Sunday, 5 July 2015

Border Country

My recent visit to the Brecknock Arms at Bells Yew Green brought back memories of my first visit to this Victorian village local, which took place nearly 30 years ago. I was working in the village of Lamberhurst at the time, and had volunteered on behalf of my local CAMRA branch, to survey the Brecknock for possible inclusion in the Good Beer Guide.

A look at the map showed that Bells Yew Green was roughly five miles away, so a visit during my lunch hour would be perfectly feasible. The map also showed that part of the route along the B2169 was along a long straight section of road, known locally as the "Bayham Straight". After a 10-15 minute journey I arrived at the Brecknock and, after noting that the pub had two bars, ventured into the saloon.

The landlord, whose name I later learned was Martin, was happy to answer my questions and I had soon gathered all the information I required. Over the course of the next couple of years, whilst I was still working in Lamberhurst, I would make occasional visits to the Brecknock, bombing along the Bayham Straight at what seemed like warp factor nine!.
Elephant's Head - Hook Green
I quickly realised there were several other pubs in the area, and during my time in that particular job I managed to visit most of them. I returned to one in particular several times, as it was one of the closest to my workplace. The pub in question is the Elephant’s Head, situated in the tiny settlement of Hook Green. Today the pub is tied to Harvey’s, but back then it was free house belonging to the nearby Bayham Estate. I had visited this historic timbered, former Wealden Farmhouse on a couple of previous occasions, the first being when I had cycled there from Paddock Wood. Back then the Elephant’s Head was about as traditional as you can get, with bare stone walls, flagstone floors and a public and saloon bar, and although the bars were eventually knocked into one, and some modifications made to the internal layout, the pub remains a fine old country pub.

I’m not certain when Harvey’s acquired it, but apart from adding a conservatory at the rear, which provided some much needed space particularly for diners, they left the pub pretty much as it was. The Elephant’s Head normally sells Harvey’s seasonal ales, alongside the regular brews. I haven’t eaten there for many a year, although the food does look good. There are open fires in winter, plus a large garden at the rear for the summer months. The only drawback is the pub is virtually impossible to reach by public transport. I have walked there in the past, with friends, taking a route from Wadhurst station, which is part cross country and part along country lanes, but cycling would probably be the best option.

Returning to Bells Yew Green for a while; the village is served by Frant station, on the London-Tunbridge Wells-Hastings railway line, making a visit to the Brecknock by train, pretty easy. The last train back is at 23.33, so a long evening in the pub is perfectly feasible. Frant village though is a mile and a half along the lane which leads off to the right of the Brecknock, and the village is home to two pubs, plus an old brewery.

The Brewery Business Centre - Frant
The latter is the former premises of George Ware & Sons and was designed by the famous brewery architect William Bradford. Bradford’s best known surviving works today are the breweries of Harvey’s and Hook Norton. Ware's brewery, on the Frant - Bells Yew Green road, was constructed in 1893. After George Ware’s death, the firm continued to be run by his sons, and was incorporated as a limited company in 1925. The company and its 12 pubs was taken over by the Tunbridge Wells brewers, E & H Kelsey Ltd in 1950, who themselves were acquired by J.W. Green of Luton. The latter then changed their name to Flower’s Brewery Ltd, after taking over the Stratford upon Avon brewery of the same name. Whitbread, ended up as eventual owners and Kelsey’s Culverden Brewery, in St John’s Road Tunbridge Wells, was closed and eventually demolished. As mentioned earlier, George Ware’s brewery is still standing, but today the building is known as The Brewery Business Centre and is home to a number of small businesses.

Abergavenny Arms - Frant
As well as a fine old brewery, albeit no longer brewing, Frant has the two pubs mentioned earlier. The first and largest of these pubs is the Abergavenny Arms Pub & Restaurant, which occupies a prominent position overlooking the main A267 Tunbridge Wells- Eastbourne road. The pub is a former coaching inn, which dates back to the 15th Century. Inside there are two large, heavily-beamed bars; one of which acts as a restaurant-cum-function room.

The beer choice today is limited to Harvey’s Sussex Best or Young’s Bitter, but at one time it was much more extensive. It is many years since I last set foot in the Abergavenny; primarily because Frant isn’t a place I visit that often, despite is proximity to Bells Yew Green. The village’s other pub, the George Inn, is also old, dating back to 1750. Harvey’s Sussex Best and Sharp’s Doom Bar are the regular beers here, although according to Whatpub, Harvey’s Old Ale is often available during the winter.

George Inn - Frant
To my eternal shame I have only visited the George once, and that was so long ago I remember little about the place. As I mentioned above, Frant is just a mile and a half in distance from Bells Yew Green, and Frant station, so a train rid,  followed by a short walk to Frant village offers the opportunity of trying both pubs. If one is still feeling thirsty, then there’s the opportunity of calling in at the Brecknock on the way back to the station.

Also well worth doing is to stay on the train one stop further down the line towards Hastings, and alight at Wadhurst station. The Rock Robin Inn, next to the station, has long been demolished to make way for housing, and the Cross Keys on the hill leading up into the village, has also been closed a long time. This pub was an early pioneering brew-pub, but on the few occasions I tasted the beer there it left a lot to be desired.

I digress; the purpose of leaving the train at Wadhurst is to walk to Hook’s Green and the Elephant’s Head. The walker will need a good map as there is a maze of small lanes in this area, and it is easy to become lost. It is probably best to stick to the lanes; they are not very busy, and there is no obvious direct foot path.
Vineyard - Lamberhurst Down
If time allows, it is worth continuing the short distance along the B2169 in the direction of Lamberhurst. At Lamberhurst Down the thirsty pub explorer will find the Vineyard, a restored 17th Century inn, close to the entrance to the local vineyards. When I worked in nearby Lamberhurst, the pub was called the Swan. I haven’t been in since the change of name, but the Vineyard is one of six pubs belonging to the Elite Pub Group; a company which describes itself as “A small family of dining pubs”.The clue is in the name, but whilst the emphasis is obviously on food, the pub does have a comfortable bar area for those who just wish to drink. Beers from Harvey’s and Westerham are the choice here.

Before wrapping up this article, I wanted to end with a brief mention of my former workplace in Lamberhurst. The village was home to Crown Chemicals, a privately-owned pharmaceutical company which specialised in veterinary medicines. I mention this because part of Crown’s village centre site was formerly the brewery and offices of Smith & Company. Smith & Co ceased brewing in 1921, when most of the firm’s 68 pubs were sold at auction. The brewery buildings were acquired the following year, by the Dartford Brewery Co Ltd.

Crown Chemicals moved to Lamberhurst during the 1940’s, after their London premises were destroyed by bombing. The laboratory building, where I worked, plus the adjoining office block, were part of the original brewery, but leading of into the side of the hill, were a couple of tunnels which had been used to store casks of beer back in the day. Unfortunately the tunnels had been sealed off (for safety reasons?), and staff were not permitted to enter them. The company relocated to the Irish Republic in the late 1980’s and the site was then sold for housing.
If you have stayed the course this far you will appreciate the rich pub and brewery heritage of this attractive border area between West Kent and East Sussex. As I have indicated, there are a number of excellent pubs here which are well worth visiting; although to appreciate them properly and make the most of any visit, a little forward planning will be necessary. 


David Harrison said...

I enjoyed your post about the border:not far from us, but not often visited. We liked the Vineyard a couple of years back , but had a rather prickly encounter with a grumpy landlord at the Elephant's Head one evening about ten years ago.
Thanks for the information about the brewery at Frant:I'd often idly wondered about that.
I remember Crown Chemicals well-I think we used to use a ringworm preparation from that firm!

Paul Bailey said...

I’m glad you enjoyed the post, David. As you may have gathered from the post, I too don’t get out to the Kent-Sussex border area as often as I would like. I must call in at the Vine, now it’s had a makeover, and also look in at the Elephant’s Head. I suspect the grumpy landlord you refer to has long since departed, but even for me it is getting on for five years since I last set foot in the place.

Crown Chemicals were an interesting company. Amongst many other things, they produced a good range of worming products for farm animals, as well as similar preparations for pets. They weren’t the best payers around, but they did try and look after the staff. For example, we all received vouchers in our monthly wage packet. The vouchers were only valid in the village, but were accepted by virtually all the shops and pubs in Lamberhurst. It was the company’s way of putting something back into the local economy, and when the firm closed, the loss of trade must have had a considerable effect on the village, as they were by far the largest employer in the immediate area.

Ultimately, they could not compete with the big players in the pharmaceutical world; that and relying far too heavily on one product which, when outlawed by the EU, left them high and dry.