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Thursday, 16 April 2015

A Phoenix from the Ashes

Bishop Nick - Ridley's successor
 In my recent article about the former Essex family brewers, TD Ridley & Sons, I hinted that the 2005 closure of the brewery wasn’t quite the end of the story. Like many family sagas things have gone full-circle and I am pleased to report that two members of the Ridley family are once again involved with both brewing and pub running.

To re-cap what I said at the end of the article, although Greene King were ultimately responsible for the closure of the Hartford End Brewery, they were not the real villains of the piece. The uncomfortable fact is the Ridley family themselves approached Greene King with regard to them taking over the business.

Nicholas Ridley, chairman of Ridley's, said at the time: "After many years of running the company as a local independent business, and following long deliberation by the board, we now believe Ridley needs to become part of a larger group. We view Greene King as the best owner to develop our business for the future."

Well-known beer writer, Adrian Tierney-Jones made the comment on my original article that many of Ridley’s pubs appeared under-capitalised so it wasn’t a surprise when the business was sold. This view was underlined by Nelion Ridley, Nicholas’s son and the sixth generation of the family to have been involved in the brewery.  He said, at the time, that it was becoming more difficult for small and medium-sized brewers to survive and that Ridley's had approached Greene King about the possibility of a takeover after doing its own review of the business.

Describing the takeover and closure of the brewery as “a sad day”, he went on to add "I was practically born here, and can remember my granddad working in the business."  At the time of the Greene King takeover, Nelion was Ridley’s marketing manager but after a few months working for the new owners, he decided it was time to move on. He did some charity work in India, spent some time working in the vineyards in the south of France and even did a teacher training course, but eventually he was drawn back to the family business of brewing.

To further this aim, Nelion went on a three week brewing course in Sunderland where he gained the knowledge and experience he wanted of the brewing process, before launching his own micro-brewery, Bishop Nick, in September 2011. The brewing of Bishop Nick beers was initially carried out at Felstar Brewery, just a few miles down the road from Hartford End, before moving to the town of Braintree.

So where did the Bishop Nick name come from?  As Greene King retained the rights to the Ridley name, Nelion had to look for a different title for his new brewery. He considered calling it Hartford End, after the old brewery site, but decided he didn't want to be tied to a geographical place. He looked at the history of the Ridley family and thought about Bishop Nicholas Ridley who was born in 1500 and became Bishop of London in 1550. He later fell foul of the Pope and was imprisoned in the Tower of London where he was tried for Heresy. In 1555 Queen Mary had Bishop Nick burnt at the stake for his religious beliefs. Somewhat ironically, Bishop Nick was actually the Ridley's symbol until the sale of the company to Greene King.

Three regular beers are brewed: Ridley's Rite, a 3.6 per cent bitter; Heresy, a four per cent golden ale; and 1555, a full bloodied, rich tawny ale, weighing in at 4.3 per cent. In addition, half a dozen seasonal beers are produced throughout the year; full details can be found here on the company website.

In a strange twist of fate, the first pub to take Bishop Nick’s beers was Ridley's old brewery tap; The Compasses, at Littley Green. Nelion's brother Joss had taken over the pub in 2008, following a few, presumably unsuccessful years as part of the Greene King estate. The Suffolk giant had attempted to sell it as a private house, but fortunately Joss Ridley stepped in. He talks about his decision to take on the pub on The Compasses’ website.
The Compasses, now back in the hands of the Ridley family

“The closing of Ridley's brewery hit the family quite hard. At the time I was an accountant in London rushing around in the rat race. After some thinking time in New Zealand I realised how important my heritage was and it was then that I took the leap of leaving London to get back to what my name represented in Essex. What better pub to be the landlord of than The Compasses known as The Ridley's Brewery Tap.”

He describes The Compasses as “a wonderfully traditional pub, which came with some loyal punters and brilliant staff who gave me a warm welcome”. By all accounts the pub is doing very well and now offers Bed and Breakfast in five ensuite rooms, in a detached single storey building adjacent to the pub. A beer festival is also held each year.

So good things did come from the sale and closure of Ridley’s in the end, and the story gets even better with the news that the iconic brewery buildings are to be converted into apartments, rather than being razed to the ground. I’m seriously thinking of stopping off at Hartford End and Littley Green, on my next trip up to Norfolk, to take a look for myself.

With thanks to the Essex Chronicle for the background to this article.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Thirty Years On

Saturday’s celebration marking the 30th anniversary of the re-constitution of the Tonbridge & Tunbridge Wells branch of CAMRA was a great success with getting on for 20 members (both current, and former) turning up at the Punch & Judy in Tonbridge to commemorate the event.

The pub was already busy with people watching the Grand National and the Oxford v Cambridge Boat Races when the various CAMRA members started filing in, but we managed to find space amongst the pub’s regulars whilst waiting for the main business of the afternoon to take place.
Enjoying the beer and the conversation in the Punch
The Punch had an interesting selection of beers on to attract our interest, including a 4.5% ABV seasonal offering from Edinburgh’s Caledonian Brewery, called Fool Proof, plus a new “experimental brew” from Tonbridge Brewery, produced specially to celebrate the branch’s 30th anniversary. These were alongside Wadworth 6X and, local pub stalwart, Harvey’s Sussex Best.

The Tonbridge brew, weighed in at 4.4% ABV, and was dark mahogany in colour, with a distinct toffee-caramel character. According to brewery founder Paul Bournazian, who turned up later with a member of his brewing team, the strong toffee notes came from the inclusion of rye malt in the beer; an unusual choice and one which seemed to polarise opinion. Some people really raved over it, whilst others, including myself, were not so keen. It will therefore be interesting to see whether the brewery decide to include the beer in their range of permanent brews.

The beer though took a bit of a back seat to the celebration itself, which was marked by branch chairman Iain Dalgleish making a short speech acknowledging the part played by the three members, Alan, John and Paul, who took on the task of getting the moribund branch back on its feet.

I am proud to be one of those three original members, and whilst neither I or my two companions responded with a speech of our own, I would like to state that at the time, getting the branch up and running again seemed a lot of fun, and certainly wasn’t hard or difficult work. For all of us there were some interesting pubs to visit and some good beers to be drunk along the way, and although we all eventually stood down from our various committee positions we are pleased to have helped lay the foundations for today’s successful West Kent branch.

We haven't changed all that much!
Out of the three of us, John and I both still live in Tonbridge and remain good friends. We both go along to the occasional branch meeting and always participate in the annual Good Friday Ramble, organised by MMK CAMRA. Alan, on the other hand went off travelling, following his retirement some fifteen or so years ago. After using some of the equity from the sale of his house to buy a motor-home, Alan then spent a decade travelling round the United Kingdom, staying at various caravan sites and picking up seasonal work, to help pay the bills, along the way. He has now bought an apartment on the South Coast, where he enjoys living today.

It was therefore especially good for both John and I to meet up with him again, as I think the last time we saw Alan must have been shortly after his retirement do, fifteen or more years ago. It was also good to meet up with Henry, one of the founding members of the original Sevenoaks branch.

Our thanks go out to the branch’s current social secretary Don, for organising the event, to Paul and his co-workers from Tonbridge Brewery, the landlord, staff and customers of the Punch & Judy, and finally to all fellow CAMRA members, past and present who came along to mark the occasion.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Thirty Years Ago Today.

During the autumn of 1984, following the break-up of my first marriage,  I moved from my home in Maidstone to the nearby town of Tonbridge. Tonbridge was where I had worked for the previous five years, and it was also the home town of the woman I married the following year. Thirty years on the same lady remains my wife, soul-mate and mother of our now grown-up son.

Before all this could take place there had been a divorce to go through; not too acrimonious as there had been no children involved, but there were still wrangles over the value of the former marital home, and hence the amount of equity to be allocated to the two former partners. Back then, of course, it wasn’t a question of how to divide the CD collection, but how to do the same with the LP’s (vinyl)! Still, these things happen, and marrying young isn’t always a good idea, but on the other hand it’s easy to be wise with the benefit of hindsight.

During the five years I had been living in Maidstone I had become heavily involved with the local CAMRA branch (Maidstone & Mid-Kent), helping out with pub surveys and also assisting with the first Maidstone Beer Festival, (there were no beer agencies in those days and we literally had to hire a van and travel to the various breweries in order to collect beers for the festival). For a number of years I had also ended up editing, the branch newsletter – “Draught Copy”, as well as writing most of the articles. That was a real labour of love, as in those days it was literally “cut & paste”, with headings and sub-headings produced letter by letter using “Letraset” (remember that anyone?).

I digress; being involved with CAMRA had taken up a lot of my time, and whilst I wouldn’t say it was a factor in my marriage breakdown, it did leave me reflecting on the wisdom of devoting too much time to other interests. Consequently, after moving to Tonbridge, I was determined not to be so heavily committed to CAMRA this time around. That wasn’t going to be difficult as although there was a local branch covering both Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, to all intents and purposes it had ceased to exist.

The monthly “What’s on” listings in “What’s Brewing”, just gave a contact name and phone number, and there were never any details of socials or other branch events listed. Imagine my surprise then, when one evening in late March 1985, I returned from walking the dog to be told by my new wife-to-be that a gentleman, who I knew quite well, called Terry Whitta, had phoned requesting my help in getting the local branch back on its feet.

Terry is sadly no longer with us, but he was a larger-than-life character who had served a stint as area organiser for Kent, and had lately been elected to CAMRA’s National Executive. Despite these credentials, I was still reluctant to get involved with a CAMRA branch again, but my fiancĂ© was quite insistent that I should, stating it would “do me good and get me out of the house more.”

Terry had gone so far as to book the upstairs room at the Prince Albert; an Ind Coope pub overlooking the railway lines, and close to the new Sainsbury’s supermarket which had opened in Tonbridge on the site of the former Angel Cricket Ground. He had also placed an advert/cry for help in “What’s Brewing”. With pressure like that I couldn’t really refuse, so on 10th April, I wandered down to the Prince Albert to see what would transpire.

On entering the pub, I grabbed a pint from the bar (Friary Meux Bitter, I believe), and made my way upstairs to the meeting room. After 30 years, I remember very little about the meeting, or who was there, but obviously Terry Whitta was both present and also chairing the meeting. John and Alan, my two partners in crime who, like me, volunteered to form the nucleus of a committee for the re-constituted branch were also there (more about them later). One other person who was there, and who reminded me of the fact when we were discussing it on the recent MMK Good Friday Ramble, was my old friend and fellow home-brewer, Nigel.

The person whose presence I cannot recall was the incumbent branch contact; a chap called Bob who lived in Crowborough. Rumour had it that the branch had turned into a drinking club for Bob and his cronies, but like I say, this was just a rumour. My two fledgling committee members and I did meet Bob at a later date; on his home turf at the Crowborough Cross – now a new Wetherspoons outlet, but back then an imposing Charrington’s pub, overlooking the crossroads in the centre of the town. At that meeting I remember him telling us that we were wasting our time, as he could see no future for the branch. Fortunately, he was wrong!

After several, not particularly impressive pints of Friary Meux, the upshot of the meeting was John, Alan and I stepped forward to form a new committee, with the three of us taking the posts of Chairman, Treasurer and Secretary, respectively. Our first task was to undertake a survey of all the pubs in the branch area for an up and coming Kent Pub Guide (the infamous one with the blue cover, poor quality paper and lack of proper typesetting).

The original "Gang of Three"
We managed this by roping in friends and acquaintances, although I do recall one memorable evening when the three of us managed to survey all seven pubs in Edenbridge and still catch the last train home!  We started holding regular socials which were advertised in “What’s Brewing” and slowly started to attract more active members. But it was an uphill struggle and to some extent has remained so right up until the present day.

That’s more than enough detail so far as this article is concerned, but I’m pleased to report that 30 years on the branch is still going strong. There have been a few boundary changes; the main ones being the loss of Crowborough and the surrounding parts of East Sussex. In exchange, the branch gained Sevenoaks and its surrounding villages, following the winding up of the local Sevenoaks branch. It was at this time that Tonbridge & Tunbridge Wells CAMRA was renamed West Kent branch.

The fact that my local branch has survived so long is certainly worthy of celebration, and to this effect a special event is being held this Saturday 11th April (tomorrow), in order to mark the occasion. Sadly the Prince Albert, where the re-constitution meeting took place, is now the site of Sainsbury’s Petrol Station, so the nearby Punch & Judy, in St Stephen’s Street, Tonbridge, has been chosen as a suitable alternative. The event kicks off at 4pm and whilst we are looking forward to seeing some old faces from the past, anyone else who wishes to turn up is more than welcome. As an added incentive, a special brew from Tonbridge Brewery will also be available to mark the occasion.

Footnote: despite trawling the net, I have been unable to find any photos of the sadly demolished, Prince Albert in Tonbridge. It’s almost as if the pub had never existed.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Eight - Ridley's of Hartford End

 This article, the 8th in this occasional series, takes a look at the Essex firm of T.D. Ridley & Sons. The company’s origins go back to the mid-19th Century, but 150 years later, Ridley’s beers were little known outside of their immediate trading area. The firm made it into the 21st Century, only to see the company chairman, and some of his fellow directors cashing in their chips by selling the company to Greene King in 2005. What follows is a personal look back at the company and its beers.

The Essex brewers T.D. Ridley & Sons were a relatively small concern, who owned 67 pubs, in and around the county town of Chelmsford, plus the surrounding villages. They were based in the small hamlet of Hartford End, approximately eight miles to the North-west of Chelmsford, just over halfway between the county town and the small town of Great Dunmow.

Ridley's Hartford End Brewery
The company’s origins date back to 1811, when William Ridley married Maria Dixon, the daughter of a mill owner at Hartford End. The couple soon took over the mill, and in 1814 their son Thomas Dixon Ridley, was born. He grew up to take charge of the business and in 1841 married Lydia Wells, who came from a Chelmsford brewing family.

Within a year, Thomas had built his own brewery close to the mill. A string of mainly country pubs was added over the years and TD Ridley & Sons Ltd became known for its mild and its bitter and, in later years, for beers such as Witch-finder Porter and Old Bob.

Despite the fact that the brewery was just 30 miles or so from London, Ridley’s were not very well known outside their immediate trading area (except to beer enthusiasts that is!). This meant that in order to enjoy the company’s beers it was necessary to travel to the Chelmsford area.

I first made this journey back in the mid 1970’s, with a friend from university. We were staying at his father’s house in Ilford during the summer vacation, and as we both had a keen interest in real ale, and were young and relatively fit, we decided to cycle to the nearest Ridley’s outlet. According to the 1974 Good Beer Guide, this was a pub called the Black Horse, situated in the tiny village of White Roding; a distance of 26 miles.

I am only aware of that distance now, after having looked up the journey on Google Maps. Had I known it was that far 40 years ago I don’t think I would have let my friend’s enthusiasm for sampling new beers persuade me to get in the saddle and start pedalling! Apart from it being long and quite arduous, I don’t remember much of the journey. For that matter I also remember little about the pub or even the beer, but after cycling that sort of distance I would have poured anything down my neck in order to slake my thirst and numb my aching limbs!

Several years later we discovered that Ridley’s PA was a regular beer on the bar of the Traveller’s Friend at Woodford Green. This was much easier to get to, as it was just over 20 minutes walk away from Woodford Station on the Central Line. Here I do remember the company’s PA Bitter as being very good; low in gravity, but well-hopped and nice and refreshing.

Those brief dalliances with Ridley’s were to be my last until some 15 years later, when as secretary of my local West Kent CAMRA branch, I organised a trip to the brewery. The visit took place in the autumn of 1990, on a bright and cheerful October morning. Our party set off, by mini-bus, to travel the 60 odd miles from Tonbridge to Hartford End.

Ridley's Brewery on the banks of the River Chelmer
The brewery was sited on the banks of the River Chelmer, in a truly delightful and very rural setting. According to the company's publicity material, the brewery buildings were only visible from a distance of 400 yards, no matter from which direction they were approached. This certainly proved to be the case, but the sight of the brewery emitting clouds of steam, whilst working away in such idyllic surroundings, was certainly a sight to gladden the heart.

Most brewery tours take place in the early afternoon, to allow the essential brewing tasks of mashing and boiling to take place before crowds of curious visitors start streaming all over the place. It also enables, particularly in the case of some of the smaller concerns, one of the brewers (or even the head brewer himself) to conduct the tour in person. A brewer can, of course, explain the process in far greater detail than the guides employed by some of the larger companies, and I have been privileged to have met some extremely interesting and knowledgeable brewers in the course of these visits.

Ridley’s was no exception to the afternoon rule, and our tour was not scheduled to begin until 2-15pm. I had however, made allowances for this and, bearing in mind my comments earlier about enjoying good beer in unspoilt pubs, had made enquiries as to the nearest local Ridley’s house. Actually I cheated slightly, as one of my companions on the trip had visited the brewery earlier the same year, and had suggested a pub called the Compasses, situated in the nearby hamlet of Littley Green.

I had phoned the brewery, a few days prior to our visit, primarily to double-check that everything was still in order. I asked the receptionist if she could recommend a pub where we could get something to eat. She confirmed my friend's choice, although she did admit to a certain element of bias. This was because although she worked as the receptionist at the brewery during the day, she was in actual fact the landlady of the said Compasses. Her husband ran the pub at lunchtimes, and she assisted him during the evenings. She therefore had no hesitation in recommending the pub, and yes, as they knew we were coming, they could provide food.

Compasses, Littley Green
Thanks to my friend's directions, our driver found the pub, which was a couple of miles away down some rather narrow country lanes, with relative ease. So shortly before midday, in the warmth of the October sunshine, we disembarked outside the Compasses ready to sample Ridley's ales on their home patch. Before entering the pub I insisted that everyone present line up outside for a photograph - strictly for the record, but a quarter of a century later I have unfortunately  been unable to find it. We were of course expected, and the receptionist's husband made us most welcome.

The Compasses turned out to be everything a country pub should be. It was plainly furnished, yet bright and clean. It had a tiled floor with walls that were part match-board and part painted plaster. The decoration was provided by a number of framed brewery advertisements, (Ridley’s of course!). Last, but by no means least, was the beer. This consisted of Ridley’s PA (as their ordinary bitter was called), dispensed direct from a row of casks kept in a room behind the bar. It was superb!

Essex Huffers
I mentioned earlier about the pub providing food. This they did in the form of the "Essex Huffer", a large, soft bap-type roll, which apparently is traditional to that part of Essex. Various fillings were available; the huffers being of a size so as to be virtually a meal in themselves. I still managed to scoff two of them though, my excuse being that they helped soak up the beer!

We spent a very pleasant couple of hours in the Compasses before driving back to the brewery, for the commencement of the tour. Our guide, for what proved to be an extremely interesting look around, was the head brewer himself. Ridley’s brewed along strictly traditional lines and much of the plant was of a very traditional nature. As is usual with such visits, the tour ended in the sample room, where we were able to try several others of the brewery's range of beers, including a number of interesting bottled ones.

Most of us though were itching to get back to the Compasses. We had already checked that our driver was both willing and able to stay out for an extra couple of hours. In addition, we had introduced ourselves to Ridley's receptionist and, after explaining our wishes to her, she very kindly telephoned her husband and made arrangements for the pub to re-open as soon as the tour finished. We were thus able to enjoy an extra couple of hours in the Compasses, thereby rounding off a most enjoyable day out.

Some seven months or so later, I had the pleasure of re-visiting the Compasses. I was en-route to Norfolk, along with my wife and pet dog for an early summer holiday. We turned off the A12, and made our way to Littley Green where we stopped for lunch. I only had the one pint, as I was driving, but I did have a carry-keg which I got the landlord to fill up for me. Both the beer and the huffers were every bit as good as before, and the pub was just as I remembered it.

In 2005, Ridley’s were taken over by Suffolk-based, brewing giant, Greene King for £46m. Three months after the sale, the charming old country brewery was closed with production of some of the Ridley’s brands moving to Bury St Edmunds. Around 160 people based at Hartford End lost their jobs.

However, there is  more to both this account and to the Ridley’s story, and I aim to bring things up to date in a subsequent article.

Footnote: although they were ultimately responsible for closing the Hartford End Brewery, Greene King were not the real villains of the piece; that dubious honour goes to Ridley's chairman Nicholas Ridley and the company board, who approached the Suffolk company and asked them to buy the business.

According to a Guardian report at the time, Mr Ridley and his immediate family made a cool £11m from the deal, so not exactly small beer!

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Good Friday 2015 - Ramble On

It’s that time of year again when ageing CAMRA members dust off their walking boots, put on their wet weather gear and head off into the great outdoors. I am talking about the Good Friday Ramble, an event organised by members of Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA branch which is now in its 38th year.

It has therefore become something of a tradition, but the formula remains the same; meet up somewhere convenient for people to get to by public transport (normally a railway station), before setting off across country, up hill and down dale to a suitable local pub, for a lengthy lunchtime stop over. Suitably refreshed the party then walks back to the starting point, but normally by a different route, before we all depart and go our separate ways.

The walk is a good opportunity to meet up and catch up with people one hasn’t seen for a while, often since the previous ramble. As one wag succinctly puts it “It’s always interesting to see how many of us have survived another winter!” That remark, of course refers to the fact that none of us are getting any younger, so as a reflection of this the walks are gentler and less arduous than they were nearly four decades ago, with less hills and other natural obstacles. They are also shorter, being typically around seven to eight miles, rather than the ten to twelve miles traversed in our youth.

Although I belong to West Kent CAMRA, I know quite a few people in MMK Branch; the result of having lived in the county town during the late 70’s and early 90’s, and still keep in touch with old friends from this time. I am normally joined by a couple of my West Kent friends, both of whom appreciate a walk through the beautiful Kent countryside.
This year’s walk was slightly different in being linear, rather than circular, but it allowed a greater distance to be covered and also took us through some diverse areas of the county. The group met at Borough Green station, which wasn’t the easiest place for the Tonbridge contingent to get to, as it involved two changes of trains. Nevertheless we all made the 10.30am start and on a rather grey and overcast day we set off in an easterly direction towards our lunchtime stop; the King’s Arms at Offham.                  

Passing through Borough Green and along the busy A25 we turned off through the tiny village of St Mary Platt before climbing up into the woods behind the parish church. Our party of 14 was quite strung out by this time but there were people leading from the front, as well as a couple of experienced walkers who knew the route keeping up the rear. Traversing a local golf course we soon found ourselves in fruit-growing countryside and noticed poly-tunnels in the process of being made ready for this season’s strawberry crop.

King's Arms, Offham
After a distance of almost four miles we reached the village of Offham and our lunchtime stop of the King’s Arms. The King's Arms is now the only pub remaining in the village. Built in the sixteenth century, it was originally two cottages, which were later owned by a saddler and harness maker who ran his business there until granted a license in 1680. I do vaguely remember visiting the pub, back in my days as an MMK member, but I was probably more familiar with Offham’s other pub, the Red Lion, now sadly closed.

Our MMK colleagues knew the King’s Arms was hosting a mini-beer festival, and as we approached we saw evidence of this in the form of a small marquee adjacent to the front entrance. We passed inside and found a couple of tables in front of the fire which, as the weather had warmed up somewhat, wasn’t lit. There were four cask beers on sale in the pub, plus a dozen or so in the outside marquee.

Desiring something hoppy and refreshing, I opted for the Prohibition, a 4.8% pale ale from the pub’s near neighbours, Kent Brewery. The beer fitted the bill and had a real citrus flavour and hoppy bite to it. A couple of  Tonbridge Brewery beers followed; the pale and hoppy Alsace Gold, plus the dark, porter-like Ebony Moon. My final beer of the session was a half of Mad Cow; an amazing, dark, 7.5% Imperial Milk Stout, if there is such a beast!

Most of us also ate in the pub, my choice being a 6oz beef burger with chips and salad.  I was tempted thug to go for the London classic of "pie and mash with liquor". One of my Maidstone friends gave it a try, and reported that it was very good. It certainly looked attractive on the plate.

The Beer Festival
The landlord of the King’s Arms is the man behind the appearance of this Cockney classic on the pub’s menu. Hailing from souf’ London, mine host seemed keen to promote this slightly unusual dish. I didn’t catch his name, but he appeared to be quite a character, especially whilst sprinting from behind the bar to the outside marquee, and back. Apart from the pub chef, I didn’t see any other members of staff, but our licensee seemed to manage keeping everyone in this busy pub, suitably refreshed.

We left the King’s Arms shortly after 3pm, assembling outside for the obligatory team photo. We set off in a northerly direction to begin with, skirting Church Farm and the adjacent church after which the farm is named. From the logos on the buildings and processing sheds, this farm is given over to salad production, and on the crest of the hill was a whole complex of converted Porta-Kabins, no doubt used to house the seasonal workers and pickers who will be arriving later in the year. There was also an impressive collection of John Dere tractors standing proud in the yard; talk about big-boy’s toys!

Leaving this hive of rural activity behind, we turned due east and continued our walk towards our final destination, the small town of West Malling. Set against the backdrop of the North Downs, this part of Kent was looking very attractive, despite the gloomy conditions pervading at the time. We skirted the south of the town, passing en route the impressive 11th Century St Leonard’s Tower.
St Leonard's Tower, West Malling

This is a well-preserved example of a small, early, free-standing Norman tower keep, but according to English Heritage, “Very little is known about the history of the building, including its intended function and even who commissioned the build.” It’s position on a natural sandstone ledge near the head of a narrow valley, does indicate a defensive purpose, although some claim it was the tower of the now-demolished church of St Leonard.

The final stretch of our walk took us through Manor Park Country Park and along the edge of an attractive lake which is over-looked by Douces Manor; an 18th Century Manor House which saw service during World War II as the officers’ mess for fighter crew, stationed at nearby RAF West Malling.  From here, it was a relatively short walk to the station, although I unfortunately just missed my intended train.

Once again the Good Friday Ramble had provided a good mix of pleasant countryside, physical exercise, a fine choice of pub for lunch, plus the company of old friends along the way. I don’t know what more one could ask of a day out, so I would like to end by thanking Dick and Pam Wilkinson for once again organising the walk.

Thursday, 2 April 2015


These were from last summer, and have already been drunk

With Easter fast approaching my wife and I are planning a bit of a clear out at home. She’s got clothes and shoes galore to take down to the charity shop. I’ve got books and some clothes of my own to get shot of, but in the former downstairs airing cupboard, which is awaiting the arrival of the builders for conversion into a ground-floor toilet, are umpteen bottles of beer.

Many of these are left over from Christmas and include a few stronger examples from Christmas 2013. They won’t, of course, be leaving the house, but I’ll still be sorting through them, earmarking those which require consumption either straight away, or within the next few weeks.

I know there are quite a few beers from Fuller’s lurking in the cupboard, including several bottles of 1845 and London Porter, and there are still quite a few bottles brought back from our pre-Christmas trip to Barcelona. The latter will need drinking as soon as possible, but there are also several bottles of  St Bernardus Abt, the odd Trappist beer, (both Chimay and Westmalle), plus some recently acquired Norfolk Nips Barley Wine, brewed on behalf of M&S by Woodfordes of Woodbastwick. Even stronger is a bottle of Imperial Russian Stout from Gadds of Ramsgate, which was bought for consumption over Christmas, but never opened due to the flu-like bug my wife and I both went down with.

I tend to pick beer up when it is on special offer at the supermarket, (buy three for £5), seems to be a favourite promotion in many stores. Alternatively, I bring back bottles from foreign parts. Either way I normally reach a stage where supply exceeds demand (a good thing, surely?), and that is why I sometimes end up with this surplus.

The surplus will start to go down, once I have raked through the accumulated stocks. There are no doubt quite a few goodies lurking there which will be a joy to discover, and an even greater joy to drink. I’m sure that I’m not the only beer lover with treasure hidden in the cupboard, and I’m doubly sure that there are true connoisseurs amongst you with proper cellars, and all that!

Happy hunting!

Monday, 30 March 2015

Why Nottingham is Not For Me

I shan’t be going to next month’s CAMRA Member’s Weekend and AGM which, this year, takes place in Nottingham. Work and family commitments have conspired against me, so regrettably I am unable to spare the time necessary in order to attend.

In some ways this is a great shame, as from what I understand Nottingham is a great city for beer, with much to offer the drinker and beer connoisseur. As well as a host of award-winning breweries, Nottingham also has some great pubs, including one of the few in the city which I have been in; the ancient and quite unique Olde Trip to Jerusalem, which nestles below the imposing Castle Rock.  The weekend would also have afforded the opportunity to catch up with friends both old and new from within the campaign.

In other ways though I am quite pleased not to be going, as the conference proceedings themselves are of little or no interest to me. Reminiscent of a 1970’s Trades Union Conference, this part of the weekend really shows that CAMRA is living in the past and has refused to move on, as I will demonstrate later. A glance through the order paper, published in this month’s “What’s Brewing” confirms this introspection, as apart from the eminently sensible motion proposed by Tandleman and his CAMRA colleague Graham Donning which draws attention to the outrageous practice adopted by many pubs of charging a premium for half pints, there is nothing really of interest and certainly little of relevance to today’s fast changing beer scene.
Among the less sensible motions is one which effectively rules out future CAMRA involvement in the “There’s a Beer for That” campaign, and one calling for the campaign to withdraw its support for the Cyclops scheme of beer tasting/assessment, on the grounds that it has expanded to include all beers. Yes let’s isolate ourselves from the brewing industry and burn all the bridges that CAMRA has so carefully built over the years with brewers and publicans alike.

The most controversial motion though, is Number 20; the last one on the order paper. It reads “This conference proposes that CAMRA shall oppose fracking and unconventional hydrocarbon exploration and extraction on both a local and national scale, as they pose a real and substantial threat to the production and quality of real ale”. Yeah, right on Swampy!

I am assuming that the relevance of this motion to CAMRA is the potential effect this practice could have on underground water supplies (aquifers). Not withstanding the controversy behind fracking, the jury is still out on the practice, and anyway areas suitable for shale gas extraction in the UK are both limited and fragmented; unlike the United States and Canada. In addition, the current record low price of oil makes even exploration for ground-sourced hydrocarbons unviable at the moment.

To return to the potential threat to water supplies; these days many underground sources are unsuitable for brewing because they contain high levels of nitrates, which originate from agricultural run-off, so the whole point of the motion is rendered  irrelevant anyway.

Irrelevant until one looks deeper at the motive for including this motion on the ballot paper! Any branch, of individual member, can submit a motion for debate at conference, but before going forward all motions are first vetted by CAMRA’s equivalent of the Politburo. Far worthier motions than this one have been rejected in the past, and I’m certain many will have been discarded prior to this year’s conference. This then begs the question is CAMRA lurching further to the left? Or is it unashamedly trying to woo the green vote?

Either way this issue is at best a fringe one, and at worst totally outside the Campaign’s remit. For me this is yet further proof that CAMRA has lost its way and is in grave danger of being sidelined as an irrelevance in today’s fast evolving and rapidly changing beer industry.
CAMRA currently boasts a membership in excess of 170,000 which is pretty impressive until one considers that its policy is determined solely by those members who attend the National AGM. The last set of figures I have seen for the Members Weekend – National Conference are from the Norwich Conference, which took place in 2013. I was one of the 1,300 members who attended that event and, enjoyable though it was, when viewed as a total of the current membership, this figure is less than 1%, which quite frankly is appalling. 

That issues of policy, membership fees, campaigning issues etc can be decided by less than 1% of the total membership is scandalous, and belies any attempt by CAMRA to promote itself as a democratic organisation responsive to, and in touch with the needs of its members. The fact that conference motions are pre-vetted by a central committee (shades of Joseph Stalin here!), before they are even put before the meeting is nothing short of a disgrace.

There are already serious rumblings amongst the grass-roots membership, and there is a small, but increasingly vociferous Unofficial CAMRA Facebook group. The Provisional CAMRA, perhaps? It really is time for the organisation to wake up and smell the coffee, or should that be the malt and hops?