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Monday, 21 April 2014

Seeing the Light?

Last week I noticed that Marstons Old Empire IPA was on special offer at Waitrose, in a three bottles for £5 deal. I've always been a fan of this 5.7% beer which claims to be faithful recreation of a 19th Century India Pale Ale, with its full-bodied, juicy malt base and its rich fruity hop character, as even if its authenticity might be called in question by some, it's still a damn fine beer.

One thing though always niggled me, and that was the beer was packaged in a clear glass bottle. The beer might look good in clear glass, and it's perhaps understandable that the marketing people might want to show it off, but as most people associated with the brewing industry know, clear glass allows the un-impeded passage of UV, and other wavelengths of radiation, which can have a disastrous effect on the beer. Beer exposed to ultraviolet and visible light is known as "Lightstruck", or "Skunked". Without going too much into the chemistry of the process, the light reacts with, and breaks down isohumulones, a molecule which is derived from hops that contributes to the bitterness of the beer. The resulting compound formed is very similar chemically, and in odour, to the musk-like mercaptans that are a skunk's natural defences; hence the term "skunked".

On this occasion I was pleased to see the beer packaged in a traditional brown bottle. The thought that Marston's may have had a change of heart crossed my mind, but the change of packaging was sufficient to persuade me to buy three bottles at this bargain price. I didn't think any more about this until I cracked a bottle open yesterday evening. The beer tasted good, but when I looked on the back  label I noticed a statement which read "MARSTON'S MARK OF QUALITY. All Marston's beers are bottled in Amber glass to avoid unnecessary deterioration sometimes experienced with clear bottles, ensuring the highest possible quality at all times."

Well they never used to be "bottled in Amber glass", but whilst this sounds like a taciturn acceptance of past mistakes, the change has to be applauded! If major brewers, such as Marston's have come out against clear glass, then there is hope at last that others will follow suit. The main culprits still using clear glass are Greene King, Shepherd Neame and of course Scottish & Newcastle, for their famous Brown Ale. Whether they too will change remains to be seen, but let's hope they see sense. the scientific evidence against clear glass is overwhelming. History too is in favour of brown glass, as it is not for nothing that over the last few hundred years beer has been packaged in dark brown bottles.

As a scientist I was so pleased with this about turn which, for a change, was a triumph of substance over style, that I felt obliged to write this blog post about it. Hopefully other writers and beer enthusiasts will spread the good news and encourage those remaining recalcitrants, who are still using clear glass, to do the same.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Pub of the Year and a Ramble

Yesterday being Good Friday was the date for Maidstone & Mid Kent CAMRA’s annual ramble, which this year took place in our local West Kent area. What’s more the walk was to the worthy winner of our branch Pub of the Year 2014, the Windmill at Sevenoaks Weald. For some of us, including myself, this meant two trips to this excellent example of a traditional village pub.

Last Sunday a number of us made the trip over to Weald by bus, in order to present landlord Matthew with his well deserved certificate; whilst today around 20 of us made the journey by foot. We set off from Penshurst station just after 10.30am, and after a very pleasant walk through the Kent countryside, which was at its spring finest, arrived at the Windmill shortly after opening time.
As on my earlier visit, there was a good selection of beers on, but I had no hesitation in opting for the Ranmore Ale from Surrey Hills; an excellent and well-hopped pale ale. Despite the sunny skies, most of us opted to sit inside the pub, especially as the majority of us had ordered lunch. I went for the Goan spicy seafood curry, which had just the right degree of heat, and was a good accompaniment to the beer.

I also tried a pint of former Champion Beer of Britain, Triple fff Pride of Alton which, although good, could not compete with the Ranmore Ale. One member of our party even decided to give a few of the Windmill’s bottled Belgian beers a go, including a bottle of Kwak, complete with its wooden retort stand for the glass! Shortly before leaving, I opted for a half of Goachers Imperial Stout, fetched from the cellar for me by Matthew. It was perhaps fitting to see this beer coming on sale, as amongst our walking party were none other than Phil Goacher and his wife Debbie, proprietors of Kent’s second oldest brewery after Shep’s.

We left the Windmill shortly after 3pm, walking back to Penshurst station by a different and shorter route. Although I am familiar with many of the by-roads and lanes of this area, much of the surrounding countryside was new to me, and it was not until we approached the tiny hamlet of Charcott from the rear that I knew where we were.

Charcott is close to my place of work at Chiddingstone Causeway, and most lunchtimes I walk up towards this small settlement, before veering off across the old Penshurt airfield – the route which leads back towards Penshurst station. We just had time to call in for a swift one at the Little Brown Jug, opposite the station, before catching the train back to Tonbridge. The walk was around 8 miles in total, and unlike the previous year, when temperatures were close to freezing, this year they were in the mid to high teens. It was therefore much more enjoyable, especially as it afforded the opportunity of seeing the Kent countryside at its best. Our thanks, as always to Dick and Pam Wilkinson for organising what must now be getting on for the 40th such annual event!

So what exactly made the Windmill at Weald our branch Pub of the Year? Well, back in 2013 the pub won the award for “most improved pub” in the West Kent CAMRA area, and deservedly so, for the previous year, licensees Matthew and Emma had taken over what was a very run down and failing Greene King pub, and turned it into both a destination pub and somewhere the village could be proud of.

No strangers to the pub trade, the couple had previously run the Stile Bridge, a well-known and highly successful free house, close to the village of Marden. The Windmill caught their eye as they had been looking for somewhere a bit closer to their children’s schools, so when Greene King put the pub on the market, it seemed the ideal opportunity.

A lot of hard work followed before the pub was in a state where it could re-open for business. The interior was completely stripped out, and then re-fitted and decorated in a style which was sympathetic to the Victorian building. The walls are adorned with old brewery advertising plaques, many of them extolling the virtues of Belgian beers. The traditional feel is enhanced by dividing up the interior with various high-backed wooden settles and benches. A couple of fireplaces provide warmth during the winter months. The transformation was completed by painting the exterior in a two tone cream and dark-green colour scheme. The result is a cosy and comfortable pub which is a delight to visit, with much to offer the toper and gourmet alike.

On the drink front the Windmill has six hand pulls dispensing a range of well-chosen beers from independent brewers, sourced mainly, but not exclusively, from Kent or neighbouring Sussex. Local ciders and perries are also available, alongside a range of bottled Belgian beers. Even the lager drinker is catered for by offering them something rather better than the usual bog-standard pub fodder of Carling, Fosters or Stella. Instead the Windmill sells Cristal, a 4.8% pale lager from Belgium’s Alken-Maes Brewery.

The latter is served in its own attractive branded glass, and like a growing number of pubs these days, the Windmill has other branded glasses, including ones from Harvey’s, Longman and Sambrooks. On the glasses front, Matthew was so pleased at learning of the Windmill’s Pub of the Year achievement that he ordered a quantity of special “Windmill-branded” glasses, which proudly advertise the award, and what’s more the glasses are CAMRA-approved, oversize ones, so definitely no short measures here!

Last, but by no means least is the food. I have eaten at the Windmill on a number of occasions; most recently on Friday, and each time have thoroughly enjoyed the comestibles. Fish dishes features prominently on the menu, and the baked hake or the spicy Goan seafood curry are especially good. We held our CAMRA Christmas meal at the pub, an the attendance ran into double figures.

All in all then, a well-deserved winner of West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year. Do call in if you are in the area; I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Sunday Lunchtime

Walking down last Sunday to catch my bus to Sevenoaks Weald for the Pub of the Year presentation to the Windmill (more about this later), I passed a couple of local pubs, both of which seemed decidedly empty. Although it was only 10-15 minutes after midday, it set me thinking back to the time when pubs would have been packed on a Sunday lunchtime. This of course was before the advent of all-day opening, when Sunday hours were the most restricted time of all trading hours. Typically pubs were only allowed to open on Sunday between the hours of midday and 2pm, and then from 7pm to 10.30pm. If you were dying of thirst on a Sunday afternoon then it was tough luck!

These restrictive opening times did mean though that Sunday lunchtime was by far and away the busiest session of a pub’s trading week, and was the one session most regular pub goers would do their utmost not to miss. I was off to join my friends in such a session, but I knew full well there was no rush, as the pub would be open right through from midday until closing, probably at around 11pm.

These extended opening hours do of course mean that the trade is spread out over a much longer period of time, rather than concentrated over the space of just a couple of hours Whilst today’s opening times are much more civilised, I still couldn’t help feeling that something has been lost from pub-going, and feeling a touch of nostalgia for the old days.

There was a time when I rarely missed a Sunday lunchtime session at my local pub, even during the mid 1980’s when i was much less of a regular pub-goer than I used to be. In those days one was practically guaranteed to bump into at least one person you knew, and often several people. In fact there were probably many people like me who, like me, weren’t regular attendees during the week. Pubs would have nibbles, in the form of lumps of cheese, nuts and sometimes crisps, laid out in dishes on the bar. Many, including my former local, would hold a meat raffle, or other fund-raising activity.

We had a dog back then, so the latter part of Sunday morning was spent taking her for a long walk, the end of which coincided nicely with pub opening. After her lengthy walk, our dear old collie-greyhound cross would be quite content to lie on the floor, under one of the tables or benches, whilst I enjoyed a well-earned pint or three! Like I hinted at earlier, there was invariably a good mixed crowd of regulars in, so depending on mood, occasion or who was present, I either stood at the bar, or joined people I knew at one of the tables. We would get stuck into the beer, swap a few tales and generally put the world to right; in short it was a way to escape the hustle and bustle and the general grind of daily life, and relax and unwind in the company of like-minded people.

The pub I use to drink in was in south Tonbridge, and was called Uncle Tom’s Cabin; a daft name for a pub, I know, but it had been bought by a bloke called Tom, and he obviously thought it sounded appropriate. The pub was in a row of terraced cottages and had been converted by joining two of the cottages together. The pub is still trading, although it is now known as the New Drum.  When originally opened, it was called the Victoria Tavern, but for most of the 20th Century was known as the Drum; hence the current name when one of Tom’s successors decided on a better and more appropriate moniker.

"The Cabin", as the pub was universally known back in the mid to late 80’s,  was a free house, although Tom’s immediate successor made the dubious decision of going cap in hand for a loan-tie to the former South Wales Clubs’ Brewery (latterly known as Crown). Based in Pontyclun in Glamorgan, the South Wales beers were not well received by the locals, including me. Living in Kent we expect hops in our beer, and what’s more plenty of them!  Fortunately, the arrangement didn’t last too long, because Greene King, then not very well represented in Kent, stepped in with a better offer, and IPA and Abbot became the pub staples. At least these Suffolk beers had some hops in them!

There was a good crowd who used to meet in the Cabin on Sunday lunchtimes, and the sessions used to get quite lengthy. This was because the pub held regular “lock-ins”.  Not only did these extended sessions take place most evenings, but they were a staple part of Sunday lunchtimes. Come about half-two, the landlady would ask for the door to be put on the latch, and then carry on serving. It was quite a regular occurrence for me, plus the dog, to stagger out at around 4pm and make my way home, where a nice roast dinner would be waiting.

This comfortable and cosseted existence came to an abrupt end in 1991, with the birth of our son.  I was now needed to assist at home and help out with jobs around the house, and with the various tasks associated with bringing up a new baby. Also, with my wife no longer working, money was much tighter than it had been, and lengthy sessions  down the pub were no longer as affordable, or indeed acceptable as they once were.

It wasn't just me that changed though; the pub changed hands, changed its name and morphed into something resembling a "Sports' Bar", with a TV screen in every corner and seemingly endless and inescapable football. The trade itself changed out of recognition as well. Although pub opening hours had been liberalised in 1988, with the  introduction of all-day drinking on  weekdays, it  wasn't until 1995 that all-day  drinking on Sundays became law. At a stroke, the uniqueness of the Sunday lunchtime session vanished. With pubs open all afternoon, and through into the evening, there was now no need to rush down to the local at midday, and cram as much into the two hour session as possible. Now you could turn up midway through the afternoon, or indeed later, if you fancied a drink. This was great if you had things to do at home, or you were on holiday, or were a foreign tourist used to having a drink whenever you fancied one, but the very freedom to drink when you wanted a drink, rather than having to stick to limited "permitted hours" meant you were far less likely to bump into your mates, or other pub regulars,  as you were before.

I am not saying that liberalisation of the UK's outdated licensing laws was a bad thing. Our restricted pub opening hours were the relic of a bygone age and had no place in a modern and free society. Reform was long over-due, and on the whole has had a civilising effect on the nation's pubs. However, something has definitely disappeared, and whether it is the camaraderie which went with being a pub regular, or the anticipation which went with waiting outside the pub for it to open, it is hard to say.

It is however, worth noting that back in the early 1970's, when reform of Britain's licensing laws were first being looked at, rumblings of disquiet were being heard. Many in the trade were concerned that the essential character of the country's pubs would be changed by the removal of the compulsory afternoon break. The humorist Basil Boothroyd, wrote at the time "You may be able to get a drink whenever you fancy one in those stained old crummy round-the-clock Continental  bistros; only here in the land of the un-free, can we savour the spring-like sensation , twice a day, of life beginning anew!"

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Gravity of Dispense

On our recent visit to Norfolk, I noticed that both the pubs we visited  employed a practice which to me seems highly laudable and a good way forward, especially for outlets where the trade is variable or intermittent. Both pubs (Darby’s plus the Mermaid), had between four and six cask beers on sale; their presence being advertised by the hand pumps, and associated clips on the bar. Upon ordering a pint, the bar staff grabbed a glass and then headed for a back room where the beers were stillaged, and drew off the beer by gravity. The same arrangement was followed in both pubs.  Judging by the excellent condition of the beer, especially in respect of temperature, I would say that the rooms in both pubs were temperature controlled.

This struck me as an excellent arrangement, for a number of reasons. These include no beer lines or pumps to clean, no wastage of beer left lying in the lines, and none of that “first pint out the lines” syndrome, which can afflict the unwary pub goer who has the misfortune of entering just after opening time and is treated to a glass full of beer which has been lying  in the lines since the last session, either because the staff are too lazy to pull some through before opening, or because the landlord is too tight and doesn’t want to waste any beer.

There are a number of pubs in my part of Kent that follow this practice, although none of them actually have hand pumps on the bar. All but one, keep their beer in a temperature controlled room behind the bar, and two of them have an ingenious set up whereby the casks are fitted with extra long taps which protrude through the wall (in both cases via false barrel fronts). This leads to speedier service, as the bar staff don’t have to keep disappearing into the back room in order to dispense the customer’s pint.

This sort of gravity service can have its limits though, particularly when the beers are racked straight behind the bar. My recent visit to the Bree Louise revealed the shortcomings with this arrangement; warm, flat beer, totally devoid of condition. Back in my youth, I remember casks of seasonal beers, such as old ale or Christmas specials, occasionally kept in a cradle on the bar itself. Back then smoking was universal in pubs so, as you can imagine, the smoky atmosphere plus the smell of food did little to improve the flavour of condition of the beer!

These limitations aside, properly kept gravity-dispensed beer should mean a  perfectly conditioned pintcan be served at the correct temperature, without wastage and all the bother of cleaning the dispense equipment. There are few who could argue against this, apart from perhaps our friends in the north, who seem to like an inch or two of thick, creamy foam on top of their pint; and a drink with all the life (and flavour) knocked out of the body of the beer and into the head!

I know some people actually like beer with all the stuffing knocked out, and a layer of cream topping that you have to drink through before you even get to the liquid below, so if you're a northerner who happens to find find yourself in a pub offering gravity dispense, look out for a "cask pump". Although rarely seen these days, these hand pumps in miniature allow beer to be dispensed direct from a cask with the added "benefit" of serving it with a good 'head'.  I saw these strange, but ingenious devices in use just once, at the Covent Garden Beer Exhibition, back in 1975, when they were used to dispense Sam Smith’s  beers direct from the cask.

I could only find two photographs of such devices on Google Images, and both are copyright protected. I will in the course of time, request permission from their respective owners to show the photos, but in the meantime you'll just have to be patient. I do recall another way to achieve a northern style head using gravity dispense, and that is to draw some of the beer off  first into jugs, and then pour it from a height of around 10"-12" into the customer's glass. Back in the 1970's, this used to be the practice at the Ram's Head (Owd Tupps) at Denshaw; a 450 year old inn, high on the moors above Oldham and Rochdale. The Younger's XXPS Scotch Bitter kept by the pub, tasted particularly fine when served in this fashion - a case of the best of both worlds.

I haven't been to the pub in over 30 years, but I understand  it uses conventional hand pumps now. More's the pity, as another hangover from a bygone age has been sacrificed on the altar of standardisation. Perhaps the north-south divide is having an effect with gravity dispense all but vanished north of the Midlands, but becoming increasingly popular here in the South East and East Anglia. But then we always were more discerning in this part of the country!

The two photos depicting beer being dispensed by gravity, from wooden casks, were taken in Germany, where this method of serving beer is relatively common. There is no problem with not getting a head on your drink, as the beer is so well conditioned it forms a dense head naturally when poured. Gravity dispense is also by far and away the most popular means of serving beer at CAMRA beer festivals.
450 years old it sits at 1212ft above sea level and enjoys panoramic views of the Saddleworth moors towards Rochdale, Oldham - See more at:
450 years old it sits at 1212ft above sea level and enjoys panoramic views of the Saddleworth moors towards Rochdale, Oldham - See more at:
450 years old it sits at 1212ft above sea level and enjoys panoramic views of the Saddleworth moors towards Rochdale, Oldham - See more at:

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The First Pint is the Finest

Have you ever had one of those experiences where the first pint of the evening was so good that the rest of beers you tried, whilst good in themselves, paled into insignificance?  I experienced this last Saturday but  unfortunately, for reasons I will explain as we go along, I was unable to go back and re-sample that amazing first beer.
The experience occurred on one of what I fear will be increasingly frequent visits to Norfolk. Not a bad thing in itself, but not as pleasant as such trips once were when they are related to visits to check up on elderly parents who are becoming increasingly frail and infirm. I know that might sound heartless and un-caring, but it is precisely because I do care, and hate to see them both in this situation, that such journeys are becoming far less enjoyable.
Still, duty calls and all that, and so last Saturday my son and I found ourselves back at the excellent Bartle’s Lodge, Bed and Breakfast, in the tiny Norfolk village of Elsing. We arrived early evening, to enable us to spend most of the following day with my parents. They live in the nearby village of Swanton Morley, and have done so for the past 20 years since moving up from Kent following my father’s retirement.
I have written about Swanton Morley and its two pubs before, but on this visit I realised it was several years since I had last called into the pub at the opposite end of village from where my parents live. This pub though happened to be the closest to where we were staying, so I thought it a good idea to check it out and see if it had changed at all.
The pub is called Darby’s, and has only been a pub since 1988, having been converted from two former  18th Century farm cottages. Being the furthest pub from my parent’s house, it was one I frequented less frequently, particularly as the Angel is just two minute’s walk away, and a regular Good Beer Guide entry to boot. Neither of my parents were particularly keen on Darby’s, but seeing as they’re not regular pub-goers, I couldn’t really understand why.
Swanton Morley and Elsing are the best part of three miles apart, and linked by a long and rather narrow country lane. Walking to Darby’s was therefore not particularly practical, so we jumped into the car with the idea of having a quick pint there, before driving back to the bed and breakfast, dumping the car and then spending the rest of the evening at the nearby Mermaid Inn. As luck, or the lack of it, would have it, that first pint in Darby’s was definitely the highlight of the evening.
Darby’s was pretty much the same as I remembered it, with bare-brick internal walls, a quarry-tiled floor and plenty of alcoves. Rustic wooden tables and chairs completed the scene. Although it was just after 7pm there was a good sprinkling of customers, mainly locals, plus a number of military personnel from the nearby barracks – as evidenced by their cropped hair and Geordie accents. There were also a fair number of dogs accompanying their owners; always a good sign in a rural pub!
I would have liked to stay there for the evening; the menu looked good and the beer, whose name I will reveal later, was excellent. However, there was the small matter of the car, and whilst the  chances of being pulled over by the Old Bill along that narrow country road  back to the B&B were negligible, it would have been morally wrong, and besides, it was a risk I did not want to take. We reluctantly finished our beer and drove back to Elsing, dropped the car off, and adjourned to the nearby Mermaid Inn.
The Mermaid is an excellent little pub in its own right, and we knew we could get a good meal there, as well as being able to enjoy a few more beers without having to worry about plod. Like at Darby’s there was a reasonable crowd in the pub, which included a mix of diners, people sitting at the bar, or a few local village lads and lasses playing pool. Beer wise there were two ales from Adnam’s (Southwold, and Broadside), two from Woodfordes (Wherry and Once Bittern), and one guest ale, (a 5% golden ale from Muirhouse Brewery). I opted for the Once Bittern to start with, before moving onto the Broadside – always a good standby, but never as good in my book as the late and much lamented Adnam’s Extra.
Both beers were good, and went well with my home-made burger and chips. However, neither quite matched up to that delicious first pint. So enough of the teasing, it’s time to reveal that this beer was Lacons Legacy, a 4.4% blonde ale with a refreshing citrus aroma from Amarillo and Cascade hops. Deliciously moreish and highly drinkable, the beer ended with a lengthy and mellowing bitter finish.  No wonder I wanted to stay at Darby’s for a few more!

For the uninitiated, Lacons were a renowned Norfolk brewery, who were established in Great Yarmouth back in 1760. The company grew steadily over the years, and by the middle of the last century were doing quite nicely, thank-you, and at their peak owned around 300 pubs scattered throughout East Anglia, plus a handful in London. Then in 1965, along came our old friend Whitbread who bought the company. Three years later, in 1968, the closure of the brewery as announced, bringing to an end over 200 years of brewing history.

Now after an absence of 45 years, Lacons Brewery has returned home to Great Yarmouth, under the guidance of acclaimed, multi award winning brewer Wil Wood; whose pedigree includes stints at both Oakham and Fyne Ales. Wil has combined his expertise of modern brewing practices with over 250 years of brewing heritage,  to create a contemporary range of fine craft ales, and in a further link with the past, the beers are brewed using the original Lacons yeast which has been preserved in the National Yeast Bank for many decades.

Now doesn’t that make you just want to rush out and try a pint?

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Campaign for Real Pies

A Proper Pie

Part of the joy of pub-going, particularly at weekend lunchtimes, is the opportunity to enjoy a hearty pub meal. This treat is all the more enjoyable these days as I don’t frequent pubs as often as I did when I was younger. My local CAMRA branch tries to hold at least one weekend social and one mid-week social a month. The former take place during daylight hours, primarily because they are normally visits to hard to get to pubs in isolated rural spots, which would otherwise be impossible to get to during the evening. The latter, on the other hand, are normally held in one of the three
Another Proper Pie
main towns (Sevenoaks, Tonbridge & Tunbridge Wells) which make up our branch area, where public transport links run well into the evening, and pubs are much easier to get to.

As I said earlier, a pub meal is a welcome and enjoyable part of these weekend outings, and one of my favourite dishes is the humble pie. Steak, steak and kidney, steak in ale, chicken, chicken and ham; you name it and I’ll eat it. Recently however, I’ve started to call into question exactly what exactly constitutes a proper pie, as there is a growing tendency for pies to be debased, with dishes masquerading as pies when they are quite clearly something else.
A Stew With a Hat

To elaborate, order a pie in many pubs these days and like as not you will be presented with a stew in an earthenware dish, topped with a layer of soggy puff-pastry! A proper pie should be encased in pastry all round, with a good crusty top and bottom and a juicy filling. A casserole with a ludicrous puff pastry top is not a pie; it’s a stew with a hat! I’ve become so fed up with having one of these bastardised abominations plonked down in front of me that I now ask before ordering, and if it’s a stew with a hat, I’ll order something else. I would ask all true pie lovers to do the same, as only by getting our contempt for these “lazy chef pies” can we hope to consign them to the dustbin of history, which is where they belong!

Describing these stew with a hat offerings as “lazy chef pies” is not being flippant, it is a statement of fact. It takes far less skill to fill an earthenware dish with a pre-prepared meat stew, slap a layer of shop-bought puff-pastry on top, shove the thing in the freezer and then cook to order, than it does to construct a proper pastry pie with a base and sides, fill it with meat and gravy, before carefully affixing a pastry lid and crimping it all the way round to provide an adequate seal.

I can understand why many pubs have chosen the “lazy chef” way, but despite the convenience and ease of serving they are doing themselves and their customers a grave disservice, and are undermining a great British culinary tradition.

In the course of writing this post I did a little on-line research looking, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, for a “Campaign for Real Pies”. Well I found a Facebook page plus a website; both dedicated to proper, pastry-encased pies. Have a look for yourselves by clicking the links above, and if you agree with their sentiments, give them your support.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Back in the High Weald Again

I was reminded of the classic Steve Winwood song, “Back in the High Life Again” on Saturday when a group of fellow West Kent CAMRA members and I made a return visit to the “High Weald” area of Kent. Our visit took place just over a year from one we made back in March 2013, and the contrast in the weather could not have been more dramatic.
Last year the temperatures were hovering just above freezing and there was snow blowing in on a biting north-easterly wind. This year, we had temperatures in the high teens and wall-to-wall sunshine! This combined with good company, good beer, some excellent food, a couple of classic village pubs and some pleasant rolling rural scenery, looking its very best in the warm spring sunshine, and it really was good to be “Back in the High Weald Again”.

A £7 Arriva Explorer Day Ticket allowed us to travel by bus from Tonbridge and, after changing buses in Tunbridge Wells, into the heart of the Kent countryside. Our first stop was the Fountain, in the incredibly photogenic village of Cowden. The pub was closed last year when we made our previous sojourn to the High Weald, as it was under-going renovation work, but I’m pleased to report the Fountain is once again open for business and looking better than ever.

This was only my second visit to the pub; the previous one having been a fleeting one over ten years ago. Now, upon returning, I was impressed with what I saw. Still retaining its traditional public and saloon bar areas, the Fountain has been extended at the rear by the addition of a conservatory. This in turn looks out and leads onto the secluded sun-trap of a garden, and it was to the latter that we de-camped en masse, having first availed ourselves of a pint each of beer.

The Fountain is a Harvey’s tied house and had IPA, Sussex Best and Old Ale on sale. Most of us opted for the latter, with me being especially pleased to see this excellent dark ale on sale. For one reason or another, I have missed it completely this season, so seeing it on the bar was a real bonus, particularly as it is now right at the very end of its long period of availability (October to March). The landlord complemented us on our choice, remarking that Old was a personal favourite of his. He had one more cask remaining in the cellar after this one, and then that would be it until autumn.

Well the beer was like the answer to a maiden’s prayer, cool, dark and malty, and with just the right hop bitterness to make it the perfect springtime pint. Pure class in a glass, and all the other clich├ęs rolled into one. Sitting out in the garden and enjoying my beer in the company of friends, made me think life doesn’t get much better than this! Well, it did when the food I had ordered arrived. Home-made steak, kidney and mushroom pie, and a proper pie at that! By proper, I mean the meat was completely enclosed in pastry (short-crust no less!), rather than a glorified meat stew in an earthenware dish, topped with a layer of soggy puff-pastry. There was plenty of juicy, succulent meat filling the pie, with just the sufficient gravy to keep things moist. Combine this with new potatoes, and seasonal vegetables and it was heaven on a plate!

I was reluctant to leave the Fountain, which I have now designated as a destination eatery pub, but we had another pre-arranged port of call. The Kentish Horse, in the tiny village of Mark Beech, was our first stop on last year’s High Weald tour. We had heard the pub had changed hands recently, so were keen to check how it was faring under its new owners. The 234 bus which had bought us to Cowden continues on to Edenbridge, via Mark Beech, but being such a lovely spring day, several of us had come pre-equipped for a walk. The majority of us therefore set off to walk the three or so miles to Mark Beech leaving the less fit/still thirsty minority to spend a further hour in the Fountain, enjoying the excellent beer.

We set off through this picture-postcard village, pausing to reflect that the only people who can now afford to live in such an unspoilt haven are city workers (merchant bankers?), and others on hugely inflated salaries. The net result of this influx of new comers has been a decline in traditional rural life and the loss of village services. One of our party had grand parents who lived in Cowden and was telling us that the village once supported two shops, a garage and a school; all now closed. It also had two pubs. The Fountain is obviously still open, but on our way out of Cowden we passed the village’s other pub, now sadly closed. The attractive, white-painted, tile-hung Crown House still looks like a pub though, with its two entrances, gravel forecourt and clearly visible former pub garden at the side. It must have fetched a pretty penny when it was sold off at auction back in the 1980’s.

Our walk took us through some very attractive countryside; mainly grassland, with the odd wooded copse here and there for variety. The terrain was quite undulating, and we descended and then climbed again on several occasions before eventually reaching Mark Beech, which is one of the highest points in the High Weald. On the way we passed a really isolated, late Victorian cottage, alone in a clearing in the middle of a wood, looking like something out of a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale. I have remarked on this place before, having encountered this slightly strange cottage on a previous walk in the High Weald, back in 2009.

We managed to beat the bus passengers to the Kentish Horse, and were sitting in the garden enjoying a well-earned pint when they arrived. I am pleased to report the pub is doing well under its new owners, with a good local crowd huddled around the bar, whilst visitors such as us were outside in the garden enjoying the sunshine and the far reaching views across to the summit of Ashdown Forest. The beer was excellent with Larkins Traditional and Harvey’s Sussex Best on offer. I stuck with the Sussex, having started earlier on the Old Ale.

Our bus arrived just after 4pm to carry us back to Tunbridge Wells. I must confess to dozing off on the homeward journey; the combination of warm temperatures, fresh air and exercise, to say nothing of the beer had a soporific effect on me. A shame really, as I missed some of the terrific scenery, and before I knew it we had arrived at our destination. All in all it was another excellent day out and, as my alternative version of Steve Winwood’s song goes, it certainly was good to be  “Back in the High Weald Again”.