To properly understand this post you really need to read The Weird and Wonderful World of Pub Tickers go on a crawl with Roger protz in Sheffield first. Anyway, I’m going to confess, I’ve never been to The Fat Cat before. Yeah, I’d heard of it. Course I knew where it was. Thing was, when myself and BRAPA walked down West Bar things looked nothing like I remembered. What’s happened to Bradford Woollens and Weston Senior? Where’s the tropical fish shop gone? What about all the works?
It all looked a bit strange as my departure from the Sheffield area coincided with the inception of The Fat Cat from the remains of The Alma PH in 1981. Even then we’d never venture down Kelham Island, nowt but steelworks and dingy back street boozers and in any case it was a million miles from The Limit on West Street. My first impressions were, it looks like someone’s razed far more old buildings than the Germans ever did in the Blitz and built apartment blocks instead. Thankfully, the pub still stands.
There’s two rooms to the pub, a bar to the left of the door and a lounge/best room to the right. The fire was blazing in the lounge where Retired Martin was finishing off a vegetarian, gluten free, meat pie! He kindly offered to stand the first round and on the basis of when in a Kelham Island Brewery pub then drink Kelham Island ales, especially when the brewery is next door; I had a Pale Rider. Is it their best ale? I think so. Mr Protz did too and requested similar. Prices? No idea. I wasn’t paying was I. A blurry photo of the beer board reveals it was £3 a pint and £2.60 for Kelham Best Bitter.
First of the day and it tastes so good, well better than 3.5 and only just under NBSS 4. Notably it set the standard for the day and I can tell you the standard was maintained through another four pubs.
They don’t go in for music much at The Fat cat, but there was an album on-sale behind the bar for an ageing prog/folk/rock/metal band that had played here once. They’re collectors items, the original pressing was only 100 copies. You can get one of the remaining ninety nine for £1.99. Apparently the rakish looking older bloke carries them everywhere in his briefcase, but will only sell you one if the entire band are all present. I’ve heard The Tickers might be doing a gig in St Albans? If hear anymore I’ll let you know.
At this stage I was a bit tired of being out done in the biggest, smallest, remotest, been there, done that stakes so I went and had a word with the landlord. Dunc Shaw has been the manager for the past ten years, a position he’s quite proud of. He showed me around, I’m not going to elaborate when Sheffield CAMRA’s website says it in so much more detail than I could ever manage, along with the pub’s history. Apparently the three sided servery means the bar! You get served through a hatch/gap if you’re in the best room.
It’s quite frightening that as recently as 1981 it was the (one of the) first real ale freehouses in the UK? I think we all owe that Dave Wickett and Bruce Bentley a vote of thanks for that.
Dunc told me that Kelham Island is a busy and fashionable place to drink. His customers range from eighteen to eighty and come from all over to sample the twelve cask ales and real ciders. At a quarter to three on a Tuesday afternoon the clientele amounted to three chaps with newspapers, lady on lap top, man eating his dinner, a well known beer writer, two enthusiastic pub tickers, me, the landlord and a lady in the kitchen. Not busy, not quiet, just nice.
The pièce de résistance for me is the beer garden. Okay, December in Sheffield means I’m not going to take my coat off any time soon, but I could see the potential when it’s a bit warmer. Everyone was taken by the pub and brewery memorabilia on the wall, including the old Stones Brewery, Alma pub sign. Not me, I went straight to the representation of ‘The Fish Tank’. Not any fish tank this one, it’s the one from ‘ole in ’t road, rendered in perfect mimetic perspective on the pub wall.
To understand this you need to have visited Sheffield city centre pre 1994. To get maximum impact you had to be a small boy in the late sixties, pestering and pestering your Mum or Grandma to take you to see the fishes; Angel fishes, brightly illuminated neon tetras, electric blue, bluer than the water, the people milling around in the subterranean passageways in the heart of the city. One day everywhere will be like this and we’ll be living on the moon. Never happened did it. I blame Meadowhall and big chains. Don’t let it happen to your beer or your pub.
There’s an old public information film with some footage of the hole in the road. They used to show it us at school: blackout curtains faded to green don’t stop the lights through the cracks, dust motes trapped forever in shafts of sunlight and some bloke with a posh accent telling us what we know already, crackle, crackle, flap, flap, flap flap, flap, flap, lights please.
There’s clips of the film in The Full Monty and, I think, the brilliant Big Melt whose sound track features the iconic Sheffield music of the seventies and early eighties. Sadly not available on BBC i-player at the minute. One film that does sort of sum up my feelings is Steel Town, Stocksbridge, Sheffield and the steelworks where my dad, grandad, uncle, uncle, cousin, neighbours, schoolmates and their families all worked. I know it’s beyond the Northern fringe of the city but it gives you the feel of things. The feel of Kelham Island, Sheffield, Steel City and what it was like and what the Fat Cat and Dunc somehow manage to recreate.
Verdict: Traditional Sheffield ale house delivering cask ales and an all-round pub experience that puts it well in the upper echelons of what is humanely believable.
Acknowledgement; Many thanks to Mark Crilley for creating the album cover The Tickers – Whose round is it this time? from my original photo. Any resemblance to no one in particular and the use of the CAMRA logo is purely coincidental. No one has been asked if I could utilise their image in this way but they have all independently ‘liked’ it on Twitter, so that’s good enough for me.
Mark Crilley is an American manga creator, artist & children’s book author/illustrator. He is the creator of Miki Falls and Brody’s Ghost. He produces instructional videos on drawing on YouTube in various styles, including manga-styles. Wikipedia.