Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Saturday 21st February Part Two: Three Rural Gems

As mentioned in the previous post, last Saturday a party of 24 volunteers who had helped a last October’s Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival, set off by mini-coach to present our longest established local brewery with a well-deserved certificate, after their Green Hop Ale was voted Beer of the Festival.

Waiting for opening time, outside the Queen's Arms
We visited three pubs over the course of the day; the Queen’s Arms, where the presentation took place, the Fountain at Cowden, where we had an excellent lunch and finally the classic and unspoilt Rock Inn at Chiddingstone Hoath. What follows is a description of the pubs, in an attempt to wet peoples’ appetites and tempt them into visiting these rural gems.

Described as a rare, rural time-warp pub, the Queen’s Arms at Cowden Pound was built in 1841, and is named after the Queen’s Royal West Kent Regiment. The pub has one of the last remaining totally unspoilt rural public bars dating from the Victorian era and which, apart from the paintwork, has been almost untouched since the end of the nineteenth century. The pub had been in the hands of the same family from 1913 to 2014, with the former landlady, Elsie Maynard taking over in 1973.

Much of the pub’s character was down to Elsie, who was born in the pub and until quite recently, when advancing years and declining health had forced her into a nursing home, had lived there all her life. Her mother had been the licensee before her, when the pub was universally known as “Annie’s”, and I understand that in some quarters it is still referred to as such.

Traditional Public Bar at the Queens Arms
Like many local CAMRA members, and indeed local drinkers, I have my own fond memories of the Queen’s Arms which stretch back many years, so what follows are my own observations of the pub. If you require a more detailed description, then this can be found on CAMRA’s National Inventory Site, along with some excellent photographs.

The Queen’s Arms has two bars; a traditional, no-nonsense public bar, and a larger saloon. The latter was rarely used, as all the activity took place in the public bar, which is on the right as one enters. It was a real old-fashioned public bar, of the sort which only we older drinkers can remember; lino on the floor, a plain wooden bar, an open fire in winter, and just the one draught beer. The latter had changed over the years. When I first knew the pub, it was tied to Whitbread and the beer was the long discontinued and much-missed Fremlins Bitter. After the Fremlins Brewery closed, Flowers Bitter was the replacement, but eventually Elsie ended up selling Adnams Bitter, although there may well have been a period when Brakspears Ordinary was the house beer.

Wot, no lager?
Like I mentioned earlier, there was just the one draught beer dispensed from a bank of three original, ebony-handled beer engines on the counter. Elsie didn’t hold with lager and didn’t sell it. According to legend she associated the beer with the Germans and two World Wars, but the real reason was its higher price compared to cask-ale. Nevertheless, she displayed a sign outside proclaiming “Lager Not Sold Here”; a policy supported at the time by many CAMRA members. Elsie didn’t sell alco-pops either and stocked a very limited range of soft drinks. Bags of crisps were kept in old-fashioned tins behind the bar, but she did provide food of sorts in the form of incredible value-for-money ploughman’s. These consisted of a substantial hunk of cheese, served with door-step thick slices of bread and optional, homemade pickles.

As Elsie’s health declined, the pub was looked after and run by a group of dedicated regulars, who were determined to keep though place as it was for as long as possible. By this stage, opening hours were restricted to weekday evenings, plus Sunday lunchtimes. Elsie would sometimes appear sitting on a stool behind the bar, taking everything in. She was quick-witted with a delightful sense of humour, and was one of the few people I know who spoke with a genuine Kentish accent, rather than the "Estuary English" which has almost totally subsumed the local dialect.

The fact that the Queen’s Arms continued to trade following the time when Elsie first started to find it difficult to manage on her own, right up until when she had to go into a nursing home is due, in no small part, to the dedication of local resident and pub regular, Mary McGlew.  Mary and her team of volunteers were instrumental in keeping the pub going during this period, and without their dedication there is no doubt the Queen’s Arms would have shut a long time ago.

It is interesting to note that Elsie used to baby-sit Mary, when the latter was a small child. Things then turned full circle, with Mary returning the favour and looking after Elsie, in later years, as she became increasingly frail.  Sadly, Mary herself died suddenly, a few weeks ago, following a short illness.  With thanks to Guy Beckett from Larkin’s, for filling me in on this recent part of the pub’s history. For further information, please follow this link to an article published in the local newspaper in 2013, to celebrate the centenary of the Maynard family's stewardship of the pub.

Today the Queen’s Arms is owned by a local businessman who has day jobs so, like the Old House at Ightham Common it is essentially a “hobby pub” Hence it is only open evenings and weekends. Larkin’s beers (Traditional, plus seasonal) have replaced the Adnams, but apart from a spruce-up and some much needed structural work, the pub remains pretty much the same as it’s always been. However, unlike the Old House, new owner Jonathan has plans to make the pub viable without ruining its essential character. I won’t go into these, especially as they were described to me by a third party, but from what I’ve heard they should provide a regular injection of cash which will, in effect, subsidise the running of this classic, unspoilt, time-warp pub.

Fountain at Cowden
As there are no facilities, at present, to prepare food on anything but a very limited scale at the Queen’s Arms, we moved on to the Fountain, in nearby Cowden village. Here our tour organiser and social secretary had arranged for the pub to extend its kitchen opening hours to accommodate us for a pre-booked lunch.

The Fountain is now the only pub in Cowden; a small, unassuming but rather picturesque High-Wealden village. The village’s other pub, the much larger Crown, closed around 10 years ago, and is now a private house. The Fountain is an attractive red-brick building, sited on a bend in the road, and is entered by means of a number of stone steps. Parts of the pub are said to date from the 18th Century, and possibly even earlier. This thriving village community pub is owned by Harvey’s of Lewes, and is one of just a handful of their pubs in West Kent.

A large conservatory has recently been added at the rear of the pub, and this in turn leads to a suntrap garden. The pub’s management had set out sufficient tables in the conservatory in expectation of our visit, so after ordering our beers, we were ushered into this room and shortly after our food began arriving.

A real, proper pie - lunch at the Fountain
I have written about the Fountain before, and have eaten at this excellent Harvey’s pub on a number of occasions. I therefore knew my steak pie (and a proper pie at that), complete with new potatoes and vegetables was going to be just right, and it certainly was. The steak filling was cooked to perfection and just melted in my mouth; as did the excellent pastry casing. To accompany my meal there was some superb Harvey’s Old; the first, and quite possibly the last, I have sampled this season. Also on sale were Harvey’s Sussex Best and IPA.

Shortly after 4.30pm we once again boarded our coach and departed from the Fountain, heading towards our final stop of the day, the Rock at Chiddingstone Hoath. The Rock is an old favourite, and is another example of an unspoilt pub. Situated on high ground to the west of Penshurst, the pub takes it name from one of the striking rocky outcrops nearby. It is believed to date back to 1520 and was at one time an old drover’s inn. Today it remains as a fine example of a 16th century pub, boasting a wealth of original features and a large inglenook fire place.

The entrance and the main bar have a floor of well-worn brick. The bar counter is straight ahead; whilst to the left of the counter is the large fireplace, containing an equally large wood-burning stove. This was certainly chucking out plenty of heat when we arrived at around 5pm. There is also a smaller, and a cosier saloon bar leading off to the right.

Rock, Chiddingstone Hoath
The pub was reasonably full with a mixed bunch of locals and other characters, but we all managed to find our way in, and some even managed to find a seat. A group of us made a bee-line for the fire, whilst others had a go at the Rock’s other attraction, the 100 year old “Ringing the Bull” game. The choice beer-wise was Larkin’s Traditional and Pale, plus Peregrine Porter from Cotleigh Brewery in the West Country. Phil, the landlord, hails from the South-West, so the pub often features Cotleigh beers. I tried the Larkins Pale and the Cotleigh Porter, and can report that both were in fine form.

We left the Rock around 6pm, and boarded our coach for the journey home. The driver dropped the bulk of the party in Tunbridge Wells, and the rest of us, including me, in Tonbridge. A few hardy souls continued on to Wetherspoons, but I had drunk sufficient beer over the course of the day to call time on any more, so made my way home.

The trip reminded me, once again, of how lucky we are to live in such an attractive and picturesque part of the country, and of how blessed we are to still have such fantastic pubs. Do take the opportunity to visit them if you are ever in the area.


Jeffrey Bell said...

A very welcome post for someone who needs to explore that part of Kent on foot - hope to visit one or two of these pubs soon!

Thanks Paul

Paul Bailey said...

Cowden station on the Uckfield Line from London Bridge is your best starting point for your walk Jeff, as it’s roughly in the middle of the three pubs. Bear in mind that the Queen’s Arms only opens evenings and Sunday lunchtime. OS Explorer Map 147 covers this area, and there are plenty of footpaths.

Glad I’ve whetted your appetite for a visit to some of these pubs.

Curmudgeon said...

Have to say those sound like three wonderful pubs. While there are plenty of good pubs in Cheshire, we don't really seem to have those unspoilt rural gems. Maybe this one is an exception, although it's not an ancient building.