who can’t have a beer without starting a chant, and always look like they want a fight. They all booed us when we refused to join in their Mexican wave as it went round and round, as if there’s something good about doing what everyone else does. We still didn’t join in.

Being stuck on a pub crawl with the same people was fun (for a bit), but only from an entirely anthropological viewpoint. Would I participate again? Out of choice? Hell no. It was like a fricking zoo. And it just got worse and worse. At every station the crowd got bigger and lairier. It was like being at a Charlatans gig. There was chanting, shouting, jumping up and down, posturing, urinating in inappropriate places, coke in the toilets, piss on the floor… there were even police at some of the stations. I suppose it gets violent sometimes.

It is an adventure though. Making sure you catch the right train at each station provides a challenge – at one point there were two trains on the same platform and our group had been split up. I stayed on the platform with 6 of the group, assuming the others had gotten lost. It turned out that 3 had got on the train, and 2 others had gotten on the wrong train. Luckily that one was still sitting in the station when I called them, so they were able to just get off.

Similarly, finding the pub sometimes provides a challenge also; they aren’t all on the platform, some are down a road, under a bridge and up a path, by a canal. So take my advice; don’t just assume you can follow the throng. Sometimes they don’t know where they’re going, either.

Between two of the stations, a lady began making her way down the carriage with a film camera. She said she was making a film for the BBC – about trains, not about what happens when you give idiots a lot of booze. You won’t see any of our lot on it; she was there to see the chimps’ tea party in full swing. They needed little encouragement and performed for all they were worth when they saw her; big stupid grins on their faces, songs in their hearts. She made her way up and down the aisle, hiding anonymously behind the lens while she captured the mayhem and someone started a chant about how wonderful Manchester is, without actually providing any examples of why it might be wonderful. It’ll be worth looking out for whatever this documentary proves to be when it airs – you might hear John, off camera, calling them all monkeys. Oh, the irony. What?

Well, as I say, it was fun for a while, but a couple of stations from the end it started to get tiresome. My thinking was, “I’ve seen it now, and I’d rather not see anymore of it”, so I suggested we skip the last stop and go straight to town. It may be that it was my stag, and no one wanted to disagree, but the only person who wanted to stick it out till the end was Paul. Seeing something and doing a bit of it isn’t enough for him. He wants to be able to say he’s done the whole thing. He probably doesn’t even consider this one as done. If someone was to say, ‘have you done the Real Ale Trail?’ he’d probably say, “no, we quit a stop before the end”, whereas I would say, “Yes, but we didn’t do the last stop.”

See, pub crawls aren’t a challenge for me. If I suggest doing The Didsbury Dozen, it doesn’t mean I’m going to feel like I’ve failed if I don’t drink in 12 pubs. It’s just a means to an end, a way of deciding which pubs I’m going to go to in that day. I guess for some people, it’s the completion that matters. It wasn’t that it would have been impossible for me to drink at every stop on the trail, more that it was getting more and more like the kind of experience I don’t like to take part in. I don’t like crowds, I don’t like drunk crowds and I don’t like carrying a full bladder around beyond the point of agony.

Even if I went to the toilet a couple of moments before leaving the pub, my bladder was screaming for relief before the train had left the station. I know they have toilets on the trains, but all the seats and aisles were full, and getting to it was a chore unto itself – but ultimately worth it.

So anyway, I hope no one else on the do (other than Paul) was disappointed. I had fun, but it was starting to fizzle out not long after we got to town. I resisted Paul, Chris and David’s desire to go to a lapdancing club. Sorry lads, I don’t see the point in it. It’s not like I’ve never seen boobies before… or will again… presumably… I have got the internet if the worst comes to the worst.

Moving on! Apologies that there are no photos to accompany this account. I did take my camera with me, I just never felt like unholstering it. I hope I’ve provided some useful information for you, if you’re thinking of doing the crawl, and I hope I haven’t put you off entirely. It is what it is, it was what it was, and I haven’t exaggerated anything. If you do it, you will probably have fun, but I’ll tell you one thing: if I lived at any of the towns on this route, I would not be catching trains on Saturday afternoons.

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