New to the board
Join Date: Nov 2007
Real Ale Train
Outside the former mail wagon that serves as the Real Ale Train's bar, the rain sluices down in sheets. Inside, the bustle of thirsty passengers is already three-deep, and there is still a quarter-hour to go before the guard's whistle will send the 7.20 steaming away down the line. One of the serving staff cocks her ear toward a man in a faded rugby shirt - no stranger to John Barleycorn, judging by his paunch. "Give us a quiver, love," he grins.
I expect him to get an earful for his cheek; instead, he is drawn a pint of gently foaming gold from one of the casks sunk into the long bar. Bowman's Quiver, it turns out, is one of the six ales on draught tonight. Like the others, it is a product of Hampshire - brewed just 10 miles south of the Watercress Line's headquarters at New Alresford. A Quiver sounds good to me, too, and proves to be so: a rich, hoppy bitter that glides down like butterscotch. Wonderful.
More properly known as the Mid Hants Railway, the Watercress Line got its sobriquet from the local crop it once ferried to London. Originally part of a route linking the capital with Southampton, it managed to cheat Beeching's axe in the Sixties, only to be closed in 1973 as passenger numbers declined. Steam enthusiasts reopened the route four years later, developing it into one of the most picturesque of heritage railways.
The Real Ale Train runs on 16 Saturday evenings each year, operating from Alton, where the steam railway links up with the national network. It's certainly a journey on which the getting there is more important than the destination, as you don't actually get anywhere. The train runs to the end of the 10-mile line at New Alresford, doubles back, and then repeats the whole loop, arriving back in time for the last connection to London. There are normally six cask ales on offer, as well as limited supplies of artisan cider.
It is a trip I have wanted to do for some time, though with trepidation. Steam freaks and real-ale aficionados have similarly fearsome reputations. I have already had my ticket marked by asking one gentleman whether he had ever "ridden on the footpad" of a steam engine. (Lest anyone make the same mistake, the term is "footplate".)
So it is reassuring to note that there's a varied mix of people on board. As well as the bearded and beer-festival-T-shirted - the friendliest of all - my fellow passengers include students in Oxbridge college scarves, family outings that take in three generations, and more than one all-female group of thirtysomethings.
After the shout of "All aboard!", and a deep exhalation of steam outside, we set off. I stand with my pint next to a sign warning that it is "forbidden to break wind in the bar", and chat to Sue Clements. As admin and accounts manager, she is one of the line's few salaried staff; but tonight, like everyone else behind the bar, she is an unpaid volunteer.
"We get all sorts of people on the train," she says. "Campaign for Real Ale groups, stag nights - hen nights too - and birthday parties. We had an old boy celebrating his 90th the other week. He seemed a bit bemused, mind."
Between pints, I drink in the atmosphere. It reminds me of Christmas Eve at my childhood local, with the ceaseless banter across the bar, old acquaintances bumping into each other - often literally, given the dimensions of the wagon - and broad smiles everywhere. Sue says: "It really is special. There's never any trouble and we don't get lager louts. People don't get totally drunk - just happy. And we don't serve high-strength ales."
She directs me to look out of the window as the train grinds and hisses to a halt on its approach to one of the intermediate stations. The line also runs gourmet steam trips, and the Watercress Belle dining car is drawn up in the siding, waiting for us to pass. I raise my pint (now a Triple fff Moondance, and every bit as good as the Quiver) at a dicky-bowed diner, who raises his champagne flute, and an eyebrow, back. "Difficult to imagine now, but it's lovely here on a summer evening, going through the Hampshire countryside," says Sue.
It may be a shame that it is pitch-black and piddling down outside, but winter nights on a steam train have a cosy charm of their own. On the return leg of our first trip to Alresford, I wander up and down the train's seven carriages. Again, it puts me in mind of a traditional pub. The real-ale carriage is like the public bar, with standing room only for the most raucous crowd. The buffet car, where curry, hot dogs and drinks other than cask ale are available, has well-lit seating areas that correspond to the lounge bar.
The other carriages are open passenger saloons: wood-panelled and dimly lit, with tables each side of the central aisle, like a collection of little snugs. Some groups keep themselves to themselves around a single table; other, larger parties sprawl across several rows. One end of a carriage is colonised by 20 cribbage players, hunched over their pinboards and pints.
I end up chatting to Steve Lane, secretary of Woking Railway Club. "If I could do every one of these trips, I would," he says. "It's such a good night out, and incredibly good value." Some passengers, he tells me, get off at Alresford, do a swift pub crawl, and then catch the second trip back to Alton. "But what's the point? The beer's better on here."
On the final leg of the journey, I prop up the bar again, tasting the two beers I've not yet sampled - one of them Bowman's Elderado, a brew fortified with elderflower. Fuzzily, I recall the carriage's former use, and try to think up pastiches of Auden's Night Mail: ("Here is the beer train in rainy November/ bringing the steam buff and Camra member...") Then, all too suddenly, we're back at Alton and it's all change.
As the passengers decant into the drizzle, I see that Sue was right: plenty are tipsy, but the engine is the only thing that is steaming. An electric train is waiting to whisk us back to the real world, and a city that has banned ale, real or otherwise, on its transport. As it whines me away from the platform, I can't help thinking that this is a funny sort of progress. I'll be back in the summer.
|Thread Tools||Search this Thread|