Sheffield Carols: a Christmas tradition built around the pub

What could be more true to the spirit of Christmas than standing in a crowded pub and singing Christmas carols? Especially if the tunes are only to be heard in a few towns and villages near Sheffield, in South Yorkshire.

I first heard about the Sheffield Carols from a friend who lives in the city. She knows I love pubs and she also knows I grew up in a musical family. I’ve been in and around choirs since before I was born.

It’s a big thing, she explained, that goes on from mid-November until into the New Year, and is unique to the region.

I was fascinated and became determined to visit Sheffield during caroling season. Of course it took a couple of years to get that trip scheduled but this year, finally, we made it.

The website Tradfolk has a good explainer by James Merryclough. He begins by explaining that ‘Sheffield Carols’ is a misnomer:

With a few exceptions, the carols themselves do not originate from Sheffield, but rather Sheffield is where the tradition of singing carols in pubs has been maintained. Go back 200 years or so and the repertoire of carols that are now largely only known in Sheffield’s pubs would have been commonplace across the country… The Sheffield Carols are, mostly, carols as they used to be. Which is to say, at a time before it was decided that the questionable Christian doctrine and folky heritage of these earlier, earthier carols didn’t belong in England’s increasingly pious churches.

This is where the connection with pubs comes in. If you can’t sing your favourite carols in church, because the vicar will give you the stink eye, the pub is the obvious place to keep them alive.

Professor Ian Russell wrote a thesis on Traditional Singing in West Sheffield 1971-72. It has tons of detail on the culture surrounding pub singing and makes clear that it wasn’t just done at Christmas. It’s just that (if I’ve understood this correctly) as year-round pub singing died out, Christmas became the exception.

One fascinating detail in the tradition of Sheffield Carols is the repetition of ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’. It’s often performed multiple times with different tunes. They’re recorded in the songbook by the name of the town or village associated with each version.

To actually hear (and maybe join in with) the Sheffield Carols we took a tram to the end of the line at Middlewood and then trekked up a hill and along a wintry country road (‘liable to flooding’) until we reached the village of Worrall.

There, we found The Blue Ball Inn, absolutely packed, and throbbing with music.

We couldn’t actually get into the room where the bulk of the carol singers were massed around an organ. Instead, we found ourselves a perch near the coat rack by the door.

For two hours, the crowd drank ale, ate roast beef and roast potatoes, and sang together.

Some people had books of music, or just of the words, bought from behind the bar.

Others who had clearly been singing these songs their whole lives belted out the words from memory, swinging pint glasses, wrangling dogs, or feeding toddlers as they did so.

Even though the tunes were unfamiliar, and sometimes unusual, most were easy to pick up, especially as many have repetitive elements within a verse, or call-and-response structures. 

It definitely pays to memorise the words to ‘While Shepherds Watched’. We counted four versions and there may have been more before we arrived.

Here’s an example of the ‘Pentonville’ version from another pub, at another time:

This was truly one of the most magical things I’ve ever experienced. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a hearty dose of Christmas spirit combined with some English cultural tourism.

You can still catch Sheffield Carols being sung for a few weeks yet. Check out this calendar for dates and details.


Sheffield is still a great beer city in 2022

Returning to Sheffield after several years we were delighted to find that it’s still a great city for pubs, albeit one under some strain.

We like to have a plan, or play a game, when we have limited time in a city.

This time, we decided to avoid the old favourites and try some new-to-us pubs.

With that in mind, we asked local friends for advice, including Martin Taylor. Martin is one of Britain’s Good Beer Guide pub tickers and for the past few years has lived in Sheffield.

One of the first pubs he suggested was one we’d never visited and, indeed, never heard of – The Red Deer on  Pitt Street.

The exterior of The Red Deer
The Red Deer.

It’s a classic backstreet local with dark red paintwork and, at this time of year, sparkling fairy lights behind the frosted glass.

Worryingly, though, there was also a sign offering us the opportunity to LEASE THIS PUB. That usually indicates some instability in the situation, such as outgoing management, or a pub company up to mischief.

We had a hypothesis:

  • Sheffield pubs would be resisting the £4 pint
  • there’d be more beer from second-rank breweries as a result

At The Red Deer, we found Oakham Citra and Titanic Plum Porter, both ‘premium’ brands in cask ale, at under £4 a pint. Others on offer were from Bradfield, with their old school pump clips, and Stancills.

“This is what it’s all about, this, isn’t it?” said one of our fellow drinkers, clearly just pissed enough to start expressing emotions to his friends. “Chatting. Making human connections.” Someone else at the table said he didn’t think he’d been drinking in town for 20 years or more.

Open fires amid decor on just the right side of plain. Students. Middle-aged couples “out out” in sparkly dresses and shiny shoes. Games of Yahtzee and mugs of mulled cider. Magic in the lowest of keys.

The Red Deer is apparently not considered remarkable in Sheffield. If it was in Bristol, it would be a top ten pub.

Pub tables, stools, a bar and bench seating.
Carpets and cheese rolls at The Gardener’s Rest.

It was difficult to go to Kelham Island without popping into The Fat Cat or Kelham Island Tavern but we were intrigued by both The Gardener’s Rest and Alder.

Since we were last here a few years ago, Kelham Island has become a sort of Shoreditch: flats in old warehouses, new apartment blocks, sans serif minimalist bookshops, and  street food markets. Depending which street you walked up, the scene was either Dickensian and deserted, or like a neon-drenched carnival.

The Gardener’s Rest is a community pub with a down-to-earth classless atmosphere, designed for oddballs rather than hard cases. There’s some surrealist art over the door, cheese rolls behind the bar, and a team of hard-working, earnest barmen.

There’s also a cursed table by the front door. How else to explain party after party wandering in, ignoring said table, and declaring “There’s nowhere to sit!” before leaving again.

Admittedly, our spot by the wall was better. We drank Beartown Best Bitter, a clean and solid example of the style, and Vanilla Milk Porter from Little Critters. The latter cost, brace yourself, £4 a pint.

A green tinted window behind bars.
Cactuses and green neon at Alder.

If the Gardener’s Rest is the most proper of pubs, Alder, by contrast, is a sort of taproom without a brewery, decorated like a craft beer bar.

On Saturday night, it was busy and verging on rowdy. As a jazz band played in one room (“I’m comin’ home, baby… I’m comin’ home now, right away…”) a bunch of men in their forties wrestled, trying to pump hand sanitiser into each other’s immaculate hair.

Someone opened the lid on the upright piano and began banging the keys like a chimpanzee. Perhaps not the classy atmosphere the management might have been aiming for.

We drank Blue Bee Reet Pale (soft and chalky) and Buxton Best Bitter next to a ledge covered in cactuses.

“It’s not normally like that,” said the barman at The Crow when we mentioned the slightly chaotic atmosphere at Alder. “But that’s the thing about pubs. You only have to go in at the wrong time and you could get a totally skewed impression.”

A frosted window with a crow and the name of the pub.
The Crow(n) Inn.

The Crow Inn is an odd name for a pub, isn’t it? The mosaic on the doorstep is a giveaway: this was The Crown but at some point lost its N. It has leant into this tweak and its windows are now decorated, in vaguely Gothic style, with sharp-beaked corvids.

This pub, in its own way, felt typically Sheffield, too. Pale walls and bright lights suggested craft beer minimalism, and there was a decent list of keg beer on offer.

But there was also sub-£4 cask ale, cosy corners, and a group of burly men arguing with accents so heavy they might as well have been speaking Danish.

Martin, who also knows Bristol well, told us this was similar in feel to The Swan With Two Necks. We took this to mean that it was a pub being pulled in two directions, or perhaps being dragged, resisting, into the 21st century. And that’s about how it felt.

The beer was excellent – Abbeydale Heathen and Red Willow Talus Mosaic Sabro were both the kind of pale-n-hoppy we come to Sheffield hoping to drink. They were, of course, less than £4 a pint.

A pub lit up against a dark sky.
The Union.

On Sunday, we arranged to meet some friends and let them choose the pub. They suggested The Union, which happens to be their local.

Nether Edge on a Sunday night in December was dark, damp and quiet – all Victorian villas and institutional outposts behind stone walls. The pub was a beacon, casting a warm glow through fogged windows.

On entering, we were instantly enamoured. It’s a large semi-open space with plenty of wood, red carpets and red furnishings. The landlady gave us a friendly welcome and served us two perfect pints of Abbeydale Moonshine along with a packet of Henderson’s Relish flavoured snacks.

We noticed she was wearing pink slippers – a strong signal that this is one of those front-room extension pubs.

We sat in the football-free end of the pub earwigging on earnest student conversations. In the other room, regulars watched the match on a screen we were told had been brought down from one of the bedrooms upstairs especially for the World Cup.

We have great nostalgia for pub lasagne, a staple of menus in the 1990s, here served with slices of garlic bread at less than £9 per portion.

The menu was printed on wooden blocks, suggesting it’s reassuringly stable, although the cost of living crisis had prompted someone to update the prices with a biro.

As we watched our friends talk and laugh with the publicans, and greet other regulars (“How are you getting along? Not too shabby, not too shabby.”) we felt mournful for our publess neighbourhood back home.

Could The Rhubarb ever be like this again?

For now, at least, Sheffield remains a magical place to go drinking.

Pick a pub at random and the chances are it will be better than some of the best pubs anywhere else.

And those bargain pints, noticeably cheaper than many other cities, probably help to keep them buzzing.


In the pub, standing is part of the fun

In a really lively pub, not everyone is going to get a seat.

If you do get a seat, there’s no guarantee you’ll have the table to yourself, or that someone won’t end up stood over your shoulder bumping you with their hip and yelling, laughing or otherwise existing out loud.

We found ourselves thinking about this as we worked our way around the pubs of Kelham Island in Sheffield on a busy Saturday night.

There, parties of people in smart Going Out Clothes seemed happy to stand about, cascading into spaces between tables even where there hadn’t seemed to be spaces moments before, and crowding the corridors.

“Can I just squeeze through there, pal?” Well, not really, and yet somehow, yes, and all without touching. (A British superpower.)

If you’re mug enough to wear a coat, you’ve either to swelter, to hold it, hope to hang it, or throw it on the floor. The tendency to hit the town in shirtsleeves makes sense in this context – cold between pubs, sure, but unencumbered once you get there.

That’s not to say that people aren’t keeping an eye on the availability of seats. There’s a way of glancing sideways: how near is this lot to finishing? How empty are their glasses? Is anyone making a move to buy another round, or have they started picking up coats and handbags? There are prime hovering spots, and sharp elbows are sometimes unleashed: “Some people’ll jump in your bloody grave!”

One party leaves (a gust of cold air, dead leaves across the carpet) and another group comes in. The crowd flows fluid to make way as hands reach over to lift pints from the bar, as scotch eggs are eaten from plates balanced on the mantelpiece, as giggling people sit on laps, or the arms of chairs.

These pubs are healthy. This pub culture is healthy. Life is good.

And those lovely, tranquil pubs where you always get a seat? Perhaps worry about them.

Beer history pubs

John Smith’s Modern Pubs in the North, 1967-69

This is another in our series of posts sharing photographs and details about post-war pubs from mouldering magazines. This time, it’s John Smith’s of Tadcaster and the magazine is The Magnet.

We’ve only got three editions — we’d love more — but they’re packed with good stuff if, that is, your definition of good stuff is profiles of plain-looking modern pubs on housing estates in places like Sheffield and Doncaster.

The Flarepath, Dunsville, South Yorkshire
Exterior of The Flarepath.

The headline for this piece in The Magnet is A ROYAL AIR FORCE PUB — The Flarepath, which opened in November 1967, served RAF Lindholme, near Doncaster.

The sign of The Flarepath.

The name refers to an illuminated runway used by bombers returning from night-raids over Germany during World War II. (Again, another wonderful name squarely of its time.)

The Lindholme Lounge at The Flarepath.

The carpet in the lounge was specially woven and featured a Lancaster bomber taking off and the bars were decorated with RAF squadron crests. There were photographs of various types of bomb, again from the Imperial War Museum archive, on the walls.

Mr & Mrs Varley.

Its first managers were Joyce Varley and her husband Arthur, late of the Magnet Hotel, Bentley.

Is it still there? Yes, with John Smith’s signage outside, too.

Beer history pubs

Tetley’s Post War ‘Estate’ Pubs in The North

We’ve just acquired a couple of editions of Tetley’s in-house magazine from the 1960s and thought we’d share some pictures of the then state-of-the-art modern pubs featured.

We usually scan these things and effectively thrown them away on Twitter but thought that we ought to put them somewhere a bit more permanent in case they’re interesting or useful for other researchers, or just for the enjoyment of people who might recall the pubs in question as they were in their heyday.

The first batch of photos are from The Huntsman for Autumn 1964. This picture is on the front cover:

The Cup & Ring (exterior).

Explanatory text inside says: ‘The Cup & Ring, the new opened Tetley house on the edge of the moors by Baildon. It is almost certainly the only public house in the country with this name — taken from the cup and ring markings carved by Early Bronze Age people on certain stones of Baildon Moor.’ Today the pub is — obviously, of course, it goes without saying — gone.

The Earl Francis, Park Hill, Sheffield -- exterior.

Next up is The Earl Francis at Park Hill in Sheffield of which the magazine says:

[The] third Tetley ‘pub’ in the vast comprehensive area of Corporation flats which will ultimately house 10,000 people, was named as a reminder of the local historical association with the Shrewsbury family… The first two of these three Tetley houses were each an integral part of the ground floor of the block of flats in which they were situated. The Earl Francis differs in that it is a separate building. To ensure harmony with its background of flats the shell was built by the Corporation; but the main entrance and canopy, the internal planning and structure, and all fixtures and fittings were dealt with by The Company.