Saturday, 30 March 2013

Good Friday Ramble 2013

This year’s Good Friday Ramble, organised by Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA, took place on what must have been one of the coldest Good Fridays any of us can remember. Despite the low temperatures, eighteen members and friends still turned out for this annual event, now in its 36th year.

Wateringbury station was the starting point, from where we crossed the River Medway, and then set off along the banks of the river, following for a while the Medway Valley Path. We then climbed slowly, out of the valley, towards West Farleigh, before heading due south through farmland, and grubbed up hop-gardens towards our lunchtime stop – the White House. 

I had come wrapped up warm against the cold, with several layers of clothing below my thick coat, and thermal leggings on, beneath my trousers for good measure. Not really the sort of attire one expects to have to wear at this time of year! Still, the strategy worked, and I was quite warm by the time we reached the pub, shortly before its midday opening.
We had approached the White House from the rear, passing the petanque pitch, and the attendant static caravans used by the team members. There was a motley collection of other old vehicles nearby, and this helped prepare me for the pub itself. A large, old rambling building of uncertain age would best describe it, although some might think “ramshackle” a more appropriate description. Certainly the pub seems to have been extended and added to in a haphazard fashion, with what were once obviously external walls, now internal ones instead. I had a feeling I might have been there before, although I wasn’t quite certain until I stepped inside.

It was pretty much as I remembered the place from a quarter of a century ago. I wasn’t overly struck with it then, and definitely wasn’t now. My previous visit had been during the evening, when it was dark outside. Now, despite it being the middle of the day, the pub still seemed as dark and dingy as it had back then. There was also a rather off-putting smell of disinfectant, but what was worse was the fact it was cold and damp. This wasn’t the nice warm welcome we had  been hoping for!

It reminded me of a similar ramble, several years ago when, on an equally cold Good Friday, we had walked to the Rising Sun, at Cottman’s Ash, high on the North Downs above Kemsing. That pub too was like an ice-box inside, and we had sat inside shivering over our beer and sandwiches. I say sandwiches, because the Rising Sun didn’t serve food and we’d had to bring our own. The same situation applied to the White House, so there wasn’t even the prospect of a tasty hot meal to warm us up!

The White House’s saving grace was its beer – Goacher’s served direct from the cask, with Real Mild, Fine Light and Best Dark available. As if to ensure the beer was in tip-top condition, we had both Phil and Debbie Goacher, founders and owners of Kent’s oldest micro-brewery, amongst our party, as they are usual attendees of this event. However, good though the beer was, it started to run out as the session progressed, with only the Light left by the time we left. Apparently the pub had been visited the previous evening by a group of thirsty Morris Dancers, but surely the licensees were aware they were coming? (they had certainly been informed of our visit).

That’s enough griping now about the White Horse. I was told, on the walk back, that it is quite highly regarded by some on the Maidstone CAMRA committee, although God only knows why? I certainly won’t be in a hurry to pay it a return visit! As for the walk back, well after sitting around in the cold, damp atmosphere of the pub, getting moving again gave us the chance to warm up and, to brighten things up further, the sun even came out for a while. Following a different course to the outward journey, our route took us in a westerly direction to start with, before striking off towards the North West. Descending gradually at first, and then much more steeply, we were rewarded with some splendid vistas, towards Maidstone at one point and then looking back along the valley towards Hadlow and Tonbridge later on. I was surprised at how high we must have climbed on the walk out to the pub. The south and westward slopes that lead down towards the river are prime fruit growing locations, and there are many poly-tunnels here designed to bring the fruit on that bit earlier and also to protect the crop from the damaging winds which blow up the valley.

We reached Wateringbury station with plenty of time to spare, but fortunately the neighbouring Railway pub was open and offered a welcome respite from the cold, and also Black Sheep Best and Larkins Traditional in the way of refreshment, whilst we waited for our train. Despite the choice of hostelry, it had again been a most enjoyable and successful ramble, and thanks must be extended to Dick and Pam Wilkinson for once again organising it. Next year though, can we please stop off at somewhere that is warm and serves food?

Friday, 29 March 2013

A Brief Visit to Norfolk

I returned early last week from a brief visit to Norfolk. My parents retired to the county nearly 20 years ago and whilst I do obviously visit from time to time, it’s probably not as often as I should, especially considering their advancing years. Having said that, they’re in pretty good shape and it was good to see them both looking quite hale and hearty. It was also good to, exchange news and generally catch up on things.

I say I should visit more often, but the area of Norfolk where they live isn’t that easy to reach. It’s only 140 miles door to door, but once you get a little passed Newmarket, the dual-carriageway disappears, and is replaced by much slower single-carriageway roads, which always seem to make the last part of the journey drag.

My visit was obviously not a beer related one, but I did manage to slip away for an hour or so on the final evening for a brief visit to the local pub. My parents live in a large, elongated village called Swanton Morley, which is roughly five miles from the town of Dereham. There are two pubs in the village; there used to be three when they first moved there, but the Papermakers closed quite a few years ago and is now a private house.

One of the remaining pubs is located in the centre of the village, just down from the imposing church, next to the local shop and Post Office,  It goes under the name of Darby’s,  but has only been a pub since 1988 when it was converted from a pair of 18th century farm cottages.  It is named after Ann Darby, the last person to farm from the site. For some time Darby’s featured regularly in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide, but seems to have lost its listing in favour of the Angel. This is the pub at the far end of the village, and the nearest one to my parent’s bungalow.

I like the Angel; it is obviously CAMRA friendly with a small, but good selection of well-kept cask beers. It also holds regular Beer Festivals; in fact one is scheduled to take place this Easter weekend. The couple that run it are very much involved in village activities. Despite this I had it in mind to give Darby’s another try. I had accompanied my father down to the village shop, and we were planning to pop in next door for a quick drink. However, we soon discovered that the pub closes between 3 and 6pm during the week. This makes sense I suppose; given there is probably very little trade during the afternoon.

Foiled in my attempt for an afternoon pint I put plan B into action, and nipped out, on foot, later the same evening to the Angel. It was a freezing cold night, and I wasn’t planning to stay long, especially as I was feeling a bit under the weather. Apart from the young lad behind the bar, there were only two other people in the pub. There was a welcoming log fire burning in the grate though, and although the barman was engrossed in his laptop he looked pleased to see another customer. Three cask ales were on sale – Woodforde’s Wherry (inevitable really in Norfolk), Hop Back Summer Lightning (something of a rarity these days) and, as guest beer, the award-winning Trawler Boys Best Bitter from Green Jack Brewery of Lowestoft. I opted for the latter, which turned out true to form as an excellent beer, before moving onto the Summer Lightning.

Like other legendary beers such as Taylor’s Landlord and Exmoor Gold, Summer Lightning to me tastes somewhat bland these days. I had a conversation with a friend about this phenomenon just the other day, as he had also reached the same conclusion. Is it just that our palates change with time? Is it that more “extreme” beers have excited our taste buds to such an extent that beers we once regarded as full of character, now seem dull and one-dimensional? Or is it just that the afore mentioned beers have grown in popularity, gained mass-acceptance, and the  brewers have been tempted to cut costs, go for cheaper ingredients, and cut maturation times?

To return to the Angel for a moment; the two other customers, a couple of ageing bikers, (rather them than me on a motorcycle on such a freezing cold night), donned their gear, said farewell to the barman and left the pub. I wasn’t far from being ready to go myself, and on the way out I told mine host that I hoped he would get a few more punters that evening. Not to worry, he said, there will be more people coming in a minute. He was right, for on my walk back to my parents, I noticed a couple of people heading for the pub. I suppose given the inclement weather and the fact it was a Monday evening, the pub wasn’t doing too bad!

That wasn’t quite my only pub experience of the trip, as earlier the same day, we stopped for lunch at a large, newly-built new Marstons pub, attached to Norwich Retail Park. The Copper Beech has a popular carvery, offering good value for money roast dinners and we took full advantage of this. My parents claimed it wasn’t that busy, but again given the aforementioned weather, and day of the week it seemed busy enough to me.

Beer-wise there were the usual Marston’s beers on offer, including Bank’s Bitter, Hobgoblin and Oxford Gold. I went for the latter, but it was a little on the chilly side and had been spoilt by being pulled through a sparkler! It didn’t matter too much, the roast dinner was tasty and filling, and we were only intending to stay for one anyway.

I will be returning to Norfolk in a few weeks’ time for the CAMRA Member’s Weekend and National AGM. Before the weekend gets underway, I will be spending a few more days with mum and dad. Hopefully the weather will be a bit better by then!

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The High Weald by Bus

 Our eagerly awaited bus trip to a number of rural pubs we rarely get to visit, took place last Saturday. The weather was appalling, certainly for late March with snow in the morning, and a biting easterly wind that made it a day best suited to staying indoors. Five of us braved the unseasonal cold and headed out to the part of West Kent known as the High Weald, where we were joined later, at the last pub on our itinerary, by a sixth member who'd been called into work during the morning.

Taking advantage of the Explorer Day Ticket, offered by our local Arriva bus company we travelled from the centre of Tunbridge Wells out into the wilds of  the very wet and dreary looking  Kent countryside. Apart from one other passenger who joined the bus in Cowden, we had the bus to ourselves. Our driver though seemed in a tearing hurry, speeding along the narrow lanes and flinging the vehicle around some of the tight bends. It was therefore with a sense of relief that we alighted from the bus in the tiny village of Mark Beech, right outside our first port of call, the Kentish Horse.

Our driver's need for speed hadn't done us any favours as we were left outside in the snow waiting for the pub to open at midday. Fortunately we only had five minutes or so to wait, and there was a  bus shelter opposite to keep the worst of the elements at bay. We were please though when we saw movement from inside, followed by the sound of the key turning in the lock. With a friendly greeting  from the landlady we were ushered inside and, after ordering our beer, grabbed the nearest table to the roaring welcoming log fire.

Beer wise there were just two cask beers on sale; Harvey's Best and Larkins Traditional, but they were both in fine form. Soon we were settled down warm and secure from the snow that was still falling quite heavily outside. The pub was starting to fill up quite rapidly, so we thought it best to order ourselves some lunch as soon as possible. There was a chalkboard above the fireplace advertising the day's specials, but I opted for the chicken curry, very reasonably priced at £6.95, and satisfying and filling as well.

The Kentish Horse had a good feel to it, and it was encouraging to see so many customers on such a cold and bleak afternoon. Most of them seemed to be regulars as well, which was even more encouraging. It was therefore with some reluctance that we had to say goodbye to the pub and head off down the road to the Greyhound at Hever, our next port of call.  We were on foot for the relatively short journey, but fortunately the mile or so walk was all downhill and it had also stopped snowing! On the way we disturbed a flock of deer, who ran off into the surrounding woodland. Their presence was a hint as to why venison dishes featured quite prominently on the menu at the Kentish Horse.

We were glad to step in from the cold once again. The Greyhound is a quirky sort of pub combining a mixture of both old and new to good effect. There are lots of recesses and tucked away drinking areas, with a larger section given over to dining towards the rear of the pub. Like at our previous stopover, there was a welcoming log fire and this, combined with subdued candle-lit illumination, gave a real cosy feel to the place.  The Greyhound is some distance from the centre of Hever village, but still appears to attract a good trade. It is unashamedly more upmarket than the Kentish Horse, but we still received a warm welcome from the landlord and some of the regulars. Beer-wise there was a choice of Harvey's Best and Thwaite's Lancaster Bomber. I opted for the Harvey's, but most of my companions went for the guest ale.

The Greyhound officially closes at 3pm for an afternoon break, but with our bus due shortly after that time, we ventured outside and awaited its arrival. To our horror, it was the same driver we'd had on our earlier journey. He seemed to be in no less of a rush than before, so after another hair raising journey it was with a sense of relief that he deposited us safely in Edenbridge, right outside our last official port of call.

The Old Eden is easily the best pub in Edenbridge, an attractive town on the Kent-Surrey border, whose character was somewhat altered following the creation  of two ‘overspill’ estates, by the Greater London Council, during the 1960's. The Old Eden undoubtedly counts children, or even grandchildren, of some of these "newcomers" amongst its regulars, but is none the worse for that.

The pub itself is an attractive old tile-hung building, which dates in part from the late 15th Century. It is situated  a short distance from the River Eden, which is named after the town, rather than the other way round! Internally there is one long, low L-shaped bar, divided by an exposed staircase, which leads up to a separate restaurant area. There are plenty of exposed beams, as one would expect of such an old building and. especially welcome on a freezing cold Saturday, three welcoming open fires. It is a family run pub which has deservedly featured in the Good Beer Guide for a number of years.

The beer selection included Taylor's Landlord, Young's Bitter, Hog's Back Hop Garden Gold, Westerham 1965,  plus a house beer also from Westerham, called Old Eden. I started with the Landlord, before moving onto the rather malty 1965. I have to say I found the former rather disappointing. This was no reflection on the pub, or the way the beer was looked after, but rather reinforcement of what I view as the debasement of this once classic beer. This was the second time I have found Landlord lacking in a GBG listed pub; the previous occasion being at the Dolphin in Canterbury back in December. What was once a very complex and interesting, multi-level beer, has now become very one-dimensional, so much so that I was left wishing I'd gone for the Hog's Back beer instead!

We departed the Old Eden shortly after 5pm, in order to catch the last bus back. Had we wished we could have stayed a lot longer and returned by train, but it would have been a long cold walk up to Edenbridge station and besides, we had bought "Explorer Tickets", entitling us to unlimited bus travel within the area. The bus ran all the way to Tunbridge Wells, but as I was due to drive up to Norfolk the following morning, I decided to alight at Bidborough, from where I caught a  bus back into Tonbridge. This was probably a wise move, as my companions would undoubtedly have ended up at either the Bedford or the Grove (and possibly both), where further copious quantities of ale would inevitably have been consumed!

Footnote: It was encouraging to see the three pubs visited so busy, especially on such a bitterly cold day. It was also good to let someone else do the driving, even if he was a bit of a maniac!

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam

Apologies in advance to anyone wanting to comment on a particular post. Like many other bloggers recently, I've been increasingly plagued by spammers. It's tedious in the extreme, having to backtrack and remove the stuff, and I've got far better things to do with my time. The answer. I'm afraid, has been to introduce the dreaded word verification, which I know is a pain, but can't be helped.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Taste of Things to Come

Apart from an enforced day off from work last Tuesday, due to heavy snow, there’s not been much for me to blog about just recently. It’s a strange time of year, with winter continuing to drag on despite an all too brief hint of spring the other week. On the local CAMRA front there’s not been a lot happening either, apart from a bit of a spat over one of the choices for next year’s (2014) Good Beer Guide. In a nutshell, if people can’t be bothered to turn up to the selection meeting, then they can’t really expect to be taken notice of after the pub’s been chosen. Even more to the point, all branch members were contacted, either by e-mail or snail mail, prior to our AGM, which took place back in November, and were asked to nominate pubs for possible selection, and also for feedback on current entries. No excuses there then, although two somewhat self-opinionated people, one of whom is no longer a member, did manage to stir up an awful lot of trouble which, quite frankly, my colleagues on the committee could have done without.

This withstanding, we’ve got a bus trip scheduled for next Saturday, see here, and then the following Friday I will be joining friends and colleagues from Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA for their annual Good Friday Ramble. This will start from a convenient railway station, and then take in a rural watering hole along the way. (I understand this year's choice is a pub which majors on Goacher’s beers, served straight from the cask). In between these two events, I’ve got a trip planned to the wilds of Norfolk, in order to visit my parents. Mum and dad are both in their early 80’s, and I’ve not seen them since the autumn, so it will be good to spend some time together catching up on things. Doubtless there will be the chance of visiting a local pub or two and sampling a few of Norfolk’s impressive selection of locally-brewed ales.

 The following month will see me returning to Norfolk, this time for the CAMRA Member’s Weekend and National AGM, which takes place from 19th to 21st April, in Norwich at St Andrew’s and Blackfriars’ Halls. I attended the Member's Weekend three years ago, when it was held on the Isle of Man, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Despite numerous visits to Norfolk over the past 20 years or so, Norwich is a city I have never really had the chance to drink in. My parents live some 20 miles from the city, and on the occasions I have visited, I have always been driving. It will therefore be a pleasure to explore a few of the city’s many fine alehouses, including such gems as the King’s Head, the Gardeners Arms (Murderers), Kett’s Tavern and the legendary Fat Cat. It will also be good to meet up with friends from other CAMRA branches, and to spend some time in the member’s beer exhibition which is being held in Blackfriars Hall.

Later in the year, the third week in July to be precise, I will be attending the legendary Annafest, which takes place every year around this time in the small Franconian town of Forchheim, between Bamberg and Nuremberg. Although billed as a folk festival, beer is one of the main features of Annafest, where around 20 Kellers (beer gardens) offer beer from Forchheim’s four breweries, alongside others from the surrounding area. Most of the breweries brew a special festival beer at around 5.5 to 6.5%. The Kellers are situated in a wooded area just outside the town; some are open all year (within season), whilst others open just for the ten day duration of Annafest. As well as various live music acts, there are fairground attractions, including a large Ferris wheel, plus plenty of stalls selling food to help soak up all that beer!

Annafest is an event I’ve wanted to attend for some time, but for a number of reasons I’ve never quite managed it. This year though I’ve booked the flights and have also secured a holiday apartment for son Matthew and myself, right in the centre of Forchheim.  As well as attending the festivities at the Kellers, we’re planning to explore the local area, which is home to a number of small, local breweries, most of which produce beers that are both flavourful and full of character. A return visit to Bamberg will also be on the cards.

So, as March drifts along and Easter fast approaches, there is plenty to look forward to on the beer and pubs front.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

A Night in the Bedford

There was a great selection of local ales on sale in the Bedford last Wednesday evening. Around a dozen West Kent CAMRA members had pitched up for a social, and to take advantage of the pub's weekly Cask Ale Club, when all cask beers are sold for just £2.50 a pint.

Since drinks consultant and  brewery owner Simon Lewis, took over this Tunbridge Wells pub a couple of years ago, the Bedford has gone from strength to strength, and is now rightly regarded as one of the town's premier alehouses. When we arrived, fresh off the train, we were greeted with a packed pub, and a choice of eight different beers, from three different Kentish breweries. Two of these breweries are not often seen in this part of the county, so close to the border with neighbouring Sussex. Goacher's of Maidstone are the oldest micro-brewery in Kent, having been established in 1983.  Hopdaemon of  Newnham near Faversham, whilst not quite so old, have still been around since 2000.

Three Goacher's beers were on: Real Mild,  Fine Light and Best Dark Ale, and there were also three from Hopdaemon: Golden Braid, Incubus and Skrimshander IPA. Complementing the above were a couple of beers from relative newcomer, Kent Brewery, who pitched in with Black Gold and Porter. I started with Goacher's Mild, a traditional dark mild with a pronounced grainy taste, before moving on to the Kent Brewery  Black Gold, a well-hopped "Black IPA". Light-coloured, session beer, Hopdaemon Golden Braid followed, and I was going to finish with the Kent Brewery Porter, but unfortunately this, together with the other Kent beer, ran out. Hopdaemon Skrimshander was therefore my final pint of the evening, a clean-tasting, aromatic copper-coloured pale ale.

It was good to see a pub so busy mid-week. The Cask Ale Club undoubtedly helped, but the Bedford has become a welcome addition to the drinking scene in Tunbridge Wells and is popular with a wide range of people. It is also good to see a pub putting so much weight behind local breweries, and long may this continue.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Getting to the Pub

Our local CAMRA branch covers a wide area of West Kent, taking in not only the major towns of Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, but also smaller ones such as Edenbridge and Westerham. There is a considerable amount of countryside in between,  interspersed with picturesque rural villages and, as might be expected, some attractive country pubs. Covering this rural chunk of the county can be a bit of a logistical nightmare, but during recent years the branch has adopted a policy of holding socials in the easy to reach  towns on weekday evenings, and then at the weekend, (usually during daylight hours), getting out to some of the much less accessible villages.

Despite its largely rural makeup and in spite of  cutbacks to local government subsidies, West Kent does still have a half decent public transport network. It may be fragmented, with a host of different bus companies (both large and small) covering the different routes, but with a bit of forward planning and a bit of additional effort, it is possible to reach most parts of the area and, more importantly, the majority of its pubs without  resorting to the private motor car.

It always amazes me just how lacking in knowledge the majority of the largely car-owning general public are when it comes to using public transport. It seems people have become so used to the convenience, and comfort, of jumping into their vehicles and driving off to wherever it is they want to go. For beer lovers and pub goers alike this simply isn't an option, not unless one wishes to severely curtail ones consumption or just plain stay off the beer altogether. None of us seriously want to follow that option though, which is why as a branch, we have always made as much use as we can of public transport. Our award winning "Gateway to Kent " guide not only includes public transport information for all the rural pubs (providing it is available), but also includes a section at the rear of the guide about getting to the pub, either by train, bus or a combination of the two. For the more energetic there are articles on both walking and cycling, with suggested "refreshment stops" along the way!

In three weeks time we've a Saturday outing, by bus, to a couple of remotely situated pubs we don't normally get out to. I wrote about one of them, the Kentish Horse at Markbeech, here, but we'll also be visiting the isolated Greyhound a Hever, before catching the bus on to Edenbridge where the Good Beer Guide-listed Old Eden, awaits us. Between Christmas and New Year, whilst looking for some possible pubs to visit with a group of friends, I came up with several  possibilities, all involving bus journeys, to different points of the compass. The pubs it was possible to visit by these bus routes, include the Crown at Groombridge and the Dorset Arms, Withyham Bus 291); the Spotted Dog and Bottle House, Smart's Hill, plus the Chafford Arms, Fordcombe (Bus 231); and the Fountain, Cowden (234). Last year we also visited a number of pubs to the north of the branch area, such as the Golding Hop at Plaxtol and the National Inventory-listed Old House at Ightham Common (Bus 222).

Don, who is acting Social Secretary for the branch, and a mine of information about bus travel and the various ticketing options, made a point in his report to our 2012 Branch AGM that many members, as well as the general public, are unaware that public transport IS available to most of our more remote pubs, and spoke of the need to emphasise these options more, together with likely costs, in our publicity for such outings. This lack of knowledge has been brought home to me on a number of occasions by comments posted on this blog. Some people appear incredulous that it is possible to visit most of the rural gems I write about, using either buses or train. One correspondent wasn't even aware that there is a regular train service between Tonbridge and Frant (the Hastings Line), which enables evening visits to the Brecknock Arms, our nearest Harvey's pub.

It is important not only to support our rural pubs by visiting them as often as possible, but also equally important to travel to them using public transport wherever possible. Many of these bus routes operate at a loss, and most are  very under-used. There have been occasions when were it not for us CAMRA members, the bus would have been running empty. I mentioned near the beginning of the article about the importance of subsidies from the local authority, in our case Kent County Council. Most of these rural bus routes rely on subsidies to keep going, At a time when the reins on spending are continually being tightened, the old adage of "use it or lose it! is more appropriate than ever. It would be a tragedy if, through a mixture of apathy and ignorance, we were to lose these rural links. It would certainly make going to the pub a whole lot harder!