Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Pubs of Tonbridge Part 3

I had hoped to conclude my mini-series on the pubs of Tonbridge with this article, but after having written about the remaining pubs in the town, I realised the piece was too long; (we don't want people getting bored, or worse still falling asleep!). The sensible thing therefore was to split it in two. This first section deals with the pubs south of the main railway line and along the High Street, up as far as the River Medway. The second, and still to be published section, continues in a northerly direction along the High Street, petering out in the beer desert that is now north Tonbridge.

 We finished last time at the Forester's Arms which effectively is the last pub in the southern half of the town. Continuing back down Quarry Hill towards the town centre and over the bridge in front of the station,  one comes to Mojo's, an imposing pub set back slightly from the road that forms the station approach. Mojo's started life as the South Eastern, which took its name from the railway company that originally built the line from London to the coast. Back then the line ran through to Tonbridge, via Redhill, and whilst this line is still an important secondary route, the main line today is the more direct route via Sevenoaks, which opened later on during the 19th Century. That's enough about railways for now, suffice to day that up until comparatively recent times, the South Eastern was a basic, down to earth,  two-bar town boozer.

All that changed in the late 1980's, when the pub was acquired by Colm Powell, the characterful Irishman whom we met in the previous series. Colm knocked the bars through into one, re-sited the bar counter and re-named the pub, the Station House. It carried on in this vein until Colm's unfortunate falling out with Enterprise Inns. Then after a period of closure, followed by further alterations, the pub re-opened as Mojo's, with large french-style windows at the front that open up and fold back in summer, creating a continental, cafe-style effect. Like the Station House before, Mojo's is popular with younger people, but nevertheless serves some acceptable pints of Harvey's Best and Sharps Doombar. It also has some high tables towards the rear of the pub, which are good to sit up at with friends,whilst enjoying ones pint.

Turning right out of Mojo's, and then following Barden Road back along its course parallel with the railway, one eventually comes to Cromer Street. Turn left here and then on the corner of the junction with Nelson Avenue, one reaches the Nelson Arms, a now rare example of a back-street local. Formerly a Courage house, the Nelson is now owned by Shepherd Neame. It is very much a locals' pub, but the clientele seem friendly enough, as do the staff behind the bar. Shep's Spitfire, plus seasonal beer are the offerings here.

Re-tracing ones footsteps back towards the High Street leads one to the Humphrey Bean, Tonbridge's JD Wetherspoon outlet. Transformed into a pub from the former town Crown Post Office, the "Bean" is not one of  the company's better or most imaginative conversions. The smaller section at the front is where the post office counters once were, but the much larger section to the rear was formerly the sorting office, and still maintains its shed-like appearance. To be fair, it is bright and airy, with plenty of tables, and includes a raised area on the left-hand side. This section leads through to an attractive land well laid out garden, which looks out across the River Medway to Tonbridge's imposing 13th Century castle. It is certainly large enough to easily avoid the depressing, and at times rather objectionable, groups of drinkers who seem to spend all day in the place, courtesy of the taxpayer!

Beer-wise, the Bean offers the usual JWD selection of Ruddles Bitter, Oakham JHB and Greene King Abbot, together with a varying range of guest ales. Quite often these are from local breweries such as Westerham, Weltons and Hog's Back, although some of Adnams less well-known beers such as Ghost Ship, Lighthouse and Gun Hill quite often  feature as well. The downside is the usual JDW thing: never enough staff behind the bar; pump clips showing beers that aren't yet available and, as mentioned above, some of the clientele. The pub does seem to have improved quite dramatically over the past year or so. It has been spruced up with new furniture and a long overdue total refurbishment of the toilets. Let's hope the local intelligentsia will keep it that way!

Across the road and virtually opposite the Humphrey Bean, is the Castle Gold Bar. Formerly owned by Courage and known as the Castle Hotel, this imposing red-brick building overlooks the river, but unfortunately is on the wrong bank for the outside terrace area to catch the sun. The Castle has definitely seen better times, having undergone a number of re-fits over the last twenty years. After a period as a  J and D Bernard  Alehouse which, to my mind, worked well, the pub was given a much more contemporary feel with leather sofa's and a rather minimalist look. This seemed rather incongruous for a  late-Victorian building and certainly was never in keeping with the heritage and history of the pub.

I was obviously not the only person who felt this way and consequently, despite the best efforts of a succession of owners, the Gold Bar has always seemed to struggle; certainly it lives permanently in the shadow of the Humphrey Bean just across the road, and is often virtually empty. Harvey's Best, served from an anonymous hand pump, is the solitary cask ale offering. Apart from that, there's not a lot more I can say about the Castle, except that it deserves a better fate than its current one, and that it's somewhere with a lot of potential. Given a sympathetic owner (not a greedy, grasping, penny-pinching pub company!) there's plenty of scope for a go-ahead entrepreneur to capitalise on its river frontage, central location and attractive  facade.

Crossing the river, and turning first right into Lyons Crescent, brings one to the Wharf. Again this is another establishment that has definitely seen better days. It started life as a Beefeater Restaurant, (remember them?), having been converted from a former riverside wharf building. A period as a Hogshead Alehouse then followed, and before the opening of the Humphrey Bean, this establishment was definitely the best bet in Tonbridge for a pint of something out of the ordinary. As well as a number of ales on hand pump, the Hogshead served several more from cooled, jacketed casks kept behind the bar.

This set-up seemed to work well, so it came as something of a shock when, like the aforementioned Castle, the pub was given a contemporary make-over which never seemed to work, and was totally out of keeping with the character of the building. It really makes me wonder where thee so-called interior designers are coming from. Andy Warhol meets Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen! These days the Wharf, as the pub is now called, is struggling to find its identity. It serves a strange range of cask ales, including Hancocks - a former Bass-Welsh brand, that has no connection or empathy with Kent; its one saving grace being it is cheap! It advertises cut-price lunches which look good value, although not having eaten there (I don't work in the town),  I cannot comment on them personally.

We will conclude this section on the town centre for now, and will conclude at a later, and not too distant date.


Curmudgeon said...

Yes, trendy interior designers rip all the atmosphere out of pubs - a story repeated up and down the country :-(

Paul Bailey said...

The trouble is I bet these idiots never even use the pubs they ruin!

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Tandleman said...

Hancocks in Kent? How bizarre.

Paul Bailey said...

Hancocks a forgotten, former big-brewery beer in the same vein as Flowers, McEwan's, Stones et al.

Anonymous said...

As far as beer is concerned in Tonbridge I'm glad that I work in London! Apart from the aforementioned Humphrey Bean for the occasional 'beer fest' and Punch&Judy for the Harvey's Best/Tonbridge offering, there is nothing. I would positively dance with joy at the closure of any other pub in the town.
It can surely only be a matter of time until someone with a Craft Beer Co. type mindset makes a move on the town and clean up - Mojo's nxt to station would be ideal.


hallum said...

Anonymous, fair enough if you live at that end of town, but up at the north end, you would have difficult complaining about the beer in the Ivy (Harveys is coming up nicely these days since the cellar was sorted) and the George & Dragon which has four (tip top nick) ales.

Anonymous said...

Don't even consider the Ivy as a pub these days. Will give the George a whirl.


Paul Bailey said...

The George & Dragon is definitely worth a visit, as I'll be mentioning in the final part of this series. I need to check out the Ivy, as I wasn't aware they'd had problems with their cellar (wonder what sort of problems?).

I agree Matt that a a Craft Beer Co. type establishment would be good for the town, but is Tonbridge ready for such a place?

Anonymous said...

Colm Powell took over the south eastern in the late 90s. (98-99). I know this because i shut it down, it was run by drug dealers. You accidently wrote 80s.

Great blog. All the best.

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