Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Robertsbridge - a reopening railway and a closed pub

I promised in the last post to provide an update on the Kent & East Sussex Railway’s plans for their heritage railway, and also on the situation regarding the Seven Stars; the Harvey’s pub in Robertsbridge High Street, which has now been closed for over a year.

First the railway. Rother District District Council have approved Kent & East Sussex Railway’s plans for a new station building, platform, water tower, carriage shed and locomotive shed, adjacent to the mainline station and virtually opposite the Ostrich Hotel.

They have also given the go-ahead for the restoration of the Northbridge Street to Junction Road section of the Robertsbridge to Bodiam Reconnection Project. If and when this stretch of line is re-laid, and the restoration project completed, it will be possible to travel by a heritage train from Robertsbridge via Bodiam to the eastern end of the line at Tenterden.

The current end of the line
On our recent visit to the village we saw clear signs of the work being carried out in order to get the new station into place. We also saw the track which has been laid to allow locomotives and rolling stock to transfer onto the heritage railway from the main London - Hastings line. As we walked out  towards Salehurst, we noticed where the newly laid track currently terminates at Northbridge Street.

So far, so good, but there are still a number of obstacles in the way,  not least of which are the reports in the local press, back in April, which show that two local landowners (both farmers), are holding out against selling their section of lands to the railway. The K&ESR may be able to compulsory purchase the necessary sections of land, but they are on record as saying they would much rather reach an amicable agreement with the farmers concerned.

In addition, parliamentary approval has to be obtained before track laying can commence, and in the current uncertain political climate, there is no indication as to when, or indeed if, there will be time to pass the necessary legislation.

Tenterden station
There is also the small matter of three level crossings which need to be put in place. For both safety and operational reasons, modern railway operation does not favour level crossings; preferring instead to separate rail and road traffic completely, by means of bridges, or tunnels. Given the topography and nature of the line, such solutions are both expensive and impractical, but a safe, practical and economic way of taking the preserved railway across the busy A21 trunk road has to be found.

Local MP Greg Clarke, has expressed concerns over this particular crossing, but he is only looking at the situation from the road traffic point of view, and is ignoring the obvious economic benefit which a restored, heritage railway would bring to the area. So whilst the longer term outlook for restoring this section of line is looking good, there are still a number of significant hurdles to overcome before trains can run all the way up to Tenterden again.
Now for the Seven Stars. As mentioned earlier, this fine old 14th Century inn remains firmly closed. The pub is owned by Harvey’s, who are reported as having difficulty in finding suitable tenants for the pub. Some have argued that this may be due to the high rent which the brewery are asking; reported to be £50,000 pa, and with business rates of £15,000 on top, it is perhaps not surprising that no tenants have come forward.

This is not the first pub Harvey’s have had difficulties with in recent years; as the Two Brewers  at Hadlow, in our own branch area, has seen a succession of tenants come and go. It may just be hearsay, but it appears Harvey’s may have joined the Pub Co’s in charging “market-led” rents; rather than something more realistic, which would work for both the brewery and any prospective tenants.

It may be that there is insufficient trade in a village the size of Robertsbridge,  to support three pubs; but on the other hand are the brewery just being greedy? I am surprised that Harvey’s have not installed an interim manager at the Seven Stars, as that way they could continue to draw revenue from the place, whilst re-building the trade. This would obviously be to the advantage of any incoming tenants, and ultimately to the brewery as well, so this type of arrangement would surely benefit both parties.

Perhaps this is a little too obvious, or perhaps the brewery wish to demonstrate that the pub is no longer viable. If so, this is a sorry state of affairs, and one which is not befitting of a fine old independent family brewery like Harvey’s.

So these are the updates of what is happening in Robertsbridge at present. Will the heritage rail link be restored, and will it be possible to travel up top Tenterden in a vintage carriage, hauled by a steam locomotive? Equally, will I get the chance to enjoy a few pints at the Seven Stars? I’ve never set foot inside, and it would be nice to do so, but are economics no longer in the pub’s favour?

Despite all these “ifs and buts”, Robertsbridge is still a place well worth visiting and, if time allows, so is the surrounding countryside.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Robertsbridge revisited

After a break of over a year, I caught up with my old walking companion Eric yesterday. We carried on where we had left off, back in February 2016, by once again taking the train down to Robertsbridge in East Sussex.

On this occasion we decided to cast our net slightly further afield and walk out to the tiny settlement of Salehurst for a drink at the quaintly named Salehurst Halt pub. I say quaintly named, but in reality there really was a “halt” nearby, back in the days when the original Kent and East Sussex Railway ran along the valley of the river Rother, from Robertsbridge in Sussex, north  to Headcorn in the Kentish Weald.
We had both heard of the Salehurst Halt, and on our previous excursion to Robertsbridge it was recommended that we should visit the pub, by one of the locals we met in the Ostrich (the pub nearest the station). This character assured us that the walk to Salehurst was just under 30 minutes, but because it was dark, and we were quite comfortable in the Ostrich, we decided to stay put and leave this walk for another day.

We had also both seen the Salehurst Halt featured on an episode of “Country File”, when singer and actor David Essex paid the pub a visit, because it reminded him of childhood holidays, hop-picking with his East-London family. With the weather set fair, and the summer solstice fast approaching, a Saturday evening in mid-June seemed the ideal to make our own way to this isolated little pub. We consequently caught the 15:59 train from Tonbridge, and 35 minutes later were alighting at Robertsbridge.

Before walking up into the village, we decided to call in at the Ostrich for a “quick one”.  The mercury was still in the upper twenties, so a cool, refreshing pint of beer seemed a good idea. We would also be able to check out the food option at the Ostrich, for later on. The Harvey’s was indeed good, but we stuck to our intention of just having the one, and then headed off on our quest to visit Salehurst.

We headed off up Station Street, passing the site which is being developed to form the western terminus of the Kent & East Sussex Railway, (more about that later). We then turned left at the “T”-junction and made our way along the High Street with its attractive old buildings, and down  the hill, passing the still sadly closed Seven Stars pub, (more about this too, later on). We crossed the River Rother, along with its various channels, passing the cricket ground on our left, before reaching the junction with the busy A21 trunk road. Fortunately there is a light-controlled pedestrian crossing, and before long the houses started to peter out, and we found ourselves in open countryside.  

We continued  in an easterly direction, along Church Lane, and with the imposing church tower acting as our guide, we reached the tiny village of Salehurst, and our destination the Salehurst Halt. The pub is an unassuming brick-built, part tile-hung Victorian building, just down from the church, and with the doors left open to allow as much cooling air as possible to blow through, we stepped inside.

It took our eyes a short while to adjust to the cool dark interior, but what we found was an open plan area, grouped around the bar. There was a choice of three cask ales waiting for us; Harvey’s (of course), plus Dark Star American Pale and Old Dairy Summer Top. I opted for the latter to start with, switching later to the Dark Star. Eric stuck with the Dark Star.

Both beers were nicely chilled, and we know that the pub has a cellar, because we saw the landlord disappear down the hatch to change a cask. There was a 50th Birthday Party planned for one of the regulars later on, and whilst we were sitting at the bar the band arrived and began setting up.

We decided to take a look outside with our second pint, as there is an attractive terraced garden behind the pub, with views out across the Rother Valley. Given the people arriving for the party, we noticed that the few unoccupied tables had “reserved” signs on them, so we found ourselves a space at the front of the pub, and sat there enjoying our drinks and watching the world go by.

Salehurst seems a very pleasant little village, although my friend, rather unfairly described it as “full of yuppies”. I pointed out that in the 21st Century, did he really expect it to be full of rustic farm labourers and sons of the soil, tired from a day’s toiling out in the fields? He came back down to reality, and agreed that were it not for people with a bit of spare money in their pockets, pubs like the Salehurst Halt would have closed long ago.

It is fair to say that the Salehurst Halt is very much a pub used and enjoyed, not just by the whole villager, but also other from further afield. In recognition of this it, received the Community Pub of the Year 2016 and Consistency of Excellence awards from the local CAMRA branch. We obviously called in at a busy time, so it would be nice to visit when it is less busy. I imagine the pub would be equally good, after a brisk walk  on a cold January day.

After finishing our second pint, we re-traced our steps back to Robertsbridge, and to the Ostrich Hotel where we had decided to dine. The pub was quite quiet when we arrived, so there was no problem over food. I opted for the steak, mushroom and ale pie which, as the picture below shows, was definitely a “proper pie”. Served with new potatoes, seasonal vegetables and a jug of gravy, it was an absolute bargain  £8.50. Eric chose a three-egg omelette, with the aforementioned seasonal veg.

We had a couple of pints of Harvey’s each before catching the 22.14 train back to Tonbridge. Our return visit to Robertsbridge had been an obvious success, as not only did we renew our acquaintance with the excellent Ostrich Hotel, but we also finally made it to the equally good Salehurst Halt. On that subject though, we both agreed that walking out there on a dark February evening would not have been such a good idea; despite what the customer in the Ostrich had told us. (Incidentally, he was there yesterday).

Footnote: I mentioned above that I would expand further on both the Kent & East Sussex Railway and the Seven Stars, but I appear to have run out of both space and time. I will therefore save these updates for the next post.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Chiddingstone Causeway Arts & Social Centre

There’s still a couple of posts to come about last month’s trip to Düsseldorf, but before we look at how the area’s two local, but very different beers styles are brewed, I want to step back to England for a short while, and somewhere much closer to home, as I want to let people know about an inspiring example of a local community at its best.

For the past 11 years I have worked for a company which is based in the village of Chiddingstone Causeway; a small settlement about 6 miles west of Tonbridge. The village is relatively modern, having  sprung up around Penshurst station, on the Tonbridge to Redhill line. One of the quirks of the Victorian railway era was that many stations were often several miles from the places they were named after, and Penshurst is no exception.

Penshurst village is about two miles away, but it is worth noting that the station was originally built to provide rail access to Penshurst Place; ancestral home of the Sidney family, and one of the most complete surviving examples of 14th-century domestic architecture in England.

The settlement which grew up next to the station became known as Chiddingstone Causeway. The “Causeway” part of the name is thought to refer to the route across boggy ground towards Sevenoaks, whilst the first part comes from the nearby village of Chiddingstone; a much older settlement which dates back at least to Anglo-Saxon times, and possibly before.

Nowadays the village consists mostly of housing, plus a few local businesses, of which my company is by far the largest. Chiddingstone Causeway also has  a shop-cum-post office,  a church, a pub and also a village hall.

I wrote, quite extensively about the village, back in February last year, so today I want to talk about the village hall. The latter was once the village church; a “tin tabernacle”, which was built in the 1880s. Today, the old corrugated iron church has been replaced by an attractive, stone building, which stands towards the crest of the hill, on the edge of the village. It is dedicated to St Luke, and opened for worship in 1898.

Former St Saviour's Church, Chiddingstone Causeway.


St Luke’s Church was the gift of a local benefactor, and came into being because of the growth in population and the need to provide a place where  the increasingly larger congregation could worship. When the new church opened the old “tin tabernacle” was moved to the centre of the village, where it became the village hall.

An attractive brick section,  complete with a clock and a first floor observation window, was constructed as a frontage to the hall, some time in the 1930’s; and for the next three-quarter of a century provided a convenient place for villagers to meet for secular activities. The old hall was a bit draughty at times and by the first  decade of the current century, after over 100 years of service, the structure had seen better days, and was in urgent need of repair or even replacement.

For most of the time I have worked in Chiddingstone Causeway, the local community has been trying to raise funds to rebuild their village hall. Several people who live in the village work for our company and have been involved in fund-raising activities. These have ranged from raffles, Sunday afternoon teas, dances, bric-a-brac sales, amateur dramatics plus breakfasts.

The latter, took place on alternate Sundays, and were popular with both villagers and visitors alike. For just a fiver a head you could have a full English breakfast, with accompanying tea or coffee. My son and I were regular attendees, secure in the knowledge that as well as enjoying a satisfying cooked breakfast, we were doing our bit to help raise funds for a new hall. I also bought raffle tickets from colleagues at work.

The old village hall - front view
The original plan was to demolish and rebuild the tin hut section of the building, but to keep and refurbish the brick built front part. This proved somewhat of a headache, and it was decided that it would be better to demolish the whole building and start from scratch. The style of the old façade would be reproduced, as far as possible, and incorporated into the new look hall.

Before the rebuild could go ahead, planning permission had to be obtained, and there was the small matter of costs. The hall committee successfully applied for a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but this was conditional on them raising a matching amount themselves.

This requirement was achieved, and eventually the target of £700,000 was reached, planning permission was obtained and the architect’s design passed building regulations. The old hall closed in February last year, but not before one final breakfast, with kippers on the menu, as well as full English. Matt and I adore kippers, but rarely have them at home, as my wife is not keen on the “aroma” they leave behind.

Once the hall had been cleared out, and equipment had been put into storage, the contractors moved in. It didn’t take long to demolish the old building and clear the site, and once the ground-works were in place, it didn’t take long for the steel framework of the new hall to be erected.

My regular lunchtime walk takes me past the site most days, so I was able to watch the new hall taking shape. The design of the rebuild followed as much of the original footprint as possible, and the same applied to the appearance of the new hall, although modern standards and regulations obviously had to be adhered to. A firm of builders based in Crowborough were responsible for building and fitting out the hall, and having now seen the inside, as well as the exterior, I can vouch for the excellent job they have done.

On Saturday 3rd June, the Causeway Hall was officially opened by local Olympic legend, Dame Kelly Holmes. The following day, Matt and I joined several dozen others for the first Sunday breakfast; and we also returned last Sunday as well.

Like all present,  we were really impressed with the new hall, and its bright and airy feel. As well as the main hall, there is a meeting room, kitchen and dressing room; the latter for use when plays are performed. There is still quite a bit of kitting-out to be done, with a proper stage, plus a decent sound-system top of the list.

Fund raising therefore continues, not just to meet the costs of the above items, but to cover the day to day running costs of the building. I was talking to one of the volunteers on Sunday, who said that the hall needs to pay for itself, so the committee are doing their utmost to publicise it existence and promote its use. The building which is now known as Chiddingstone Causeway Arts & Social Centre,  is available for hire to interested parties. The Causeway Hall website can be accessed here.

I want to end by saying that the whole project has been an excellent example of a whole community coming together, to achieve something of real value for the common good. It also serves as an example for others to follow. Albeit in a very modest way, I am pleased to have lent my support to this shared ideal.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Gräfrather Klosterbräu - Solingen

It’s back to Germany and the Rhineland for this next post, which carries on from the visit we made to the Wuppertaler Brauhaus. After travelling back to Vohwinkel by means of the Schwebebahn Suspension Railway, we boarded a trolley bus travelling in the direction of Solingen station.

We were only on the bus a short while, before our tour leader said it was time to get off. The bus had journeyed up a steep hill out of the Wupper valley, but after crossing the road, and walking back a short distance in the direction we had just came from, we turned off down a steep side street which led us down into another valley and the small village of  Gräfrath.

As we arrived in the village we could see the Gräfrather Klosterbräu set back from the road, on the right hand side. This was the place our guide was making for, and it just so happened to be the second brew-pub of the day.

Gräfrather Klosterbräu is a much smaller establishment than the Wuppertaler Brauhaus, and is just a pub-cum-restaurant with a small brewery attached. Like most of the houses and other buildings in Gräfrath, Klosterbräu had a cladding of slates. We noticed quite a few other similarly-clad buildings on our journey back to Solingen, but the slate façade, combined with the green-painted shutters, certainly gave the pub a rather attractive look.

It was a warm sunny day, so we parked ourselves down at the wooden benches and tables at the front of the pub. Beer was the main thing on our mind, and noticing our presence, or possibly having heard it, a waitress soon appeared with some menus. Having already eaten, we were only interested in the liquid offerings, and we were pleased to see that the house-brewed beers were available in both 33 cl and 50 cl measures.

Not wishing to do things by halves, we all opted for the latter. I kicked off with the Zwickl; an unfiltered beer, whilst son Matthew went straight in on the Pils. There was also an Alt Bier and a Weizen available. Our tour guide gave the latter a try. Later on I switched to the Pils, but I preferred the Zwickl because of its fresh, natural flavour.

Apart from the Weizen, it  wasn’t possible to see the colour of any of the beers, as they were served up in half-litre, stoneware mugs or Krugs. These do have the advantage of keeping beer cooler for longer, but whilst I appreciate this characteristic, I do like to see the colour of the beer I am consuming.

There is a lot of truth in the saying that people drink with their eyes, and I have written on this subject before, but the saying of “When in Rome” applied that afternoon and I was just glad to be sitting there, chatting with friends enjoying the refreshingly cool beer whilst admiring the attractive village, literally a stone’s throw away down the cobbled street.

Apart from some pictures of the pub, I didn’t take any of the village, which I regret now, but I remember the church as being particularly attractive. I took a wander inside the pub, primarily to use the “facilities”, but also for a bit of nose around. The pub interior was divided up into several rooms, with the beams and walls painted white.  The laminated floor gave it quite a minimalist look, but despite this the pub still had quite a rustic feel to it.

Apart from the staff, there was no-one else inside, so us turning up out of the blue must have provided a welcome boost to trade. All 13 of use consumed at least a litre of beer apiece, and several members of our party (not me), had quite a bit more! Gräfrather Klosterbräu did seem rather upmarket, but in spite of this the beer prices were pretty keen at €3.70 for a half litre; certainly when compared to those back here in the UK.

Apart from the pub’s website, I have not been able to find out anything else about the place. The strengths of the beers were not listed on the menu, and there is no indication either of when Klosterbräu first opened as a brew-pub. Steve Thomas’s Good Beer Guide Germany doesn’t list the place, and neither does the updated, on-line list. I believe a couple of the avid “Untappd” users amongst our party, managed to locate, and indeed “tap” both the pub and the beers, but as I’m not a huge fan of “ticking” - electronic or otherwise, I wasn’t paying a huge amount of attention.

I meant to ask our guide how he found Gräfrather in the first place, especially as I know he is not an “Untappd” user, but I am grateful he managed to locate it and take us there. Gräfrather Klosterbräu is sufficiently far away from tourist areas, and the normal places frequented by visitors from afar, that it is necessary to make a special trip in order to sample the beers. For these reasons it is doubtful whether any readers of this blog will have been there. However, if  you do manage a visit,  I’m certain you will enjoy the pub, its beers and the picturesque surroundings.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

What makes a good pub?

I’ve been in some really fantastic and often totally amazing pubs, bars and beer halls,  over the course of 44 years drinking; both at home and abroad (and that’s not counting the few years before I reached the legal age for consuming alcohol on licensed premises).

Equally I’ve also been in many more mediocre ones which, whilst meeting a few essential requirements, are pubs I can either take or leave. Then there are other outlets which having experienced once, I would never wish to set foot in again.

It’s perhaps easier to define what makes a bad pub, but a lot harder to come up with what makes a good pub; or even a great pub? The question is still worth asking even though it is seldom answered to the satisfaction of everyone. This is almost certainly because there are so many different possible answers, and for this reason alone, I would be hard pushed to write out a definitive list of my all time favourites.

So let us look more closely at this and see if we can come up with things which are essential and things which are desirable. There are some which most pub lovers would agree on, but equally there are others which divide opinion.
For beer lovers the quality, range or sometimes rarity of the brew(s) stocked plays an important and often essential part. Then for lovers of buildings, and fans of architecture in general, the design, layout, history and makeup of the pub itself make an equally important contribution. The people who frequent the pub (customers) are also an important factor; as who and what they are play a key role in determining the type of pub, its atmosphere and ambience.

The contribution of the people who run the pub; from the licensee down to the people either behind the bar or beavering away, out of the public eye, in the kitchen, or sometimes down the cellar, also play a vital role in determining what is a great pub, or just a mediocre one.

There are obviously pubs to suit different occasions, moods or social requirements; be they a place for thirsty and foot sore ramblers to stop off on a hot summers day, whilst in the middle of a country walk, or the same pub, on a crisp, but bitingly cold winter’s day, when there’s a welcoming log fire roaring away in the grate.

Then there are the town pubs, full of cool hip people offering a range of the latest “craft beers”, or alternatively traditional back street locals, with just a couple of good locally brewed ales on tap. On top of this there are the more upmarket pubs offering a fine dining experience, but of equal value how about somewhere more basic? A pub with tasty, value for money, genuine home-cooked food pub, rather than something bought in from the local chilled food distributor, and then re-heated in the microwave.

And then for sports’ lovers there are pubs showing the latest football, rugby or cricket tournaments.
Other pubs function as real community locals, holding quiz evenings, barbecues, fancy dress evenings and often fund-raising activities.

We all have our own ideas as to what makes a good pub, and ultimately it depends on exactly what people are looking for. It would be good to hear other people's views on this, so if anyone would like to add to the debate, please feel free to add you comments.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Wuppertaler Brauhaus - May 2017

The building which today houses the Wuppertaler Brauhaus, opened as a bathing establishment in July 1882, in the centre of the then independent city of Barmen; thereby becoming one of the first German Volksbäde, or people’s baths. Today Barmen makes up part of the Wuppertal conurbation.

In 1993, after providing both swimming and bathing facilities for 111 years, the baths closed; presumably due to the difficulties  and expense of accommodating changes in public demand within a 19th Century building. Fortunately, following extensive renovation work to adapt the listed building,  it re-opened in 1997 as the home of the Wuppertaler Brauhaus. This means that on 14th June, this year, this brew-pub and restaurant will be celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Our visit took place three weeks before this milestone, and we found the Brauhaus in good form. As mentioned in the previous article, we had a little difficulty finding the place, having taken a wrong turn away from the pedestrianised street, which forms Barmen’s main shopping centre. I was pleased that we did find it though, as I am starting to suffer from the condition which affects men of a certain age –  in other words I needed a pee!

Wuppertaler Brauhaus is housed in a fine red-brick, late 19th Century building, as befits this former municipal swimming baths, and much care has been taken in the restoration work. I was a man on a mission though  and soon found my way downstairs to the gents, or "Herren" as the men’s facilities are labelled in Germany. I had to laugh, as I stood there emptying my bladder, as directly above the stainless steel urinal trough is a mural depicting a group of ladies looking down on what is taking place directly below. One lady is pointing and laughing, another is gasping, one has a camera whilst a fourth is holding a tape-measure!
I had to laugh too, and once I’d finished what I’d gone in for, took a number of photos on my phone. I wouldn’t normally be taking photos in a toilet, but I thought the mural was well worth capturing and sharing with the world. I also thought that if nothing else does, the sense of mischief conveyed dispels  once and for all the notion that the Germans don’t have a sense of humour! So for the lovers of “toilet art” amongst you, and especially retiredmartin, here are the lovely ladies of the Barmen Badeanstalt.

When I returned, my travelling companions were also greatly amused by my photos of the mural. In my absence they had grabbed a couple of the long bench tables, outside in the Biergarten. It was just the weather for sitting out, and whilst we had the place to ourselves to begin with, it soon began filling up with discerning locals. The waiter arrived to take our order; beer first of course. There were three draught beers on tap and I tried them all.

I began with the 4.9% Hell – an unfiltered and un-pasteurised, full-flavoured pale beer with a nice crisp finish. I followed it with the Dunkel – a dark lager, also 4.9% ABV, as well as being unfiltered and un-pasteurised. Last on the list was Bernsteinfarben – a 5.6% amber coloured beer. Well-balanced and refreshing and with hop flavours to the fore, this was good beer to finish on, but I have to say that out of the three I preferred the first. I was also pleased to see the beer being served in proper 0.5 litre tankards.

We all selected an item from the menu to go with the beer; knowing full well the rule about never drinking on an empty stomach. Matt and I both went for the Frikadelle mit Kartofelsalat – a type of burger served with potato salad. It was just the right portion size for lunchtime.

We were all quite sorry to leave the Wuppertaler Brauhaus, but our tour leader had another brew-pub in store for us on the way back to Sollingen. 

We departed mid-afternoon, but not without me making a last visit to the gents. There I heard, what one of my companions had pointed out earlier, as playing gently in the background, over some hidden speakers, were the recorded sounds from a typical swimming pool. Another nice humorous touch for this most excellent German brew-pub.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

You keep me hanging on

The tour leader and guide on our recent Düsseldorf trip, did a sterling job by providing us with an interesting and varied programme of places to visit, pubs to try and beers to enjoy. He also looked after all the transport arrangements, going so far as purchasing  the requisite number of tickets, using group offers wherever possible. We then shared the costs between ourselves. This was the same arrangement which applied on the visit we made to Jihlava, in the Czech Republic, two years ago.

I’m sure our guide won’t mind me describing him as something of a “public transport buff”; but then he did work as bus driver of several years, prior to retirement.  He is well known in CAMRA circles for promoting buses and trains as a means of getting to and from the pub, and contributed the section in the “Gateway to Kent Pub Guide” entitled “By bus or train to the pub.” This is something I am all in favour of, especially as it is surprising to learn that many people are unaware of the public transport links in their own area; preferring instead to jump into their car and drive to a particular pub.

Trolley bus - central Solingen
It’s a bit different when holidaying abroad, and whilst some people might decide to hire a car, it kind of defeats the object when it is beer you are after. Most European countries seem to have better public transport systems than what we have in the UK. They attract more investment and are often fully integrated, meaning it is possible to switch from trains to buses and then onto trams or even the underground; all on the same ticket.

On my own forays abroad, I have normally done a bit of homework prior to departing, and have sussed out train times or details of bus routes etc, in order to get to a particular location and back. Sometimes though it is nice to just sit back and let someone else do all the donkey-work.

The first full day of our stay in Düsseldorf  saw us taking a train in a south-easterly direction, to the town of Solingen. After leaving the station we boarded a trolley bus which, for those not old enough to remember, is an electric bus that draws power from overhead wires (generally suspended from roadside posts) by means of spring-loaded "trolley poles". Our bus was heading towards the town centre, which is set on a hill a fair distance from the station. I discovered upon returning home that the city of Solingen operates the largest of the three remaining trolleybus systems in Germany, so I am not surprised that our bus-enthusiast guide took us there.

The terrain was surprisingly hilly as our bus climbed out of the valley, but eventually we reached the centre of Solingen. There was time for a quick coffee plus a visit to the cash machine before catching a different trolley bus; this time to Vohwinkel; a location which forms part of the Wuppertal conurbation. Vohwinkel is also the start of the  Schwebebahn, a 110 year old Suspension Railway which operates at a height of around 40 feet above the River Wupper, and which runs for a distance of just over 8 miles to Oberbarmen.

The Wuppertal Suspension Railway came into operation in 1901, opening in sections. It took until June 1903 before the full stretch of line from Vohwinkel in the west to the eastern terminus at Oberbarmen opened. Nowadays  the railway carries approximately 80,000  passengers per weekday through the city. An extensive modernisation programme began in 1997, during which much of the supporting framework was either strengthened, or replaced. Many of the stations were also rebuilt and brought up to date.

This was the second unusual mode of transport of the day, and a quite amazing one at that. Our group tickets were valid on this most unusual of railways, so we ascended to the platforms and waited for one of the two-car trains to arrive. We didn’t have to wait long as during the week, the trains run at four minute intervals. Once aboard, we settled down to enjoy the ride.

Werther Brücke station
I was sitting directly behind the driver’s cab, so had an excellent view as we travelled along, suspended in the air. For the first few stops, the track follows the course of the street, and it seemed strange passing houses and businesses at just below roof level, but before long we noticed the train was following the course of the River Wupper, some 40 feet below us.

It seems incredulous in this day and age that a railway could be constructed above a river, but I strongly suspect that at the turn of the last century the Wupper river was not the pleasant water-course it is today. There was a industrial purpose to the railway back then, as there were many factories and other works along the banks of the river and, as we noticed, agro-chemical giant Bayer still has a presence there today.

After a journey of around 25 minutes, we alighted at Werther Brücke station which is three stops from the end of the line. We were making for the Wuppertaler Brauhaus, which is a large brew-house housed in a former swimming baths. Our route took us through a busy pedestrianised shopping area, which didn’t look promising as a location for a brew-pub, but we eventually found the place we were looking for, tucked away in a pleasant location well away from the shops.

As the Wuppertaler Brauhaus is somewhere worthy of its own post, I will end here and cover this excellent brew-pub and beer garden in a separate article.