As I sat eating my lunch with my folks in the adjacent Wortley Arms I surreptitiously toyed with my phone under the table. The Duchess can’t understand why folk are always messing with their mobile phones? What do they find to look at? In my case it was WhatPub. Strangely Wortley Men’s Club doesn’t appear, which is unusual for somewhere that amongst many accolades has been adjudged CAMRA National Club of the Year in 2015 and is the current CAMRA Yorkshire Region Club of the Year ( note to self – email Barnsley CAMRA to find out why not?)
I was a little apprehensive as I wandered round to the club. More and more frequently these days, I’m getting let down by supposedly excellent pubs that are closed early on in the week, mid week and often mid-day.
I shouldn’t have worried. A warm glow and a twinkle of fairy lights eked out into the soft mid December gloom that had rolled down from the high moors of the Pennines, enveloping the pretty little village, softening the tone, muting the colours. The sign at the side of the door confirmed they were open and that they were open every day, seven days a week, two till eleven, except at weekends when they open at twelve. I’d advise caution when opening the door, it’s heavy, but swings freely and there was a loud crash as it flew out of my hand into the security grille of the windows!
If I’d been blindfolded I would have instantly known I was in an very old place as soon as I entered, you know what I mean; somewhere with a bit of history, age and stature. Probably ghosts too, but in a nice Hogwart’s sort of a way. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t fusty or damp, indeed the redolence of the roaring fires were one of the elements that gave the place it’s charm.
The bar is to the left of the impressive main room, a low ceilinged snug of a place which at around 3pm was half full with a variety of characters, reminiscent of the words of Ammon Wrigley (Denshaw, Saddleworth, 1861-1946) the squire and the poor man both hand in hand went they [The Brown Hare of Whitebrook, Roud Folksong Index RN1870].
Indeed the Squire is the benefactor here, or to be exact the Earl. In this case the Earl of Wharncliffe. Wortley Men’s Club is housed in what was the Earl’s Library. The address of Reading Room Lane being a subtle clue to it’s heritage before it became more of a social club.
Looking up, the high faux vaulted ceilings, the large mirror, mounted stags head, the portrait of our Sovereign Majesty all added to the feeling of being in somewhere rather special. Glance to the right and in the distance there’s a very well kept snooker table in a mirror image of the main room. Ditto high ornate ceilings and roaring fire. Originally the whole building was one long room, presumably filled with shelves upon shelves of books which have left their graphic imprint on the atmosphere.
I’m told the main transition from reading room to drinking establishment was during the war years (The Earls library collection was sold at auction on 21st & 22nd April 1949) when American troops were billeted in the village, indeed the whole of the Penistone area. You can still see remnants of the hard standing for the munitions they guarded along the remote rural lanes; there was even a ramp for off loading tanks from railcars in Penistone. Even though the Yank troops were welcomed in the club, there was still a ruling in the clubs constitution as late as the 1960’s, stipulating that Americans could not be members.
I’m going a little off piste here, but The Duchess (my mother) says as kids they used to shout, ‘Give us some gum chum’, to the American servicemen as they drove through Penistone in their jeeps. As well as black faces and seldom seen confectionary, the very first orange and banana my Mum had ever seen was given to her by a GI. Quite a few local girls married Yanks and left for the USA after the war. I remember meeting one guy in the early 80’s who’d come over from the states to visit a neighbour, the mother of his Yorkshire bride who’d recently passed away. I got the feeling it was some sort of atonement, kinda labelled with love?
Getting back on track, it’s just gone 3pm on Friday afternoon in Wortley Men’s Club and there’s easy a dozen folk in, mainly round the bar. Young men who’ve knocked off work early, a couple of agricultural types, some middle aged blokes, a bit of tweed and tattersall check. Even the chair of the parish council. As the afternoon progresses folk continue to wander in and a couple more walk out. Single blokes, families, ladies with well behaved kiddies. Pretty much everyone really, but none of the slightly pungent, old men reading paper types you’d get in a town boozer.
Nigel Pickering, club Steward of fourteen years service, is on hand behind the bar and he’s keen to make sure we get a beer we like. I wasn’t that sure about Dr Morton’s Chicken Vindaloo (4.1%), so he supplied a taster. Wow, there’s a chilli kick, not too in your face mind, more subtle and gently warming, but it’s definitely there well up the flavour profile, along with some other gently spicy notes.
Nigel said it was a new one from Shefield’s Abbeydale Brewery. I’ve had some very interesting and very different beers from them recently, they seem to have surpassed themselves, whilst continuing to brew solid favourites like the ever popular Moonshine.
They also had a Bradfield Brewery Beer on, it’s both Locale and popular in these parts. Nigel said they couldn’t get enough of the seasonal Farmer’s Belgian Blue (4.9%). He’s not the first person that’s told me that neither, ‘it sells itself’ being another plaudit I’d heard. I passed on this purple ale, only because I’d just had one next door. Nigel kindly gave me a taster, just to assess it’s quality, of course.
The third beer is a permanent fixture and needs no introduction, Timmy Taylor’s Landlord (4.3%). Absolutely shite if they can’t keep it right, divine if the cellar person knows what they are doing. In this case it’s the latter. I reckoned all three beers were ‘excellent beer in excellent condition’, that’s very good in CAMRA’s definition and an easy 4+ on the NBSS scale. Top marks Nigel.
Richard Revitt, the vice president, told me a bit about the clubs history and how things work. The most distant of the 752 members lives in the Falklands, but most come from within a ten mile radius; roughly north Sheffield, Stocksbridge, Penistone and west Barnsley. Membership costs £15 a year, anyone can apply so long as they are proposed and seconded by existing members. This gets you 20p per pint off the non-member prices which were £3.45 for the Timmy Taylor’s and £3.20 for the other cask ales. Production of a valid CAMA membership card will gain you casual entry and the members discount on beers.
I quite liked the idea of the members draw every Saturday evenings and Sunday lunch, which goes up each week until it’s won. Every member has a chance of their number being drawn out, but you’ve got to be in the club to win it and it goes up by £10 every week it goes unclaimed.
Wortley Men’s Club is more than a drinking club though. Santa’s sleigh was parked in a corner, evidence of the children’s Christmas party the week before, when the place had been full of families and on Christmas eve they have a brass band and carols. They hold similar events throughout the year, including a Halloween party and their famous Beer Festival in the summer. Looking forward, a gin bar is the next project. Nigel’s daughters are also in the hospitality business and they’ve been marking his card with the latest brands, tonics and accompaniments.
As always, the toilets are an important indicator of pub quality. Commensurate with the rest of the experience, Wortley Men’s Club does not let it’s self down in this department. Mrs C confirmed the ladies possessed what I had observed from my visit to the gents; fine hotel quality and cleanliness, quality soaps and lotions, deodorant body spray in the gents. All very impressive.
I’m really glad I finally made it here. What started off as a quick visit and a few photos turned into a pleasant afternoon in good company with some well kept beer. I’m probably biased having grown up round these parts but there’s something special, an extra element. It was evident in Sheffield a couple of weeks ago and it wasn’t just the beer, it was the people.
Omitting a photo of the exterior is becoming a recurrent feature for me, when it happens it’s a mistake on my part, it means that things have overtaken me, that I forgot all about it because I was in a really good place at the time, with some good people.
Verdict – Unique gem. See you at the beer festival in 2018.
NB – a very rapid response from Barnsley CAMRA tells me you have to un-check ‘real ale’ on WhatPub to include club premises when you ‘Search for Pubs’. It’s apparently a glitch in the search engine coding that doesn’t throw up clubs, even if they do sell real ale.