Sunday, 20 November 2016

Cowden and Mark Beech

I haven’t been to a social organised by my local CAMRA branch for a while now. This isn’t perhaps surprising, as because of the Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival; the major event in the West Kent CAMRA calendar, there hasn’t been that many recently.

Saturday though saw half dozen of us taking the No. 234 bus from Tunbridge Wells and head out into the High Weald area of the county, close to the border with Sussex. Our destination was the picturesque village of Cowden, tucked away in an idyllic corner of the county. Cowden is home to one of the finest Harvey’s pubs in the area, in the form of the Fountain; an attractive, part tile-hung pub situated on a tight bend just down from the village church.

We have done this trip before, and I have posted about the pub as well, but this time around, the Fountain offered two main attractions for me on both the beer and the food front. Beer-wise I knew that the delectable Harvey’s Old Ale would be on sale, whilst food-wise the Fountain serves some of the best pies around, and they are proper pies as well!

Shame about the Trip Advisor sign!
If you don’t know what is meant by a “proper pie” take a look here at my post from 2014, but basically a proper pie should have pastry sides and a pastry bottom. In other words the filling should be completely encased in pastry, and short-crust pastry at that. Too many pubs, and even some restaurants, purport to sell pies which arrive at your table in an earthenware dish, topped with a thin crust of puff pastry. These are NOT pies, but rather casseroles with a pastry lid.

I digress! The 234 bus runs twice daily on Saturdays between Tunbridge Wells and Edenbridge, taking in the villages of Ashurst, Cowden,  Mark Beech and Hever en route. The plan was to alight in Cowden, stop for lunch at the Fountain, before catching the second outward service of the day. We would then leave the bus at Mark Beech, where there would be just enough time for a pint at the Kentish Horse, before catching the bus back to Tunbridge Wells on its final return journey.

On previous occasions some of us have walked between the two pubs, but whilst the weather was bright and sunny when I left home, the clouds were beginning to build by midday, and as we journeyed towards Cowden we could see the sky growing distinctly darker away to the south of us, across Ashdown Forest.

A trio of Harvey's finest
The driver was quite bemused as we boarded the bus in Tunbridge Wells, to find so many people wanting to travel to Mark Beech, but as he would be driving the same bus all day, promised to look out for us later on. En route to Cowden we passed four pubs which for various reasons have now all closed. The names and locations probably won’t mean much to non-local readers, but for completion’s sake they are: Brokers Arms – Tunbridge Wells, Bald Faced Stag - Ashurst, Sussex Oak - Blackham and the White Horse – Holtye. I have drunk in all of them during the past 30 years, and particularly miss the Sussex Oak; a fine old, brick-built pub situated on high ground on a bend of the main A264 Tunbridge Wells- East Grinstead road.

The assembled company
We arrived in Cowden at midday, and walked the short distance back towards the Fountain. Whilst most people hurried inside, a friend and I stopped to take some photos of the pub, which was looking very attractive in the late autumn sunshine. As my friend remarked, “Let the others rush in and have the first few pints out of the pumps, that way the beer will be the entire fresher for us!” There is much truth is this, as one of my pet hates is to be served that first pint out of the pumps. I know a good licensee should pull this through first, and I imagine the Fountain would do this; but why risk it?

Photographs taken, including some of a troop of riders on horseback, we ascended the steps and entered the pub. The much anticipated Harvey’s Old was on, alongside Best Bitter and IPA, but I opted for the former, and was not disappointed. The others had already grabbed a large table at the far end of the bar, so we went over and joined them. The Fountain has a good reputation for food, and having eaten there on several previous occasions I can attest to the quality of its cooking. The barman came over and took our respective orders, but not before we were joined by another couple who live locally.

I, of course, opted for “Pie of the day”, which was chicken, ham and onion – the latter constituent being in the form of a mild, white onion sauce, which went very well with the large chunks of meat. It arrived in the form of an individual pie, which met all the criteria outlined above, to qualify as “proper”. With a few new potatoes, and seasonal vegetables, it really was a dish fit for a king. It was also rather filling. Washed down with a few pints of dark and silky-smooth Harvey’s Old, it couldn’t have been bettered, and the food, drink, good company and fine surroundings of this lovely old village inn made the perfect combination of all that is good about the part of the country we live in. There can surely be few finer ways to spend a Saturday afternoon, in England during mid November, than this.

The former Crown Inn - Cowden
All good things come to an end though, so shortly before 3pm, we paid our respective tabs, donned our raingear and headed outside. The heavens had well and truly opened, so it was a good job the cross-country walk option had been dropped. We were joined at the bus stop by a group of very wet and bedraggled looking ramblers, who had been out walking, but were now looking for the bus to transport them to Cowden station. It is worth noting, the bus stop is sited outside what was once the Crown; Cowden’s other pub, now long closed.

The bus dropped us off in Mark Beech, right opposite the Kentish Horse, but we had trouble squeezing inside as the pub was absolutely heaving. I have never seen it so busy, but we discovered that several groups of walkers, caught out by the ferocity of the weather, had decided to take shelter in the pub. The small, games area at the far end, was showing the England v Fiji rugby game, so that too had pulled in the crowds.

Kentish Horse - alternative Christmas
Harvey’s Best, Larkin’s Traditional and Otter Amber were the beers represented on the bar. I went for the Larkin’s Trad, as at just 3.4% ABV I thought it a good idea to pace myself. There was a good atmosphere in the pub and some fine banter going on between the landlord, and a group of regulars leaning on the bar. It was too wet outside to take any photos and too crowded inside, although I did mange a couple of quirky shots which took my eye.

The return bus to Tunbridge Wells arrived more or less on time and we were glad to get out of the cold and the damp. Several of our party nodded off on the journey back, including me briefly, but once back in the town we all decided that a few final drinks in Fuggles would be a good way to finish the day.

Fuggles too was heaving, but we managed to find a small table towards the rear and sufficient chairs for us all to squeeze round. Downland - Hop Contract and One Mile End –Hospital Porter were the cask beers I tried, before finishing up with a half of the excellent Beavertown - Smog Rocket Porter on key-keg.

Various people came and went, and some drifted off – incredibly for another meal! My friend and I departed some time around half seven and made our way to the station, through the pouring rain, and the train back to Tonbridge.

Like with all these trips, it is worth taking advantage of public transport, and journeying out into the surrounding countryside. It is especially important to make use of local bus services and give them all the support we can, particularly when local authority spending is being reined in, and cash is tight generally. It is also good, of course, to be supporting our rural pubs in the best way possible - by drinking in them!


Martin Taylor said...

Some lovely pictures there Paul; I really must get to Cowden Pound area again. Those pies look particularly tempting !

Paul Bailey said...

Proper pies as well Martin, and with Harvey’s Old on tap as well, country pubs don’t come much better than this.

There’s good walking country in this isolated bottom corner of Kent and some good, unspoilt rural pubs too.