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Ales on the rails.

There was an incredulous silence as I timidly asked for half of beer in this real life drinker's heaven

With arched tones, Phil, the bearded leader of our team joining the Oblivion Express, said dryly: 'The Lord didn't make half days.'

He was right of course. Because when it comes to supping, the die-hard pilgrims who faithfully follow the 'Rail Ale Trail' across Yorkshire don't do anything by halves.

Here, everything is dutifully, almost reverently, measured in pints: great wedge-shaped glasses filled to the frothing brim with unique mixes of hops and barley.

There is Crackle, a sharp, enlivening beer from Barnsley and Windy Miller with its palate-tingling aftertaste from Mossley.

The deceptively strong Twister from Ossett. Or Butterley, with a deep, amber countenance, from Marsden, and which, after just a couple of tentative mouthfuls, can literally make your eyeballs bounce

All these, and much, much, more, are admired, savoured and downed by my companions during a well regulated, if slightly quirky, ten-hour tour of historic railway buffet bars and micro-breweries straddling the wild Pennines between Stalybridge and Dewsbury.

We are at Stalybridge Railway Station's legendary buffet bar with its giant Victorian timepiece pointing soberly to 12.25 p.m.

Already our gaggle of companions ( Aussie Bob, Pete the Print, Mundo Hicks, Phil the Farrars and the Mike Robinson, a local Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) official - had demolished a rake of 'breakfast' pints.

Appropriately, we were sampling a deliriously fragrant noggin, Bitter Sweet Memories, giving time for nostalgic reflection in this perfectly preserved monument of rail travellers' history.

It was from the buffet bar on Platform One, Phil informed us, that troops at nearby Ladysmith Barracks sank a farewell (and sadly, often final) drink before heading to India or the trenches.

And later, in the halcyon days of steam, families with cardboard suitcases escaped from the tide of cotton mills to Blackpool and Bridlington on their annual Wakes Weeks holidays.

Even today, whimsical shreds of history remain: railway station signs, colourful advertisements, sepia prints and imposing notices crowd the buffet bar walls.

A proud metal dispenser still offers platform tickets for one penny, topsy-turvy lines of fairy lights dance round the windows and, the obligatory, roaring coal fires give an added cosiness to this citadel of drinking delights.

Yes, this is indeed a haven for the thirsty and hungry. Because alongside the shining beer pumps, Sylvia Wood, the bar manager, serves steaming portions of black peas (they are brown really) laced with pepper and vinegar.

Dapper former marine Tommy Chadwick, the buffet bar's unofficial announcer checks train times for drinking visitors then waves us off with a smile and curl of his luxuriant handlebar moustaches.

And in minutes, our party's wicker hamper, packed with warm bacon baps and chilled Paul Roger champagne, was ceremoniously shared with other happy, if slightly bemused, passengers.

We roll off the train into the Head of Steam at Huddersfield, a rather regal home of railway stations, with imposing pillars and a bold frontage overlooking the town.

An added attraction is the bar's 50 different vodkas and its jazz and blues nights. Better still, it stays merrily open until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays.

A skimming of pints later, we are back on the train heading up the line to the lavishly named West Riding Refreshment Rooms on the station of the bright and welcoming town of Dewsbury with its imposing honey-coloured buildings.

Another tide of lip-smacking pints and by now my teeth were starting to float as we trundle back to Huddersfield and the SECOND bar further down the station platform.

We tip out again at the village of Marsden into the Riverhead Brewery Tap where owner Philip Holdsworth has appropriately named his beers after local reservoirs. Then it's off for our final snifter at The Sair, hidden in a fold of moorland at Linthwaite and where Limfit, it's cherished golden bitter, rules.

Later, back to Charles Brierley's award-winning White Hart Inn, over supreme scallops on black pudding and succulent steaks, the team is busy planning their next rail ale adventure

But it's time for me to hit the buffers. Oh happy, happy daze...

* Ken Bennett's party travelled as guests of Transpennine Express who operate regular services between Middlesbrough, Manchester and Leeds. Cheap day return tickets cost pounds 12.70 between Manchester and Leeds, allowing you to hop on and off the train at various stations. Click on: www.tpexpress.co.uk or call 08457 48 49 50.

* He was guest at the White Hart Inn, a 10-minute stumble from the 'rail ale trail' at Lydgate, near Oldham. Tel: 01457 872 566 for bookings or: www.thewhitehart.co.uk
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Title Annotation:Travel Destinations
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Date:Feb 19, 2005
Words:775
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