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):
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.