Regular readers of this blog will know how fortunate those of us who live in West Kent are to have so many picturesque, unspoilt pubs on our doorstep. The only drawback is that many of these gems are sited in rural areas, well off the beaten track and well away from public transport links. Of course one could always drive out to them, but that defeats the object. However, with a bit of forward planning it is possible to visit even the remotest of these outlets by combining public transport with a bit of physical exercise.
And so it transpired that after last week's successful day out on the Spa Valley Railway,
a group of us arranged an impromptu visit on Saturday, to a few of the
more remote rural pubs, that we don't often get the chance to visit. Our main
goal was the CAMRA National Inventory listed, Old House
at Ightham Common. The Old House is a real time-warp pub which,
following a period of uncertainty, has recently been brought into the 21st
Century. The Old House has limited opening hours, and is not open
weekday lunchtimes. The reason behind this is that owner and licensee,
Nick Boulter has a full time job in the city, which means opening has to
be restricted to weekday evenings and weekends. Nick's brother Richard,
ran the pub for 20 years prior to Nick taking over and it was the
uncertainty over the succession that had called the pub's future into
doubt. Fortunately, things turned out fine in the end, and following
some much needed renovation work, the Old House is well and truly back
open again for business.
The Old House is situated to the south of Ightham village in Redwell
lane, and whilst an attractive, part 17th Century tile-hung building,
there are few clues externally that it is actually a pub! There is no
pub sign and the signboard on the right gable has faded beyond
recognition! All doubts as to the building's purpose vanish once one
steps inside where there are two bars. The main one is to the left,
whilst to the
right is a smaller bar that looks more like someones front room,
armchairs, chaise long etc. The main bar has a plank and beam ceiling,
and bare wooden parquet floors. During the winter months it is heated by
a large brick inglenook fireplace, which was
unveiled by the present owners - previously there was a Victorian tiled
fireplace in front of it. All the beer is served by gravity and is
fetched from the cellar room behind the bar. The pub also boasts a
selection of 200 different whiskies, many of which are quite rare.
It was a good ten or so years since I last visited the Old House, and as that occasion was part of a mini-bus tour of "hard to get to" rural pubs, organised by the branch, it was a bit of a whirlwind visit. I was therefore looking forward to returning to the pub, and to spending a more relaxing time there. So last Saturday morning a group of eight of us boarded the 222 bus in order to fulfil this quest. The Old House, however, was not to be our first port of call; instead we alighted in the village of Plaxtol, and walked the short distance along to another wonderfully unspoilt pub: the Golding Hop. The reason for this deviation was to enable those of us that wished to eat, to take advantage of the Golding Hop's basic, but generously portioned cheap pub-grub selection, before moving on to the Old House where, apart from crisps and nuts, food is not available.
The Golding Hop needs little introduction; I have written about it on a number of occasions, and it is another time-warp pub. Located in an unbelievably idyllic rural setting to the north of Plaxtol, the pub offers gravity dispensed beers and ciders (including a home-made "house rough"), simple and good value for money food, in surroundings that have not changed for many a year. Long serving licensees, Eddie and Sonia provide the welcome and whilst dogs are allowed in the pub, children are not, although there is a large garden opposite, with facilities such as swings, climbing frame etc. to keep families occupied.
On Saturday, Adnams Southwold, Wadworth Henry's IPA and Fullers Seafarer's were the beers available; whilst I didn't try the Seafarer's I have to report the Henry's IPA was very good, but the Adnams much less so. Unfortunately variable quality beer has been a feature of the Golding Hop over the years, in my experience at least, and on this occasion those CAMRA colleagues who previously wouldn't hear any criticism of the pub's beer, had to agree that the Adnams, and also the Seafarer's, really wasn't up to scratch. Beer quality aside, the pub is still an excellent place to visit, and I enjoyed my Henry's IPA, priced at just £2.60 a pint, along with my quarter pound beefburger in a bap, for a mere £2.80!
Suitably fed and watered, we departed the Golding Hop, and set off to walk to the Old House. Our route took us through several orchards, all laden with apples and pouring cold water on fruit growers' fears about the cold, wet summer leading to a poor harvest! We climbed steadily upwards, away from the Bourne Valley, towards the higher ground of the Greensand Ridge. Thirty minutes or so later, we had crossed the busy A227 and were descending down into Ightham Common and the Old House.
The exterior of the pub was as described above, although there was a large Union flag draped below the anonymous signboard. Internally nothing much appeared to have changed, although a closer inspection revealed it had undergone a thorough spruce-up, which included a complete renovation of the toilets and a new coat of paint for both the bars. We arrived shortly after one o'clock and there were only a handful of people in the pub, including one slightly larger than life character who we knew quite well! There was a good selection of beers, including Wadworth 6X, Young's Ordinary and Special Bitters, plus two offering from Dark Star Brewery. I opted for the latter, starting with a pint of Hophead before moving on to the American Pale Ale. Both beers were excellent, but the latter had the edge over the Hophead and I just had to have another pint before we departed the pub, round about three-thirty in the afternoon.
During the time we were there the Old House filled up nicely, with a good number, and good mix, of regulars. I couldn't help noticing though, that we were the only customers to arrive by foot; all the others had driven there! That aside, the Old House remains a timeless classic which seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance under its new owner. The beer quality was excellent and so far as I was concerned, knocked that of the Golding Hop for six! Both pubs use gravity dispense, and both pubs keep their beers in a room out the back. The difference being that the Old House uses a cooling system, that was clearly evident in the temperature of the beer and its subsequent high quality; the Golding Hop on the other hand. employs no such cooling, and unfortunately this has a negative effect on beer quality, particularly in summer! Surely there is a moral here somewhere?
As mentioned above, we reluctantly left the Old House after a most enjoyable session, as it doesn't stay open all afternoon. Before heading back to Tonbridge though, we had one other pub on our itinerary. The Plough at Basted, is another isolated rural pub, situated on the other side of the Bourne Valley from the Golding Hop. It is also a pub that I thought had closed long ago, especially as it was some thirty years or do since I had last visited it! We re-traced our footsteps, passing through the same orchards, but this time we kept straight on until we reached the bottom of the valley. Here we turned left (due north) and followed the course of the River Bourne up towards its source. River is a bit of a misnomer, as the Bourne is nothing more than a stream. In times past though it must have been a much larger and more powerful watercourse to have cut such a valley through the surrounding line of hills.
Eventually we reached our destination and turned right up a steep, narrow lane to the Plough. The pub is sited right next to a large, industrial looking farm, but apart from that it's situation is pleasantly rural. Thirty years is a long time, but with the exception of an internal coat of blue-coloured paint, the Plough didn't seem to have altered much. Adnams Bitter was on sale, alongside a couple of other beers, but it was the Southwold beer that caught my fancy. After the disappointment earlier in the day, this time round the beer was just right. Being a warm and sunny afternoon, we sat outside on the raised decking at the front of the pub. There were one or two other people there, but it was that strange time, similar to what we had experienced the previous week at the Crown in Groombridge, between the afternoon and evening sessions when most pubs are on the quiet side.
We only stayed for one beer at the Plough. Ian and Don, who were acting as our guides, were keen to press on, particularly as the last bus back was due at around 6.30pm. Their plan was to continue along the course of the Bourne before striking north and heading into Borough Green. Here not only would we be able to catch the bus home, but would also be able to enjoy one final pint in the Black Horse, a pub I am not familiar with. Leaving the Plough, and turning right at the bottom of the lane, led us into a rather strange development of modern, and very upmarket houses, that seemed totally incongruous with the surrounding rural setting. I had a vague recollection that there once was an industrial operation carried on in this location, but a look at the map revealed no real clues as to what had once been carried out here. I remembered that a large publishing firm were once based to the south of Borough Green, and when I arrived home a bit of Internet research proved that my memory had not been playing tricks on me!
My researches revealed that back in the early 18th century Basted was the location of a water-powered paper mill; one of a
series along the River Bourne. The mill was later converted to steam power and
finally closed after flooding in 1968. The site was then taken
over by the legal and accountancy specialist publishers Butterworths, and this is how I remember it. Butterworths departed in 1997 and the mill
has been redeveloped as housing, which takes advantage of the
attractive waterside setting and surrounding green space. Some of the
water features have been preserved or reconstructed, such as the mill
pond and a waterfall, and these, along with the concrete channelling of the watercourse, were noticed as we followed the footpath through the new development.
Unfortunately the best laid plans can go astray, and we somehow took a wrong turning in the woods. Despite following the stream for some distance, we eventually emerged into a field that was not part of a dedicated right of way. We had to clamber over a fence in order to get out of the field and reach a housing estate that led us in to Borough Green. By this time though there was insufficient time to visit the Black Horse and make our bus. This was probably just as well as I, for one, had had a surfeit of ale by this stage and was keen to get back home.
We walked down to the railway station, which acts as a turn around for the bus. This turned up, after a short wait, and even had the same driver from our outward journey in charge. Twenty minutes or so later, we were dropped off back in Tonbridge after yet another excellent day out in the Kent countryside.
For more information about the Old House, plus some excellent photographs of the pub's interior. by Michael Slaughter, please click on the link here.