There was a time when the town of Stalybridge and the villages of Marsden and Slaithwhaite were quiet country backwaters beloved of hikers and those in search of quiet afternoon in the Yorkshire countryside. This, however, is no longer the case. Everything changed when a travel show on one of Britain's major TV network did an episode detailing the benefits of the Ale Trail. The concept was a simple one. The local tourist board had started to promote a journey that involved taking a train through the country stopping of at various villages along the way to enjoy a glass of traditional English Ale. The idea was that it would be a relaxed way to spend the afternoon and to enjoy some local produce. Sadly, it has not transpired as such.
Instead of the trail attracting small groups of ale enthusiasts and those looking for an interesting twist on a visit to the countryside, the trail now plays host to huge groups of men of bachelor parties and birthday outings. In fact, it is fast catching up with Eastern Europe as a popular destination for men on their pre-wedding 'final taste of freedom'. It has got so popular and so crowded that on some Saturdays police are required to control the crowds.
The full trail takes in five or six towns and over 12 pubs. Unfortunately, my friends and I did not have the kind of time – or capacity fro drinking real ale – to do the whole thing. So, we planned to start in Huddersfield and then take the train north to Stalybridge before making our way back. We got a clear taste of what we could expect when we arrived at Huddersfield's wonderfully Victorian train station. There are two pubs in the station, one at each end of the platform. Outside both was a huge crowd of people all pounding away the beers. We stopped at Full Steam Ahead and enjoyed two ales, which were both rather good.
We took a train bound for Manchester that stopped off at all the villages on the way. It was absolutely crammed to bursting and we had to get on early to find a seat. We were sharing our carriage with a large group of extremely drunk men on a birthday party and a group of equally drunk women on a hen party. The journey was far from sedate … or pleasant. There was plenty of screaming, out of tune singing and dropping of beer on the floor. It was quite the relief when they alighted at Marsden.
We would return to Marsden later in the day, but our first stop was Stalybridge where there is a real-ale pub conveniently located on the train station platform. I opted for a glass of rather yeasty stout whilst my friends – Matt and Lee – went for a pale ale. It was all rather pleasant. The sun was out, there were plenty of people on the trail and the beer was something of an adventure.
From Stalybridge, we moved south to Marsden. It was here that the trail was most populated and became rather frantic. The pub closest to the station was absolutely heaving. We managed to get ourselves burgers from the stand outside and then squeeze through to the bar where our ale came in a plastic glass – they had nothing else due to the amount of people in the village. We had two rather cramped beers there before moving onto another pub where we managed to fight our way to the bar to get another ale. However, by this point the fun of the idea was wearing off. The sheer volume of people was making the trail far less fun than we had imagined.