As well as the shops, galleries and cafés, there are also several interesting pubs, and in order to visit a few of these, our local CAMRA branch held a social on Wednesday night. Eight members attended, which for a damp evening in mid-February wasn’t bad. We met at the Ragged Trousers, which is the newest of the three pubs we visited. I say “newest” because the pub only opened in 2006. However, the building itself is the same age as the rest of the Pantiles Colonnade, although I do not remember what it was prior to becoming a pub.
The Ragged Trousers is a long narrow cafe-style pub straddling from London Road to the famous Georgian Pantiles area of the town. During periods of good weather the front seating provides an excellent position to observe passers by and activity of the local traders’ market. Inside the candle lit scrubbed wooden tables and low lighting create a cosy feel which contrasts with the vibrant atmosphere. Three hand pumps dispense the local Larkins and Long Man ales and a guest which on Wednesday evening was Coppernob from Tonbridge Brewery.
I stuck with the Long Blonde, from Long Man, an excellent and well-hopped ale, pale in colour and strong on taste. We stayed for around an hour, during which time we were joined by another member. The Trousers was pleasantly quiet, with just a handful of other drinkers, apart from our selves. I say pleasantly quiet because at weekends, particularly in summer, the place can be absolutely rammed, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to get served.
Round about 9pm we moved on to the next pub on the agenda, the nearby Duke of York; situated on the Lower Walk and within shouting distance of the Ragged Trousers. The Duke of York is an historic Pantiles pub which dates back to the 18th Century. Described as the ‘country pub in a town setting,’ the pub has thankfully reverted to its proper name after a spell as Chaplin s. The pub is now owned by Fullers of Chiswick, and features a range of the company’s beers who have recently taken direct control of the Duke of York, from its former management company – Pantiles Pubs; the people who run the Ragged Trousers and the Sussex Arms, (see below).
There was a reasonable sprinkling of drinkers in the pub when we arrived. We were greeted by a bank of five hand pumps offering four different cask ales; two beers from Fullers and two Gales brands. Most of our group opted for the Gales HSB, but a colleague and I spotted pump clip advertising one of my favourite Fuller’s beers, namely Bengal Lancer. Now I believe I have only ever drunk this beer in bottled form and as far as my colleague was concerned, this was definitely the case. Imagine our disappointment then when the barman attempted to pull a pint, only to find the cask had run out!
My choice as an alternative, Gales Seafarer, proved a bad one. The beer had a distinct “meatiness” about it and was lacking in condition. It wasn’t quite bad enough to return, but was definitely past its best. The others who had gone for the HSB fared somewhat better, proving that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. The Duke of York is a pleasant pub though, and as the company was also very convivial, I wasn’t too bothered about my slightly “tired” pint.
From where I was sitting I could see across through the clear glass windows to the former Tourist Information Office, which has undergone quite a transformation over the past six months. It is now Tunbridge Wells’s first and only Champagne Bar. Now apart from a similar establishment in Whitstable I’ve only ever seen these sorts of places in airport departure lounges. I have sometimes wondered at the wisdom of tipping un-cooked shellfish down ones gullet before jetting off to exotic climes, thereby risking spending the first half at least of one’s hard earned holiday sitting on the toilet! However, that’s just me, and I’m sure that modern hygienic practices relating to the handling and serving of oysters, mean that any such risks are pretty minimal.
The people behind Tunbridge Wells’s Champagne Bar certainly know what they are doing, as they are none other than Sankey’s; a family of well-known and long established publicans, restaurateurs and fishmongers. Check out Sankey’s Bar and Fishmongers. This establishment of tiles, piles of crushed ice and beautiful people sitting at the bar, sipping champagne certainly looked busy for a damp mid week in February, and is a welcome addition to the food and drink scene in Tunbridge Wells.
It was time to move on to the last stop on our mini-pub crawl, the Sussex Arms. Tucked away from the main Pantiles area, but now surrounded by new development, the "Sussex Shades" as it was known locally is no longer the pub of legend. I have written extensively about its heyday here, so won’t repeat what I said apart from adding that following the 1987 redevelopment of the area, the Sussex ended up being changed from a pub full of character, run by and used by “characters”, into a trendy pub aimed at the youth market.
Because of these alterations I am always going to be biased against the Sussex in its current guise, although to be fair the new owners have tried their best, and the transformation has certainly mellowed over the past 27 years. Today it is a pleasant place for a quiet drink, although I believe it does host live music events from time to time. It was pretty quiet when we called in, shortly after 10pm. On the bar were Black Sheep Best, a red ale from Milestone Brewing Company called Rich, and what appears to be a limited edition 4.2% brew from Elgoods called CXXX. Not being a fan of red ales, I plumped for the Elgoods and was glad I did. Not only was my beer a well-balanced hoppy brew, it turned out a lot better than the offering from Milestone. I won that one then!
With work the following morning, I just had the one beer in the Sussex. This meant I was able to catch the 22:59 train home. There are two other pubs on the Pantiles in addition to the three pubs mentioned. These are the Swan Hotel and the Grey Lady. I can’t really say much about either. The Swan has recently been extensively furnished under its new owners, and I haven’t been in yet to see what it is like. The Grey Lady describes itself as a “music lounge”, and specialises in jazz and blues as well as other music genres. It sounds like a nice place to impress your significant other with a nice romantic meal and some live music, but never having been there myself, I can’t really comment. Do check these places out though if you are in the area; along with the Champagne Bar and the other three pubs, of course!