Jane Stuart – Writer

Writing about real life Up North: football, ale, food and mental health – with a good dash of humour.

Cleethorpes: All Aboard The Gravy Train

You remember how I was threatened with execution on my visit to Cleethorpes last year? Well I was so taken with the friendliness and quirkiness of this delightful resort that I decided to go back on the last football-free Saturday of the summer. I recently took the difficult decision to resign from my position of Match Secretary at Chasetown (the pull of Blackpool was just too strong – and I can’t be in two places at once on a Saturday), so I wouldn’t be returning to Clee during the 2019/20 season – and I needed my Clee fix. The weather forecast was glorious, so I skipped out of the house without a coat. I bought a car this week (that five-hour public transport debacle to Market Drayton really was too much) but I had been advised not to take the car by a friendly Clee correspondent, owing to it being Armed Forces Weekend, meaning town would be packed and road closures and parking restrictions would be in place. So train it was.

At New Street station, I skipped my usual visit to M&S for food, as I wanted to fully savour my chippy tea that evening at my absolute favourite chippy of all time – Steels Cornerhouse Restaurant. Indeed this chippy was the main purpose of my visit this weekend. You know I love my chippy tea – and the food here really is that good. In fact, Steels has spoiled every other chippy for me, as nowhere else even comes close.

I settled back in my seat fully determined to spend the three-and-a-half-hour train journey immersing myself in WordPress, with a view to improving this blog/website. However I was failing to account for the poor internet signal on trains. Despite logging into the CrossCountry WiFi, it wasn’t having any of it. After a valiant struggle, I put my MacBook away and buried my head in my emergency copy of Writing Magazine. This publication is full of useful tips for a writing career and never fails to inspire me. Again, it is something I can’t read right through, instead constantly bookmarking websites and taking notes.

The man seated next to me appeared to be beavering away online, which confused me. A cursory peek at his screen (I don’t like to snoop but how did he have a signal when I didn’t?) revealed that he was simply drafting emails and didn’t have any signal either.

I gazed out of the window at a station and smiled as I spotted a man carrying a plant. It brought to mind the time I took a pear tree to the pub. Well, people take their dogs to the pub, so why not a plant? It wants a bowl of water just the same and doesn’t eat your scratchings.

Mmm scratchings. I was getting a bit peckish now, having eaten nothing since a few pieces of chicken at lunchtime. The diet is going great, by the way – I’ve now lost a stone and a half and I’m back at the gym on a regular basis. It’s not so hard to be healthy during the close season! I commandeered the man with the refreshment trolley and asked for a KitKat.

‘That’s 90p.’

As I keep my change in my coat pocket – and I hadn’t brought my coat today – I reached into my purse and whipped out a tenner.

‘I won’t be able to change that. I’ll need something smaller.’

‘Well I won’t have the KitKat then.’

Talk about service with a smile! Still, it meant the diet would continue a little longer.

I disembarked at Sheffield, where I was to take a connecting train to Clee. The train was scheduled to depart from Platform 1b, which proved pretty tricky to locate on this large station. As I followed the signage, it did not escape my attention that there were also signs for the station pub, Sheffield Tap, situated on Platform 1. Heh heh. Well of course I knew where that was. As I emerged onto Platform 1b – happily exactly where the door to the Sheffield Tap was – I quickly calculated whether I had enough time for a cheeky beer before boarding my train. Well you know I’ve managed to sneak in a pint at Wigan Central with a ten-minute connection there before now, so this 15-minute connection seemed like a doddle. I popped in and ordered a Mystic Kriek. Well I needed some change, didn’t I?

The toilets in the Sheffield Tap proved somewhat of a challenge. They had contactless flush sensors that were tricky to activate. I ended up doing the Macarena in the cubicle, as that was the only thing that seemed to work.

Now back on Platform 1b, the Clee train was gradually further and further delayed – and was eventually cancelled altogether. The next train was an hour later. Well there was nothing to be done, other than to head back into the Sheffield Tap for a Wild Weather Colour of Despair, a cherry cascadian dark ale, which I enjoyed in the beer garden at the front of the station. I am a little bit in love with Sheffield and seem to be spending more and more time here lately (usually of my own accord, if not this time).

The next train to Clee was also delayed and I was starting to fear that I wouldn’t arrive in time for my chippy tea before Steels closed. I knew there was always tomorrow but I was excited, not to mention famished. The train eventually arrived and I managed to secure a seat. The couple opposite me regaled me with the story of their journey from Manchester today, which sounded far more traumatic than me being delayed in the pub. I didn’t really want to take their stress on board so I asked them to look after my bag while I hunted down the train toilet. After battling my way through busy carriages to the other end of the train, I was dismayed that the toilet was out of order. This was going to be a long journey! However, as I made my way back to my seat, I noticed signs for another toilet (please please!) and, sure enough, there was another one that I had missed on my way past. Oh that was such a relief! I headed back to my seat and buried my head in my Kindle (still reading Dead at First Sight by Peter James). The man seated opposite had a strange habit of whispering directly in the ear of his wife as opposed to speaking normally, which led me to wonder what on earth he was saying to her, although she didn’t seem that excited.

I now noticed that the train was stationary and waiting in a queue at signals. This had been the problem area that had caused the earlier delays. An agitated woman impatiently waiting to get off was on the phone to someone impatiently waiting for her at the other end and I couldn’t concentrate on my book. I have been working very hard for many years to minimise stress in my life so at this point I made it all go away by whipping out my AirPods and sticking on some banging tunes to take me away from all this. I’d have to finish the book another day. Now I was enjoying Better Day by Ocean Colour Scene and dancing in my seat.

My eyes were drawn to the information screen on this TransPennine Express train. It advertised taxi numbers for each imminent station, advertised the TP app, showed a route map and featured photographs of the train crew’s daughters to humanise them and discourage abuse.

As we (finally) approached the end of the line at Clee, the train manager announced the process for claiming compensation for the delayed journey. Hmm perhaps I would look into that. I definitely would if I missed my chippy tea!

The train pulled into Clee at 2030 – and Steels Cornerhouse Restaurant closed at 2100. First of all I had to check into my guest house. Would I make it? Well I was going to give it a damn good try! As soon as I stepped off the train, the delicious aroma of a nearby chippy wafted up my nose, tantalising me. I legged it up Clee Road to the smell of fresh fish, which spurred me on like a hare to a greyhound. Within minutes I rang the doorbell of the guest house, breathlessly announced my desire to get to Steels before it closed, signed into the Visitors Book, ditched my bag, was told my room wasn’t en suite and not to worry about my lack of nightie as there was a dressing gown provided in the room, and tazzed round to Steels, where I arrived at 2045. Please don’t let them turn me away! But of course they didn’t! As I collapsed into my chair – immediately ordering an Axholme bitter – I smiled contentedly. This is what I came for – and this made the five-hour journey here all worthwhile.

I contemplated the menu I know not why – because I knew exactly what I was going to have. I never was one for ordering the same thing off a menu – I love a good variety of food – but when something is as exquisite as the haddock, chips and gravy at Steels, it makes absolutely no sense to veer from it. And so it was ordered.

‘Do you want bread and butter with that?’

‘Er…’

‘Just a little bit?’

‘Oh go on then!’

These people were feeders, make no mistake!

Before my food even arrived I ordered another beer (Axholme Magnitude 3.9). I was completely relaxed now and very excited about my chippy tea. I overheard the man at the table next to me ordering vegetarian gravy. Oh is that a thing? When I flirted with the idea of vegetarianism last year, someone pointed out that my love of gravy would prove a problem. Maybe I should look into this vegetarian gravy?

My food came and I was sure I had ordered the mini haddock and chips but this fish was enormous! What do they put in the water around here? I poured my gravy over my chips – and over my fish, which is a new thing for me, but I find it really enhances the flavour. I tucked in and my goodness it was every bit as good as I remembered – in fact it was even better!

‘Is it all right?’

‘It’s so good I want to cry! It’s amazing!’

Now it was gone nine o’clock and people were being turned away at the door. Honestly I think I would have cried if I hadn’t made it in time! I had been planning my sob story in my head about my five-hour journey and my near-starvation and this chippy tea being the sole purpose of my journey. But I had made it on time and I was so, so happy right now, enjoying quite the best meal I had ever had the pleasure to taste in my whole life. You can keep your Michelin starred restaurants. There is no finer meal that a Steels chippy tea. Fact.

Now it was time to see if the people of Clee had softened towards the concept of gravy since my last visit here, when GravyGate saw me gain town-wide notoriety and almost saw me run out of town. I tweeted a photo of my fish and chips smothered in gravy. The response?

‘Bringing twisted west coast voodoo to Cleethorpes? Could be burnt at the stake!’

‘Wrong!’

‘That’s heresy.’

‘Would you put salad cream on sausages?’

‘OMG Jane, surely you must have had a frontal lobotomy to even consider that?’

‘No no no…should be banned from ever setting foot in Steels again.’

‘I’m as northern as they come but gravy on fish and chips? You can f*** that sky high.’

So it seems the people of Clee (and indeed the people of Blackpool, who were not even on my side in this debate) still require further education in the culinary delights of a chippy tea. I’ll keep trying. Honestly, if it didn’t work, it wouldn’t be a thing. And it is a thing and it’s bloody lush! Try it, folks – you might like it. I suspect part of the problem might be the lack of availability of good quality gravy. But the gravy at Steels is exquisite so, if you’re going to try it anywhere, try it there (or the Saddle Chippy in Blackpool, which also does good gravy, which really complements their haggis and chips).

By now it was 2130 and I had a bit more darting around to do, as I wanted to make it to my favourite bottle shop (and pop up bar) Message in a Bottle, where last orders was at 2200 tonight. I raced down the side streets and an alley that I wouldn’t tackle in the dark and was greeted at the door by Charles, who you may recall had almost barred me on my last visit because of my affiliation to Chasetown, who had beaten Grimsby Town in the cup once upon a time. I made no delay in announcing that I was no longer at Chasetown and was greeted more warmly on this occasion (to the extent of being treated to a tot of Cleethorpes Rum). I didn’t have the luxury of time to peruse the bottle shop tonight, but Charles asked me to remind him what sort of beer I liked and he recommended the Brews Smoothie, a tropical pale ale, which went down very nicely. I love this little place. The beer selection really is second to none. The locals are quirky too and the people at the table next to me were discussing a cat called Alan.

Tonight had been very much a whistle-stop tour of Clee but I had visited my two favourite places and I wanted to end the night on a high, so I headed straight back to my room so I would be fresh for the following day’s adventures. Of course this being Friday I had to catch up on the evening’s Corrie before putting my head down for the night. Now I’m not used to sleeping in a single bed and promptly fell out of bed three times during the course of the night when reading for my drink and my phone. I am not sure whether I fell asleep or knocked myself out in the end…

It was 1100 when I woke on Saturday morning. I snuggled into the cosy dressing gown and trudged down the corridor, armed with toiletries and music. This morning I put my tracks on random shuffle and sang along to Sympathique by Pink Martini – a great holiday song that I picked up in Crete a couple of years ago (I pick up songs every holiday):

‘Je ne veux pas travailler

Je ne veux pas déjeuner

Je veux seulement l’oublier…’

Apologies if you were in the room next to the communal bathroom, but I do need my tunes to get me going in the morning!

Now showered and dressed and raring to go, I bounced up Clee Road in the direction of Grimsby. But why on earth are you going to Grimsby when you’re already in Cleethorpes, I hear you scream. Well since my last visit a new brewery has sprung up there – Docks Beers – and, having already done all the pubs in Clee on my thorough research mission last time, I felt this needed a visit. I could have caught the bus but it was a glorious day, so I swished through the back streets in my summer frock for the 50-minute walk to Grimsby. I put my AirPods into my ears and heard the familiar sound as they announced their arrival in my ears (how do they know?). I asked Siri to call the brewery so I could find out if they had any food on, but alas there was no answer, so I decided to hunt down some food en route. Now completely over the talking to myself in the street thing, I asked Siri to play In The Summertime and I bounced onwards, talking to select playlists and tapping my left ear twice to skip tracks (I need to set up more of my own playlists because Siri is terrible at knowing what music I like). I did find a convenience store, purchasing a bag of Skips (mmm not had those for years), a KitKat (that grumpy man on the train wasn’t winning on that score!) and a bottle of Fanta Zero (always thinking of the diet).

23C feels a lot hotter when you’ve been walking for the best part of an hour so, by the time I arrived at Docks Beers, I had a bit of a thirst on. I saw that there was a food van outside of the brewery but I didn’t pay too much attention to it because I was too driven by my thirst. I was greeted at the bar by a very smiley and friendly man who enquired as to what sort of beer I liked. I was in a bit of a quandary today because I love dark and spicy beers, but it was not at all the weather for that. I learned to my peril on a Hotpotting trip to Bury during the hot summer last year that milds and stouts do not do in sweltering conditions. I made my way to the fridge and hoped the staff wouldn’t notice that I was just standing in it with the doors open. At length I picked up a can of Amundsen Lush Rasp & Lime Berliner, which I rolled across my chest and neck and face before realising that probably committed me to buying it, which I duly did. The friendly barman asked if I would like a glass with ice with that and I thought what a wonderful idea that was. Yes, I did want a glass with ice, thank you, young man.

I took a seat inside and soon cooled down enough to risk the one beer that I really came here for. Of course it is rude to visit a brewery and not sample their own beer. The one I had my eye on since spotting it in Message in a Bottle last night was the Docks Graveyard Shift, a coconut milk stout. And boy did it not disappoint! And the staff went further up in my estimation when a barman remarked that, yes, his female colleague did smell of gravy, but he’d love it if she smelled like that all the time. Was this my spiritual home? Dear reader I could have stayed here all day raiding the fridge of the lovely beers (cask and keg also available) but of course I couldn’t stay out of Clee for too long…

…or could I? Whilst seated in the brewery tap I was punching myself in the head for taking the back streets here when I could have walked down the prom. What was I thinking? Well I hadn’t been thinking, clearly. I punched the coastal route into Google Maps and headed off towards Grimsby Docks. And what a bad decision that was! Once in there, I couldn’t find my way out of the docks! I was following Google Maps but didn’t seem to be making any progress in the direction of Clee. A man in a booth on the way into the docks asked if I was lost and I said yes I was. He gave me directions to Clee and for the first time in my life I realised that I simply had to listen to these directions – all of them, not just the first direction, then find someone else to ask – because this place was deserted. Sure there were vehicles and factories but no people in sight. I thanked him and headed off in the direction of the Youngs fish factory. The directions were taking me to a gate in a metal fence that I was to pass through. However, when I got to (what I thought was) the gate in question, it was locked and there was no way through. I reverted back to Google Maps, which kept leading me up to locked gates that I could not get through. I couldn’t remember which way I had come to retrace my steps and there was not a soul in sight for me to ask. Also I had forgotten to visit the toilet on my way out of the brewery so the situation was becoming desperate. After I don’t know how long of walking round in circles, I gave in and asked Siri to call me a taxi. The taxi company had an automated voice recognition service.

‘Please state your pick-up point.’

‘Grimsby Seafood Village.’

‘Did you mean Village Stores Keelby? Say yes or no to confirm.’

‘No.’

‘Did you mean Grimsby Fishing Heritage Centre? Say yes or no to confirm.’

‘No.’

‘Did you mean Grimsby Fish Market? Say yes or no to confirm.’

‘No! FFS woman I just want a wee! I’m dancing here now! Not to mention getting increasingly sunburnt!’

‘We were unable to confirm your pick up point. Please hold while we connect you to an operator.’

Mercifully I was put through to a human being and was rescued by a friendly taxi driver within ten minutes. As he drove back five minutes the same way I had walked he said ‘ooh you walked a long way, didn’t you?’ Yes, yes I did…

I was despatched at Message in a Bottle a sweltering wreck and was dismayed to find the queue for the toilet was longer than the queue for the bar. To distract myself, I engaged in beer chat with the man behind me in the queue. I remember once upon a time the stock bar of beer drinkers’ conversation (being the bar that all the real ale drinkers knew and loved) was the bar on Stalybridge Station. These days it seems the popular choice is the Tiny Rebel bar at Newport, frequented by all discerning lower division real ale drinkers. The locals in here knew this as they had visited with Grimsby Town and I had visited with Blackpool a couple of years ago. The whole queue was soon discussing Tiny Rebel Pump Up The Jam (a jam doughnut flavoured ale), which led us on to more unusual flavoured ales and one man said he had tried a Brussels sprout flavoured ale. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that – as I love sprouts and I love beer – but I was now beginning to feel a little nauseous. Maybe it was being out in the sun for all that time…

Visit paid, it was time for me to review the beer stock in the bottle shop. I spied bottles of Ferry Ales Just Jane Bitter, which was of course tempting, but I was very hot so again leaned towards a fruit beer – Harpoon Camp Wannamango – which I again had with ice. Fruit beer and ice is the best drink for the summer (NB I catastrophise after just one gin, so that’s not an option for me). This was followed by a Magic Rock Stand In Line (Ginger and Lime Berliner Weiss), which attracted me as it was a nod to one of my favourite cocktails, the Moscow Mule.

I was once again impressed with the warmth of the locals in this delightful hostelry. One man let me go ahead of him in the beer queue. And a lady in Hawaiian dress shared with me her Jacks Hot & Spicy Salted Peanuts and showed me her technique for massaging dogs (unfortunately not in that order). I left this lovely place reluctantly because it was now around 4pm and I hadn’t taken a meal yet today.

Of course my next stop was Steels (where I was now greeted by name) for a repeat of the meal I’d had the previous evening. Except this time I had room for a pudding too. The dessert menu here is very exciting and includes fresh cream trifle, banoffee pie and arctic roll. Now I never can resist a trifle, so I chose that to round off my meal in style. On my departure I was asked where I was off to now. Well I hadn’t seen anything of Clee yet, bar the chippy and the bottle shop, so I felt I ought to venture down the prom and see what was going on for Armed Forces Weekend.

Town was brimming with people – but the prom was heaving. The weather was glorious and it seemed everyone was out enjoying the day. I passed the waterfall and Ross Castle before heading down onto the promenade itself. It was lovely to see the beach and head towards the big wheel, past all the stalls, but it was a bit too crowded for me! I headed back up onto the main road in the direction of my guest house, passing a tank on the street and The Globe (‘coffee and books’) which had a speaker outside blaring out When You Wish Upon A Star.

I retired to my room for a rest – I had done a lot of walking in the heat today, not to mention a bit of drinking and a massive feed – and watched an episode of Killing Eve before getting my head down for a little siesta. Frankly I would have settled in for the night now, but there was one more thing I had on the agenda for today. As part of Armed Forces Weekend there was an airshow taking place all weekend. I was not going to miss the Fireflies, a twilight aerobatic display with wingtip pyrotechnics, at half past nine. It was a struggle to get out of bed – but I was glad I did. I strolled down to the prom and took my place on Cleethorpes Pier to view the display. The big wheel and the pier itself were lit up now too and the beach and promenade were filled with people. The display was spectacular and well worth getting out of bed for! But I returned to bed straight afterwards.

Sunday morning I was well rested and up an hour earlier than I needed to be (these days I would rather get up early and enjoy the day than doze back off and be abruptly woken by an alarm – I am growing to dislike alarms more and more). I checked out of my guest house and decided to use this bonus time to check out Clee Town’s new ground. When Chase played here in 2017/18, Clee were playing in Grimsby, in the middle of nowhere, but they moved back to Clee last summer. The ground is on Clee Road, where I was staying, so I trudged down the road (handicapped by the rucksack on my back) in the glorious morning sunshine and eventually located the ground. There were people here today for a junior football tournament and I cheekily enquired whether I could go in and take a look while I was up here. Of course, as I have come to learn, the locals here are incredibly accommodating and, not only was I allowed entry, but I was given a guided tour of the ground and The Linden Club. I was advised that, since moving back to Clee, their gates had increased from 150 to 600. As well as all the excellent facilities now available, they were also looking to add a 3G pitch to hire out and raise further revenue. This young club (only 20 years old) is certainly on the up. I really hope they do well as the people of Clee deserve a successful football club.

I power-walked back down Clee Road to the station, where my train was waiting for me. Perhaps I was to have better luck with trains on the way home? Well almost. I did have an hour to wait for my connection at Sheffield (and didn’t fancy a drink on this occasion) and ended up paying £2.20 for a tiny slice of banana cake, which was a bit of a rip off, but I did need food by this point, having skipped breakfast at the guest house. I spent the journey home writing this blog and, as ever when I’m writing, the time just flew by and I was home before I knew it.

Clee: you were amazing once again. I’m sorry that I won’t be visiting you with Chase this coming season – but rest assured I will be back again soon because I’ve fallen in love with you and your chips and your beer and, last but not least, the warmth of your lovely people. Dear reader, if you have never been to Clee, I cannot recommend the place highly enough. Please do visit this delightful resort – you won’t regret it.

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