Saturday, 15 August 2015

No More "Disgusted - Tunbridge Wells". Pt. Three

Royal Oak - well worth making a detour to visit
Looking back at previous posts I realised I have yet to finish my series on the pubs of Tunbridge Wells. So without further ado, here is the third and final part. We will be starting from the same place as last time; namely the town’s railway station.

The main focus of attention for this post is the Pantiles area of Tunbridge Wells; the historic area around the Chalybeate Spring from where the town gets its name and from where the town originally grew and expanded out from. However, before heading down the High Street towards the Pantiles, there is a pub, slightly off the beaten track which we need to visit first.

The Royal Oak is an attractive pub which stands on the crossroads of Prospect Road and Calverley Road. It is well worth the 10 minute hike up the hill from the station to reach this tardis-like Victorian era pub with its island bar, secluded areas and comfortable seating, as not only does it offer an excellent range of interesting beers, but it is also quite quirky in nature with a character all of its own. The Royal Oak is ably run by Yvonne, who is also a fully qualified chef. As well as the excellent beer, the Oak regularly stages live music evenings featuring local bands and musicians. Another feature is the popular"film afternoons", which normally take place on a Sunday.

Sundial - King Charles the Martyr

Harvey’s Best is the regular beer, but Yvonne often has beers on from the likes of Larkins, Dark Star, Whitstable, Turners and various other brews drawn from either  Kent or neighbouring Sussex. Traditional ciders from Biddenden or Dudda's Tun, are also available.  Mini-beer festivals, often complemented by live acts, are another feature well worth looking out for and another good reason to visit the pub.

From the Royal Oak, head back down towards the station and then turn left and continue along the High Street. Alternatively, if you are feeling confident try your luck at navigating through the maze of narrow, but rather charming back streets which make up the “Village” area of Tunbridge Wells. Either way we are making for the Pantiles, and if you follow  these routes downhill you will reach this historic part of the town. On your way down, take some time out to look at the Church of King Charles the Martyr; the town’s oldest church and also the oldest permanent structure in Tunbridge Wells. It is the only church in the country to be named after  the hapless Charles Stuart , who of course least his head following defeat in the English Civil War.
Pantiles on a summer's evening

Formerly known as The Walks and the (Royal) Parade, The Pantiles is a Georgian colonnade which leads along from the well that gave the town its name. The area was created following the discovery of a chalybeate spring in the early 17th century and is now a popular tourist attraction. The Pantiles today includes a variety of specialist shops, art galleries, cafés, restaurants and bars.

The first pub you will come to is the Ragged Trousers; a former shop which only became a pub in 2006. Housed in one of the historic colonnaded building which line the upper side of the Pantiles Walk, the “Trousers” is a long narrow building with an entrance at both ends. Majoring on well-kept cask-ale, the pub is a keen supporter of the South Downs based Long Man Brewery, but also regularly features local legend Larkins. 
The Ragged Trousers

The pub is really popular and can get very crowded, particularly at weekends. During the summer months it is nice to sit outside, under the veranda-like colonnade which runs the length of the parade of shops and businesses; indeed I can think of few better places in Tunbridge Wells to enjoy a beer or two, with friends, on a warm summer’s evening.

Almost opposite the Ragged Trousers is the Duke of York. Now owned by Fullers, this former Whitbread pub is an attractive Grade Two-listed building which fronts onto the square at the centre of the Pantiles. Quite a small pub, with an “L” shaped bar and a bright and airy feel, the Duke of York is a good place to enjoy a few of the rarer beers from Fullers, and is also a good place to generally watch the world go by. If you want to get up right close to the action going on outside, then there is plenty of outdoor seating; a feature which is useful when the pub gets really busy.
Duke of York

In the centre of the aforementioned square, and overlooked by the Duke of York, is one of the newest drinking establishments in Tunbridge Wells. Housed in the former South East England Tourist Information Office, Sankey’s  Champagne & Seafood Bar is not strictly a pub, but is nevertheless a welcome addition to the local drinking scene. Said to be based on traditional London-style Oyster bars, the bar features marble table tops and antique hanging lights. Drink takes the form of Champagne and wines by the glass, and food is defined by the finest lobsters, crabs and fresh wet fish. I haven’t visited myself, as I’m not a fan of champagne or oysters, although I am rather partial to crab.However, it is easy to see in to Sankey's through the large, plain glass picture windows, and the punters inside all seem to be enjoying themselves.
Sankey's Champagne & Seafood Bar

It’s a short walk around the corner to the Pantiles Tap, the penultimate pub on this tour, and although the newest one in terms of opening, probably one of the oldest in relation to its age. Sited in the former beer cellars of what was reputed to be Tunbridge Wells’s oldest hotel "The Gloster Tavern" , the Pantiles Tap is partly underground, and with its stripped-back, bare-brick walls, tiled floors and old original fireplaces, reminds me of a couple of pubs in Prague.

Despite some on-line research, I have been unable to discover anything about the Gloster Hotel; particularly when  it closed and why, but as the buildings above the cellars appear much more modern, I would imagine this subterranean section is all that remains of the original hotel. Last year, the Grade Two-listed cellars were turned into the current pub by Geoff Wentworth and his partner Jo, with the “Tap” opening for business late in November 2014. It appears to be doing well, with 6 cask lines, 6 keg lines and 2 ciders, to tempt local drinkers and beer enthusiasts, and is another welcome addition to the local beer scene.

Interior - Pantiles Tap
The final pub on the Pantiles is the Sussex Arms, tucked away down Sussex Mews behind the local auction house. I have written before about this once legendary pub, which thanks to its former licensees, Dennis and Barbara Lane, had a unique character all of its own.  Indeed up until 1987, when the Lane’s left the pub, no visit to Tunbridge Wells was complete without popping into the "Sussex Shades" as it was known locally.

The Sussex was a freehouse in the true sense of the word. Along with a variety of different beers, Harvey’s PA was always available, together with XXXX Old Ale in winter. During such times, a welcoming coal fire was kept burning in the grate. The pub wasn't a classic so far as architecture was concerned, although it did date back to the 17th Century. It was furnished with artefacts purchased from the nearby auction rooms; the collection of chamber pots was legendary. So too were the number of locks on the front door - alleged to number 27 in total!

In 1987 the Pantiles area was earmarked by the local council for what amounted to "gentrification", and with the redevelopment work going on all around them, Dennis and Barbara decided to call it a day, and sold up in the autumn of that year. The Sussex ended up by being completely gutted, and turned into a trendy pub aimed at the youth market. Plans for it to brew its own beer came to nothing, and eventually the pub was sold to Greene King. The area immediately surrounding the pub was opened up, and it is now no longer "tucked away" in the way it once was. Back in December 2012, I posted about the Sussex Arms, in some detail, here.
Sussex Arms

The re-developed Sussex has definitely mellowed over the last quarter of a century, and today the pub has a pleasant, covered outdoor drinking area, plus a rarely used basement function bar, reached via some rather steep stairs.  The toilets are down here as well.  The ground floor has a large U-shaped bar with a games area to the right. The latter includes a rare bar billiards table. The combination of three open fires and traditional wooden flooring makes for a very cosy feel in the winter months. The beer choice is from Greene King, plus a number of regularly changing guest ales, which typically include offerings from breweries such as Long Man or Ramsgate.

This is effectively the end of the tour, but a quick mention should be made of the Grey Lady Music Lounge, which is right at the far end of the Pantiles. If you’re a music fan, then this establishment offers jazz, blues and other music genres from top class professionals in attractive and interesting surroundings.I can't vouch for the place personally, but my wife has been there a couple of times and enjoyed both the food and the music.


Martin, Cambridge said...

I share your enthusiasm for the Ragged Trousers Paul, and beer quality was high on my visit. I'm visiting family in Southborough this weekend and will try to sneak out to the Pantiles Tap which is a new one to me.

Paul Bailey said...

Martin, I’ve only made the one visit to the Pantiles Tap, and that was shortly after it opened. I’ll be interesting to hear what you think; should you get the chance to pop in.