Monday, 26 October 2015

Ashdown Forest by Vintage Bus

Hundred Acre Wood - Ashdown Forest
On Saturday I joined a group of friends from Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA on their annual Vintage Bus Trip. The branch has been running these trips for quite a few years now. They normally take place in the autumn and, as might be guessed, involve visiting a few pubs in a location outside the branch area.

This year’s trip was to the fringes of Ashdown Forest; a place which just happens to be on the edge of the West Kent CAMRA branch area. This was handy for me as I was picked up in Tonbridge, as the bus passed through.

Veteran CAMRA member, and vintage bus enthusiast, Roland Graves provided the transport in the form of a rather splendid 1960’s coach. He also acted as our chauffeur, along with another bus enthusiast friend. Our journey took us through Tunbridge Wells and Groombridge, and then across the border into Sussex. After passing  through the tiny hamlet of Withyam we turned off in a southerly direction and up onto the Forest itself.

Before going any further, a word or two about the area we were visiting: Ashdown Forest is an ancient area of tranquil open heathland occupying the highest sandy ridge-top of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It lies some 30 miles south of London in the county of East Sussex. Its heights, which rise to an altitude of 732 feet above sea level, provide expansive views across the wooded hills of the Weald to the chalk escarpments of the North Downs and South Downs which can be seen on either horizon. Ashdown Forest is the largest public access space in South East England, and the largest area of open, uncultivated countryside in the area.

Our trip only touched on the fringes of the Forest which, unlike the high ridges in the centre, have an extensive covering of trees, interspersed with the odd clearing. It was in such a clearing that our first port of call was reached, the Hatch Inn, at Coleman’s Hatch.

I had heard of this pub before, but had never visited it; however, as my fellow travellers and I got off the coach and walked towards it, I had that sixth sense feeling that this would be a good pub. I was right; the Hatch Inn is an attractive, part weather-boarded building under a tiled roof which dates back to 1430. It started life as a row of cottages, but has been a pub for nearly 300 years. In days gone by it was the haunt of the charcoal burners who used to work in these parts and the odd passing smuggler as well!

Inside there are the low sloping ceilings, supported by ancient beams, one expects from such an ancient building. The bar occupies a central location, with space opening up either side. At one end a log fire provided a warming welcome, but of more interest to me was the row of hand pumps on the bar; one of which was advertising Harvey’s Old.

Harvey’s XXXX Old Ale is one of my all time favourite winter beers, but in previous years I have struggled to come across it outside one of Harvey’s own tied pubs. The fact it was sitting here on the bar of a free-house was rather unusual then, but nevertheless very welcoming. Almost to a man (and woman), we formed a line to one side of the bar and ordered ourselves pints of this classic dark winter ale. It was every bit as good as I was expecting; so much so that I had to have another. There was also Harvey’s Best, Taylor’s Landlord and Larkin’s Traditional on sale (good to see Larkin’s reaching out into Sussex), but the Old was the only beer for me during our stop at the Hatch Inn.

I spent my time at the pub chatting to a couple of old friends. It is always good catching up with people you haven’t seen for a while, and being able to do so within the confines of a classic old English country pub, whilst supping one of the finest seasonal beers available locally, made the whole experience even better.
Anchor at Hartfield

We left the Hatch Inn at 12.45pm, and rejoined the coach to the next pub on our itinerary and the one where we had booked for lunch. The Anchor is one of three pubs in the nearby village of Hartfield; the others being the Hay Waggon (currently closed and up for sale) and the Galipot Inn. Hartfield is the main village in the parish of the same name. Its most famous resident was A.A. Milne; author of the Winnie the Pooh books. Many of the stories about Pooh Bear were set in or around Ashdown Forest, and the famous “Poohsticks Bridge”, and the "Hundred Acre Wood", are all close by. Milne, his wife and Christopher Robin lived at Cotchford Farm, which was later owned by Brian Jones, guitarist and founder member of the Rolling Stones. Jones was tragically discovered dead in the swimming pool there in July,1969.

I hadn’t been in the Anchor before, although many years ago I called in for a drink at the Hay Waggon whilst on a cycle ride through the area. The Anchor Inn is a friendly, family orientated 15th Century Inn, which for a period during the 19th Century housed the parish poorhouse. It became an inn in 1891, and today prides itself in providing a blend of traditional and contemporary pub cuisine. The pub has two bars; the one at the front is where the locals tend to gather and is much smaller than the rear bar. The latter is a large, comfortable open space with sofas set around the fireplace, books on the shelves to read from (rather than just on display), and a piano. During the morning it doubles up as a breakfast bar and café.

Leading off from the bar is a spacious dining area, and after purchasing our beers we took our seats here for our pre-booked meal. Food wise I went for the battered cod and chips, which arrived in a gigantic portion and was both tasty and filling. So far as beer was concerned I opted for a pint of Chronicle Bitter 3.8%, brewed by the High Weald Brewery in nearby East Grinstead, but Harvey’s Best and Larkin’s Traditional were also available.

It was raining when we left the pub and boarded the coach for the ride to our penultimate stop; the Coopers’ Arms at Crowborough. Regular readers of this blog will have spotted that I have written about this pub before, and I will repeat what I said back then that it really is worth a visit if you are in the area.

The pub is an attractive late Victorian building perched on the side of the hill, in an affluent residential area to the west of the town. It is constructed out of brick and local stone, with a terrace at the front. Internally there is one long and quite narrow bar, which opens up at both ends. There are rooms leading off at either end as well. The Cooper’s Arms is a flourishing free-house which as well as supporting local breweries (in particular Dark Star), holds regular beer festivals. I have been to several of these, including a mild festival and a celebration of winter ales and, coincidentally, there is a festival taking place at the Cooper’s this coming weekend.

On Saturday there were four cask beers on sale; Dark Star Partridge Best Bitter, Kent Brewery Cobnut, plus two "green-hop" beers from Pig & Porter - Purest Green (a 5.2% Pale Ale) and Strangely Brown (a 4.8% Porter). I tried both offerings from Pig & Porter, preferring the Porter to the Pale Ale. I also tried, for the first time, Westerham Bohemian Rhapsody - a 5.0% Pilsner-style keg lager.
The coach party

We departed the Cooper’s at 4.45pm, and headed towards our final port of call. This was Groombridge Station; one of the stops on the Spa Valley Railway line between Tunbridge Wells and Eridge. As people may have noted from my previous post, the railway was holding its annual beer festival, so the idea was to allow people on the trip to sample a few beers from the bar on the platform, before heading back to Maidstone.

It was here that I jumped ship, as I had volunteered to do a stint behind the bar at Tunbridge Wells that evening. So after picking up my staff badge and grabbing a very welcome mug of tea, I said goodbye to my Maidstone CAMRA friends and hopped on the first available train back up the line. I arrived at Tunbridge Wells West in time to start my pre-arranged shift, behind a very busy bar.  I won’t go into any further details here about the festival, as I intend to write a separate post about it later on, but it was a good way to end what had been a most excellent day out.


Stonch Beer said...

Your blog post are possibly the best advert for CAMRA branch membership I've ever seen! You go on all these proper jolly boys trips all the time, it just sounds dead nice. Sadly not all branches are as convivial I gather (from mutterings within CAMRA and from my own experience of the contrast between the CAMRA people in the different branch areas my two pubs were in).

Anonymous said...

A beautiful, if relatively little-known, part of the country for walking Paul, and I rated the beer in those pubs highly when I visited (though some time ago in the case of the Anchor). Imagine it's particularly lovely in the Autumn.

Paul Bailey said...

These CAMRA trips certainly are real Jolly Boy’s (and Girl’s) Outings Jeff and I can think of few better ways of visiting a few unspoilt country pubs (apart from perhaps walking to them).

Apart from helping out at our local beer festival, I gave up the campaigning stuff several years ago. I don’t have the time, or the inclination to go round surveying potential Good Beer Guide entries; and as for all the other nonsensical information gathering which CAMRA Head Office seem to enjoy inflicting on the membership, well life’s far too short!

retiredmartin, I agree Ashdown Forest is relatively unknown, outside the immediate area. I used to drive across the forest every day, when I commuted from my home in Tonbridge to my job in Lewes. I was often tempted to stop at one or two of the excellent pubs in this area.

As you point out, the Forest is good walking country, and there are some stunning views from the summits. I walked right across it five years ago, on one of the hottest days in June, whilst walking the Weald Way long-distance footpath with a friend. The Foresters Arms at Fairwarp certainly provided some much needed liquid refreshment that day!