The pub in the country was the Spotted Dog, in the isolated hamlet of Smart's Hill, between Penshurst and Fordcombe to the North-West of Tunbridge Wells. I walked there from Leigh station, with my son Matt, on what was probably the only dry day last week; our route taking us through Penshurst Place, followed by a steep climb up to the aforementioned hamlet. For such a small, isolated settlement, Smart's Hill is particularly well served with good pubs, as besides the Spotted Dog there is also the Bottle House a mile or so up the road in the other direction.
The Spotted Dog is a white-painted, part weather-boarded 15th Century inn that clings to the side of a hill. To the rear there is a terrace which affords spectacular views across the Medway valley, whilst inside are all the usual low beamed ceilings one would expect from a building of this age. There are a number of distinct drinking areas, plus a separate dining room. Despite the sun shining outside, a log fire was smouldering away in the large open fire place,on the day of our visit, but keen to make the most of the currently very rare fine weather we opted to sit outside on the terrace in front of the pub. It was certainly very pleasant to be able to enjoy a pint with the sun beating down on our necks!.
So far as the beer was concerned the Spotted Dog had three ales on tap that day; Black Cat Original, Larkins Traditional and Skinner's Betty Stoggs. I opted for the Black Cat, which was so good I just had to have another, leaving my plans for a pint of Larkins on hold until another occasion. It was a well-hopped, amber coloured ale served with just the right degree of coolness; it certainly slipped down a treat. The pub wasn't packed but there seemed to be plenty of people coming and going. The welcome was warm and friendly and the aforementioned Black Cat beer came with the landlords recommendation, which is always a good sign. We didn't eat at the pub, having eaten our prepared rolls en route, but the food selection looked good and would have complement the beer well.
The town pub was the Bedford, in Tunbridge Wells, literally a stone's throw from the town's main railway station. The pub formed a welcome refuge from the wet and wind-swept streets on an unseasonably cold Saturday lunchtime; my visit being as a member of our local CAMRA branch who had gathered there to present licensee Simon Lewis with a well deserved certificate as joint runner-up in our annual Pub of the Year competition. It was my first visit to the Bedford since Simon took over the running of the pub in July of last year, and I have to say I was well impressed.
For those not in the know, Simon is the owner of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewing Company, and the man responsible for bringing back brewing to the town after a lapse of 25 years. As someone with over 20 years involvement in the brewing industry Simon also managed to negotiate a new lease on the Bedford, with owners Greene King, that allows him to sell beers from his own brewery, plus a range of different guest ales, alongside GK's usual offerings of IPA and Abbot. When I called in, the pub had Dipper, Royal Best Bitter and the seasonal Helles from RTWB, together with Gadd's No.7, Tring Colley's Dog and Milestone Lion's Pride on sale, along with the aforementioned GK beers. Bushels Cider, from Biddenden was also available on hand pump.
So what about the pub itself? Well inside it has a contemporary feel, with several comfortable seating areas. The walls are hung with plenty of old photo's of Tunbridge Wells, pump clips, plus display boards informing punters as to what beers are coming on and which ones they've just missed. The eight hand pumps also look pretty impressive, and it was encouraging to see them being worked at a steady pace, and not just from the demands of thirsty CAMRA members! One nice touch was the bar-staff asking customers whether they wanted a straight glass or a jug? Now I've always preferred the former, but it seems that here in the "soft south" at least, the glass with a handle is making a comeback, and what's more they are proper dimpled mugs as well!
I'm still taking things a bit easy on the beer front at the moment, but the pints of Gadd's No7 and RTW Spa Helles I had were both excellent. Most of my CAMRA colleagues departed just before 2pm in order to catch the bus over to Edenbridge, where another presentation was due to take place; the town's Old Eden Inn being the other joint runner-up in our Pub of the Year contest.
I bade them farewell, finished my pint, before crossing the road and popping into Tunbridge Well's newly re-opened Morrisons to pick up a sandwich, plus a selection of bottled beers for drinking at home later in the week It was then a short hop back to the station and the train home. All in all it's been a most enjoyable two days back on the local pub scene.
So what was it about these two very different pubs that was so good? It wasn't just the beer, the food, the architecture, the setting, the people behind the bar or the general ambiance that made them good. It was a combination of all these factors plus, and it's a big and very important plus, both pubs are run by people who are passionate about what they do, people who care and people who listen to what their respective, but quite different customer groups want. These factors surely are the hallmark of a good pub!