The Age of Rail Ale, 1975-1980

During what the press called the ‘real ale craze’ of the late 1970s everyone got in on the act, including British Rail whose Travellers-Fare catering wing introduced cask-conditioned beer to around 50 station pubs.

We first came across mention of this trawling newspapers while researching Brew Britannia and, in an early draft, quoted this Daily Express report as evidence of how real ale drinkers were perceived at the time:

In the Shires Bar opposite Platform Six at London’s St Pancras Station, yesterday, groups of earnest young men sipped their pints with the assurance of wine tasters… There were nods of approval for the full bodied Sam Smith Old Brewery Bitter, and murmurs of delight at the nutty flavour of the Ruddles County Beer… [More than] half the customers drinking the five varieties of real ale in the Shires were not train travellers but people from the neighbourhood using the station as their local pub… In one corner sat for young men sipping foaming pints. They were members of CAMRA, the ginger group for beer brewed by natural means and prove their dedication by travelling three nights a week from Fulham in South West London — four miles away. One of them, 22-year-old accountant Michael Morris said: ‘This place just beats any of our local pubs.’

Twenty-something beer geeks travelling miles for good beer in a weird novelty bar rather than using their dodgy local boozer — you can file that under ‘nothing changes’.

Recently, we’ve come across a few more mentions of the Travellers-Fare real ale drive. First, from the great bundle of books and ephemera stuff Steve ‘The Beer Justice’ Williams sent us when he moved house recently comes this 1979 leaflet (click to enlarge):

Travellers-Fare Real Ale leaflet 1979, side one, listing beers available.

Travellers-Fare Real Ale leaflet 1979, side two, listing station pubs.

Richard Painter was also kind enough to donate a complete run of CAMRA’s newspaper, What’s Brewing, from 1977-1997, in which the rise of ‘rail ale’ outlets was covered with some excitement. Here’s a report from November 1977:

The days of DD [Double Diamond], dog-ends and stale cheese sandwiches are long gone at many British Rail station bars. For 31 station bars are now bursting with thirsty travellers sampling real ale… The Shires Bar at St Pancras sold 58 per cent more beer immediately after being converted to cask beer two years ago. It now sells more than 100 gallons of Ruddle’s, Rayment’s and Sam Smith’s bitters a week… The Birmingham New Street Taurus bar is a rare outlet for Ruddle’s in the Ansells and M&B ‘duopoly’ city.

Travellers-Fare eventually got spun off from British Rail and, as far as we can tell the pubs got sold off to pubcos and breweries during the 1980s and 90s.  At any rate, today, we take for granted that there will be a pub at most larger stations, even if it is plasticky and lacking in atmosphere, and most of them, from what we’ve observed, have cask ale of some sort even if it’s only Greene King IPA or Doom Bar. The Shires Bar at St Pancras shut down and was replaced by the Sir John Betjeman on the same site and (though the quality can be up and down) certainly still sells real ale.

On a related note, ages ago, we wrote in passing about pubs on the London Underground, a subject since covered much more substantially by Ian Mansfield at Ian Visits. The main image above is of The Shires Bar, St Pancras, and appeared in What’s Brewing, November 1977, with no photographer credited.

4 thoughts on “The Age of Rail Ale, 1975-1980”

  1. CAMRA still seems strangely fond of station bars; the one at Paddington was recently voted branch POTY (really? That’s the best pub in west London?) perhaps this was where it began. I’m resisting the temptation to imply any connection between appreciation of beer and proximity to lots of trains.

    1. I wouldn’t dismiss The Mad Bear and Bishop at Paddington. It is actually a very good pub run by a landlady and a team who seem to go out of their way to keep things interesting when it would be easy just to sit back and benefit from an often captive audience (given the appalling number of delays the line currently suffers !). They’ve had series of festivals, often of London beer, always seem to get hold of Fuller’s rarities and guests and also brewed a series of one-offs with Brewsters brewery. The landlady was also Fuller’s Master Cellarman in 2014 and the beer is always in top condtion, so it ticks a lot of boxes and I think you can quite easily make the case for it to be a local POTY – West London is not that blessed with great pubs compared to the rest of London.

      More widely, there are an increasing number of excellent pubs in railway stations – there’s well-known trans-pennine rail ale trail, micro-pubs all-over the shop in railway buildings, and the Taps in Sheffield, Euston and York. So perhaps those BR guys back in the day had the righ idea.

  2. We’re big fans of the Mad Bishop and Bear, which started because we have to spend so much time going through Paddington station, but now we deliberately leave some extra time to get a round or two in before getting on a train.

  3. That DE report seemed to me, I won’t say jeering but rather dismissive – the old-fashioned term ginger is a clue, but the tone in general discloses a similar attitude. The least inquiry would have revealed that these beers, rather than being a novelty and gimmick, in fact were a return to tradition, something the writer’s fellow-journos of 30 and 100 years before would have taken for granted. Yet just because it is novel and different from national keg and lager, it comes in for a mordant look rather than a sympathetic inquiry. The equivalent today, or soon, will be a journalist wondering at people lapping up fined all-malt ales made with lots of traditional English hops, the plaint surely will be it doesn’t taste like a fistful of grapefruit and yeast. So it always goes.

    The lesson for the true beer fan: trust your own instincts, always…

    Gary

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