Sunday, 19 November 2017

Night of the long knives



It’s been cull-time on the blog this evening; a long overdue removal of moribund blogs from my blog-list, and the addition of a number of blogs which have caught my interest of late. It’s been some time since I last carried out this exercise, and I noticed there were several blogs where nothing has been posted for over a year.

Like others before me I’m wondering what happened to cause the authors of these moribund blogs, to cease writing. Did they just get bored, or run out of things to say? Or are there deeper reasons? I know that when I had a mental health issue six years ago, I didn’t post anything for the best part of nine months, but I did find writing very therapeutic once I started to feel better in myself.

Of course there may be other reasons apart from health, such as change of job or starting a family; definitely a life-changer that one! Whatever the reason, I am dropping nine blogs from my list, and adding six in their place. If by some chance, any of the dropped blogs spark back into life, I can always add them back in, but we’ll just have to wait and see on that one.

I am not going to name any of the blogs I’ve dropped, and neither will I point out those I have added. The latter is just in case the new additions also start to wither on the vine. However,  I’m sure I’ve missed out the odd gem when deciding which new blogs to add, so if there are other beer-related blogs which people feel are worthy of a mention, please let me know.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

“November comes and November goes, with the last red berries and the first white snows".



November is probably my least favourite month of the year. With autumn well and truly over, and weather ranging from mist and fog to dull, overcast and drizzling, there’s something about November which makes people want to curl up in front of a nice warm fire and hibernate. 

Some would say as November is the herald of Christmas, it gives people something to look forward to, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s much too early for all that. Instead we have to suffer the over-blown wave of commercialism which accompanies the festering season.

Some friends of mine embarked on a country walk this morning. I was unable to join them, but last night in the pub they were saying the forecast wasn’t looking good, which was in complete contrast to the wall to wall sunshine we enjoyed yesterday. They were right about the weather, and as we drove over to Tunbridge Wells retail park this morning, through the type of persistent rain which quickly soaks you to the skin, I was especially glad not to be out in it, traipsing along the North Downs Way.

The pub they were making for doesn’t do food, so the plan was meet at one of Tonbridge’s “greasy-spoon” establishments, and fill up on a hearty breakfast – see my previous article for endorsement of this.  I also understand the beer range is rather limited; something I’m sure retiredmartin will approve of.

There is one thing about this time of year which does make life a little more pleasant, and that is the welcome appearance of seasonal dark ales, such as Old Ale and Porter. Tonbridge Fuggles had two on last night, in the form of Dark Star Bock and Westerham Family Stout. I tried the former, which at 5.4% was a little too sweet for my liking, and had planned to tackle the Westerham Stout next.

That was scuppered by a suggested move to Spoon’s, brought about by Fuggles being rather too full for comfort, and certainly too noisy for us to conduct our impromptu CAMRA meeting. It’s obviously good to see that Tonbridge has really taken Fuggles to its heart, but Friday and Saturday evenings are probably not the best times for a cosy chat over a few pints.

Spoon’s was a little less busy, and we were able to find a table towards the rear of the barn-like pub. This was good as several of wanted to eat, and seeing as Friday is Fish & Chips night at Wetherspoon’s, cod, chips and mushy peas was the obvious choice. At just £7.40, which included a pint of Long Man Old Man Ale, this was the bargain of the evening. The Old Man was a complete contrast to the Dark Star offering, with notes of coffee and chocolate, which compliment the pleasant light hoppiness. This was truly a rich and full tasting Old Ale, and a fine example of the style.

So what about some other dark ales? Well although October is well out of the way, I still haven’t tracked down any Harvey’s Old Ale this season. That should be rectified next weekend, as I am going on a bus trip to Lewes, with a group of CAMRA members from Maidstone. Strangely enough, Harvey’s only have three pubs in the town, but their beers should be available in most of  Lewes’s free-houses.

Larkin’s Porter has also been rather elusive this season, although to be fair, it appears a little later in the year as, by tradition, the brewery doesn’t release the beer until Bonfire Night. However, they did agree to provide a cask for the Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival last month. It was the first cask to sell out, and unfortunately was gone before I’d had a chance to try a drop.

No doubt there will be other seasonal dark ales cropping up over the course of  the winter, and I look forward to trying those I come across.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

A good start to the day?



Full Irish

Well the past few posts have been about Wetherspoon’s, travel and hotel bookings, so why not widen this slightly to include a piece on breakfast; every traveller’s favourite meal of the day - especially after a good night’s sleep!

Not withstanding time spent away, when a decent breakfast is expected as part of the accommodation package, it’s something of a tradition amongst the male members of the Bailey family ie. father and son, to go out for breakfast, especially on a Sunday morning. This only applies when the son isn’t working and the father isn’t off out on some CAMRA jaunt or walk in the country, with friends.

Pre-flight breakfast in the pale light of dawn
It should also be stated that this is not a male only activity and that no attempt has been made to exclude,  deliberately or otherwise, the lady of the house. It just so happens that Mrs PBT’s likes to treat the Sabbath as an excuse to catch up on “refurbishing” herself and not have to get “made up”; something her feminine pride normally insists on before venturing outdoors.

She also works from home, and finds she can get a lot more done when husband and son are away, stuffing their faces with all sorts of greasy and unhealthy food which, she rightly claims she doesn’t need. Personally I think it’s just an excuse to put her feet up and slob out in front of "Escape to the Country" or “Homes under the Hammer”!

I digress, and to return to though topic in hand there are the vexed questions of where to go, and what to eat? Leaving aside the first for a while a decent, full-English, cooked breakfast has to be the default option, although nowadays items such as hash browns, bubble and squeak and black pudding seems to have crept onto the menu, to join the traditional mix of bacon, sausage, egg, tomato and fried bread.

Could we have kippers for breakfast??????
In a recent post I wrote about kippers; a choice which is both tasty and also healthier than the traditional “fry-up”.  The humble smoked herring, like most oily fish, is rich in Omega-3 and other fatty acids and should be a feature of  all decent breakfast menus. Unfortunately, it is something of a rarity these days, possibly because of the lingering smell, or the fact that decent fresh kippers, as opposed to the boil-in-the-bag variety, are quite hard to come by. They featured recently on the menu of the George in Dereham, and they were also an option in happier days, at the Hill House Hotel in the same town.

I struck lucky with my choice of guesthouse a few years back, when I visited the Isle of Man, for the 2010 CAMRA Members Weekend & National AGM. Kippers, and Manx ones at that, featured prominently on the breakfast menu, so not surprisingly I indulged myself with this tasty and healthy start to the day on three out of the four morning I was on the island. Talk about kipper heaven!
Spoon's

Closer to home, Spoon’s have been the easy choice for the lad and I over the years. You know exactly what will be served on those willow-pattern plates, and generally it is filling, tasty and excellent value for money. We have breakfasted in all three of our local JDW outlets (Sevenoaks, Tonbridge & Tunbridge Wells), and by and large both the food and the service have been pretty good.

Another good option has to be your local “greasy spoon” type of café.  Most towns can boast at least one such establishment, and I’m sure most of us have a favourite in our home town or city.  Seeing as a decent, full-English, cooked breakfast is one of the easiest meals to prepare, it’s hardly surprising that most places get it right, and whilst some are obviously better than others,  I have rarely been disappointed in my quest for a decent breakfast.

Causeway Hall
Another place where the lad and I have kick-started the day, has been the village hall at Chiddingstone Causeway; the village where my employer is based. Earlier this year, I wrote about the opening of the brand new hall which replaced the former, ramshackle “tin-shack”, which had served the local community for the best part of a century.

Offering a decent, cooked Sunday-breakfast, once a fortnight, was just one of the many ways adopted by the hall committee in order to raise funds for the modern, bright and airy new hall, and Matthew and I are pleased to have played a small part in helping to literally get the new building off the ground. We pop over when we can, as funds are still needed for  the day to day running of the hall, and for improvements in the form of stage and sound equipment.

We found a new place for Sunday breakfast last weekend; or rather I did. Matt and his mate had been breakfasting there, on and off, for some time, so when he suggested we give the Hilden Manor a go, I was all for it. The Hilden Manor is a large, rambling Beefeater establishment, situated on the northern edge of Tonbridge as it merges into neighbouring Hildenborough.  It is an attractive, tile-hung building and is reported to be one of the oldest in Hildenborough, with parts dating back to the 17th Century.

Thirteen years ago the pub was destroyed by a disastrous fire, believed to have been caused by an electrical fault. It was re-built, and re-opened in 2006, along with a Premier Inn which was constructed alongside. The company I work for sometimes use it when we have visitors from over-seas, given its proximity to both Tonbridge and our factory at Chiddingstone Causeway.

Hilden Manor
Last Sunday though was the first time I’d stepped inside the place since its re-opening after the fire, and it was not quite what I was expecting, or how I remembered the pub. Before, it was quite open-plan in nature, but now it is broken up into a several linked areas, which helps create a much more intimate atmosphere.

Unlike Spoon’s where you just grab a table, we had to wait to be shown to one. The menu is pretty similar to JDW, but you can mix and match your selection. I opted for scrambled egg, bacon, sausage, has-browns, tomato and mushrooms, whilst Matthew doubled up on the sausage and fried egg. The price is around £3 dearer than Spoons, but you get unlimited teas or coffee, along with toast or crumpets. All in all it was a very pleasant experience, much less hectic than Wetherspoon’s and none of the off-putting 9am Stella drinkers either.

Continental - Barcelona
Well that concludes my little round-up of the delights of a weekend breakfast; certainly on the home front, but before I finish I must mention that the English, or perhaps American-style cooked version seems to be catching on in Europe. Once upon a time, those in search of something solid to start the day were limited to rolls and croissants, and whilst this might still be the case in many continental hotels, I have noticed items like scrambled egg, bacon (thin, crisp – almost fried to a frazzle US style bacon), creeping onto the breakfast menu, alongside thin Nürnberg style sausages and the odd boiled egg. This is especially true in Germany, where these items seem much more prevalent as part of a hotel breakfast buffet, than they did 10 or 12 years ago when I first started visiting the country on a regular basis.

Matthew takes the Mickey when I tell him that breakfast is a good start to the day, but when on holiday a substantial meal, first thing in the morning, is usually enough to see me through to the evening, although occasionally I will have a filled roll or something light, midday, especially if I’m going to be drinking.



Wednesday, 15 November 2017

A success story from further afield



I am sure we are all familiar with the stories of rural pubs closing by the score, and how these closures have decimated villages up and down the country. Deprived of a place to meet up with friends and neighbours in a jovial and convivial atmosphere, it’s small wonder that many rural communities are suffering.

Worse still the closure of the last pub in the village can mean the local cricket, football or darts teams are left homeless, or with nowhere to go for that all important convivial post-match drink, then it can often mean the end of these teams as well.

The BBC’s Countryfile highlighted this issue last weekend, and  also homed in on a rural success story, where the local community clubbed together and bought their pub, in order to save it from closure.

Now these success stories, where pubs have been rescued and brought back to life by people-power, have been quite common in recent years, but I hadn’t realised that pubs in other countries have also been under the same types of threat as here in the UK.

One story which caught my eye was that of Altenau; a small community in Upper Bavaria, where the inhabitants brought their closed pub back to life in 2014, after it had stood empty for more than 10 years.

When the building was put up for sale in the summer of 2012,  the people of Altenau took action. They formed a co-operative, invested the necessary capital, and put in a massive 22,000 hours of voluntary work, over a two-year period, in order to restore the building.

Now, especially on Saturday evenings, the villagers come together for a few beers or glasses of wine, at the Altenauer Dorfwirt to enjoy the cooking of chef  and landlord Florian Spiegelberger, helped by his wife Izabella, and the pub’s handful of employees. The menu is short but of a very high quality, with ingredients sourced from the local region wherever possible.

The re-opened pub has given Altenau a new lease of life. It can seat 70 but there are often over 100 people attending the monthly musical “Stammtisch". There is a beer garden outside, where guests can sit in the cooling shade of the old horse chestnut trees, whilst enjoying a beer and a chat, and visitors soon feel welcome.
It is no surprise then that lots of city dwellers keep coming back to Altenau, as life certainly seems good there! It is also good to read of a success story somewhere else in the world, where local people have rescued and lovingly restored their pub so that it once again forms a central part of their community.
 

I came across the story of the Altenauer Dorfwirt  after following a link to the Bayern Tourismus website. Intrigued  I decided  to take a closer look and discovered that the pub was much larger than the impression given  by the article.

For example there are four double  and two single rooms, all with en-suite facilities; so if you fancy  an over-night stay in this picturesque corner of southern Bavaria, you could do a lot worse than put up at the Altenauer Dorfwirt. Rooms can even be reserved through Booking.com.

If you don’t fancy driving, there is an hourly train service from Munich, changing at Murnau.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Room at the inn



It was around 25 years ago that my parents moved up to Norfolk, following my father’s retirement from the Royal Mail. The Post Office, as it was then known, had been his only employer since completing his National Service, so he was able to retire at 60, on an index-linked pension, which had also been non-contributory.

Nice work if you can get it, but I don’t begrudge my parents this opportunity; let’s just say it was a different time and a different era. My wife and I were fairly infrequent visitors during the first years of my parents’ retirement. We had only recently started a family of our own, and things were a little tight financially. When we did visit though, it gave us the chance of getting to know Norfolk a little better.

Strangely enough, we had spent a couple of holidays in the county, before the arrival of our son, staying one time just outside the town of Diss, whilst for the other holiday we rented a house overlooking one of the Broads, a short distance from the village of Horning.

Much later on, after we had started our off-licence business, visits to my parents largely dried up, due to the difficulties of getting someone to cover for us, and also finding the cash to pay them. We sold the business 10 years ago, after I had started work back in the healthcare industry. Visits continued pretty much on a two to three times a year basis, initially staying with mum and dad at their bungalow in Swanton Morley, but later on we either rented a cottage or put up at a hotel.

It is the subject of hotels and bed & breakfast places that I want to write about now, so apologies for the rather lengthy preamble, but I wanted to set the scene. It’s a well known-fact of life that wives do not always get on with their mother-in-laws, and the relationship between Eileen and my mother fell into this category. In defence, mum didn’t get on well with her mother-in-law either, which illustrates just how true this oft-quoted fact of life is.

The upshot was that in later years, it was normally me who visited mum and dad; although our son Matthew quite often accompanied me on these visits. Grandmothers’ love seeing their grandchildren, particularly when they’re the first-born, and mum was no exception. The first place we stayed at was the rather nice Hill House Hotel, right in the centre of Dereham. The hotel was privately owned and run by a proprietor who really cared about his business and his guests; in short, nothing was too much trouble – you could even have kippers for breakfast, if you wished – a big bonus from my point of view.

The business must have been doing well because extra, ground floor rooms were added at the rear. I think they must have been the stables, at one time, but they provided extra capacity to Hill House. Both Matthew and I stayed there on several occasions, and thoroughly enjoyed it – especially as the hotel was right in the centre of Dereham, with all its numerous pubs. Imagine our disappointment when my mother informed me that Hill House had changed hands.

Undeterred, I booked a three night stay back in 2011, as I had travelled up to Norfolk to help celebrate my father’s 80th birthday. I discovered the property was now owned by a group called MJB. Payment was in advance and, as there was now no manned reception, guests were sent a PIN code in order to access their room. That was the theory, but in practice I had to phone the company several times prior to my arrival, as no code had been sent through.

The long and the short of it, was I didn’t have a good stay; in fact, I decided to cut my losses and spend the next two nights at my parents, sleeping on the sofa. I won’t go into details as to why I didn’t stay longer at Hill House, but if you want to know more  about the MJB Group, just take a look at the comments on Trip Advisor.

It was obviously time to find another place to put up at, and this came in the guise of Bartles Lodge; a privately owned B&B complex next to a couple of fishing lakes. The lodge is situated in the tiny village of Elsing, which is just a few miles down the road from Swanton Morley. With the Mermaid pub virtually next door, serving good food and equally good beer, Bartles Lodge was ideal.

I stayed there several times, and would quite happily return, were it not for the fact that, on account of its fishing lakes, the place is terribly popular, and each time I have gone online to book, there are no vacancies for my chosen dates which, admittedly are usually at the weekend. However, if you do manage to book a place there, then I’m sure you will have a lovely peaceful stay, followed by an excellent breakfast the following morning.

For subsequent trips I resorted to that old favourite Booking.com, selecting properties based on their distance from Swanton Morley, the room-rate, the proximity of a decent pub or even staying at a decent pub, plus, of course availability. Consequently I have stayed in a wide variety of establishments, most within a 20 mile radius of Swanton Morley/Dereham.

I won’t list them all, but special mention should go to Meadow Farm Cottage at Mulbarton, to the south of Norwich and Moorsticks, on the other side of the city, close to the airport. Both are excellent bed & breakfast establishments. The Swan Inn at Hilborough, to the south of Swaffham and the Ugly Bug Inn at Colton, roughly halfway between Norwich and Dereham, were both excellent pubs offering overnight accommodation.

Finally, for those who appreciate the slightly faded, 1980’s utility look, the Best Western Brook at Bowthorpe on the outskirts of Norwich, sometimes offers rooms at bargain rates. Matt and I have stayed here a couple of times, and with  regular buses into the city centre, this sprawling, single-storey hotel provides a good base for those wanting to explore Norwich.

For our most recent trip, which was last weekend, we stayed at the George in the centre of Dereham, but that was the first time in several years of making these trips, that the hotel had rooms available.

As I wrote in my post about that last visit, the fact that my sister is shortly moving out of the area, means that I will no longer need to base myself quite so close to Dereham. As long as I can find a location within easy travelling distance of dad’s care-home at Gressenhall, then there are opportunities of getting to know other parts of  Norfolk, such as the coastal region to the north, or the area looking out towards the Wash.

Finally, this isn’t a plug or anything and I am not on commission, but I have used Booking.com for the past 12 years as a means of finding and securing accommodation in locations at home and abroad. The places I have stayed in have ranged from four star, city-centre hotels, to rather more basic penzions, self-catering apartments and simple bed and breakfast establishments.

The site provides an insight into where you might be thinking of staying, with reviews from guests,  backed up with photos and location maps. The site takes the hassle out of booking with in most cases, no payment upfront. Many of the places listed, offer free cancellation as well,  allowing for last minute changes of plans or finding a better offer.

Friday, 10 November 2017

See you in court

I’m sure many readers will remember the piece I wrote a week or so ago, about JD Wetherspoons’s and their charismatic founder and chief executive, Tim Martin. The piece centered on the pro-Brexit beer mats which Mr Martin was distributing throughout his tied estate, which were in the form of a brief manifesto, telling the government to get on with the job, and take the country out of the European Union.

Now I don’t want to re-open the argument which, somewhat predictably, ensued from the post, even though I strongly disagree with Tim’s pro-Brexit views. Instead I want to write about how I once met the Wetherspoon’s CEO, and the part I played in helping the chain’s Tonbridge outlet to obtain its license,  in the face of strong opposition.

Let’s go back a couple of decades, to when Wetherspoon’s weren’t nearly as common as they are now in Britain’s towns, and the Spoon’s name, and indeed brand, was not the household name it is today.

My involvement with CAMRA meant I was at least familiar with JDW, even though at the time, the company had no outlets in the part of Kent where I live. I think at the time, the nearest Spoons to West Kent, was either Maidstone, or one of their London pubs, so the news that Wetherspoons’s were planning to open an outlet in Sevenoaks, was welcome indeed.

As I turned out though, the news was not welcome in certain quarters, especially by Sevenoaks LVA (remember the Licensed Victuallers Association? Those cosy associations of local licensees, all looking out for each other). More seriously, the prospect of the chain opening in the town was not welcome by the local constabulary.  Both the Sevenoaks LVA and Kent Police launched an objection to the proposed opening, which ended with the matter being referred to the County Court in Maidstone.

A CAMRA friend of mine called Brian, who lived in Sevenoaks, attended the hearing and spoke on behalf of Wetherspoons, as did several other people. It’s a long time ago now, and I can’t remember if the case went to appeal, but the eventual outcome was the objections were thrown out, and Wetherspoon’s duly went ahead and opened an outlet in the town in a converted furniture shop. It was called the Sennockian, and is still trading today, although a few years ago it was on the list of pubs which JDW had been planning to sell off.

My friend, was probably 25 years or so older than me, and was a retired Chartered Surveyor. He was quite a character and spoke with a real air of authority. Sadly Brian is no longer with us, but I remember him saying that prior to the court case, he had met with both Tim Martin and Wetherspoon’s barrister, and how pleased they were that an ordinary member of the public had come along to speak on the company’s behalf. Therefore when a similar situation arose, a few years later, Brian again offered his support to JDW.

The case in question was even closer to home for me, as it involved an application from Wetherspoon’s, to convert the former Crown Post Office building in Tonbridge, into a pub, and once again the local LVA and police were objecting. I offered my support, as did a close friend of mine, who also lived in Tonbridge. Brian also said he would join us and, as he knew the ropes, so to speak, we allowed him to take care of the arrangements.

So, on the appointed day, we presented ourselves at the imposing Crown Court buildings on Maidstone’s riverfront, and were introduced to Tim Martin and the company’s barrister. We were also joined by a member of the Tonbridge Civic Society; an organisation keen not only to preserve the 1930’s Post Office building, but eager to see it being used for a purpose which would benefit the town as a whole. We also learned from JDW’s lawyer, that the LVA had dropped their objection, so it was now just the police who were contesting Wetherspoons’s application.

We were then ushered into the court. This was my first, and so far only time inside a court of law, and it was evident from the start that such places are designed to intimidate and overawe those who find themselves “up before the law”. Even for those like me and my two companions, they appear quite foreboding.

We didn’t have to wait long before the clerk of the court asked for us to “all be upstanding”, as the judge and the respective legal teams filed into the court. Now I mentioned earlier that the case took place some time ago, probably a couple of decades in fact, so I can’t remember the exact order of proceedings, but I do recall that almost from the outset they didn’t go too well for the barrister representing the police.

She was a Dawn French “look-alike”, but without the humour, and one particular remark she made really annoyed the judge, so much so that she was asked to withdraw it. The sole objection put forward by the police, was one of law and order, but the judge was quite dismissive of this argument. The Spoon’s barrister was also quick to point out the company’s good record in controlling their outlets and spotting any trouble before it got out of hand.

The Wetherspoon’s brief fared much better with the judge. He reminded me of Rumpole of the Bailey, and he certainly didn’t receive the same amount of scrutiny as the police barrister. He called the representative from the local civic society as a witness in support of the application, along with my two friends, but after I’d got myself all psyched up, and ready to take the stand, he didn’t call me. So denied my moment in court, I sat down and followed the rest of the proceedings with interest.

Once both sides had presented their evidence, the court adjourned for lunch. Now lunch is a very serious matter for the legal profession, and it is probably no exaggeration to say that in the past, the fate of many a condemned person, depended on whether the judge had a good, or a bad judge. These days, whilst we thankfully no longer hang people, the severity or indeed leniency of a sentence, might still depend on the quality of His Honour's lunch.

My companions and I also grabbed a spot of lunch, choosing the nearest Wetherspoon's pub of course!  This was the Muggleton Inn, across the River Medway and then up the High Street. It is one of two JDW outlets in Maidstone, and to my mind it is the best. The Muggleton is an imposing two-storey building which was once the offices for an insurance company. We made our way upstairs, grabbed a table and ordered ourselves a bite to eat.

We also had a beer each, but mindful that we might be considered "in contempt of court", were we to come back intoxicated, just had the one. We also wanted to ensure we were back in time for the resumption of the case. We all thought the case had gone well so far, so were quietly optimistic that the Tonbridge Spoons would be awarded its licence.

Back in court, the afternoon session passed quickly, with "His Honour" throwing out the objections lodged by the police. Costs were also awarded against Kent Constabulary,  but as a gesture of goodwill, the Spoon's brief said he would waiver the costs awarded to him, so as to not place too high a burden on the public purse; in this case the council tax payers of Kent.

After the case, Tim Martin came and thanked us all personally, and told us that plans for the Tonbridge pub could now continue apace. I'm pretty certain the three of us received an invitation to the official opening of the pub, which was named the Humphrey Bean, in honour of the landlord of a pub which once occupied the former Post Office site.

I didn't attend the official opening, probably because it clashed with something going on at work but when,  a few days later, I finally set foot in the Humphrey Bean, I was decidedly underwhelmed.
I'm not sure what I was expecting, but whilst it's fair to say the pub is not one of JDW's most imaginative conversions, the architects had a rather mish-mash of a building to work with, and consequently made the best of what was there. There is a smaller and quite cosy section at the front, and this is where the post office counters once were, but leading off to the rear, is a much larger section, which was formerly the town's sorting office. This area still maintains its shed-like appearance, and is where the bar is situated.

To be fair, it is bright and airy, with plenty of tables, and includes a raised area on the left-hand side. This section leads through to a large, attractive and well laid out garden, which looks out across the River Medway to Tonbridge's imposing 13th Century castle. This is without a doubt the Humphrey Bean's best feature.

So there we have it, the story of how I went along to play my part in ensuring that Tonbridge gained a Wetherspoon's  and whilst, in the end, my input was not needed, I am still glad that I turned up at court to offer my support.

The Humphrey Bean is now something of a Tonbridge institution, and it is hard to imagine what the town was like before Wetherspoon's came on the scene. So despite me being at odds with Tim Martin over his Brexit ideology, I am pleased that he brought the Spoon's brand to Tonbridge, and I am also pleased that I was able to give him my support.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Farewell to Dereham?



My son and I were in the mid-Norfolk town of Dereham last weekend in order to visit  my father, who’s residing in a care-home nearby. Dad has been living there for the past two years; ever since the Alzheimer’s he is suffering from left him unable to continue living on his own.

I hadn’t been to see him since the summer, but fortunately the younger of my two sisters, lives in Dereham so is able to visit on a much more regular basis. However, that is about to change, as she and her new husband are moving to the East Midlands, in order to downsize and take advantage of the cheaper property prices in the area.

Prior to visiting dad, Matt and I met up with her for lunch, so fancying something cheap and cheerful we opted for the Romany Rye; the local Spoons. We seem to end up there on most visits, and I get the feeling I have been in the Romany Rye nearly as often as our own, local Spoon’s outlet back in Tonbridge.

After my recent post about JWD’s charismatic owner, you might be forgiven for thinking I’d never set foot in one again, but you’d be wrong, as I can forgive someone their politics, even when I think they are wrong. So, as on previous occasions, the Romany Rye suited our purpose.

My ham and cheese panini was just right for a lunchtime bite; especially after having driven most of the way from Kent through heavy rain, but unfortunately the same could not be said of the beer, which was one of the “guest ales”. The pint of Little Kahuna 3.9%, from the Little Beer Corporation, that I had with my lunch, was very poor; not vinegary, or off-tasting, but flat, totally devoid of confection and chilled to the bone. I should perhaps have known from the way the pump spurted, on being pulled that the cask was getting low; either that or I was the first person to have ordered it that day.

Unfortunately this guest ale wasn’t the only poor beer of the trip, as I will reveal later. Concerns about the beer aside, we had a nice lunch and it was good to catch up with my sister, particularly as I had not seen her since the summer. I already knew about her planned move, but it seems that things have progressed much quicker than expected. She and her husband aim to complete the move before Christmas, even though this will mean living in temporary accommodation whilst they look for somewhere more permanent.

We dropped her back at her house and then checked into our hotel, before going off to see dad. We’d booked a twin room at the George; an attractive 18th Century inn, right in the centre of town. We had both enjoyed a drink in the George before, but had never managed to stay there, so when I found the hotel had a room vacant, at a reasonable price, I had no hesitation in booking it.

We spent about an hour with dad. Unfortunately he was suffering from a heavy cold and decidedly under the weather. He didn’t move from his armchair, and kept nodding off. He wasn’t talking a lot of sense, and I’m not sure he even recognised us. The effects of Alzheimer’s are certainly devastating and although he is being well looked after, it is obviously painful to see him like this.

Back at the hotel, we debated as to where to eat for the evening. Neither of us fancied Spoons again, and the George itself looked a little pricey. WhatPub came the rescue, in the form of the nearby Kings Head Hotel. I had been in there, just after Christmas, almost a decade ago, with my American brother-in-law, and it had seemed quite pleasant. The food offering looked both good and excellent value for money, so we decided to give it a go.

The Kings Head describes itself as a “traditional pub and hotel”, and is situated at a cross-roads, about five minutes walk from the centre of Dereham. It is a fine looking old building, with an attractive brick frontage. I wouldn’t like to guess its age, but if pushed would say early 19th Century.

It is obviously a locals pub; something I remember from that first visit. Most were sat at the bar, which is a real nuisance for people trying to get served, or see what beers are on offer. It was a choice of GK IPA or Cornish Coast; a beer which I later found out was a faux “craft-brand” from Greene King.

I ordered a pint, and the beer looked clear, well-conditioned and nicely presented in the glass. Regrettably, looks can sometimes be deceptive, and on raising the glass to my lips I found it was slightly on the turn. It wasn’t undrinkable, although under different circumstances I might have taken it back. I don’t need to say any more, but the fact that we had just ordered a meal each meant me sticking with it.

The food, I am happy to say, was every bit as good as the pub website promised. I had the beef and mince pie (not a proper pie, but  not a casserole with a pastry lid either). Matt had a rather nice-looking Beef Madras Curry.

In view of the beer situation, plus the fact the staff were setting up for a disco, we decided to move on, but not before picking up a leaflet detailing room prices. The Kings Head really is a proper hotel, and the room rates look very reasonable. I therefore marked it as a possibility for a future stay.

We went back to the George for the final pints of the evening, and for the first   time the beer was fine, and I enjoyed both the Adnam’s Ghost Ship and the Broadside (both 3.0 NBSS, but served in those awful stylised Adnam’s glasses). The hotel bar was busy, and we were lucky to find a seat (no sitting on an elevated stool whilst blocking the bar for us!) The George has a real antiquated feel about it, which is genuine rather than contrived, and for me pride of place goes to a large, original Bass mirror.

You get the feeling that little has changed over the past 200 years, and this was evident when we went down for breakfast the following morning. The breakfast room looks out on the town, and it was nice to sit there watching the world go by, whilst enjoying our morning meal. Even nicer was the option of Lowestoft Kipper on the menu, which I naturally jumped at. Mrs PBT’s has never been keen on serving up this divine breakfast dish; ostensibly because of the lingering smell, so it was a rare treat to enjoy a freshly grilled, whole kipper, along with plenty of buttered toast.

After checking out, we drove the short distance over to the care-home. Dad was fast asleep in the armchair again, and we had trouble waking him. Apart from a few mumbled comments about his cold, we got precious little out of him, so after a chat about his welfare with one of the home’s supervisors, we said goodbye.

Fifteen months ago I bid farewell to Swanton Morely – the village where mum and dad retired to, a quarter of a century ago. Now with my sister about to up sticks, there is little in Dereham for me to return to. I will of course continue to visit dad, but with the opportunity of meeting up with my sister as well, soon to be gone, I will be a free agent on future visits; able to stay anywhere within a reasonable radius of dad’s care-home.

This opens up a whole new range of possibilities, ranging from Breckland in the south, the North Norfolk Coast in the other direction, and Norwich and the Broads to the east. There remains plenty of places to explore in Norfolk, plenty of good pubs to visit and plenty of unspoilt countryside to enjoy.


 

Friday, 3 November 2017

Five Points Brewing at Fuggles Tonbridge



Stepping back from the controversy of my last post, and onto safer territory, I spent an enjoyable three and a half hours  on Thursday evening at Tonbridge Fuggles.

The occasion was what used to be called a “tap-takeover”, but which now seems to be referred to simply as a “takeover”, by Five Points Brewing Co. Based in Hackney, Five Points have been brewing “beer that is unfiltered, unpasteurised and full of flavour”, since March 2013.

As well as showcasing five Five Points cask ales, plus four of their keg beers, the brewery chose Tonbridge Fuggles as the place to launch their new Green-Hop beer. This was quite a coup for Fuggles owner, Alex Greig, and for us beer lovers the evening provided the perfect opportunity to enjoy the excellent Five Points beers.

I met up at the bar with a couple of CAMRA friends, who suggested I go straight in on the Green Hop beer, as it was selling like hot cakes. I was glad I did, as it turned out to be one of  the best  Green Hop beers I have tasted this season.

The beer was only 3.7% ABV, but was packed full of flavour, with the resinous bitterness from the Bullion hops, perfectly matched against a background of sweet juicy malt.  The hops are grown locally by Hukins Hops; a fourth generation farm that has been specialising in hops for over 120 years, and the hops used in the Five Points beer were taken straight from the bine to the brew-house.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ross Hukins a couple of weeks ago, when we were both judges at the Spa Valley Railway Green Hop BeerCompetition, so it was good to sample the firms wares in the finished beer.

After the Green Hop, I moved onto the 4.0% Five Points XPA (Extra Pale Ale). This was another excellent beer, pale in colour and with lots of citrus and tropical fruit flavours from the Citra and Galaxy hops used.

Fuggles itself was pleasantly busy, but still with enough seats for those who wanted to sit down. My two friends and I held an impromptu, post-event discussion on the SVR Beer Festival, which we were all heavily involved with. The consensus was it had been a success, with both attendance and beer sales well up on last year. There are still areas which need looking at and issues which need addressing, but all in all, we can pat ourselves on the back for pulling off another successful and highly enjoyable festival.

For my third pint of the evening, I went for a further pint of Green Hop, but the cask had already sold out. Instead, I opted for a complete contrast in the form of  Brick Field Brown 5.4% ABV, the brewery’s take on a traditional English Brown Ale. Described as “well balanced, full bodied and packed with earthy aromas and flavours of Demerara and hazelnuts” The beer is brewed with British barley and Golden Naked Oats, and bittered with Willamette hops from the USA.

It certainly was a fine beer to finish on, although rather cheekily, I still had room for a half of the keg Five Points Pale 4.4% ABV, before time was called at the bar, and I made my way home through the fog.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

A knight in shining amour?



With the government’s disastrous Brexit strategy disintegrating before their very eyes, who better to come charging to the rescue than mullet-haired Tim Martin; arch Brexiter and chairman of J D Wetherspoon.

Martin, of course, was one of the few British business leaders to back the Leave Campaign, and during the EU referendum campaign distributed hundreds of thousands of pro-Brexit beer mats to the group’s pubs. So today’s announcement, via Twitter, that, “We've placed 500,000 beer mats in our pubs with a hard-hitting message on Brexit to parliament”, hardly comes as a surprise. The mats list three points in what the group describe as “The Wetherspoon Manifesto”.

It states that the UK should unilaterally grant rights of citizenship to legal EU immigrants.

Additionally, it points to the fact that the EU currently charges taxes on food imported from outside the EU, and that from 2019 the government can and should eliminate these import taxes- which will also mean that EU food imports will continue to be tax-free. Wetherspoon argues that this will result in a reduction in food prices in shops and pubs.

The manifesto also says that from March 2019 the government should stop paying the EU £200 million per week, stressing that the money disappears into EU coffers which have not been audited properly since 1994.

The first point makes perfect sense, as it is high time Theresa May’s government stopped using the large number of EU migrants who have, quite legitimately, made their home in Britain, as "bargaining chips" in their increasingly fraught Brexit negotiations with the European Union.  These people have contributed to the UK economy, as well as paying taxes here, and the uncertainty they have faced as a result of “Call me Dave’s” reckless referendum gamble, is unacceptable in a civilised society.

The last point about the EU accounts being un-audited, it blatantly untrue, but continues to be bandied about by increasingly desperate pro-Leave Campaigners.

According to the BBC, The EU's accounts are scrutinised by the Court of Auditors, which checks whether they correctly reflect the spending of the EU budget. The latest report, published in 2015 for accounts in 2014, explicitly said that the auditors were "signing off the accounts" as they have done every year since 2007”.

The middle point about food prices seems totally at odds with a claim made by the chairman of Sainsbury's, who recently told the Sunday Times that imported food prices could rise by 22% without a 'deal' with the EU. Similar claims have been made by the CBI and other organisations.

Whatever views they might have on Brexit, many have called into question the wisdom of mixing beer with politics, as numerous comments on Twitter have pointed out. The cynics amongst us might also argue that the largest two groups amongst Mr Martin’s customers (pensioners and the work-shy), are also those who voted in large numbers for Brexit.

Tim is, in effect, preaching to the converted, but is no doubt anxious to keep these two groups on board, in spite of the obvious hit the UK economy and living standards have already taken, since last year’s referendum result. It’s difficult to say what his motives are, but like those of the government, they’re probably not altruistic.

The final words on this matter can be neatly summed up by the man who started this nonsense, and whose memory is commemorated by the Blue Plaque above.