With still no word from the West Kent CAMRA Committee regarding the winner of branch Pub of the Year, I can only assume that the news embargo is still in place. So not wishing to upset the apple-cart, I won’t be releasing the name of the winning pub until it’s officially announced.
What I can do though is provide a write up of the six pubs we visited 10 days ago and, for the time being at least, leave readers to draw their own conclusions. As the write-up is quite lengthy, I have divided it into two halves, with each part detailing three pubs.
The Pub of the Year tour got off to a sticky start. The plan was for the mini-bus to pick participants up outside Tunbridge Wells railway station, before setting off on a carefully planned out route. Well you know what is said about the best laid plans, and this one hit a snag right from the off.
The station at Tunbridge Wells has two entrances; one on each side of the tracks. This meant a couple of people keeping lookout on one side, whilst the main part of the group waited on the other.
The 11.30am pick-up came and went, and at first the non-show of the bus was put down to heavy traffic; not exactly an unusual occurrence on a busy Saturday, but as the time crept on, it was time for the group coordinator to phone the bus company. The office was closed, but somehow the driver's number was obtained.
There had been a mix-up regarding the pick-up time, and the driver was still making his way down the A21 from Bromley. An "executive decision" was then taken to head up to one of the two Tunbridge Wells pubs on the list, and start judging. The bus would be able to catch up with us from there.
We walked up the hill towards Fuggles Beer Café, which was now the first pub, and ordered our first beers of the day. From our point of view it was good to find the place quiet. The opposite normally applies, but the lack of people milling around afforded a good opportunity to assess the pub, without any distractions. I liked the feel which Fuggles had during this quiet period, as it allowed time to peruse the artwork and admire the display of enamelled Belgian beer signs.
There was the usual selection of six cask ales on, and whilst some of us might have been tempted by one of the "craft keg" options, this was a CAMRA competition and, for the time being at least, cask was the type of beer which the pub would be judged on. One member of our party, who is renowned for a love of strong beers, went straight in with a pint of Great Rift Milk Stout; a 6.0% beer from Wander Beyond Brewing. Knowing there was long day ahead I, rather more sensibly, opted for the Eponymous; a 3.2% “Table Beer” from Eight Arch Brewing.
Pale in colour, but packed with flavour, in spite of its low strength, this refreshing beer was just right to kick off what would prove to be lengthy session. Having dutifully completed our voting times there was precious little time to sit back and relax, because we received a call that our mini-bus would soon be with us. We dutifully filed outside, ready to pile into the bus as soon as it arrived.
Our bus headed out of town towards what should have been the first port of call. This was the Halfway House, an unspoilt, rambling old alehouse, just down the hill from the village of Brenchley. The Halfway is a previous winner of Pub of the Year, and offers a wide range of gravity-served beers. It also holds two annual beer festivals; one in May and the other in August.
Local ales feature prominently amongst the range at the Halfway, so it was no surprise that I opted for a refreshing pint of Goacher's Fine Light, from Maidstone. Our party split into two groups, one choosing to congregate around the bar, whilst the rest of us sat up in a part of the pub which is on a different level, and almost cut off from the rest of the building. We sat and filled in our scores, and some members took the opportunity of re-charging their glasses.
I like the Halfway House, and have fond memories of the beer festivals I have enjoyed there over the years, but it is a real "mish-mash" of a place which never quite seems to fulfil its own potential. There wasn't much time to dwell on this though as before long we were marshalled back onto the min-bus to make the short journey to the third pub of the day, the Dovecote in the tiny hamlet of Capel.
The Dovecote is a small, narrow pub situated in a row of terraced cottages. It has the appearance of having been converted from one or more of these dwellings. Like the Halfway House, the Dovecote also serves its cask ales by gravity. This is no surprise to those who know the history of the pub, as the former landlord is now the licensee of the Halfway House.
It was at the Dovecote that the landlord first perfected his unusual, but rather innovative method of storing the beer in a temperature-controlled room, and then serving it by means of "long-reach" taps, which poke through a series of strategically placed holes in the wall between the "cellar " and the bar.
The Dovecote is also noteworthy for selling Gales HSB. Although HSB is now brewed by Fuller's, it is a beer which brings back happy memories of a short break taken by a student friend and I, along with our respective girlfriends. My friend’s mother owned a holiday cottage, deep in the Surrey countryside, to the south of Godalming, and the four of us travelled down from Manchester to enjoy a long weekend in the country.
There was a Gales pub in the next village, stocking several of the company's cask beers, and it was here that I first sampled and enjoyed HSB. It may sound strange, but I can still remember how good that first pint tasted, so seeing HSB on sale at the Dovecote meant I just had to have a pint.
I wasn’t disappointed, but there wasn’t time to stay for another as the pub was packed out with diners, and there was nowhere to sit. Instead we clambered onto the bus and headed back into Tunbridge Wells for the fourth pub of the trip.
To be continued………………………….