Sunday, 26 August 2012
The Pubs of Tonbridge - Part 2
Following on from the previous article about Tonbridge pubs, and moving a bit closer towards the town centre, we come to the New Drum, tucked away down the steep narrow side street of Lavender Hill. It is worth noting that before turning into the aforementioned street, one passes one of Tonbridge's long lost locals. On the opposite side of Pembury Road, just down from the Primrose, is an attractive terraced house that was once the Druid's Arms. Evidence of this pub's former past can be ascertained by the stout post in the front of the building, which is the remains of the pubs former sign. The Druid's closed long before I became acquainted with the town, but it looks as if it must have been a small and rather basic town local.
The New Drum is similar in appearance, and is evident that it started life as two adjoining Victorian terraced cottages that were knocked through into one some time in the late 19th Century. I first became acquainted with the pub in the early 1980's, when a work colleague took me there. It had recently been modernised and was then called the Victoria Tavern. From memory I found it a bit too modern for my liking, preferring back then olde worlde traditional pubs. I am not certain what beer(s) it sold, but I have a feeling King and Barnes Sussex may have been one of them, which would have been unusual for the area at the time.
Shortly afterwards the pub changed hands. It's new owners were an elderly couple named Tom and Margaret. With the new owners, came a new name; Uncle Tom's Cabin - probably one of the daftest names for a pub I've ever come across, but one that seems to have stuck over the years. Even though the pub changed its name. yet again, in the mid-nineties to its present moniker, people still sometimes affectionately refer to it as the Cabin or Tom's. I have a particular soft spot for the pub, as for the half dozen or so years between my moving to Tonbridge and the birth of our son , BC (Before Child) as my wife likes to call those years, Tom's was very much my local. I wasn't in there every night, or even every other night, but one session I never missed was Sunday lunchtime. I would take the dog for a long walk, and then invariably end up in the pub, joining a very erudite bunch of regulars who, like me, were all thirty somethings. As well as putting the world to right we would consume several pints of beer, chosen from an ever changing list (Tom's was a free house). There was also a weekly meat raffle, so it was an added bonus if I could return home in triumph, with a joint of meat ready for the following Sunday's roast.
Tom's was also notorious for lock-ins. In the days before all day Sunday opening, come 2pm one of the regulars would be told to slip the latch on the door and the drinking would continue. It was not unusual for me to leave the pub at 4 pm, stagger home for a nice Sunday lunch, before dozing off into front of the tele. Nocturnal lock-ins were equally notorious, "Pull the curtains across, put the door on the latch and try not to make too much noise when you leave"!
Tom and Margaret were succeeded by another couple, Richard and Joan. For a while they obtained their beer from the Crown Brewery (former South Wales Clubs Brewery) of Pontyclun, but the Welsh beers were not to the taste of the locals (including myself), and the couple switched to Greene King. The Suffolk company was not particularly well represented in the South East at the time and their beers were a welcome addition to the local scene. Things continued in much the same vein as before, but my pub-going started to tail off following the birth of our son Matthew in late 1991.
Eventually yet another change of hands saw experienced licensee Tony, who also ran a pub in Goudhurst, buying the pub and putting his son Matt in charge. They made some welcome changes, opening the pub up and extending it even further backwards. They re-named it the New Drum; a far more sensible name than its previous one! The downside, so far as I was concerned, was that Matt was an out and out sports fanatic and, no matter what time of day or night one visited the pub there would be sport of some description showing on one of the all-pervasive television screens. It might have been golf, tennis, show-jumping or tiddly winks, but what ever it was Matt was engrossed in it, so much so that at times it was difficult to get served!
The pub has changed hands a couple of times since those days, but is pretty much the same. I don't tend to go on there that often, as I find it rather cliquey, and also the wall to wall TVs remind me of an American bar, rather than an English pub.
When Vic passed on the Somerhill went through the first of a series of intermittent rough patches that have dogged it ever since. For a while it was definitely NOT the sort of place to enjoy a quiet drink with the locals!. Then some time in the early 1990's, the pub was bought by a small independent pub chain, called the Hooden Horse Group. They were based in Ashford but had gradually expanded westwards, also acquiring the John Brunt VC, pub in Paddock Wood. The Somerhill was given a complete re-fit; the ceilings were lowered, the bars were knocked through into one, and the serving area was moved over to the back wall of the pub. There were plenty of bare boards and beams, plus candles for lighting, but the whole thing wasn't really in keeping with what was a typical, late-Victorian building. Nevertheless the Wonderful Hooden Horse, as the pub was now called, did major on traditional draught beer with Hop Back Summer Lightning as one of its regular ales, alongside Old Hookey from Hook Norton. Mexican-style food, for some bizarre reason, was the pub's other attraction.
Like all fads this one eventually ran its course; the pub became increasingly run down, so much so that come the new millennium its kitchen had a closure order slapped on it by the local Environmental Health Department. Cue another new owner, this time a member of the landed gentry. Unfortunately for him the pub's reputation had been severely damaged by the rats in the kitchen fiasco with the previous owners. Try as he might, this individual struggled on, but with a flawed reputation he was on a hiding to nothing. What made matters worse is that following years of neglect by various past owners, the building itself was in a a parlous state. The roof leaked like a sieve and the whole place suffered from problems of severe damp. Another new owner stepped up to the plate, but this chap was no fool when it came to running a pub. Steve and his wife had run a successful pub in Gravesend and were now keen to try their luck with the Hooden Horse.
They completely gutted the place, ripped out the false ceilings, moved the bar back to close to its original location, installed some comfortable seating, whilst still retaining an area for darts, pool etc. Finally they restored the pub's name to something like its original, but instead of the Somerhill Arms it became the Somerhill. They did really well for a number of years; the pub proving particularly popular with local builders and fellow tradesmen. Beer wise the pub was nothing special, with Greene King IPA as the token cask ale, and with Steve resisting calls from local drinkers to put Harvey's on instead, they missed out on an important sector of trade. When the economic slump started affecting the construction industry the Somerhill's trade really began to suffer. What made matters worse was the closure (and subsequent demolition) of the Railway Bell, sited at the other end of Priory Street. Many of that pub's less desirable customers found their way up to the Somerhill, putting off the more gentrified customers it could, and perhaps should, have relied on.
It is still open today, but has had a succession of different licensees, Rumours surface, from time to time, that because of its prime corner site the pub is ripe for redevelopment, but fortunately to date none of these have proved true. At least the pub sells Harvey's these days, which has to be an improvement!
Two thirds of the way down Priory Street is the Cask and Glass. For nearly six years this off-licence that specialises in draught cask beer (and cider)to take away, was run by my good self. I won't say any more about the Cask & Glass for now, suffice to say I have lots of very happy memories (plus the odd bad one), of the time I spent behind the bar there, of caring for the cask beer we sold, sourcing new or unusual beers and generally enjoying acting like a pub landlord who's customers went home to drink, rather than remaining on the premises.
At the far end of Priory Street, at the junction with Priory Road, stood the Railway Bell. Once billed as the roughest pub in Tonbridge, the Bell called time for good back in 2008 and was subsequently demolished. Flats now occupy the large, corner site, which is a shame as the pub itself was an attractive, late Victorian building which still could have had a viable future in the right hands.
Running parallel with both Lavender Hill and Priory Street, is St Stephen's Street, home to the penultimate pub in this part of town. The Punch and Judy is yet another pub that has undergone several name changes in recent years. When I first moved to Tonbridge, it was the Gardener's Arms, and whilst it was probably the most traditional pub in the town, it was one of the few not to sell any traditional beer. If you wanted a pint of "top-pressure" Fremlins, then this was the place to go. Perhaps the locals liked it that way, but the pub didn't get much custom from me because of this. The pub is constructed on two levels, and back in those days the public bar was at the front of the building. with a separate saloon bar to the rear. Nowadays the interior has been opened up into a large single bar that extends a fair way back. It is now known as the Punch and Judy, having had the misfortune to be called Clown's Piano Bar for a short while.
As pubs go it is by far the best traditional pub in Tonbridge, but according to a friend who used to drink there regularly, the beer quality can at times be a bit variable. I can't really confirm this, as I've never had a really bad pint there, but then again I am a rather infrequent visitor.. Several years ago, the Punch was one of three pubs in the town owned by legendary Irish landlord, Colm Powell. We'll come onto his other former pubs in a later article, but for the record they were the Station Tavern (now Mojo's), plus the Ivy House. Colm was quite a character, but after many successful years of running his three pubs, became embroiled in a dispute with his landlords, Enterprise Inns. This led to his hunger strike and sleeping in a coffin stunt, .in protest at the rent and beer prices being charged by Enterprise Inns. Unfortunately this culminated in his eviction from the pub. Colm managed to achieve nationwide publicity out of this though, being carried out of the Punch in a coffin, and then driven away by a horse-drawn hearse. Another memorable occasion was when he laid real turf in the bar, as part of the pub's St Patrick's Day celebrations. It took staff days afterwards to clean up all the soil and other mess left behind by this stunt!
Like in Colm's day, the Punch hosts regular quiz nights, live music evenings and other similar events. It has also re-commenced serving food. It is a real community local, and for the cask ale drinker, offers Harvey's, alongside a beer from local concern, Tonbridge Brewery.
The Forester's Arms is the last pub in this part of Tonbridge, and is also the town's only Shepherd Neame pub. Anyone who knows me will know I dislike the Faversham brewer's beer with a vengeance, so much so that I can't remember the last time I set foot in the place! That's not to say it isn't a good pub.Sited on the main A26 heading out of town towards Tunbridge Wells, the Foresters is also the nearest pub to West Kent College, and is therefore popular with students.
When I first moved to Tonbridge, some 27 years ago, we lived just up the road from the pub and would pop in for a few drinks from time to time. Back then it was a traditional two-bar local with a small saloon and much larger public bar. The saloon was the haunt of Les, the one-eyed landlord, who would be sat on a stool at the bar, surrounded by a bunch of cronies, nodding to his bar-staff as to who to serve next. Not the most welcoming sort of place! When Les retired a very pleasant young couple took the pub on and made a real go of the place. It may have been around this time that Shep's renovated the pub and knocked the two bars through into one. It was probably also around this time that recipe for the company's beers changed for the worse, and I found I was no longer enjoying them.
As I said earlier, I haven't been in the Forester's for years, even though I drive past it twice a day on my way to and from work. There are blackboards outside advertising a multitude of different attractions, including various football matches, karaoke and other forms of entertainment, none of which appeal to me. The pub seems popular enough though with its own crowd, so it must be doing something right.
This then concludes the second instalment of our tour around the pubs of Tonbridge. Part 3 will follow at an unspecified later date. ie. When I get round to writing it!