I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve written that Tonbridge (the town where I live), is crying out for a decent pub. Now after countless years of moaning about pubs which only cater for people wearing football shirts, and who drink Fosters or Carling, it seems that things are about to change, as the pub trade in Tonbridge is definitely in a state of flux.
I will save the best piece of news to last; as although this could be the change which takes the longest to happen it will undoubtedly be a game changer for the town. In the meantime there has been a number of other developments, some still in the pipeline, one which has already happened, and one which has sadly fallen through.
First, the newly opened pub. At the beginning of November, the Slug & Lettuce in the High Street closed for refurbishment. The word was it would be re-opening as a “craft ale” bar. I was never a hug fan of the Slug; although strangely enough my non-drinking wife was; something about the chips, apparently! I remember the place opening, in a fanfare of publicity, a couple of decades ago when, despite the paucity of its beer offering, it did bring something vibrant and new to the town. It even boasted a gleaming copper brewing kit close to the front window.
Now I don’t recall this kit ever being used, and thinking back it might not have been a complete set-up anyway, but what from what I remember the Slug, did offer a number of “house-brewed” beers. As these were served under pressure, they were of little interest to local CAMRA members like me; certainly at the time. Today, I tend to take a much more relaxed and less dogmatic approach to dispense, and base my acceptance, or otherwise, on how the beer actually tastes.
Before going any further, it is worth noting that the Slug & Lettuce is a branded concept chain of bars operated by the Stonegate Pub Company Inns. The same company offer four other concepts, ranging from Classic Inns to Yates, so this promise of “craft ales” deserves closer examination as, after all, “craft” is one of the most over-used words within the brewing industry at the moment.
The revamped “Slug” opened a few weeks ago, right in time for the Christmas rush. The bar is now known as the Gatehouse - named after the imposing medieval gatehouse, which is the most striking, and best preserved feature of the nearby Tonbridge Castle. I called in earlier today to take a look for myself. Being Christmas Eve, the bar was understandably busy. Despite this I managed to perch myself at one of the tall, “posing tables” close to the window; after first ordering a drink.
There were four cask ales on offer, namely Harvey’s Sussex Best, Taylor’s Landlord, Bank’s Amber (is this a new name for the mild?), and the biggest surprise of all, Draught Bass. Tempted though I was by the latter, I decided to play safe and went for the Landlord. My reckoning was that a new generation of Tonbridge drinkers would be unfamiliar with the Bass, ignorant in the knowledge that a couple of decades ago, the Man of Kent, just round the corner in East Street, served one of the finest pints of Draught Bass available anywhere.
I was probably right, as the Taylor’s was in good form (NBSS 3.5), and I did notice several pints of it being pulled. As well as the usual big-brand stuff on the T-bar, there were a number of “craft offerings” chalked up on a board behind the bar. There was also a typical “craft” set-up, with a line of anonymous-looking chrome taps, set into the back wall. Unfortunately there were too many people crowded around the bar for me to take a photo of the list, but I did notice Meantime Brewery featuring a couple of times. I did however, manage to photograph the Gatehouse’s “craft” bottle selection.
The clientele seemed quite mixed, with a proportion of families, no doubt drawn in by the food offering, which looked well-presented and good value for money. I am sure the Gatehouse will prove both an asset to the town and a welcome addition to the local drinking scene.
Directly opposite the Gatehouse, and standing almost in the shadow of the 13th Century Castle, is the Olde Chequers Inn; an attractive, half-timbered, black and white painted pub. It is one of the oldest buildings in Tonbridge, with parts dating back to the 12th Century, although most of the pub is around three centuries younger
The Chequers has been a pub for centuries, and really ought to be a place which the town can be proud of; but somehow it has never realised its full potential. I first knew the pub as a work-a-day, down-to-earth Courage house, but despite several changes of owner, and a slight improvement in the beer range, it hasn’t changed much over the course of the past 30 years. If anything it has got worse, as when a pub with this sort of pedigree, feels the need to hold regular karaoke evenings, then really it is doing something seriously wrong.
So imagine then the excitement which grew as rumours began circulating that Sankey’s, a family business who own several establishments in nearby Tunbridge Wells, including a pub, restaurant, oyster bar and fish shop, had expressed an interest in the Chequers. Surely this was the time to give the Chequers the sort of attention it richly deserves, and surely too time for the pub to shine, after all those years in the doldrums.
Unfortunately the deal fell through; either that or the rumours were completely false to begin with. In the meantime, the Chequers seems to be soldiering on in pretty much the same vein as previously; although it does have a new team behind the bar.
So a mixed bag so far and adding to the mix is the news that the closed Mojo’s, formerly a multi-roomed pub called the South Eastern, is to re-open as a Tapas Bar. This will be a vast improvement, as Mojo’s was the sort of place you went to if you didn’t value keeping hold of your sense of hearing. It also had an unsavoury reputation as somewhere to go if you fancied a punch-up. In fact I can think of very few redeeming features about the place, so in a way I was relieved to see it closed and look forward to its new incarnation.
So what about the game-changing news I’ve been saving until last? Well, like the answer to a maiden’s prayer, Alex Greig, who runs the excellent Fuggles Beer Café in Tunbridge Wells, is planning to open an outlet in Tonbridge. Suitable premises have already been found, along with planning permission, plus that all important licence. With regard to the latter, I was one of several local residents who wrote to the local authority in support of Fuggle’s application.
As to the actual premises, well Fuggle’s will be occupying a handsome-looking, late 19th Century building at the northern end of the High Street. The place is currently home to an old-established furniture shop; a family-run business in fact. Bonner’s have been trading in Tonbridge for the past 70 years, and their flooring shop, at 165 High Street, is a former antique’s emporium, known as Lawsons.
I’m not sure why the business is ceasing trading, but it might just be because the current owner(s) wishes to retire. There are signs in the window advertising a “closing down sale”, but these have been there for some months now. I am therefore uncertain as to when Fuggle’s will be able to take possession of the premises, but when they do there is a considerable amount of internal building work to be carried out, before they can start selling beer. I have viewed the plans online, and am pleased to report the conversion will be carried out in a tasteful manner which is sympathetic to the obvious heritage of the building. The conversion also involves some sound-proofing work, as there are some residential flats on one of the upper floors.
This coming spring is probably the earliest we will see Fuggles opening, but I’m sure it will be worth the wait. It will be terrific to have a place in Tonbridge which will cater for real beer enthusiasts – sounds rather elitist, I know, but sometimes you have to stick your head above the parapet.
I will, of course, keep you informed on the progress of this opening, along with updates on the continually evolving pub scene within the town. In the meantime, I would like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy, Prosperous and Peaceful New Year.