If you’re looking for a way to make an all day bender seem cultural, then I have just the thing for you – the East Lancashire Railway is a delightful tourist attraction, half an hour by tram from Manchester and run by wholesome Lancashire folk who don’t mind if you bring your dog or drink on the train.
The ELR operates a steam train every weekend from roughly 9 – 5pm and as there’s so much to see, it’s worth getting there early. We were focusing on the ‘rail ale trail’ (try saying that after a few Wobbly Bobs) so we started by lining our stomachs at the allegedly ‘world famous’ but totally brilliant Bury Market. This won best market in the UK in 2009 and you can see why, if you look at the quality and selection of food on offer. You should ignore the 70s knitted cardigans though. If I was advising a foreign visitor how to get a real flavour of Britain, this is where I’d send them. There are plenty of great places to eat here but we plumped for the stalwart that is Katsouris and its mammoth £5 breakfast which includes real quality produce and of course, the ubiquitous Bury Black Pudding.
Suitably fed, it was time to be watered. The ELR main office and station is right in the centre of Bury and you won’t be disappointed. The whole experience feels like you’re returning home from the war (the second world variety) with Union Jack bunting, 40s luggage, traditional tickets and traditionally dressed ticket collectors! The prices are nicely aged too. It’s £12.50 for a whole day hopping on and off the steam train. You can upgrade to a guided tour at £19, only available on selected dates. It’s easy enough to guide yourself with a little bit of local research and I’m sure if you were lost, there’d be a smiling Lancashire lad with a flat cap, quirky quip and amazing accent, keen to guide you along.
Waiting for your train needn’t be time wasted; you can start your ale trail early at the Trackside pub in Bury, serving a variety of local beers under a ceiling adorned with the ghosts of guest ales past.
All aboard the steam train, the 40s vibe continued with throwback carriages and sliding windows. Stick your head out if you dare and watch the clouds of ash-white steam billow into the greenery of the Irwell valley. At 12 miles per hour, it’s the perfect pace to take in the viaducts and vales, the fluffy sheep and Friesian cows, plus it means you won’t spill your ELR Steam Train Ale – 3.9% and available on board!
The furthest stop is Rawtenstall where the featured pub is the riverside inn, worth missing to be honest. There’s a pub-free stop at Irwell Vale where you could take your pooch or your boots for a wander. The best stop has to be Ramsbottom because there’s so much to see and so many beers to sample! The highlight is the Irwell Works Brewery which opened earlier this year. Downstairs you can peer through the glass as they magically turn hops into beer, whilst upstairs the bar serves a selection of their own finery to a smart crowd of dog walkers and train enthusiasts.
Sadly we didn’t get time to stop at Summerseat which wins the prize for best named stop. This leaves me with an excuse to return.
The last train is around 5pm so you’re soon back to Bury but you can choose to continue the tour by sampling the recommended real ale pubs, such as the Two Tubs Inn which harks back to Tudor times. I was ready for something other than ale by this point, but they do of course stock plenty of the stuff.
Of course you don’t have to turn it into a booze cruise. There’s plenty of rural scenery to be explored by foot, plus there’s the Irwell Valley sculpture trail, loads of museums to see and if you do get thirsty but are insisting on keeping it sober, then I highly recommend Fitzpatrick’s Temperance Bar in Rawtenstall which takes you back to a time when Dandelion and Burdock mattered. The helpful young lad staffing the bar was eager to explain the roots of sarsaparilla and rosehip cordials. These locally produced liquids are making a comeback on the market and foodie scene, although I imagine the temperance movement itself would struggle to be welcomed in today’s society. My day on the ELR was hardly a picture of temperance and sobriety but it was one of the best days out I can remember. Get on board!