It's that time of year, as despite the 2009 Good Beer Guide only hitting the shops in the run up to Christmas, it's already time to start the selection process for the 2010 edition. In common with those members who bothered to turn up to the branch AGM, back in November, I was given a handful of pubs to survey. (Nominations for the Guide were taken at the AGM).
As is usually my wont, I put the forms to one side thinking that there was plenty of time to do the inspections. I did a couple just before Christmas, but still had one to go, and with the final selection meeting due to be held next weekend I decided I had better get my skates on. The outstanding pub was the Wheatsheaf at Marsh Green near Edenbridge, a long-standing guide entry, and a place renowned for the quality and range of its beer. Having decided to visit it on Saturday, the next question was how to get there.
It would have been easy just to have jumped in the car and driven there, but that kind of defeats the object. I wanted to sample more than one of the beers, and besides for mid-January, Saturday wasn't too bad weatherwise. I decided therefore to take the train from Edenbridge and then walk the three or so miles to Marsh Green. A look at the map showed I could cut across the fields, and as I had recently purchased a new pair of walking boots this seemed the ideal opportunity to try them out. I duly arrived in Edenbridge just after 12.30 and followed the long straight road down into the town. I hadn't realised before just what a pleasant little town Edenbridge is. One tends to miss so much by driving through a place, and it is only when one is on foot that the true charm (or otherwise) of a location is revealed. Edenbridge does suffer from a somewhat poor image, due largely to the London overspill estates built there during the 1970's, but I was quite impressed with the wealth of characterful old buildings and independent shops that I passed.
I branched off across country from the main road, the idea being to cut off a corner, and avoid a particularly busy main road, which drivers seem to regard as a race track! All went well and I was thoroughly enjoying being out in the country, until the path reached a gate which displayed a sign warning walkers that there was a bull in the field. Now I don't mind cows, and I have walked through fields of bullocks on several occaisions, but a fully-grown adult bull was a different proposition. I decided to deviate round the field, but then had trouble trying to re-locate the path. I managed this more by luck than judgement and eventaully arrived in the small hamlet of Marsh Green pondering the rights of walkers to pass unhindered versus those of landowners to use their land as they see fit. I decided I would definitely contact Kent County Council on Monday, as they are the body rsponsible for the maintenance of footpaths and public rights of way to see what their views are. Hopefully the landowner will be told to keep his bull elsewhere and not on a public footpath!
The slight detour had sharpened my thirst, but on entereing the pub I discovered that a shooting party had arrived a few minutes before and were busy ordering drinks and food. The wait gave me time to reflect on just what an excellent pub the Wheatsheaf is. It is divided up into four different areas, all with bare wooden floors. Open log fires provide the heating, and whilst television and games are present in one of the rooms, they are mercifully absent from the other three.
My first beer was Hogs Back TEA, always a fine beer and especially so here. Whilst enjoying my well-earned piny, Neil the landlord took time out from serving his many customers to pop over for a quick chat and to go through the inspection form with me. This was a nice gesture, as I don't go int the pub all that often (I would if I lived nearer, but unfortunately I don't). Like many rural pubs he said he was feeling the pinch; the smoking ban had not helped matters, but then neither had the Chancellor! Being a freehouse though he is in a better position than many pub landlords and, given what the pub has to offer, I'm sure he'll be ok. With five well-kept beers on sale, together with a range of good, reasonably priced home-cooked food to help satisfy the inner man, Neil is much more than halfway there when it comes to making a success of things. In addition, the Wheatsheaf really is the heart of the small community it serves and amongst other things holds an annual beer festival to coincide with the village fete. It has been voted West Kent CAMRA pub of the year on at least one occaision, and was also runner-up in the regional contest.
To return to the beer, Whitstable Native was the other beer that took my fancy, although at 3.7% abv it tasted slightly weak after the Hogs Back. Also on sale were Harveys Best and Harveys Mild. Neil told me that the brewery supply the latter in 4.5 gallon pins, in order to ensure a quick turnover.
I finished my visit with another pint of TEA; the pub was getting ready to cater for another party of shooters as I left. I decided to risk the walk back into Edenbridge along the road, rather than get lost trying to avoid several hundred pounds of angry beef. I just had time for a quick look round the impressive parish church before catching the train back toTonbridge after what had been a msot enjoyable afternoon out.