Sheffield’s Isle of Wonder: The Fat Cat and Kelham Island Tavern, Kelham Island, Sheffield
The Kelham Island Tavern and the Fat Cat are two bastions of real ale that stand on Kelham Island, an area of Sheffield that now has a number of modern apartments but is still slightly haunted by the empty engineering works dotted around it.
The Kelham Island Tavern, dating back to 1830, has won many CAMRA awards since it re-opened in 2001, and has been CAMRA National Pub Of The Year twice, in 2008 and 2009. It was reasonably quiet on the weekday afternoon when we went in: a couple in the corner drank whilst a man with Doc Marten boots, who I think was an off-duty bailiff, discussed legal matters with the barman. A cat slept on a bar stool bathed in the afternoon sunlight.
After some helpful guidance I ordered a Pictish Brewer’s Gold, in lovely condition. The place livened up a little when three middle-aged tickers arrived and started excitedly discussing the selection. I noted that some of the beers at least seemed to be served without sparklers, but not to their detriment.
When we moved on to the Fat Cat around the corner, the atmosphere seemed a little more warm and relaxed, perhaps a bit less male, even though Kate and the bartender were the only ladies in the public bar. Surrounding the compact and ornate wooden bar itself, two groups sat on the benches and carried on a friendly conversation with each other, whilst the bar also offered baskets of pork pies and a big bottle of Sheffield’s iconic Henderson’s Relish to go with them.
The Fat Cat has a great history as well: dating back to the mid-19th century and originally called the Alma (it stands on Alma Street, named after the first battle of the Crimean War), it was a Stones pub from 1912 until 1981. In that year it was bought by Dave Wickett and Bruce Bentley and started its life as a free house.
Dave, who passed away recently, is justly regarded as one of the heroes of British beer, and he founded the Kelham Island Brewery here in 1990. As Roger Protz notes in his obituary for the Guardian, Dave was a consultant to Thornbridge during its inception, even recruiting Martin Dickie, which can be seen as a fitting passing of the torch, given the mark that Thornbridge has made on Sheffield in recent years.
I enjoyed a taster of Kelham Island White Rider, a cask wheat beer, but decided to have Pale Rider, an excellent US-hopped pale ale, CAMRA Champion Beer Of Britain in 2004, which made me fall further in love with this slightly aging pub and its informal, welcoming atmosphere.
The Fat Cat seems well-worn and comfortable, like a faded armchair that has gone slightly out of shape and is indented with the form of the sitter’s body, but is still the very best at what it does. I think that, if ever I had to try and explain the attraction of “the English pub” to a foreign visitor, I would bring them here.