seeing the light in a station bar*

comm9
(Newcastle Central)

Tom and I were talking about station bars the other day and discovered that as teenagers, living many miles apart in Stretford and Rochdale, we both liked to hang around the one at Manchester Victoria. This had, before it fell victim to nailed-down chairs and the homogenising effects of Travellers Fayre (shudder), a marvellous, atmospheric and (to our teenage selves) immensely exotic interior: all stucco, coloured glass, and plush upholstery. (I’ve not been there for quite some time, so have no idea of its more recent fate). Anyway, our conversation turned on how station bars form a particular genre of British pub: how they are purportedly spaces of transition, of waiting, and therefore never a destination in themselves. But then we changed our minds and decided, that precisely because of their liminal status (being the place you go to before you get to where you were going; neither one place or another) station bars really are distinct destinations: in-between spaces, half-way places, purgatories of refreshment.

sign
(Halfway hoose)

It then occurred to me that, largely because of my own transitional existence between two cities, I am a regular in two great examples of the genre: The Centurion in Newcastle Central and The Halfway House, just a stone’s throw from Edinburgh Waverley. Both serve a good range of ales (always a bonus); both are superlative station bars, and they both celebrate their particular in-between-ness in very different ways. The Centurion does so in a manner entirely in keeping with its surroundings in the grand Victorian sweep of John Dobson’s Newcastle Central station.

column
(The bar at The Centurion)

The bar pumps, which happily dispense a swift half of Rivet Catcher or Old Kiln Ale to me after a long day’s teaching, nestle behind glorious late nineteenth-century columns decorated in this stately and very excessive manner. Some of the tiles are exuberantly suggestive of fin-de-siecle train travel along the East Coast mainline: of steam, sunrise, and the view crossing the Tweed near Berwick:

tiles

The Centurion sits in what was, in the 1890s, the station’s first-class lounge. But, by the 1960s, it was frequented not by well-heeled passengers but disgruntled prisoners, after it was transformed into holding cells for the British Transport Police. British Rail then apparently did their best to destroy the tiles with a bucketload of paint, before the interior was finally restored to its former glory in 2000. Now The Centurion’s fabulous interior and fine ales can once again be enjoyed by travellers through the station, as well as all the good folk of the toon, (including a well-known group of knitters).

centurion
(Dear man who also likes The Centurion’s interior: thankyou for being in my picture)

The Centurion’s real showpiece has to be this mural which displays for North-bound travellers their promised destination: all dappled braes and rocky shores, green and gold and . . . rhododendrons. After looking at it many times, I think the landscape must be meant to suggest a view across Loch Lomond from the East shore (which of course became a popular tourist destination in the 1800s, largely because of train travel). It’s such a luridly late-Victorian highland fantasy, and I absolutely love it.

The interior of The Halfway House (HWH) also celebrates trains and transition, but in a rather different way.

waitingroom

While The Centurion is the epitome of opulence, with its high ceilings, elaborate decor, and luxurious surroundings, the Halfway House is all about being snug. This is the smallest and cosiest pub in Edinburgh. Within seconds of your train arriving, you can step out of Waverley Station, walk a few steps up Fleshmarket Close, and be in the welcoming interior of the HWH, enjoying a very reasonably priced lunch of hot stovies or cullen skink, and (oh joy of joys) a well-kept pint of Bitter and Twisted.

hwhbar
(HWH bar)

The pub is stuffed with railway paraphernalia, chief among which are posters and postcards celebrating the destinations one might reach on the old LNER.

lner
quickerbyrail
nightstar

Though the HWH is meant to be a stop-off point, a waiting room, a resting place between places, I am most fond of it because for me it is my final destination (and not purgatorial at all). I frequently meet Tom in there for a pint at the end of the working week, and I look forward to that pint immensely. Cheers.

beer

Where are your favourite station bars?

hwh

*apologies to Nick Drake

18 responses

  1. I haven’t been in the Half Way House for years – your blog was a wee trip down memory lane! Thank you

  2. Thank you for presenting these lovely interiors! We might be visiting England and Scotland again this summer, and these 2 pubs are definitely worth a visit. I had to check out the “Bitter and twisted” and my husband is now particularly intrigued by the “Old Engine Oil”! I’m more for the “Bitter and twisted”.

  3. Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar has to be the best station bar in the Manchester area at the moment. Where else can you get a well kept pint and some black peas (for even more nostalgic loveliness) while you’re waiting for a train? The bar at Victoria is looking very poorly these days unfortunately. I pass through the station a couple of times a week and every word of this review is true:

    http://www.manchesterconfidential.com/index.asp?Sessionx=IpqiNwy6JDXmKaqiNwF6IHqi

  4. I’m really struggling to think of a good station bar, most of them seem to be plastic buffets! But I am going to check out the Halfway House though.

  5. The station bars on the west coast mainline between Oxford and Bolton (such as still exist) are all much less salubrious and I tend to steer well clear.

    I’m afraid that the best place to be marooned for an hour on my regular journey is Birmingham New Street as you can nip across to the Bullring for a quick mooch around Baby Gap. Sad but true.

  6. Ah, love the picture of platform three in Newcastle Central Station – the platform south and therefore the platform home (to London) and away from home (my mum in Newcastle).

    Favourite station bar: would agree with you in the Centurion, very emblematic of Newcastle in general. Least favourite: very easy – Kings Cross, which doesn’t even have a bar or a cafe now that gruesome pub closed down in what is surely the most disgraceful station in Britain.

  7. As always, a good read and super photos. I don’t know when I last travelled by train – despite having been a Britsh Rail employee for 6 years in the 70s (back in the days of nationalisation!!)

  8. Oh, for certain it’s the Halfway House- Even though I lived in Aberdeen for years. No competition.

    Unless, of course, you could count the Ship Inn in Stonehaven as the ‘Station Bar’.

  9. CAMRA (quite rightly) voted The Halfway House Edinburgh’s pub of the year. I think they’re getting the certificate or similar this week coming. Yay for them!

  10. I’m not much of a drinker (though the husband likes his beer and ale) but I have always loved the Oyster Bar in Grand Central in New York for its graciousness. It retains the grandeur of the station itself, yet I always feel welcomed.

  11. I went in the the Centurion for the first time this Saturday, it really is the most unusual and attractive station bars I’ve ever visited. Victoriana overload! Halfway House is one of my faves too. What a shame so many station bars have been homogenised and plasticised.

  12. Your posts are so nostalgic for me (and my comments are so self-indulgent, I realize)–my grandpa was an inspector on the L & Y and then LMS. Sadly tho’ he never let us go in that station bars as he was a staunch Methodist who didn’t approve:(

  13. Me again! Also, I just mentioned your post to my mom and she said that when speaking of station bars, the one at Manchester Victoria is the one that comes to mind!

  14. rhododendrons in the foreground of a travel poster look extremely familiar — viz., this repro of 1930s american works progress administration posters for the national parks.

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