Thursday, 28 May 2009

Halfway House Beer Festival

The Halfway House at Brenchley held the first of its twice-yearly beer festivals over the bank holiday weekend. A selection of 50 beers was on offer; some in the pub itself, with the others served from a marquee in the garden. The weather was kind, the setting was superb and the beer and the company were both first class.

I walked over to the pub with a group of friends on the Saturday, and met up with several members of West Kent CAMRA branch. We ended up staying longer than originally planned, primarily because we were waiting for the pub's kitchen to re-open following its afternoon break.

My favourite beer of the festival had to be the superb Thornbridge Jaipur IPA, closely followed by Holden's Golden Glow. After my long anticipated meal of liver and bacon, I ended the session with a glass of Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild. At 6.0% this was a good beer to finish on.

We left the pub around 8pm, walking back to Paddock Wood station across an abandoned golf course, through the slowly fading light. Landlord Richard Allen will be running a further festival over the August Bank Holiday weekend, as he does every year. I should be back from Germany that weekend, so have it in my diary to make it to the beer festival.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

South Downs Way - The Final Day

The last day of our walk along the South Downs Way saw us visiting a real gem of a pub, and one that I had wanted to return to ever since my first trip there back in 1983! The Royal Oak, at Hooksway is an isolated old inn that is reached by road via a narrow track off the B2141 just north of Chilgrove. I remember being taken there one Sunday lunchtime, by my former in-laws twenty-six years ago, and marvelling then at just how busy this basic, isolated pub was. Whilst planning our trip earlier in the year I looked the pub up in an old CAMRA Sussex Beer Guide, and then did a web search on it. I was delighted that it looked much the same as I remembered it, and this was confirmed to me by a fellow CAMRA member who had visited the Royal Oak during his time in the T.A. He had been walking the South Downs Way, with a group of fellow soldiers, and the landlord had allowed them to camp in the field opposite the pub.

Eric and I had little trouble finding the Royal Oak. We diverted off the trail and began a long, slow descent through the woods, eventually reaching a clearing, and there it was before us. Our fears that the pub would not be open (it was still only quarter to twelve!), proved unfounded, and after removing our muddy boots we entered inside.

We received a warm welcome from the landlord and were soon downing the first beer of the day - Sharps Doom Bar. The current landlord, who has been at the pub for the past 20 years, is only the third licensee at the Royal Oak during the last 100 years. The pub was lit by oil lamps for most of the 20th Century, with electricity only being installed during the mid 1970's. Even today, the pub's water supply is drawn from a well, deep underground.

After a light lunch, and a further couple of pints, it was time to bid farewell to the Royal Oak and rejoin the trail. We still had a fair way to go to the village of Buriton; the end of this particular stretch of the walk. We also had to get home that evening as well! We made our way back to the South Downs Way, rejoining the path via a long dry grassy valley. For a while the trail follows the line of the escarpment, and we were rewarded by the sight of the village of South Harting below us. This village was the official end of the trail until 1989, when the SDW was extended to Winchester. We therefore felt that we had at least walked the original South Downs Way!

Pressing on through woodland, and then descending into rolling countryside, which consisted mainly of arable farmland, we passed along a succession of flint tracks, which were very hard on the feet, and then on to a couple of metalled by-roads. Eventually we broke away from the trail and descended via a steep, narrow chalk track and then across a couple of grassy fields to our goal, the attractive village of Buriton. As we walked across the fields, the rain, which had been light, and intermittent since leaving the Royal Oak, suddenly came on a lot heavier. We weren't worried, we had reached the end of our four day walk without having to don our waterproofs, so a drop of rain wasn't going to bother us now!

There are two pubs in Buriton, but unfortunately there was another half-hour or so to go until opening time. We needed to get to Petersfield, where we could catch a train to London and then home. We had missed the last bus from the village, but at the B&B the night before I'd had the foresight to pick up a card with the number of a local taxi firm. A quick call, followed by a short wait saw our saviour in a taxi arrive, and transport us the three miles or so into Petersfield (I don't think either of us could have walked this additional distance at this stage).

Our driver dropped us at a Fullers pub, called The Square Brewery, right in the centre of town. He said that it was one of the best in Petersfield, and he wasn't far wrong. The Fullers Discovery was cool and refreshing, and we then moved on to the Gales HSB. Walking up to the station, we stopped for fish and chips, which we ate out of the wrapper whilst waiting for the London train. An hour or so later we were at Waterloo, and after a short hop across to Waterloo East we were on a train bound for Tonbridge. We didn't bother stopping for a pint when we got back; as I said in an earlier blog there just didn't seem anywhere appropriate!

A warm welcome back from the family, followed by a relaxing hot bath and I was ready for bed. It had been an excellent four days' walking, and we are both looking forward to completing the South Downs Way later in the year!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

South Downs Way - Days Two & Three

Tuesday dawned, dull and overcast, but thankfully still dry. After a hearty breakfast we left the pleasant town of Steyning and began the long climb back onto the trail. Our destination was the village of Amberley, situated just off the River Arun. With the strong easterly wind behind us we headed towards the well-known downland landmark of Chanctonbury Ring. This Iron Age hill-fort was formerly crowned with an attractive ring of beech trees, but many of these were blown down in the Great Storm of 1987, giving the structure today a somewhat ragged, and dis-jointed appearance.

Roughly halfway into our journey, the trail descends to cross the busy A24 trunk road, so we took full advantage of this loss of height to make a pub stop. The Frankland Arms in the village of Washington was a welcome break, even if the beer range of Flowers IPA and Fullers London Pride wasn't all that inspiring.

After a couple of pints of Pride and a baguette each, we left the pub and began the long ascent back up to the top of the downs. I must admit I found this particular stretch of the trail rather hard going, as did my companion. We kept going though, generally following the line of the escarpment, and eventually were rewarded by the sight of the Arun Valley spreading out before us. We could see Amberley in the distance, and began the long, slow descent. Walking downhill uses a different set of muscles, and is especially hard going on the feet. Eric was finding the going particularly tough, and as we made our way into Amberley he was relieved to find the Black Horse pub open. We had booked accommodation in the village's other pub, the Sportsman, but decided that a drink first in the Black Horse would be a good idea. Apart from the landlady, there was only one other customer in at the time. The four of us had an interesting chat, and the Harveys was particularly welcome.

We obtained directions to the Sportsman, and set off along the final half-mile or so of our journey. We received a warm-welcome from the Sportman's landlord and were shown to our comfortable en-suite accommodation. The current licensee has turned round the fortunes of this unspoilt country pub, having rescued it following its closure by the previous landlord. It offers three well-kept cask-ales, which at the time of our visit included Dark Star Mild and Langham Halfway to Heaven, alongside Harveys. There are two bars, plus a separate restaurant and conservatory. The pub was packed that evening, playing host to the local Mini-Cooper owners' club, as well as a poetry reading event which took place in the conservatory. The kitchen was kept very busy that night fulfilling orders, but despite this there was only a short wait for our tasty and well-cooked food.

A good night's sleep, followed by another hearty full-English breakfast saw us setting off for what proved to be the longest section of the walk. There had been rain overnight, and it was still a bit damp when we left the pub. After stopping to buy sandwiches at the village stop we headed off to rejoin the South Downs Way. I have to say I was really impressed with Amberley; most of the buildings were made out of local stone, with several half-timbered and thatched examples. We crossed both the railway and the River Adur, and then began the familiar long climb back onto the trail. This climb seemed particularly arduous, but eventually we reached the summit. There was a long hard walk ahead of us, with no prospect of a pub stop to break the journey. The only pub remotely close to this section of the trail is the Foresters Arms at Graffham, but that would involve a lengthy, and time-consuming detour. Unfortunately there would be no welcoming pint awaiting us at the end of our journey either, as the village of Cocking, our destination that day, has recently joined the growing band of dry villages with the closure of its only pub - the Blue Bell.

The trail was very undulating, with long stretches through woodland. Low cloud marred much of the first part of the walk, spoiling any prospect of enjoying the views. It did help to add an eerie silence, which was only punctuated by the noise from the occasional aircraft overhead. We stopped and ate our sandwiches, roughly half-way, but it was getting on for six in the evening when we arrived footsore and weary at the charmingly named Moonlight Cottage Tearooms and B & B.

With no pub in the village the tearooms offers evening meals to its guests, and we had wisely pre-booked ours. The B & B was packed with two other couples who were also on foot, plus a party of five intrepid cyclists. The packed restaurant that night lent itself to some lively conversation, and after an excellent meal of fillet of salmon, followed by homemade apple pie and custard, it was time to prepare for the following day's walk, followed by an early night. We were now three-quarters of the way through our walk, and so far had been lucky with the weather. Would our luck hold out for the final section the following morning?

Friday, 15 May 2009

South Downs Way - Middle Leg, Day One

Having walked the first stage of the South Downs Way last year, my friend Eric and I have just returned from the next stage of the walk, which for us was four days' walking from Clayton to Buriton. Last Monday therefore, we caught the early morning train from our home in Tonbridge to Hassocks (near Brighton), which allowed us to re-join the trail at Clayton; the point where we had finished up at last year.

The weather was bright and sunny, but with a strong easterly wind blowing - something we would be glad of later. Despite each carrying heavy rucksacks, we made good progress and by lunchtime were at the well-known local beauty spot of Devil's Dyke. Our original intention had been to press on towards Fulking and then drop down off the escarpment in order to visit the Shepherd and Dog at the foot of the downs. A look at the map though showed us the folly of this plan, which would have meant a steep descent of several hundred feet, followed by an equally steep climb, after the pub stop, back up to the trail. The spacious, modern-looking, Devil's Dyke Inn at the head of the dyke therefore seemed a better compromise, even if it is the sort of place that appeals in the main to car-borne visitors.

Unfortunately the only cask beer on sale that lunchtime was Shepherd Neame Spitfire, as according to the barman the Harveys had only been delivered that morning. Having compromised on the pub we compromised a bit on the beer. Spitfire is definitely not my favourite pint, so I opted for Staropramen lager instead. Eric joined me, but at 5% we decided that one pint was enough before setting off towards our stop for the evening, the attractive small town of Steyning.

This section of the walk is across classic downland terrain of short springy turf, with very few trees, but with the strong easterly wind behind us we made good progress. We sheltered in the lea of a large barn to eat our sandwiches, before eventually beginning the long descent down into the valley of the River Adur. The South Downs are dissected by several valleys, some formed by rivers, whilst other, now dry valleys were formed by glacial melt-waters. These valleys, which typically run from North to South, form communication gaps through the downs and are usually occupied by roads and sometimes railways. The long descent down to the valley floor inevitably means a long ascent back up the other side. Although all three of our overnight stops were in settlements situated in the valleys, there are other places along the trail that involve these changes in altitude, and this we found was quite a feature of this particular section of the trail.

Once down from the escarpment, we crossed the Adur by means of a footbridge, and then switched footpaths: the Downs Link path, as its name suggests, is a path linking the South Downs with those in the north. For the approach into Steyning, the path follows the course of a disused railway line, one of many closed by Dr Beeching. We found our bed and breakfast accommodation without too much trouble, and after dropping our rucksacks and freshening up we set off to explore this attractive town.

The Good Beer Guide listed Chequers Inn proved the ideal refreshment stop. The Dark Star Best and the Timothy Taylor's Landlord were both excellent, as was the home-made steak and ale pie. What we especially liked about the Chequers was the fact that it has two bars. Thus the younger crowd in the larger bar could play pool and watch the football without disturbing the conversation in the smaller right-hand bar. After our meal, we got into conversation with a Belgian lad from East Flanders, who was walking the trail in the opposite direction to ourselves. As well as swapping travellers tales, he was able to confirm that our next night's accommodation stop, the Sportsman at Amberley, was everything we hoped it would be.

We left the Chequers shortly before closing time, a little weary and slightly footsore after our first day's walk. It had been a good re-introduction to the delights of the South Downs. A cup of coffee before bed, followed by a good night's sleep set us up ready for the following day's stretch of the trail, from Steyning to Amberley.

A Few Thoughts On Returning Home.

Well my companion and I have returned safe and sound, if a little footsore and stiff, from our short break walking on the South Downs. Despite the forecast the weather was kind (mainly dull and overcast, but dry apart from the last half hour on the last day!). The scenery (when we weren't engulfed in cloud) was superb, the places we stayed in were all first class, as were the pubs we visited. Between us there was not a single bad pint or a sub-standard meal to be had, and we met some really nice people over the course of the four days (both on and off the trail). In short, the break has restored my faith in the countryside and its people, and has given my friend and I an appetite to complete the final leg of the South Downs Way as soon as possible, and then to cast our eyes further afield.

Now we are back though, how different this all seems from our home town. Once a thriving market town, Tonbridge has been spoiled by its closeness to London. Not only has it increasingly become a dormitory town for commuters who work in the City, but its proximity to the capital has led to an influx of not just people, but more especially attitudes, that seem far more typical of "souf London" than a Kentish market town. This point was brought home to us when we compared the nice, characterful places we were visiting (especially the pubs), with what we have back home.

When we alighted at Tonbridge station last night, stiff and sore from over fifty miles of walking in the glorious Sussex countryside, neither of us could think of a suitable hostelry in which to toast the success of our walk. Instead we wished each other goodnight and wandered off back to our respective families. Although this could be viewed as depressing, the thought that there still are unspoilt pubs in picturesque small towns and villages, just a short journey away from here means that, for the moment at least, I'm going to keep on smiling!

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

South Downs Way

Next week I'm off for a few days walking on the South Downs. My friend Eric and I are planning to walk the next stage of the South Downs Way - a long distance footpath that runs from Eastbourne in East Sussex to Winchester in Hampshire; a distance of about 100 miles.

Last May we spent three days walking the first stretch from Eastbourne to Clayton, and this year we will be re-joining the trail at Clayton to spend four days walking to Buriton, near Petersfield in Hampshire. This will leave a two day stage to complete later in the year. We could, of course, have walked the entire trail in one go, but it seemed easier to break it up into logical sections, with departure and arrival points that can easily be reached by public transport.

Although we will be staying in bed and breakfast accommodation (including one pub), we will still have to carry our spare clothing and other bits and pieces on our backs. This should not be a problem looking back on last year's walk. The one thing we are hoping for though, is an improvement in the weather - it is not much fun walking across the exposed tops of the Downs in the driving rain!

The idea for this walk came about three years ago. I had just started my new job, but my wife and I were still owners of the Cask & Glass in Tonbridge. Eric was managing the shop for us during the day, whilst I was at work, but I then had the joy of running the business evenings and weekends. It was a bit of a stressful time, so by way of something to look forward to, once the business had been sold, we promised ourselves that we would walk the South Downs Way. I have walked most of the trail before, but that was many years ago. I was a teenager then, and belonged to a youth group that used to go off Youth Hosteling in areas like the South Downs and the Peak District. After a gap of almost 40 years though, I'm sure most of the walk will look new and unfamiliar.

I must admit I am really looking forward to next week's walk through the Sussex countryside. Our respective wives will no doubt be glad to see the back of us for a few days, and who knows we may even find the odd pub or two to pop into along the way!

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Duff Beer

Although I've been served many indifferent pints over the years, the occasions where I've actually had to return a pint as undrinkable are, thankfully, few and far between. Unfortunately last weekend I had just one of those experiences; as did the friends I was with at the time.

The incident happened in a Shepherd Neame pub, in a nearby town. I was the only member of our group who had not drank there before; the others had, albeit quite a few years ago. I am not a great fan of Shep's these days, as to my mind they appear to have changed the recipe of their beers some time around the late 1980's. Prior to this Shep's Bitter had a wonderful, almost floral hoppiness that when served in tip-top condition was one of the finest beers around. Nowadays, that taste seems to have been replaced by a harsh bitterness, which I find particularly unpleasant, especially as the beer seems to be fermented right out to dryness, with very little residual malt sweetness remaining. I may be a fussy old so and so, but there are plenty of other drinkers who share my views on Sheps.

This aside, having previously visited two other nearby pubs and enjoyed beers of the highest quality, I went with the flow and decided to give this attractive looking Sheps pub a try. On entering we were surprised to see four cask Shepherd Neame ales on sale.

My friends and I all plumped for the seasonal offering, which I believe was called "Dragon's Fire" (I'm not 100% certain of this, and the beer is not listed on the company's website). We retired to a comfortable corner of the pub and sat down to enjoy our beer, only to find to a man (plus a woman) that it was pure malt vinegar. Undeterred, we returned to the bar and pointed out this unfortunate fact to the lady behind the bar. She may have been the landlady, or she may just have been a barmaid, but when she ventured the old chestnut that she had been serving that beer all day, without complaint, then the alarm bells started ringing.

She asked if we wanted a different beer. My friend and his wife opted for Bishop's Finger. Myself, plus our other companion decided to play safe and go for the Master Brew. Surely the pub must sell enough of Shep's bog-standard bitter to avoid it sitting around and turning sour we surmised. Wrong! It too tasted like the stuff you put on your chips, as did the Bishop's Finger. My friend's wife had already asked for her half of Bishop's Finger to be changed, as it was the first glass pulled from the pumps, so when her replacement beer came back tasting equally vile it was the final straw. The barmaid/landlady was viewing us now with outright hostility, as were some of the lager-swilling locals.

We should have course demanded our money back, but up until that point had had an excellent day out and really did not want to spoil it with a slanging match. We decided to cut our losses, plonked our glasses down on the table, and without saying a word turned round and walked out.
Hopefully this action was not lost on the bar-person, but as she was "quids in" on the transaction I don't suppose she really cared.

I ought to name and shame the pub concerned, but a letter to the brewery might be a better idea. I can accept that a pub with a slow turn-over of cask beer might have trouble keeping it in good nick; if so why have four on sale? The only beer we didn't try was the Spitfire, but if three out of four were bad I wouldn't want to take the risk.

To restore our faith in Sheps, we enjoyed a couple of well-kept pints of Master Brew in the Nelson Arms, when we returned to Tonbridge. This back-street pub, where again many of the locals were drinking lager, sensibly had just the one cask beer on sale - I rest my case.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Drinking in the Medway Towns

After visiting Nelson Brewery in Chatham the other Saturday, myself and fellow West Kent CAMRA members had the rest of the day in which to explore the Medway Towns. Before going any further I have to say that Chatham is a really run down and depressing place, with an awful mis-match of different architectural styles, including a hideous 1970' shopping centre. It is also very unfriendly towards pedestrians. Nearby Rochester, on the other hand, is a complete contrast with a bustling High Street full of interesting shops and crowded out with tourists and shoppers. The city trades a bit on its Dickensian connections, but that’s no bad thing. Rochester also has a cathedral and an imposing Norman castle, built originally to guard the crossing over the Medway.

Our first port of call though, after leaving the brewery, was the King George V pub in nearby Brompton. This former naval pub dates back to the 17th Century and still retains plenty of character. There was an interesting range of beers on sale, which included Harveys Mild, plus Wychwood Dragon’s Bite. In addition a selection of over 40 bottled Belgian beers was available, together with a large range of single malt whiskies. Most of us took advantage of the excellent value for money lunches on offer, and it was a shame to have to leave this excellent pub. Brompton, despite its proximity to Chatham, has a village-like feel to it. By-passed by main roads it seems a quiet and pleasant place to live. I noticed two other pubs close-by, but unfortunately there wasn’t time to explore them on this trip.

We headed into Rochester, passing through the depressing centre of Chatham as quickly as possible. En route we were rewarded with a panoramic view of the Medway Estuary, before descending the hill into Rochester itself. Despite getting a little lost we managed to find our way to the Good Beer Guide listed Good Intent. Tucked away on a housing estate, the pub serves all its real ales by gravity, drawn direct from casks stillaged behind the bar. At the time of our visit, brews from 1648 Brewery featured strongly on the beer menu, along with a guest ale from Cotleigh. The Good Intent is run by an enterprising Greek landlord, and we marvelled as he single-handedly man-handled a new cask into place on the stillage.

The Man of Kent, with its attractive tiled frontage advertising Style & Winch Ltd - Fine Ales & Stout, was our next port of call, and is literally just round the corner from the Good Intent. The residents of this part of Rochester are fortunate indeed to have these two Good Beer Guide listed pubs in such close proximity to each other. As befits a pub with the name Kent in its title, the Man of Kent specialises in beers from Kentish micro-breweries; in fact it offers the widest selection of local ales in the county. At the time of our visit, beers from Goachers, Millis, Ramsgate and Whitstable breweries were on sale. There was also draught Paulaner Helles and Kuppers Kolsch from Germany alongside three draught Belgian fruit beers. The Gadds beers were very good, as was the Dark Lager, brewed by Meantime Brewery in Greenwich. I wasn’t brave enough try the 6.7% abv Goachers Old Ale, which was dispensed from a small pin on the bar, but one member of our party ordered a pint not realising at the time how strong it was!

What I particularly liked about the Man of Kent, apart from the excellent beer of course, was the good mix of customers, ranging from students to pensioners, and all ages in between. With its slightly off-beat, Bohemian atmosphere this back-street pub was for me the find of the trip on a day that had already highlighted two other excellent pubs. I will certainly be making a return visit next time I am in Rochester.

Eventually it was time to leave and make our way back to the station. We had one other pub to visit before the day was over, but this pub was quite a train ride away and much closer to home. Most of us had travelled to Chatham via the Medway Valley line. For the return trip we caught the London Victoria service, changing at Swanley onto the Darenth Valley line. Our destination was the Crown at Otford, which just happened to be holding a beer festival! This was taking place in the garden at the rear of the pub, and being the closest weekend to St George’s Day, beers with England’s Patron Saint as their theme featured prominently on the list. Other attractions included a barbecue (which was very welcome), a better than average pub band, (with a guitarist complete with leopard-skin trousers!) and a fire-eater!

Despite the respite of the train journey I was a bit “beer’ed out” by now, so limited myself to a pint of Hog’s Back St George’s Ale, plus a couple of burgers to help soak up some of the excess ale. We left in time to catch the last but one train back to Tonbridge, after what had been a long, but very enjoyable day out.