Brew-pubs have been with us in various guises, for centuries. In fact before the rise of commercial breweries, virtually all brewing would have been carried out either in the home, or at the local alehouse.
It was the Middle Ages which saw the first appearance of the “common brewer”; this being someone who brewed beer for any alehouse that did not brew its own beer, and whilst these continued to grow in both number and size, it was still common for most pubs to brew their own beer.
Even as late as the early part of the 19th Century, around half of the brewing in England was still carried out privately – that is to say by publicans or alehouse owners themselves. The success of the “common brewers” was practically guaranteed though, as the stability and economies of scale they brought to an industry which was very much hit-or-miss, and which lacked the benefits of scientific knowledge and process control, ensured the drinking public would be getting an enjoyable and quality end product.
Much has been written about the rise of the great brewing companies during the 18th and 19th Centuries, but the success of these breweries, and their smaller more localised counterparts, slowly spelled the end for the publican brewer. During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the number of pubs which still brewed their own beer went into terminal decline, and by the time CAMRA first appeared on the scene, there were just four such brew-pubs remaining in Britain.
Since then, spurred on by the success of the “Real Ale movement” and the burgeoning interest in beer, the number of brewpubs has increased, but this growth has at times been quite sporadic and has often been in waves.
During the 1980’s, David Bruce and his chain of “Firkin” brew-pubs helped to swell the number of brew-pubs quite substantially, but once some of the bigger brewers muscled in on the act, many drinkers began to view pubs which brewed their own ale as something of a gimmick.
Since those heady days, numerous brew-pubs have come and gone, but the genre has seen a steady revival in recent years, largely as a result of the rise of so-called “craft-beer”. It is therefore encouraging to know that there are still a few pubs who can trace their traditions back, perhaps not quite to those very early days, or indeed not even to the time of David Bruce, but which nevertheless have been brewing their own beers for the best part of the last two decades. To have such a pub, almost on the doorstep, is something to be cherished, and after visiting this pub last weekend, I am pleased to report the tradition of home-brewed ales still continues in a few isolated pockets of the country.
The pub in question is the Swan-on-the-Green, in the tiny village of West Peckham, which is roughly halfway between Tonbridge and Maidstone. West Peckham is literally on the “road to nowhere”, as it is reached by turning off along a "dead-end" lane, from the Mereworth to Plaxtol road, a short distance from the B2016 Seven Mile Lane.
Apart from a few houses overlooking the large and attractive village green, plus the rather lovely Saxon church of St. Dunstan's, there is little else in West Peckham, apart from the village pub, appropriately called the Swan-on-the-Green.
The pub was known as the Miller’s Arms, having first acquired a licence in 1685. This was when the establishment originally incorporated a bakery. Parts of the current building are said to date back to the 16th Century, but most of the pub is slightly newer. In 1852, under new ownership, it changed its name to the Swan. In 2000 the pub was altered again to incorporate "The Swan Micro-brewery" which brews its own range of cask conditioned beers.
I first visited the Swan during the early 1980’s, when I was a member of Maidstone CAMRA branch. Back then it was a pretty ordinary Courage house overlooking the village green. The pub slipped off my radar when I moved to Tonbridge in 1984, and it wasn’t until it started brewing its own beer, as mentioned above, that I took a renewed interest in the place.
Being well of the beaten track, the Swan doesn’t appear the easiest place to get to by public transport, but with a little forward planning, a visit there is perfectly feasible and relatively straight forward. The No.7 service bus, which runs daily between Tonbridge and Maidstone, calls at the nearby village of Mereworth. Alighting at the stop nearest the village school, followed by a walk along country lanes of just under a mile and a half, brings one to West Peckham. From there, just head towards the church and the village green, and the Swan will be apparent on the left.
Several of my visits though have been whilst walking in this picturesque corner of the county. Both the Greensand Way and Weald Way long distance foot paths, pass close by, and it is whilst walking these routes that I have ended up at the Swan. On Sunday though, I arrived by car, on my way home from Maidstone, after visiting Mrs PBT’s who is in being treated in hospital there, to sort out a rather nasty chest infection.
I parked the car at the side of the pub, pausing briefly to look at the adjoining outbuilding at the rear, which houses the Swan’s micro-brewery, and made my way inside. The pub is divided into two distinct areas either side of the bar. There is a larger area to the left, which is primarily given over to eating, and a smaller section to the right. This seems to be where the pub regulars and locals from the village hang out. They were certainly all there on Sunday, along with their dogs.
I sat at the bar, as there was plenty of space, and I was not blocking anyone’s access. There were four home-brewed ales on offer; ranging from the 3.6% Fuggles Pale to the 7.4% Christmas Ale. As I was driving I opted for the former, a crisp, pleasant and very refreshing beer which slipped down well. I scored it at 3.5 NBSS. At just £3.20 a pint, the Fuggles Pale was excellent value for money, and just goes to prove the economies which can be achieved when the beer is brewed on the premises.
I stayed for around 30 minutes. Watching the comings and goings in the adjacent right-hand bar area. These seemed to mainly revolve around people and their dogs. It was all very pleasant, and all so very English and I was glad of the distraction from the spiral of events of the past few days.
I left just after 2.30pm, and was back in Tonbridge, and back to reality in under 15 minutes. I was pleased I’d called in though and will certainly be making further return visits to the Swan. I might also be tempted to treat myself to something of the menu, even though it looks a trifle on the dear side.