Fairytale of Sheffield: the annual check in

It looks as if we might end up visiting Sheffield every winter – why change a winning formula?

Last December we made a point of only visiting new pubs. We also sought out traditional carols in a pub, which was a profound and magical experience.

A couple of things were different this year, though.

First, Ray was unfortunately unwell, so this ended up being a solo trip for me.

Secondly, it turns out I can’t come to Sheffield two years in a row and ignore The Rutland Arms, even if that does break the new-pubs-only rule.

Meeting up with Martin

Martin has handily written up the first part of my weekend. (Yes, I am the mysterious “guest from Bristol”.) He suggested a few meeting spots and I went for The Old Shoe, on the grounds that it was central and promised a good range of beer.

It’s always interesting to see how a newly-opened pub can compete in a well-established drinking culture. I’d say based on a short visit that this is a great addition to the city centre.

It had two casks, three ‘real’ ciders, and a thoughtful selection of 15 kegs covering a range of different styles, both local and from far away. I got chance to drink my first Titanic Plum Porter of the season which was as good as this beer gets. 

Excellent as The Old Shoe was, we chose to crawl on.

The next stop was The Church House, tucked away behind Sheffield Cathedral. It was packed with a post-shopping crowd of all ages. It felt timeless and cosy and is yet another example of the basic high standard of Sheffield pubs. I’d never heard of this place before this visit even though it would easily be a top three pub in just about any other city.

On Martin’s recommendation, I drank Farmer’s Belgian Blue by the Bradfield Brewery. It stood up well to Plum Porter, as a warming, slightly exotic winter special. I didn’t detect any Belgian character in the beer but perhaps that’s because it’s actually named after a breed of cow.

The next stop was the legendary Fagan’s which we didn’t manage to visit prior to the change of ownership. That was an oversight on our part last year – but we just couldn’t drink any more! That means I can’t offer a before and after commentary. What I can say is that the Bass was some of the best I’ve ever tasted, and the surroundings were extremely pleasant.

At this point, I was due to get a bus back to my friend’s as we had an evening session carolling in the pub. However, as the bus stop was next to The Rutland Arms, it proved impossible to resist its charms. I managed to stick to one half only by promising myself that I’d come back the next day.

No phones at the carols

The carols were at The Travellers’ Rest in Oughtibridge. It turned out to be a Sam Smith’s pub which was strictly enforcing the no-mobile-phones policy.

I’ve got a couple of observations on that policy. First, it rather supposes that you have absolutely no need to be in touch with the outside world while you’re in the pub, so screw you if you’ve left the kids with the babysitter and want to check in on them. (As did my companion.)

It also means that I have no video or photographic reminders of what was a really lovely evening of carol singing. So you’ll just have to take my word(s) for it.

It was a slightly different atmosphere to last year’s experience, possibly because it was in the evening so the crowd was less mixed. This didn’t make the singing any less accomplished or moving. And they even laid on snow for when we came out.

Oh, and the perfectly decent keg dark mild was £2.80 a pint.

A butty and some bitter

The following day I revisited The Rutland Arms, as promised, and saw off my grogginess with a hearty chip butty and the hair of the dog while I read a book in the corner.

The highlight was Bampa Best Bitter by Beak. It was a pale amber bitter with smoky toffee notes and a touch of honey about it. A modern take on a trad style that managed to taste fresh and different without disrespecting its heritage.

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: if you like pubs, you owe it to yourself to spend a weekend in Sheffield. There really is nowhere quite like it.

20th Century Pub pubs

The Alpine Gasthof: let’s crack this

The Alpine Gasthof in Rochdale is something of a mystery. Why is there a replica of a German building in Lancashire? When was it built? And who designed it?

We wrote the first version of this post in 2017 when we were researching an article about German Bierkellers in English towns – a major trend in the 1970s.

The Gasthof, without doubt one of the UK’s weirdest pubs, became a side quest.

We’ve still never been, and might have missed our window, as it seems to have been closed for several years.

Instead, we had to rely on sources such as Tandleman’s post after a visit in 2017:

Perhaps the oddest of Sam Smith’s pubs is its take-off of a German local pub, uprooted it seems, in looks if nothing else, from Garmisch or some other Alpine resort. Only it is in Rochdale. Not only is it in Rochdale, but it is on a busy main road, which if you follow it for not too long, will take you to Bacup. This is the Land that Time Forgot. Don’t do that… Not only is it incongruously in Rochdale, but it is in a less than salubrious part of town… The pub has the usual German style high sloping roof and inside is, well, a sort of pastiche of a German pub, but done, unusually for Sam’s, sort of on the cheap.

Although there were lots of photos, and though everyone seemed quite fascinated by the place, there didn’t seem to be many concrete facts.

We didn’t hold out great hopes for any information from the brewery which is notoriously tight-lipped but did get this, which is a start:

The Alpine Gasthof was built in the 1970s (don’t have the exact date to hand) because the previous pub we had on that site had to be demolished for road widening. To have a bit of fun we decided to build a pub modelled on the Brauerei Gasthof Hotel in Aying, Germany because at that time we were brewing Ayinger beer under licence.

(OK, this is embarrassing, though – we can’t find our source for that information. The way we worded this in 2017 make sit sound as if we did get some kind of communication from the brewery, which doesn’t seem likely.)

We can well imagine Sam Smith’s execs going to Aying during licence negotiations and being charmed by the original, pictured here in a shot taken from the gallery on the hotel website.

Brauereigasthof-Hotel-Aying exterior: a typical German-style building with green shutters and a high sloping roof.

Although, oddly, the pastiche doesn’t look that much like it. Here it is photographed in 2013, via Ian S on under a Creative Commons Licence:

The Alpine Gasthof, Rochdale, another typical German style buiulding with shutters, balconies and a high sloping roof.

With a bit more to go on we reckon we can guess that the date of its construction was around 1972, at the tail-end of the theme pub craze (Further reading: Chapter 5 in 20th Century Pub) and just as the German Bierkeller trend was kicking in.

That’s also when Sam Smith’s started brewing Ayinger-branded beers.

But we were awful short on actual evidence. We thought this might be something…

A Google Books snippet view extract from International  Brewing & Distilling from 1972 which mentions an Ayingerbrau Gasthof opening at Wetherby in Yorkshire.

…but there are two problems.

First, though Google Books has the date of publication as 1972 the particular issue referencing the Alpine Gasthof might be from, say, 1978.

We’ve come across this problem in the past. It’s hard to know until you have the journal in front of you, fully readable. Secondly… It says Wetherby, Yorkshire.

Surely some mistake? But, no, apparently not — there is at least one other (slightly odd) reference to an Alpine Gasthaus in Wetherby, giving the address as Boroughbridge Road, LS22 5HH.

That led us to this local news story about the burning down in 2005 of the Alpine Lodge, a two-storey chalet-style building in Kirk Deighton (Wetherby).

There are various other bits out there including this interview with the couple who ran it for several decades and a teasingly indistinct photo taken from a moving car in bright sunlight on this Facebook nostalgia website.

We’ve taken the liberty of reproducing it here, with some tweaks — hopefully no-one will mind.

The Alpine Inn AKA the Alpine Lodge, at the side of a main road, in a grainy old photograph.

What a bizarre building to find there on the side of the A1.

And that leaves us with two Alpine-style Sam Smith’s pubs to be puzzled about.

So, do drop us a line if you know anything concrete about the origins of either pub (that is, not reckonings or guesses); have friends or family members who might have drunk in them; or live near either Rochdale or Wetherby and fancy popping to your local library to look at newspapers for 1972.

An update for 2023

Six years later, we’ve come back to this post with a little fresh information.

Neil Whittaker got in touch earlier this year with this nugget of information on the Alpine Gasthof, with some minor edits for clarity:

My dad was the architect. He was Donald Whittaker of Whittaker Design in Oldham.

He passed sadly in 1999 but the business is alive and has just celebrated 50 years.

He visited Garmisch in Bavaria to do his research.

He was away for weeks, obviously needing to accurately sample the beer Kellers unique atmosphere.

I missed him as I was only 10 but he brought me some lovely model cars back so it was worth it.

He did a lot of work for Sam Smith’s, including the unique Pullman carriage attached to the Yew Tree in Thornham, Rochdale, which was the restaraunt in the 1970s and 80s. It is sadly long gone, although the pub remains.

He was also responsible for a J.W. Lees pub in the ski resort of Flaine in France, bringing their terrible tulip lager to the alps in around 1978!

Thanks to new additions to the British Newspaper Archive we’ve also been able to get closer to pinning down the date of Gasthof’s opening.

A promotional article in The Rochdale Observer for 7 March 1979 refers to the pub as having been open for “a little over four years”, allowing us to pin it down to late 1974 or early 1975.

The article also gives us a glimpse of its operation at the time:

Since last September it has been under the management of Stephen and Lesley Fagan, who have put it on the map for more than just its excellent food… When the Gasthof was opened the owners, Samuel Smith’s Brewery, went to great pains to bring an authentic atmosphere. They imported antique furnishings and modern pineware from Bavaria… It has a strong flavour of Bavaria in its menu, with Austrian dishes alongside English favourites… For example, among the appetisers is Kartoffelpuffer, which are potato pancakes… Fish with sauerkraut is another delicacy… Among the sweets, the Bavarian style hot cherries are delicious.

One observation we’ve often made about theme pubs, however, is that they usually strayed from the original concept after only a few years.

The Gasthof was built with food as its primary offer, and lager as the focus. By 1979, the Fagans were downplaying food, eager to get more drinkers in. The menu had gained more traditional English dishes. And, in keeping with the trends of the time, had started serving real ale “from the wood”.

beer in fiction / tv pubs

Snob screens in the Punch & Judy Man, 1963

The 1963 film The Punch & Judy Man has a scene in a pub where a ‘snob screen’ is an essential part of the action, and fuel for class satire.

In The Punch & Judy Man Tony Hancock plays a seaside entertainer at war with the snooty town council which wants to take Piltdown-on-Sea upmarket.

When rain comes, he and his fellow entertainers and hawkers retreat to a seafront pub called The Trident – actually a studio set at Elstree, evidence suggests.

Being skint, and being working men, they stand in the public bar drinking mild and bitter. Meanwhile, the suit-wearing town dignitaries hang out in the saloon drinking expensive spirits.

Between them is a barrier: an ornate ‘snob screen’ in wood and etched glass, jutting out a few feet from the bar.

Hancock, who co-wrote the film as well as starring in it, uses these as the basis for a bit of ‘business’ which, handily, you can see some of in the trailer for the film.

He pops in and out of the various windows, taunting and teasing the snobs behind the snob screen. In other words, he refuses to respect (literal) social barriers, and highlights their purely symbolic nature.

After all, he and his pals can hear almost every word that is being said a few inches from them, on the other side of the screen.

What is slightly odd is that most surviving examples of tilting or swivelling snob screens are there to separate customers from bar staff, rather than from each other.

A view along the bar of a traditional Victorian pub with swivelling screens, with etched glass.
Snob screens between customers and serving staff at The Barton Arms, Birmingham.

In Licensed to Sell: the history and heritage of the public house (Brandwood et al, 2011) the small section on snob screens explains that they were also known as ‘shy screens’.

Pub designer Ben Davis, in his book The Traditional English Pub, 1981, describes them like this:

“This was a Victorian invention consisting of a polished mahogany structure fixed to the counter top and containing small panes of decorative glass in centre-pivoted timber frames. This allowed the ‘snobs’ in the Saloon Bar to be served and at the same time to cut themselves off from the direct scrutiny of the lower orders – perhaps their own servants or employees – in the Public Bar.”

This sounds more like the purpose of the screen we see in The Punch & Judy Man but it is still mounted on the bar, rather than along the bar.

A person ducks beneath a screen in a traditional wood-panelled pub.
Screens separating bars at The Prince Alfred in Maida Vale.

And while there are numerous examples of screens separating bars or sections in pubs, they don’t tend to have pivoting or opening windows. Why would they?

We have to assume that the production designer on Hancock’s film took some liberties here. Artistic licence, if you like, to facilitate a gag the Lad Himself wanted to perform.

A few more footnotes

Even if this isn’t a real pub, and licence has been taken, it’s worth recording a couple of other observations.

First, there are pump clips. Small ones, on the public bar only, but they’re there. This ties into the date we’ve previously suggested for the popular uptake of pump clips, in around 1963.

Secondly, a bit of business between Hancock and his pals underlines the status of different types of beer.

The beach photographer Nevil (Mario Fabrizi) is pressed into buying a round to make up for a breach of etiquette in touting for customers during a performance.

Hugh Lloyd, as Hancock’s hangdog assistant, takes advantage by ordering a large bitter, causing Nevil’s eyes to widen in panic. This is an expensive order! He balances it by ordering a half of mild for himself – the cheapest thing on the menu.

And, finally, it’s yet another faux-Watney’s pub on film, with a famous Red Barrel on the bar. Was the Watney’s publicity department particularly friendly to filmmakers, perhaps?

A promotional booklet for the film (reproduced with the 2019 Network Releasing Blu-ray) trumpeted various ‘national tie-ups’ with Kellogs, Gordon & Moore’s toothpaste, Kodak, Remington Shavers and Lyon’s Maid ice cream. But not Watney’s.


Zine review: Service, Please! by Burum Collective

We’re used to pubs being written about by consumers and commentators – what if hospitality workers had a voice, without a commercial filter?

They don’t, traditionally, because a core function of hospitality is pandering to customers.

Said customers expect to be made to feel welcome, and appreciated. They need to believe that the places where they eat and drink are little paradises. Don’t harsh my buzz, man!

Hospitality workers writing about how annoying we are, or the indignities and injustices of their jobs, amounts to bad PR.

As the editor of the c.40-page zine Service, Please! Rachel Hendry says in her introduction:

“[There] has been something tentatively radical about creating this zine written and illustrated entirely by people who work or who have worked in hospitality.”

We might challenge that word “tentatively”. About half of the zine is dedicated to explicit calls for hospitality staff to join unions, or to show solidarity with other unionised workers.

Less directly, Douglas Nelson’s short essay ‘Hypocrisy’ highlights the difficulty of working for employers who say the right thing, and champion justice… only not for their own staff.

Other pieces express irritation at the bad behaviour of colleagues, such as those who disappear to the alleyway for a mid-rush cigarette.

There’s also a strand of depressive melancholia: accounts of derailed creative careers, repetitive shifts, and the pressure to perform cosy cheeriness on loop every single day.

Even when we’re not being utter dicks, we customers are a wearying lot. In one cartoon, by Ceara Colman, a barista is slowly ground down by one customer after another calling them hun, babe, love…

It’s good to see another piece acknowledging the existence of the colour bar in British pubs in the 20th century. Yasmin Begum’s article is about Cardiff Bay and its lost pubs, expressing nostalgia but also prompting us to think about who was welcome, and who was not.

Between heavier pieces, there are amusing illustrated snippets such as ‘Things I Have Cleaned up With Blue Roll’ and ‘Chef’s Menu Du Jour’ which starts with “Pasty De Gregg En Route”.

After reading Service, Please! on Saturday morning we went out to the pub. We ordered a half of a fancy keg beer from out of town and the person behind the bar said:

“Just to let you know, that’ll be £5.”

“That’s fine, but thanks for the warning.”

“No problem,” they replied. “I’m skint and I’d be furious if I paid a fiver for a half.”

As pubs and restaurants become ever more a premium product, is it right that those who work in hospitality should feel locked out of what they sell by low wages and tight terms and conditions?

We paid £10 for our copy of Service, Please! as a pre-order. We’re not quite sure where and how you can buy a copy yourself but will add a link here when we find out. In the meantime, start by visiting Burum Collective. You can order a copy from Burum Collective.

bristol pubs

The Siren’s Calling, Portishead: nautical

The supposed best pub in Bristol for 2023 isn’t in Bristol, it’s in Portishead. And it is, indeed, very good.

We decided to visit The Siren’s Calling a few months ago when we saw a sign in The Merchants Arms in Hotwells which said something like: “The pub CAMRA says is the best in Bristol isn’t really in Bristol so actually, it’s us.”

We’d also heard of the pub because Ray’s dad’s band played there back in 2021 and Ray designed the poster.

Unfortunately, our previous experience of Portishead meant we had to work hard to find the enthusiasm for the schlep. Last time we went it rained and the buses were totally unreliable. Not Portishead’s fault but these impressions linger.

This time, we decided to walk from Bristol, and get the bus back. The frustrating thing being that long stretches of the path run alongside what looks like a perfectly serviceable railway line, which was closed in 1967.

At any rate, walking in unseasonal October sunshine, we arrived at Portishead Marina with a thirst. The atmosphere was that of a sunny seaside town, with people eating chips on the rocks and yachts in the lock.

The Siren’s Calling is in the ground floor of a new block of flats surrounded by coffee shops and a branch of Co-Op. It’s not a promising location, architecturally speaking.

But then The Cockleshell at Saltash makes something similar work, as do any number of German beer halls installed in grey post-war blocks.

What was promising at The Siren’s Calling was the atmosphere on the terrace outside. The pub was covered in delightfully tacky Oktoberfest décor and there were groups of people in Alpine hats drinking lager by the two-pint Maß.

The interior of the pub with big glass windows, long shared tables and a view of the crowded, sunny terrace.

Inside, we found a single large room scattered with tables and benches, all decked out with blue and white plastic tablecloths.

Despite our reservations about the style, we ordered Festbiers front the Dirndl-clad bar staff, both served in appropriate glassware, and found a corner.

It was quiet mid-afternoon but still had a decent atmosphere – peaceful rather than dead.

“We should come back in the winter,” said Jess. “I bet it’ll be like one of those bars on the Belgian coast.”

Everyone was drinking German beer in two-pint mugs, even a group of dainty older ladies in designer deck shoes.

There was also a party of cyclists in Lycra debating Fleetwood Mac; a pair of hefty lads with, apparently, hollow legs; and one or two serious drinkers hovering round the bar.

What struck us with round two was how reasonably priced it was. A bottle of Jever and a pint of Ayinger Hell came to less than £10. The split turned out to be £4.60 for the Helles and £5 for the Jever.

A chalkboard also advertised a hundred Belgian beers. Without a printed menu we couldn’t verify that but we certainly spotted all the beers we could think of wanting to drink in the fridges behind the bar.

“It’s a proper old skool beer list,” said Jess.

“Why doesn’t Bristol proper have a pub with a list like that?”

“With all those new flats going up, maybe it will get one at some point soon.”

The pub got busier and busier until there was a bona fide queue at the bar.

As the live band struck up at 4pm, with accordion and mandolin, we finished round three (Duvel and another pint of Ayinger Hell) and slipped out to walk, or wobble, towards the bus stop with the low sun in our eyes.