So this conversation happened a few times during April.
- Going anywhere nice this Easter?
- Actually, we were thinking about Sheffield this time. The snooker will be starting that weekend, and we could meet up with Suze, and we've already got a film we can -
- Have they got one of those BrewDog bars?
- ...um... well, yeah, it only opened a couple of weeks ago, but -
- BrewDog bar. Easter holiday. Got it.
I mean, yes, that's part of the reason, but dammit.
Our first visit to BrewDog Sheffield happened within an hour of us stepping off the train on Good Friday afternoon. We'd spent the previous evening at the Shepherd's Bush branch - the next youngest UK bar in the chain after Sheffield - and it's interesting to note that the Bush's toned-down design strategy has now become the template. At first glance, there's little of the full-on attitude that the earlier venues had: a discreet sign in a businesslike typeface, plain windows without the etched patterns and brand slogans of old, and the beer list on a lightbox rather than a blackboard. Once you get further inside, though, all the usual features are present and correct - the carefully distressed walls, the graffiti art, the half-pints of Fake Lager abandoned on tables by first-time visitors who'll probably never come again. (Yeah, they really need to do something about Fake Lager. It's all very well quoting Wayne's World on the drinks menu - "Led Zeppelin didn't write tunes everybody liked, they left that to the Bee Gees" - but that's no excuse for producing a beer that nobody likes.)
That quibble aside, the Sheffield bar seems to be working just fine in what's only its second month of operation. The staff are as helpful as ever when it comes to beer advice, and there's a decent range on tap (20 lines) as well as in the fridge. The bar snacks - mixed platters and Scotch eggs - also looked tempting, though we didn't have time to try them out. Nevertheless, fair play to Sheffield for including several decent veggie options in there: for an operation that sells itself as being So Damn Punk Rock, BrewDog does sometimes have a blind spot when it comes to acknowledging that non-meat eaters even exist.
There was a decent crowd in the bar on Good Friday afternoon, and an even bigger one on the couple of times we popped in late for a nightcap. It's interesting to note that like Leeds, their licence requires them to call time irritatingly early at 11.30pm, even though the nearby West Street meat markets can apparently keep fuelling dickheads with WKDs until almost sunrise. Unlike Leeds, though, that message seems to have got across, so there was a happy lack of disappointed punters on the two nights we were there till chucking-out time.
Other bars are available, of course (and I don't just mean the meat markets). Sheffield has a long and glorious history of brewing, and plenty of old-fashioned pubs affiliated with those brewers. Sadly, our weekend ended up being so crammed with stuff to do that something had to give, and in the end it was those brewery pubs that we had to miss out - The Fat Cat serviced by Kelham Island Brewery, and the out-of-town Thornbridge Brewery flagship bar The Greystones. At least we managed to sneak in one final local beer just before leaving the city, thanks to the Sheffield Tap being conveniently located at the side of the station. There's a huge variety of ales available on draught and in bottle, with Brewster's Stilton Porter somehow completely living up to its name while not making your tastebuds leap out of your throat in sheer horror.
So, what else did we do between our first drink at BrewDog Sheffield and our last one at the Sheffield Tap? Well, we ate quite a bit, inevitably. In terms of breakfasts, we always had the option of the buffet at our hotel (the perfectly fine Ibis Sheffield City), but only took it on one day of the three. The Little Mesters Cafe attached to Kelham Island Museum provided terrific fry-ups of both the meaty and veggie variety, but it wasn't the highlight of our breakfasting weekend - that honour would have to go to The Harley. We'd actually considered it as our hotel in the early planning stage of our weekend, but wimped out of the idea of staying somewhere that was attached to a bar with a 4am closing time. Still, their breakfast menu is a sensational thing, built around a series of burgers made for them by Twisted Burger Company. The veggie option is a scrumptious porcini and button mushroom combination: the non-veggie option puts that in a bun alongside a second patty made of solid bacon. Everyone's happy, especially the obviously hungover students wandering in from the university down the road.
Our lunchtime and snack choices were largely driven by where we happened to be at the time, with one exception - as it was Easter, we needed to get some decent chocolate from somewhere. We looked at a few options and ended up at Carousel Chocolaterie, which turned out to be just a few minutes walk away from the hotel, and the ideal place to pick up some fancy Belgian chocs to accompany the tea and coffee making facilities. Other light nibbles could be found at the Showroom Cafe, of which more later. But our most substantial lunch was kind of an accident. We spent the Saturday morning celebrating Record Store Day by queueing up outside Record Collector, twitching nervously as their list of sold out collectibles was continuously updated on Twitter, and breathing a sigh of relief when we finally made it into the shop and found they still had copies of the new Richard Hawley. Wanting a quick lunch to celebrate, we went to the Thyme Cafe just around the corner and asked for a couple of their fish goujon sandwiches, only to discover that their idea of a small meal involving bread and fish was vaguely reminiscent of the feeding of the five thousand. Very nice, though.
Our evening meals, on the other hand, drew from other people's recommendations, and worked out just as well. Rossi's is a decently priced family Italian in the south of the city, set inside an utterly glorious building. Hui Wei is a good traditional Chinese restaurant with a snazzy booth-heavy interior, but God knows what it's like when the nearby West Street meat markets start chucking out. And Smoke Barbecue is a literal meat market with equally enjoyable veggie dishes, only marred slightly by modish touches like making everyone drink out of jam jars like common hillbillies.
Smoke was the main venue for our catchup session with the Suzanne Vega Fanclub, onetime scourge of the London Film Festival and reviewer of same for this very site, who's now happily resettled in the South Yorkshire area. He was in fine form, not complaining too much when I tried to find the restaurant using an A-Z that was published in 1991 when the street didn't even exist. And he gave us our best travel tip of the weekend - of all the various passes that are on offer through Sheffield's public transport companies, go for the City Wide day pass. You can buy it on any bus or tram, and it gives you a whole day's worth of rides on both sets of vehicles for £4.30.
That came in handy when we were running around Sheffield looking at things (along with the online journey planner, of course). One of Suze's other recommendations was Weston Park, whose museum is the best one to go for if you want a history of the city. Until March 1st 2015 there's also a timely exhibit on Sheffield's involvement in the First World War, most notable for the astonishing story of Lizzie the elephant, recruited from the local menagerie to move steel around during wartime.
Sheffield's history is completely intertwined with its manufacturing past, of course. It's an undercurrent in the displays at Millennium Gallery, from the permanent Metalwork Collection to a current temporary exhibit celebrating the city's printmakers. And it's most explicit in the fabulous Kelham Island Museum, which focusses more on the processes than the finished products. Lovers of heavy machinery will have a ball here, probably reaching peak geek if they time their visit to coincide with one of the brief demos of the most powerful working steam engine in Europe. After seeing that running at full tilt, you can chill out in the adjacent Hawley Collection room, an inspiring collection of tools that simultaneously acts as a memorial to a whole swathe of lost skills.
I'm making it sound like Sheffield spends all its time harking back to the past, but modern art does get a look-in as well. The Site Gallery is just next door to the Showroom Workstation complex, and until May 31st it's displaying a pair of installations by Taiwanese artist Wu Chi-Tsung. Both of them are based around large-scale projections, with Crystal City 003 probably the less interesting of the pair - as a moving light passes through a heap of stacked perspex boxes, it projects a shifting cityscape on the back wall, but never lets you forget how the image is being generated. The other one, Dust, is much simpler - a wall-sized video blowup of dust particles caught in a beam of light at the other end of the room - but the simple act of magnification makes it delightfully strange, and you could stand and watch it for ages without getting bored.
By now, regular readers will be wondering if there's something we forgot to do this Easter that we've normally done in the past. Don't worry, it's covered. The long-standing tradition of pairing up a movie and a location on Easter Sunday gave us a few possible options for Sheffield, and there's no denying we seriously considered The Full Monty a couple of times. But in the end, on Easter Sunday morning we watched a DVD of Four Lions, partly because it's a better film, partly because director Chris Morris seems to be creeping back into the limelight again with his Stewart Lee interviews and his repeats of Blue Jam on Radio 4 Extra. It's still as hilarious as ever (the first half, in particular, is crammed with gags), though the end credits revelation of just how much damage the guys caused in training camp feels a little hollow these days given subsequent events. It's fun to spot a few Sheffield locations (especially the ones pretending to be London), and this spectacularly spoilery map has several surprises in it - for example, that this scene was filmed on the roof of the Showroom Workstation, where a couple of hours later we met up with Suze for coffee and cake and a second viewing of Locke.
Sheffield may have a few films in its history, but music plays an even bigger part. In an attempt to see if we could catch the next big thing by accident, we popped along to a local bands night at Japanese-styled rock fleapit Plug. Three bands for a fiver on a Saturday night is a bargain by anyone's standards, and for once we weren't the oldest people in the audience, though I suspect that was because most of the bands had brought their mums and dads along for support. Of the three acts on the bill, Sabella are probably the closest you could get to The Next Arctic Monkeys, thanks to some corking tunes and a desire to keep their own accent (mind you, as headliners, they're the only band who got an audible vocal mix in the first place). The BBG had a soft spot for Feral Brood and their unwillingness to stay tied to a single genre: meanwhile, I rather liked the old-school power trio dynamics of The Verals (a no-nonsense frontman, a bassist who bloody loves himself, and a drummer who looks like he's ten years old).
We picked up the Plug gig from listings site Skiddle, who also directed us to a much smaller show at alternative bookshop The Rude Shipyard. This one only cost four quid, but you had to bring your own booze. We squeezed onto the bookshop floor with a couple of dozen other people and watched two singers perform, once they'd dimmed the lights by unscrewing half of the bulbs out of a chandelier. Local lad James Barlow combined fine guitar playing and bass pedal work with a whispery, almost inaudible voice, but every so often there was a sudden burst of gorgeous melody that made it all worthwhile. Meanwhile, headliner Ruth Theodore turned out to be a regular on the London circuit who'd just come up for the weekend like we had. We'd never heard of her before: maybe living in a city with loads of gig venues has its disadvantages after all? Anyway, her cheeky attitude, lovely voice and surprisingly aggressive guitar style combined to make for a terrific evening.
Sheffield, steel, music, beer... anything else we've missed out? The answer would have to be snooker, I'd guess. The BBG regularly used to make the trip up to the Crucible for the World Snooker Championships until she met me: I, on the other hand, have never watched a professional snooker match in my life. When we discovered that the 2014 Championships started over the Easter weekend, we had to do it, really. After a decade away, The BBG was a little distraught at some of the changes, mainly the increased razzamatazz like having all the players enter to their own theme music. (My biggest surprise was discovering that Ronnie O'Sullivan's entry music is the Wong Fei Hung theme, presumably as a sop to the ever-growing Chinese audience.) But she was relieved to discover that audiences are the same as they always were, briskly stating "shot!" in response to a particularly good bit of play.
To listen to her afterwards, you'd think there weren't any particularly good bits of play in the game we saw. We caught the second day of the match between Shaun Murphy and Jamie Cope, who'd emerged from the first day pretty evenly balanced. In the opening frame of day 2, Cope pulled off a blinding initial break of 64, and Murphy immediately replied to that with a break of 75 to win. "Is all snooker going to be this exciting?" I wondered, and the answer was "no". From that beginning it was largely defensive play all the way, with the only real drama coming when one of the players made a mistake. It stayed balanced all the way through ten frames lasting four hours in total - when the end came, it was all over in literally a minute or two, as Murphy took the last red and all the colours in a rush that suggested he was ready to get home too. Still, can't argue with value for money, and the atmosphere of the event carried me over the duller stretches.
And after all that, we got to head back to London to face questions along the lines of "so did you spend the whole weekend in BrewDog, then?" Sheesh.