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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
The pub is stuffed with railway paraphernalia, chief among which are posters and postcards celebrating the destinations one might reach on the old LNER.
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.
Where are your favourite station bars?
*apologies to Nick Drake