Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Pub of the Year Tour - Part One

With still no word from the West Kent CAMRA Committee regarding the winner of branch Pub of the Year, I can only assume that the news embargo is still in place. So not wishing to upset the apple-cart, I won’t be releasing the name of the winning pub until it’s officially announced.

What I can do though is provide a write up of the six pubs we visited 10 days ago and, for the time being at least, leave readers to draw their own conclusions. As the write-up is quite lengthy, I have divided it into two halves, with each part detailing three pubs.

The Pub of the Year tour got off to a sticky start. The plan was for the mini-bus to pick participants up outside Tunbridge Wells railway station, before setting off on a carefully planned out route. Well you know what is said about the best laid plans, and this one hit a snag right  from the off.

The station at Tunbridge Wells has two entrances; one on each side of the tracks. This meant a couple of people keeping lookout on one side, whilst the main part of the group waited on the other. 

The 11.30am pick-up came and went, and at first the non-show of the bus was put down to heavy traffic; not exactly an unusual occurrence on a busy Saturday, but as the time crept on, it was time for the group coordinator to phone the bus company. The office was closed, but somehow the driver's number was obtained.

There had been a mix-up regarding the pick-up time, and the driver was still making his way down the A21 from Bromley. An "executive decision" was  then taken to head up to one of the two Tunbridge Wells pubs on the list, and start judging. The bus would be able to catch up with us from there.

We walked up the hill towards Fuggles Beer Café, which was now the first pub, and ordered our first beers of the day. From our point of view it was good to find the place quiet. The opposite normally applies, but the lack of people milling around afforded a good opportunity to assess the pub, without any distractions. I liked the feel  which Fuggles had during this quiet period, as it allowed time to peruse the artwork and admire the display of enamelled Belgian beer signs.

There was the usual selection of six cask ales on, and whilst some of us might have been tempted by one of the "craft keg" options, this was a CAMRA competition and, for the time being at least, cask was the type of beer which the pub would be judged on. One member of our party, who is renowned for a love of strong beers, went straight in with a pint of Great Rift Milk Stout; a 6.0% beer from Wander Beyond Brewing. Knowing there was long day ahead I, rather more sensibly, opted for the Eponymous; a 3.2% “Table Beer” from Eight Arch Brewing.

Pale in colour, but packed with flavour, in spite of its low strength, this refreshing beer was just right to kick off what would prove to be lengthy session. Having dutifully completed our voting times there was precious little time to sit back and relax, because we received a call that our mini-bus would soon be with us. We dutifully filed outside, ready to pile into the bus as soon as it arrived.

Our bus headed out of town towards what should have been the first port of call. This was the Halfway House, an unspoilt, rambling old alehouse, just down the hill from the village of Brenchley. The Halfway is a previous winner of  Pub of the Year, and offers a wide range of gravity-served beers. It also holds two annual beer festivals; one in May and the other in August.

Local ales feature prominently amongst the range at the Halfway, so it was no surprise that I opted for a refreshing pint of Goacher's Fine Light, from Maidstone. Our party split into two groups, one choosing to congregate around the bar, whilst the rest of us sat up in a part of the pub which is on a different level, and almost cut off from the rest of the building. We sat and filled in our scores, and some members took the opportunity of re-charging their glasses.

I like the Halfway House, and have fond memories of the beer festivals I have enjoyed there over the years, but it is a real "mish-mash" of a place which never quite seems to fulfil its own potential. There wasn't much time to dwell on this though as before long we were marshalled back onto the min-bus to make the short journey to the third pub of the day, the Dovecote in the tiny hamlet of Capel.

The Dovecote is a small, narrow pub situated in a row of terraced cottages. It has the appearance of having been converted from one or more of these dwellings. Like the Halfway House, the Dovecote also serves its cask ales by gravity. This is no surprise to those who know the history of the pub, as the former landlord is now the licensee of the Halfway House

It was at the Dovecote that the landlord first perfected his unusual, but rather innovative method of storing the beer in a temperature-controlled room, and then serving it by means of "long-reach" taps, which poke through a series of strategically placed holes in the wall between the "cellar " and the bar.

The Dovecote is also noteworthy for selling Gales HSB. Although HSB is now brewed by Fuller's, it is a beer which brings back happy memories of a short break taken by a student friend and I, along with our respective girlfriends. My friend’s mother owned a holiday cottage, deep in the Surrey countryside, to the south of Godalming, and the four of us travelled down from Manchester to enjoy a long weekend in the country.

There was a Gales pub in the next village, stocking several of the company's cask beers, and it was here that I first sampled and enjoyed HSB. It may sound strange, but I can still remember how good that first pint tasted, so seeing HSB on sale at the Dovecote meant I just had to have a pint.

I wasn’t disappointed, but there wasn’t time to stay for another as the pub was packed out with diners, and there was nowhere to sit. Instead we clambered onto the bus and headed back into Tunbridge Wells for the fourth pub of the trip.

To be continued………………………….

Sunday, 18 March 2018

CAMRA is not alone

Reading carefully through all the “Special Resolution” bumph which came with this month’s “What’s Brewing”, and also looking at the “manifestos” presented by the candidates for the National Executive election, I was reminded, yet again that the biggest problem facing CAMRA today is not that of where to focus future campaigning, or indeed whether the organisation should embrace “other types” of beer.

Instead, the elephant in the room, which no-one seems to know how to address, is that of a declining active membership;  along with that of an increasing aged one. Rest assured though, for CAMRA is not alone in being hit with this double-whammy. Other membership based organisations are equally affected, as I  discovered last week.

For some time now I have wanted to become more involved with the activities of the town where I live, and find some way of contributing towards what goes on in Tonbridge. A friend of mine belongs to a group which carries out voluntary work at the local Haysden Country Park, but this involves a regular monthly commitment, every second Saturday.

My friend is retired, so is able to give more freely of his time than I am, and whilst the outdoor work does sound appealing, the monthly involvement  is something I am unable to commit to at present. Instead the idea of becoming a member of Tonbridge’s twin-town association seemed more appropriate.
Tonbridge has been twinned with the German town of Heusenstamm since 1984,  and there are established links between many local groups with their opposite number in Heusenstamm. These include music and theatre groups as well as schools and sports clubs, and these participate in shared activities, including exchange visits and joint ventures.

The Heusenstamm Friendship Circle, aims to bring together those who are interested in twinning, to encourage people to take part in visits to Heusenstamm and to receive visitors from Germany. It also helps and advises those who wish to make private visits, and to meet socially.

Heusenstamm lies in the Frankfurt Rhine Main Region to the south east of Frankfurt am Main, and is one of several towns in the Offenbach district of the state of Hesse. It has a population of around 18,000 people, which is just under half that of Tonbridge. Both towns have a number of historic buildings, including a castle each.

As someone who visits Germany on a fairly regular basis, the idea of joining the Friendship Circle seemed a logical one, particularly as  Heusenstamm is situated in a part of the country I am not familiar with. I am reasonably fluent in German, so I thought this also would be of mutual benefit. I consequently filled out my membership form and posted it off with my £10 annual membership fee.

A few days alter I received a call from the secretary, thanking me for my application and welcoming me to the group. She informed me the association would be holding its AGM the following week, and asked if I would like to attend. I said yes, and so last Tuesday evening I walked down the town’s Rose & Crown Hotel, ready to meet some of the group’s members.

It had been explained to me earlier that the AGM would take place after the Circle’s Annual Dinner. It was too late for me to have booked a place, but this was not a problem as far as I was concerned. On arriving at the Rose & Crown, I was shown into the function room, and introduced to the secretary and chairman.

So far so good, they both seemed very pleasant and helpful people and were obviously pleased to welcome a new member to the group. Their pleasure was no doubt enhanced by the fact that not only did I represent “new blood”, but compared to the rest of those present, I was positively youthful.

Now I am no spring chicken, but looking around, I can safely say that with the possible exception of the town mayor (who was probably present  in an honorary capacity anyway), I was by far the youngest person in the room. And I thought CAMRA had a problem!

I sat and listened politely as the meeting worked its way through the AGM agenda. In many ways it was similar to a CAMRA AGM, with reports from the chairman, secretary and treasurer, the presentation and approval of accounts etc, and when it came to the election of officers, the similarities became even more striking.

There were no takers for either the position of chairman or that of secretary. This was despite both incumbents having expressed a wish to stand down. It transpired that both had served over 20 years apiece; small wonder that they fancied a rest! With no possible successors coming forward, they both agreed to carry on, but as the secretary confided to me after the meeting, being an octogenarian is all well and good, but the group was definitely in need of some new blood.

This of course was blindingly obvious, especially to a newcomer like me, but being a newbie I had no intention of putting myself forward; not until I had learnt a great deal more about the group and its German counterpart.

And therein lies the problem facing voluntary groups today, as for whatever reason, people don’t want to get involved to the extent they would have done when such organisations were founded. I include CAMRA here, of course, as well as the Heusenstamm Friendship Circle, and there is no easy answer.

I left the meeting, as soon as it was polite enough to do so, and made my way to Fuggles. I ordered myself a well-earned pint of Larkin’s Porter and sent a text to Eileen, advising her that I was the youngest person present at the meeting. “You won’t be going again, then?” was her response.

I didn’t reply straight away, in fact it wasn’t until breakfast time the following morning that the matter came up again. “I’m not sure,” was my honest response. I don’t mind getting involved when the group have visitors over from Germany; that way I can put my language skills to the test and get in some much needed practice.

I would also be quite happy to travel over to Heusenstamm, when the town holds its traditional Christmas Market, known as the Nikolausmarkt. That way I can get to know people better, and also lend a hand with the English Produce Stall which the Friendship Circle run at the market. But joining the committee would be a completely different ball-game and not one I wish to contemplate at the moment.

As with CAMRA the problem is all too obvious. Both groups need to attract younger people to their ranks, or they are doomed to wither and die. No-one seems to know the answer, but the simple fact remains people just don’t want to get involved with voluntary organisations anymore.

In some ways I felt relieved that it wasn’t just CAMRA who are affected by this lack of involvement, but I feel the answer is much more than just a generational thing.  Society today is much more fractured than it was a few generations ago, and people seem so much more wrapped up in their own little bubble.

Whether this bodes well for society in general, remains to be seen.


Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Waiting for the white smoke

Well rather like waiting for a decision from the College of Cardinals, there’s still no word from the West Kent CAMRA committee as to the winner of the Pub of the Year,  and whilst I have an inkling of the pub which was selected, I don't want to reveal its name until the official result has been declared.

From what I understand, the voting was very tight, with possibly three pubs in contention for the title; and it’s all dependent on how the scores are assessed. This is because CAMRA attaches more importance to certain categories than to others. It’s all very complicated, and quite frankly rather anal, but as soon as I know officially which pub came top, I will let you know.

As one friend, and tour participant  posted, “At the start of the tour it was not important to me which pub won and I went to support the branch, catch up with people and have a good day”. I felt exactly the same,  remaining detached from the outcome, secure in the knowledge I had scored each pub, and each category, as fairly and as objectively as possible.

I had a good day as well, catching up with friends and acquaintances, many of whom I hadn’t seen since before Christmas. These days the social aspect is, for me, what CAMRA should be about. I've done my time in the trenches, surveying pubs, attending branch meetings and filling in endless forms, and I'm sure there are many people who feel the same.

The Revitalisation Project might be about to reach its conclusion, but whatever happens visiting good pubs and enjoying good beer in the company of people I like, will always be the main attraction of CAMRA for me. If I needed confirmation of this, Saturday's bus trip was it, but other events such as walks to country pubs, visits to beer festivals serve to reinforce this view.

I ended yesterday evening by enjoying a couple of glasses of Larkin's Porter at Fuggles Tonbridge. Given the time of year, it was almost certainly one of the last casks of Porter of the season, but was none the worse for that. Smooth, dark  and full of rich chocolate and coffee flavours Larkin's Porter is one of the finest winter ales around, and was a good beer to finish on.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Just to keep you guessing

Saturday’s Pub of the Year tour worked out well in the end, despite a mix-up over the initial  pick-up time, which saw us milling around outside Tunbridge Wells station, kicking our heels and champing at the bit.

Fortunately all was not lost, as having been advised of the revised collection time, we were able to reschedule our itinerary and  “knock off” one of the Tunbridge Wells pubs first.

We had a really good day and visited six excellent pubs; all potential winners of Pub of the Year, and all fine establishments in their own right. One thing many of us found, and I know I did, is scoring pubs according to the strict criteria laid down by CAMRA, is hard work. People might scoff at this, but it really does require a lot of thought and consideration to  score pubs accurately and as objectively as possible.

I would like to think I did this to the best of my ability, and I’m pretty certain that my travelling companions will have done the same. It’s all a lot different to the situation the branch found itself in a decade or so ago, when several regulars from one particular short-listed pub, booked themselves on the tour, and then promptly awarded that pub full marks in each section. As if they hadn’t already revealed their bias towards their favourite pub, they then proceeded to give low marks to the remaining five pubs.

Fortunately this attempt at vote swinging was so blatantly obvious, that it stood out like a sore thumb, and the votes of these individuals were discarded. Regrettably, it left the branch feeling wary of running this type of tour in the future, so Saturday’s trip was  deliberately kept low-key, in so much that it was not widely advertised, and restricted to members who were known and trusted.

Some might view this as elitism, but in truth the fact that such a tour was taking place, was made known to all those who bother to attend socials, or other branch events, and therefore those who put in the effort to turn up at CAMRA functions were those given the opportunity to participate in this important selection process. Personally I think this is not only fair, but also a just reward for all those who make the effort in the first place.

A full report of the pub tour will follow in due course, but for now I'll just say that whilst all six finalists were of a very high standard, there was one pub which for me, stood head and shoulders above the rest. Whether my fellow travellers/pub surveyors, thought the same, remains to be seen, but we will find out the results soon enough.

In the meantime the photos might provide a few clues as to the identity of the six finalists; especially to anyone living locally, or familiar with the pubs of West Kent.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Magical Mystery Tour - or Pub of the Year

In common with most, if not all, local branches, West Kent CAMRA run a Pub of the Year competition, usually abbreviated to POTY – an acronym I cringe at every time I hear it, even if it does save a bit of typing!  I have written about this yearly award on several previous occasions, and I suspect I shall be writing about it again before the month is out, but it's worth pointing out that I have mixed feelings about the value of Pub of the Year.

I obviously accept the award is good for the winning pub, but the competition can sometimes cause ill-feeling in the licensed trade as a whole; and it's not just a question of sour grapes. The selection process itself can also be fraught with problems, and there is no one size fits all approach when deciding on the winner.

Despite these reservations there has to be some method or other for choosing a winner, so this coming weekend West Kent CAMRA are running a mini-bus tour of the six pubs selected as finalists in this year's competition.

This heralds a return to a selection process last used six years ago, but abandoned for a variety of reasons, not least of which were the organisation involved in hiring a mini-bus and the job of finding a suitable “designated driver” willing to sit there drinking soft drinks all day.

These mini-bus trips invariably took place on a Saturday, because of their lengthy nature. Finding a mutually agreeable date could sometimes pose a problem, but the main concern was that by the time members had reached the last couple of pubs on the tour, their judgement was almost certainly clouded by the amount of beer they had drunk!

On the plus side these trips were highly enjoyable, so I for one am extremely pleased that the branch has decided to reinstate the mini-bus tour as a tried and tested means of selecting Pub of the Year. I am therefore really looking forward to Saturday's trip especially as it gives me the opportunity to visit  pubs I don't often get round to. This is particularly the case with some of the more rural pubs on the list.

Now I don't intend to name any of the six finalists at this stage; just on the off-chance that one or more of the licensees concerned reads this blog, but once the tour is over, I will be writing a short piece on each of the pubs visited. What I will say for now is four of  the contenders are rural, whilst the remaining two are town-centre outlets.

Saturday's forecast isn't looking that brilliant, but no matter we will be getting wet on the inside. It might just mean that some of the photo opportunities won't be as good as they might otherwise have been, if the sun was to be shining.

The other slight downside is that the trip will be quite a hurried affair, with the time at each pub restricted to around 45 minutes. This is to comply with legal requirements concerning driver's hours. I was also talking with a friend and work colleague earlier today, and we were both wondering which pub would be the best for lunch, and would the pub be able to accommodate a dozen hungry drinkers within that time-frame, especially when they turn up unannounced.

That last point is particularly valid, as we don't want publicans knowing in advance that we are coming, especially if they then guess the purpose of our visit. It may just be then that packets of crisps or bags of nuts will have to suffice until later in the evening when we've all been dropped off.

Finally, there are no clues from any of the photos either, all of which are strictly "neutral".

Sunday, 4 March 2018

The road goes ever on

Well I'd like to think that after the unexpected, and rather dramatic start to the New Year, life in the Bailey household is slowly getting back to normal. Mrs PBT's  has made a good recovery, considering what she has been through, and is pretty much back to her usual self.

Now that the snow and ice have finally melted she will be able to get out and about on her own again, without having to rely on me. She admits that she needs to get out and do some walking, in order to build up her stamina and get some invigorating fresh air into her lungs.

On the subject of lungs, her illness and subsequent treatment has allowed her to finally quit the habit she has had from the age of 15 (or perhaps even earlier). Eileen is now a non-smoker; five weeks hospitalisation, including a week on a ventilator under sedation, means her body has lost its craving for nicotine; so following the adage that every cloud has a silver lining, some good has come from her incapacitation and near death experience.

The other major change is that we are now officially a two-car household, as son Matthew has finally got himself a set of wheels. No more late night pick-ups for me, and in fact there is now the prospect that he can now drive his old dad to the pub and back!

Returning to the subject of walking for a while, I have decided to complete the North Downs Way, long distance footpath, although this will be a "work in progress" rather than my previous undertakings (South Downs Way and Weald Way), within a set timetable.

Last summer, I joined a small group of friends in walking a couple of stretches of the NDW Canterbury loop, (Wye to Chartham in the hills above the Stour Valley and a more open stretch between Shepherdswell and Dover). There are a couple of gaps in the loop, to fill in, before I can return to Dover and begin the long westward journey towards the finish/start of the trail in the Surrey town of Farnham; so the journey really is only just beginning.
My plan for completing the walk is to break it down into a number of stages, each between eight and twelve miles in length. That way I can pick and choose whichever section takes my fancy, and am I tempted to make a start before Easter, as I've got three days annual leave to take before the end of the financial year. Like many company’s my employer works on a "use it or lose it" basis, although we are allowed to carry a certain number of days over.

The NDW is quite different from its southern counterpart because, whilst it follows a similar line which sticks quite closely to the escarpment, it does pass close to some of the most densely populated areas of southern England.

The SDW on the other hand, passes through a much more rural landscape, apart from the section to the north of Brighton. The advantage for me, is that many of the starting and finishing points on the NDW are within easy travelling distance from home; with many readily accessible by public transport.

It was 10 years ago when a  friend and I set off to walk the 100 or so miles from Eastbourne to Winchester. We completed the walk the following year, having divided the trail up into three manageable sections.

We stayed over night at B & B establishments along the way; some of which were pubs, and in the evenings especially, there was normally plenty of beer consumed to rejuvenate a tired and aching body. I cannot overstate the enjoyment of walking through some of the most attractive landscapes in southern England, the camaraderie and the people we met along the way.

The sense of achievement we felt at finishing, celebrated by our arrival of the Hospital of St Cross, just outside Winchester, where we asked for, and received the "Wayfarer's Dole" of bread and ale, is something I still remember to this day.

Sadly, I'm not sure now whether  my friend and walking companion will be able to accompany me for much of the NDW.  He is 10 years older than me, and has recently been diagnosed with an ailment peculiar to men; particularly those of advancing years. He may, of course, be able to join me on some of the stages, and I will do my best to include him wherever possible.

Sometimes it's nice to walk alone, especially when you fancy a bit of solitude, but the enjoyment which comes from shared experiences on the trail, such as appreciating a spectacular view, laughing at a particularly funny joke or sinking that first pint of the evening, is something which cannot be under-estimated.

It’s still early days, but it’s nice to set a challenge, plan it out and then set off to accomplish it. The fact the challenge is a physical one makes it even better, and walking the length of the county and then heading into neighbouring Surrey will take me to places I’ve not been to before, even though they’re at most a few hours drive or train ride away.

In the meantime, you can read about my experiences of walking the South Downs Way, by clicking on the following links.

Friday, 2 March 2018

It's snow Jim, but not as we know it!

It’s been rather a strange week, and I’m glad that it’s nearly over; work-wise at least. The over-hyped “Beast from the East” caused some disruption in this neck of the woods but like the model employee I am, I managed to make it in to work everyday; even if the drive in was as times, “interesting”.

We of course, don’t really do snow in the UK, and people tend to panic at the sight of the first snowflake. I accept it has been cold, and on my drive into work on Wednesday morning I was surprised to see the car temperature gauge showing an outside temperature of minus 11º C. This has to be the coldest I’ve experienced here in the UK.

I was left with little choice but to drive in, as although the village where I work has its own railway station, there were no trains running. This wouldn’t have happened back in the days of British Rail, I hear you say, and this is probably correct, but the simple truth is that here in the south, the antiquated “third-rail” system, originally installed by the Southern Railway back in the 1930’s, is extremely vulnerable to icing up, and associated loss of power. The trains cannot run without “juice”; end of!

Being of a certain age I am old enough to remember the winter of 1962/63; the “Big Freeze”as it later became known. It started snowing on Boxing Day (I can still recall looking out our front room window and seeing it coming down), and a few days later, the country was covered by a blanket of snow, with drifts several feet deep in places. Temperatures remained below freezing throughout January, and the following month there was more heavy snow. The thaw didn’t set in until early March.

Now I don’t wish to sound like the Four Yorkshiremen from the famous Monty Python sketch, but my sister and I went to school every day. There were no sissy “snow days” for us, where we couldn’t be driven into school; instead we walked in, through the snow and ice, me still wearing short trousers and my sister a school skirt.

The school playground was a sheet of ice, which meant we could make some fantastic slides. From memory, there were no broken bones, just the odd bruised bottom! Every so often the school caretaker would sprinkle a shovel full of ashes, from the coal-fired boiler, onto the ice, just to create a few less slippery walkways (probably for the benefit of the staff), and oh, before I forget the toilets were all outside; girls as well as boys!

Perhaps because we didn’t know any better, but I don’t recall being cold, miserable or in any way deprived during that memorable winter; instead we just got on with it. When the thaw did finally start to set in, us boys were given a shovel or a broom each and set to work helping the caretaker break up the ice on the playground and move it down into a great pile in the bottom right hand corner.

There have been other cold winters, of course, the last really significant one being in 1987, when parts of Kent were literally cut off for days on end, and the army had to use helicopters to bring in supplies to some remote villages.

So I look back on the past four days with a mixture of bewilderment and amusement. The media have had a field day, and we have seen reporter after reporter standing out either in a snowy landscape or next to a road littered with abandoned vehicles, carrying on as though the world had come to an end.

In a weeks or so’s time I fully expect everything to be back to normal, but before I treat you to some snow pictures, I want to end by reporting there has been one casualty of the snow and that is tomorrow’s (Saturday's) visit by West Kent CAMRA to Old Dairy Brewery down in Tenterden.

I wasn’t booked to go, as I went last year, but it is a shame for those looking forward to sampling some excellent Old Dairy beers at source, and also to our social secretary who put in the work to organise the trip. 

So scattered throughout this post are the snow photos, most of which were taken several years ago during previous snowy winters. Enjoy!