Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Take to the Hills

Looking towards Westerham
I undertook another walk recently, a week prior to the one I described in a previous post. This wasn’t a CAMRA organised event; just a small group of friends out for a stroll through the beautiful Kent country side.

The area chosen for our outing was the Greensand Ridge, between the village of Brasted and the small town of Westerham. The latter of course, is famous for its proximity to Chartwell; the home of wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. The Greensand Ridge is a range of sandstone hills which runs parallel with, but to the south of the North Downs, in a line stretching from west to east across the counties of West Sussex, Surrey and Kent. The ridge takes its name from the underlying, green-tinted sandstone rock strata; the green colour being due to the presence of glauconite, and other clay-minerals in the rock. The ridge rises to a height of 294 m (965 ft), at Leith Hill; the highest point in south-east England, before gradually falling off, and eventually petering out, as it runs through Kent. We were walking close to Toy’s Hill, which is the highest point in Kent.

In order to get to our starting point, my companions and I boarded the 401 Go-Coach service which runs between Tonbridge and Westerham. This is the same service bus which we normally use for visits to the Windmill at Weald, and our plan was to call in at this excellent pub on the way back. However, we were thwarted in this aim due to reasons that will become apparent, later in the narrative.

We alighted from the bus in the centre of Brasted; a pleasant linear village, straddling the busy A25, but a place with far too many antique shops for our liking. Two of the village’s three pubs have now closed (thanks Shep’s), leaving just the rather food-oriented White Hart. (Perhaps the local have spent all their beer money on antiques?). The White Hart’s claim to fame is its patronage by fighter pilots based at nearby Biggin Hill airfield during the Battle of Britain. Some of their signatures are displayed in a glass case on the wall, but alas I’ve never ventured inside to see them for myself.

Our walk began with a long climb  onto the ridge, up what is technically known as the “dip slope”. Much of the way was undercover, beneath a dense canopy of laurel bushes. The canopy was so dense in fact that the sunlight had not been able to penetrate and dry out the underlying ground. The result was some pretty muddy going in places; ironic really when one considers there had been no meaningful rain during the previous few weeks!

Village sign, Crockham Hill
We eventually reached the summit and came out into the open, at last. After being under the tree canopy for so long the chilly wind that was blowing was quite noticeable, but it wasn’t that long before our route brought us once again under the trees. Fortunately they were beech trees this time, and the leaf cover wasn’t quite as dense as earlier. Passing through a remote settlement, known as French Street, we descended towards the rear entrance to Chartwell, amazed at just how busy the place was. Cars were queueing up to get in, and we noticed stewards directing motorists to a field which served as an over-spill car park.

We were glad to leave this tourist hot spot behind, and continuing in a westerly direction, through more beech woods, along part of the Greensand Way long-distance footpath, we eventually reached a clearing where several footpaths branched off at once. Here we began a long descent, down the “scarp slope”, towards the village of Crockham Hill and our first port of call, the Royal Oak. Here a well-earned pint of Westerham beer awaited us, for the Oak is one of just two pubs tied to Westerham Brewery.

A welcome pint
The pub was busy; it was Father’s Day after all. Also, the pub’s layout is a bit strange, in so much that the door to both bar areas opens into what is probably the narrowest part of the pub. Because of the lack of space we went out to the garden to drink our beer. The Royal Oak is a former Shep’s tied house, and was the first pub to be bought by Westerham. It sells quite a range of their beers, but being in need of something pale and cool, I opted for the brewery’s Summer Perle; a 3.8%, seasonal, golden ale, brewed using Hallertauer Perle Hops from Germany.

We only stayed for the one pint, as time was pressing on, and we wanted to be at out next pub for a spot of lunch. The pub in question was the General Wolfe, in the nearby town of Westerham; a journey of several miles. It was a case of drink up and then commence the long climb up, out of Crockham Hill, having broken one of the cardinal rules of rambling – having gained height, try not to lose it!

Actually the climb wasn’t as bad as feared, and before long we were at the summit and once again, deep in woodland, which eventually gave way to pasture and a pleasant green valley. There was a large herd of cows grazing, but apart from giving us a few curious looks they weren’t particularly perturbed by our presence. Apart from one more short uphill section, it was downhill all the way, and slightly later than planned we found ourselves in the small, pleasant town of Westerham.

General Wolfe, Westerham
As stated earlier, we were making for the General Wolfe; a small white-pained weather-boarded pub on the western edge of the town. The pub was formerly the tap for the Black Eagle Brewery of Bushell, Watkins & Smith; otherwise known as Westerham Ales. Until their takeover and absorption into what eventually became Allied Breweries, the company were quite a large concern, and their beers had a good reputation locally. The Black Eagle Brewery ceased production in 1965, but for some years after the site continued to be used as a depot for Ind Coope. A mixture of modern houses and offices now occupies the area where the brewery once stood.

I have fond personal memories of the General Wolfe, as I remember calling in there with my father, back in the mid-1970’s. We were on our way back to East Kent from Southampton, having dropped my sister and her friend at the airport there for a flight across to the Channel Isles. I had spotted the pub in the first CAMRA Good Beer Guide, and had marked it as a convenient place to stop on the way home. In the days before the opening of the M25, the A25, which runs through Westerham, formed one of the main east-west routes to the south of London, so our route home took us past the pub. As my companions and I approached the pub, we remarked on how much traffic the A25 used to cope with, 40 or so years ago. It seems hard to imagine given the volume which now passes along the adjacent motorway.

When my father and I stopped there in 1974, the only cask beer sold at the General Wolfe, was Ind Coope Bitter. This itself was something of a rarity in un-pressurised cask form. Today, the pub is owned by Greene King but, like many of their houses, is allowed to sell cask beers from other brewers as well. When we called in there were a couple of beers on alongside the usual Greene King offerings. I opted for the Whitstable Native, a pleasant, low gravity, but well-hopped ale.

Bargain-priced cod and chips
I have returned to the General Wolfe several times since that first visit. It doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years, with a timeless interior of dark wood, low ceilings and welcoming log fires in winter, and although it’s very much a locals’ pub, visitors are still made welcome. Despite the late hour, we also ordered some food. My cod, chips and mushy peas was really tasty and excellent value at just under eight quid! It’s a pity more local pubs don’t follow suit, rather than charge exorbitant prices for posh sounding, “beer battered cod” and “hand-cut chips”.

We only intended to stay for one at the General Wolfe, as the idea was to catch the 16:35 bus back towards Tonbridge. As this particular bus was the penultimate service of the day, the plan was to alight at Sevenoaks Weald and call in for a couple at the Windmill, before catching the last bus home. The Windmill is our West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year, so we wanted to spend a bit of time there.

That was the theory, but alas, the best laid plans go astray and despite leaving ample time to walk to the bus stop, right by the green in the centre of Westerham, it was evident that the bus had been early and had gone without us. We deduced this after waiting at the stop for over 20 minutes, with no sign of it. There was nothing for it but to find a place for another drink, and then make damn certain we were back at the bus stop at least 10 minutes before the stated departure time.

There are three pubs in the centre of Westerham; the Kings Arms Hotel, the George & Dragon and the Grasshopper on the Green. The first two are both former coaching inns, reflecting Westerham’s importance on the east-west highway which eventually became the A25. I had been in the King’s Head once before, but that was 20 years or so ago, and it was even longer since I last set foot inside the Grasshopper. As for the George & Dragon, well I had never been in the place, but all that was to change.

Grasshopper on the Green,  Westerham
We chose the Grasshopper to begin with, simply because it was nearer. It is an old building, with lots of exposed beams, low ceilings etc, but it has been divided into two halves, both of which are rather narrow. There is also a larger bar at the rear. In spite of this we managed to find a seat. There were quite a few beers on, but I only remember two of  them; Taylor’s Landlord and Westerham Spirit of Kent. The latter especially was in fine form, and is one of my favourite beers from the Westerham stable. Being a pleasant summer’s evening there were quite a few people sitting outside, facing the green, and whilst we were tempted to stay we decided to give the George & Dragon a try.

We were pleasantly surprised with what we found; an old, heavily-beamed, former coaching inn, given a contemporary make-over. Pride of place went to the large, comfortable sofas next to the fireplace. The pub also seemed popular with diners; there is plenty of space, with a separate area set aside for this, and with Kevin’s favourite beer on tap – Gales HSB, we were certainly glad that we called in.

We made certain we were at the bus stop in plenty of time for the last bus, and whilst it wasn’t early it did go sailing on past one hapless passenger who was waiting at a stop just outside Tonbridge! They say every cloud has a silver lining, and missing the penultimate bus did at least give us a chance to try a couple of pubs we don’t normally get out to, and gave us a different perspective on the popular tourist town of Westerham.

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