Sunday, 16 September 2012

It's Not All Roses in the Garden of England

I count myself lucky to live in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Kent has long been known as the Garden of England, and not without some justification either. The county grows much of the nation's fruit, in particular apples and cherries, as well as soft fruits such as strawberries and raspberries. The part of the county I live in is also the home of the Kent cobnut, a large variety of hazelnut. Most importantly, for us beer lovers, until comparatively recently times, Kent was the area where most of the nation's hops were grown. Regrettably, that honour has now passed to Hereford and Worcester.

As befits such an attractive and rural county, Kent possesses some real unspoilt country pubs, and I have written about them many times in the pages of this blog. In fact I have probably written about them so much that people must think I live in a wonderful rural paradise of picture-book pubs, all  providing refreshment and sustenance in form of marvellous beer and wholesome home-cooked food, to weary travellers and hard-working country types alike.

I make no apologies for having painted such an idyllic picture, as I am proud of where I live and wart to share some of the many delights, both scenic and pub-wise, that Kent has to offer, but before I get to carried away I need to put the record straight, come down to earth a little and let people know that not everything is quite so rosy in this little corner of England as it might at first seem.

Like many parts of the country, Kent has suffered its share of pub closures, and whilst we've been spared some of the worst excesses of the ongoing cull of the nation's pubs, we've by no means been immune from it. Thankfully many of the county's rural gems have escaped, on the outside at least, but the price of their survival had often been conversion, either in part, but some times in full, to up-market eateries with prices, and clientele to match. Some pubs have even been converted into posh Indian restaurants!

At least with these conversions the building is still functioning as a licensed premises, where there is every chance that come a change of ownership, or circumstances, it can make the change back to a more traditional pub. More worrying is when a pub is deemed to be worth more as a private dwelling than as a public house, and is sold de-licensed, never to open its doors to thirsty punters again. There has of course been the piecemeal erosion of the county's stock of pubs over the years, particularly in some of the larger villages where communities that once may have been served by say four or five pubs, are now down to just two or three or, sometimes, just one. This gradual thinning down is, of course, nothing new and is a process that has been continuing for decades.

Fewer pubs, means less choice, less variety of beers and less choice between say a basic village boozer and an up-market food-led pub, but whilst this process of slimming down has been continuing slowly in rural areas, in the county's towns it has accelerated rapidly in recent years and is showing no signs of slowing down. The cull of pubs in urban areas of Kent is almost exclusively due to high (over-inflated) property prices, which is a downside of living in the affluent, but over-crowded south-east. Particularly badly affected are the larger town pubs, occupying substantial areas of land, especially where car-parking areas and  pub gardens are taken into account. Where such closures and subsequent redevelopments do occur, one almost has to admire the ingenuity of the architects and developers in being able to squeeze such a large number of (highly profitable) dwellings onto the space formerly occupied by a solitary public house. I say almost, because I, as a local inhabitant, would much rather see amenities, such as a thriving pub, remaining there for the benefit of the whole community to enjoy, rather than see a handful of greedy property developers make a quick buck at the expense of local residents!

In Tonbridge, where I live, this land-grabbing phenomenon has been responsible for the demise of several formerly thriving town locals, and reached its ultimate conclusion last year with the closure of the last pub in the northern part of the town. Thirsty residents in the most populated area of Tonbridge now have no choice but to travel into the town centre when they want a drink, or to stay at home with a few bottles or cans from the local supermarket. The ultimate irony is that one of the last pubs to close in this part of town, a former well-used and spacious roadside pub serving two local estates, has now been converted into a Sainsbury's Local - something that was not wanted, or indeed needed by the local community given that it is opposite a large parade of  independently owned and run local shops, but then when are the wishes of local residents ever taken into account by the powers that be when granting permission for such developments to take place? No-one can prove conclusively that money talks in such cases, but it surely must grease a lot of palms!

This process has also been taking place in nearby well-to-do Sevenoaks, where the worst loss arising from this property speculation was that of the Farmers. a very busy and well-run pub, opposite the town's railway station and a  favourite stopping off point for many commuters on their way home. Despite a high-profile campaign to save the Farmers, the sale went ahead, the pub closed in 2005 and was subsequently demolished. Some seven years later there is still a large hole in the ground, surrounded by hoardings, occupying the site which is now officially listed as one of the town's worst "grotspots". At least the development on the site of the former Railway and Bicycle on the opposite side of the road has gone ahead.

Equally prosperous Tunbridge Wells is also now starting to suffer the attentions of the dreaded property developers. There are two campaigns running at the moment to save a couple of community pubs that have been closed by their respective owners as unviable, when everyone knows the real reason is the development potential afforded by the large pieces of ground they both occupy. The High Brooms Tavern. in the Tunbridge Wells suburb of the same name, is owned by Greene King; whilst a short distance away, on the other side of the tracks, the Robin Hood, a substantial community pub, has been closed by our old friends Enterprise Inns. The development value of  these slices of real estate runs into significant sums of money in both cases.

So there we have it; on the one hand we've got a lot to be thankful for living in this picturesque corner of the Garden of England. But on the other hand this is small comfort to the residents of many of our local towns who are denied the opportunity of a pub of their own and have nowhere they can now go for a drink.

Stop Press: News has reached me that the Robin Hood has been bought by a brewery. No further details are available at present, but hopefully it looks as though the pub may have been reprieved.


Curmudgeon said...

Interesting - we have probably lost more pubs than you, proportionately, but I can't think of any thriving pub in the local area that has fallen victim to property developers.

Anonymous said...

Yes - it's thirsty work trying to get to a pub from the north end of town - The Greyhound, Bishop's Oak, Pinnacles and the Red House all gone in the past few years. They were all a bit grotty though and, to be honest, I was not a regular at any of them but popped in on the odd occasion. Now it's a case of a walk into town or, as we have done recently, a nice bike ride or walk around the villages to the north - Carpenters Arms, the Bell, The Man of Kent, Bush Blackbird and Thrush and Kentish Riflemen was the latest trip...

Paul Bailey said...

Curmudgeon, the case of the Farmers in Sevenoaks is particularly disturbing as despite the pub being successful and popular, the owners of the land on which it stood wanted to cash in their chips. The owners in this case were a charity who as long as they got their money didn't worry about the community. Apparently they were bound by their constitution to maximise profit from the sale. Where have we heard that before?

Anonymous, the north end of Tonbridge certainly has become a desert in recent years. This part of the town was never as well served with pubs as the area south of the station, but there are now no pubs remaining beyond the Royal Oak in Shipbourne Road. For a town the size of Tonbridge, this is a real sorry state of affairs.