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How the local community saved the Gardeners Rest pub in Sheffield

PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 December 2017 | UPDATED: 13:06 04 December 2017

Locals launched their own bid  for the Gardeners Rest and astonishingly raised £236,000 with 400 people investing to become part-owners

Locals launched their own bid for the Gardeners Rest and astonishingly raised £236,000 with 400 people investing to become part-owners

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It’s likely to be standing room only in South Yorkshire pubs for alternative carol singing, as Richard Darn discovers

Sheffield was one of the country's pre-eminent beer makersSheffield was one of the country's pre-eminent beer makers

Last year a report concluded that the Sheffield area was the real ale capital of the world. That sparked a furious debate amongst other claimants (not least Leeds) and the only thing we can really be sure about is that it is indeed a grand place to drink. There are an estimated 57 breweries locally, surpassing the number existing in Victorian times when Sheffield was one of the UK’s pre-eminent beer makers.

Famous city brewers of the past such as Stones, Wards and Gilmores, have been replaced with modern ones with funkier names, smaller and better able to identify niches in the market. It’s a heart-warming revival dating to the 1980s when local business studies lecturer Dave Wickett decided to buck the trend and open a real ale pub called the Fat Cat in the derelict industrial area of Kelham Island, a notorious red light district. It proved hugely popular and 10 years later he opened Kelham Island Brewery, helping spark the area’s regeneration into the swish location we see today. (Nearby Kelham Island Tavern is a double winner of CAMRA’s Pub of the Year).

All of which is excellent, but the city is not immune to the scourge of pub closures and unsympathetic modernisations which have robbed many communities of their much loved watering holes. So when the couple running the quirky Gardeners Rest, built in 1901 on the banks of the River Don in Sheffield, decided to retire alarm bells rung.

Inspired by community buy-outs elsewhere, including the George and Dragon at Hudswell, North Yorkshire, which was the 2016 CAMRA pub of the year, locals launched their own bid and astonishingly raised £236,000 with 400 people investing to become part-owners. Further support came from the More than a Pub initiative and the Plunkett Foundation and plans are afoot to use the building as a hub for events and broaden its use. Jake Berry MP, the nation’s first community pubs minister (yes we have one), was so enthused he urged people to celebrate with a pint. That’s one government policy we can all agree on and let’s hope others follow the Gardeners’ example.

Of course pubs have played a huge role in bringing communities together for hundreds of years and that’s never truer than at Christmas in north Sheffield. This area has a unique tradition of pub carol singing dating back two centuries, drawing people from across the UK.

From Remembrance Day onwards carols which have been forgotten and are no longer on the nation’s playlist are sung in villages like Stannington, Bradfield, Dungworth, Grenoside and Oughtibridge, and others in Barnsley and the Peak District.

The backstory to this amazing tradition is fascinating. Many more carols were sung before the 19th century than we hear today and areas had their own ones performed nowhere else – all part of the nation’s rich cultural tapestry.

But in the 1830s they were purged from churches due to religious reforms with the upshot that we have been left with the limited and somewhat repetitive collection we know today.

But around Sheffield the tradition hung on, transferring to the streets and pubs. Songs are sung with Yorkshire gusto rather than ecclesiastical reverence and they often have a distinctive style - a repetition where the bass line answers the melody near the end of verses. Try different pubs and you will be treated to varying singing styles and unique carols rooted in the spot, along with folk tunes, many inspired by rambler’s songs. At some you will be handed a song sheet, but whether you know the words or not you’ll soon latch on and be encouraged to join in.

Apparently a working knowledge of the first few verses of While Shepherds is handy. The words are sung to at least a dozen or more tunes, perhaps as many as 30, including Cranbrook, the music we associate with Ilkley Moor B’aht At which hi-jacked it a century after it was written for While Shepherds! Usually it’s standing room only and so popular that the tradition has been re-ignited in other parts of England.

Local songs washed down by local ale - a far more civilised response to globalisation than a riot.

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