Monday, 22 July 2019

Perfect Five

Well just when I thought that beer couldn’t get much better than that totally unexpected pint of Young’s Ordinary, in the Tiger Inn on day one of my walk, another even more amazing beery experience managed to top that on day three.

Friday was the third, and final day of that particular North Downs Way section, and whilst I didn’t quite manage to close off the “Canterbury Loop,” I only missed out by four miles. That short stretch can be completed another time, but having walked the 10 miles from Shepherdswell, I was pleased with myself just for reaching Canterbury. 

There’s something deceptive about entering a town or city on foot, especially when you’ve just been walking through open countryside. First there are things to walk past like industrial estates, low-density housing, allotments, the odd school etc, and that initial flush of enthusiasm that comes with thinking you’ve arrived, soon gets lost when you realise there’s still a mile or two to go.

A city like Canterbury is particularly frustrating as you will have spotted the cathedral from some distance away, and the longer you walk towards it , the further away it seems to become. I remember a similar experience whilst walking into Lewes, on the South Down Way, when the castle which dominates the town from afar, appeared to do exactly the same thing. Still, at least it wasn’t pouring down with rain, this time around!

What my route into Canterbury did achieve though, was to take me through an area of the city that I hadn’t been in before; despite me thinking that I really knew the place. So after passing the remains of  St Augustine’s Abbey, the city gaol, and some brand new buildings constructed for Canterbury Christ Church University, I arrived at the inner-city ring road, which follows Canterbury’s still largely intact, medieval city walls.

I did think of calling in at the lovely little New Inn, and would have done so had I known that a group of West Kent CAMRA members would be heading there after attending the Kent Beer Festival (plastic glasses only, so no thanks!). Instead I kept going until  I reached the gate to the cathedral precincts.

I had planned to visit Canterbury Brewers in their recently re-sited Foundry Brew-Pub, but I was the wrong side of the High Street for that. Instead I headed for the Old Buttermarket, an historic old pub, owned by the Nicholson’s chain of slightly  upmarket pubs.

The pub fronts on to a small pedestrianised square, right opposite the cathedral gate, and the tables and chairs set outside always look inviting, especially in summer. With this in mind, my intention was to sit outside and enjoy a beer, whilst watching the world go by.

I’d been to the Old Buttermarket  on several previous occasions with friends, so I knew that whilst the pub is somewhat upmarket, it does serves a diverse and changing range of interesting beers. Upon entering I saw that Fuller’s beers featured quite prominently on the beer menu, but after deciding to go for the Dark Star American Pale, and being on the verge of ordering a pint, I noticed right out the corner of my eye a tap for Pilsner Urquell, almost hidden amongst some of the other keg taps.

I had an abrupt change of mind, as it’s not everyday you find a pub serving one of your all-time favourite beers, as along with St Austell, Proper Job, Pilsner Urquell is one of my go-to beers for drinking at home.

I just love its blend of rich, sweet malt,  with the juiciness that can only come from a traditional triple-decoction mash. This is set against just the right degree of bitterness from locally grown Saaz hops. Poured the traditional Czech way, with a thick dense head of wet foam, that seals in both flavour plus aroma, and adds a real smoothness, you’d be hard put to find a better beer.

And so it turned out on Friday afternoon, as despite its price tag of £5.10, that pint of Pilsner Urquell at the Old Buttermarket, was one of the finest pints of beer it has been my privilege to drink – and I don’t say that lightly! If CAMRA allowed world-classic beers to be scored, rather than just cask ales, that pint would have been a definite 5.0 NBSS!

Before taking my glass outside, I took another mouthful of the beer, just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I wasn’t, the beer was absolutely brilliant and I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I sat down at one of the tables facing the cathedral gate, feeling totally relaxed and at one with the world. This wasn’t just down to the smugness of having completed my walk, but much more to the excellence of the beer.

I was sorely tempted to have another, and almost succumbed, but thinking along the lines that you can sometimes have too much of a good thing, decided the moment had passed and a second pint would not taste quite as good as the first; even though nothing had changed. I also had an hour’s train journey back to Tonbridge, and wanted to be back in time to cadge lift back from the station, from son Matthew.

So feeling content with the world, I slowly made my way through the throngs of tourists and overseas visitors, to Canterbury West station. That 5.0 NBSS pint of Pilsner Urquell had been the perfect way to end my North Downs Way walk, and as I sat there admiring the scenery as the train hurried along the Stour Valley, I had a wry smile on face as I could still picture, and almost savour, that beer in my mind’s eye.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Nothing "Ordinary" about that pint of Young's

You could call it serendipity, but after my reply to comments made by Etu  on my post about Sambrook’s Brewery moving to Young's former home at Wandsworth, that at the first pub I stopped at, on my NDW walk, I should find both Young’s Ordinary and Special on sale.

It was also somewhat ironic, particularly after me stating that it was a long time since I had a pint of either beer, and that whilst Ordinary sometimes makes an appearance  locally pubs, I don't recall seeing Special anywhere, apart from in a Young's pub.

So there they both were, gracing the bar of the marvellous little Tiger Inn, in the tiny hamlet of Stowting, which is situated directly on the NDW, in a sheltered valley, between two clefts of the North Downs. I’d just walked seven and a half miles, so was just over half-way on my first day’s walk. It was scorching hot day and I was definitely in need of some liquid refreshment, to quench my thirst and then speed me on my way.

There were two other beers on the bar, one a “house beer” produced for the pub by Tonbridge Brewery, and the other an offering from Shepherd Neame but, as my eyes were instantly drawn to the two Young’s beers, I only know that after looking at the photo I took at the time.

I ordered a pint of Ordinary, watching with eager intent as the young barman pulled it up.  I didn’t balk at the price, which was around the £4 mark, but instead raised the glass straight away to my lips and boy was it good.

I'm not just saying that because it was it was my first and, as it happened, only pint on a very hot day, but it was truly excellent. Cool, well-conditioned, with just the right degree of hoppy-fruitiness that grabbed onto the back of my throat in order to satiate my thirst.

I was well pleased and, taking my pint outside, found a shady spot where I could dump my rucksack, take the weight off my shoulders and sit down for a spot of pure relaxation and enjoyment. I was torn between knocking my pint back in a few long draughts, or attempting to savour it and enjoy the moment. The beer was so good that I opted for the latter; although I did take the occasional lengthy swig.

That pint of Young’s Ordinary came close to perfection for me, so even though its appeal might have been enhanced by the distance I’d walked, the heat of the afternoon, the idyllic setting of the pub and the general feeling of well-being, I scored it at 4.0 NBSS.

I was tempted to go for another, but I know from past experience that too much beer does tend to slow the walking pace. I was also tempted to try the Special, the chances that it would be anywhere near as good as what I'd just sampled, were probably not that high. I say that without any disrespect to the Tiger Inn and its management, it’s just that I know from experience that the chances of finding two beers worthy of a 4.0, are pretty slim.

Discretion got the better part of me and the same amount of miles to cover, before I reached my resting place for the night, I reluctantly bid farewell to the Tiger and its rural charms. That was not before though, asking the kind young lady behind the bar to re-fill my water bottle - something I was really glad of on the second half of my walk!

Saturday, 20 July 2019

North Downs Way - a brief overview

Well after three days walking through the glorious Kent countryside enjoying, at times, some spectacular scenery, and at others unadorned rural tranquilly at its verry best, I returned last night a trifle weary and certainly a little footsore.

I was following part of the long-distance footpath which makes up the North Downs Way, through an area of East Kent where I spent part of my childhood, and somewhere I have only re-visited briefly in the intervening years. I was also able to discover places I’d previously chosen to ignore, or was unaware due either to the distractions, or just the indifference of my early and teenage years.

Apart from some annoying light drizzle, and low cloud on the second day, which unfortunately obscured what should have been some spectacular views out to sea, over the English Channel, the weather was decidedly benign and certainly showed that corner of south east England at its best.

It was hot and sunny on the first day, although thankfully a welcome breeze did help to keep temperatures down little, whilst the final day was mainly cloudy, but with a south-easterly wind blowing behind me, it did add a certain spring to my step.

I enjoyed two relaxing and very peaceful nights in a couple of strategically placed and pre-booked bed & breakfast establishments; both of which were towards the top end of the spectrum, i.e. they would have received a seal of approval from Mrs PBT’s.

To my mind they were worth every penny, as the last thing you want after a long and tiring day’s walk, is somewhere you feel uncomfortable in. (The B&B my friend and I stayed in at Winchester, ten years ago, after completing the South Downs Way, springs to mind).

I averaged just over twelve miles a day, not a vast distance for some people, but for a relatively slow walker like me, not out to break any records and certainly not a man in a hurry, this was just right. I have to say though, that whoever routed the trail up one of the longest and steepest dry valleys on the North Downs, must have been some sort of a masochist.

Coming as it did, just two miles before the end of my longest day’s walking (14 miles), meant me arriving at the first B&B a couple of hours behind my estimated arrival time. I was that knackered that I declined the landlady’s kind offer of a lift down to the local pub, as all I wanted was to get those boots off my feet, a shower and then collapse into bed.

After a solid, and unbroken sleep of eight hours – something quite rare for me, I awoke a new man and having missed out on an evening meal, certainly made short work of devouring the full English breakfast the following morning, with cereal preceding and toast following. The landlady too remarked that I looked so much better than I’d done when I rang her door bell the previous evening!

I reached my final destination of Canterbury, shortly before 4pm on the final day. I discounted any heroics I might have had for carrying on an additional four miles, which would have meant me completing the entire Canterbury loop of the NDW. That will have to wait until another day.

Instead, I sat down at a table outside the Old Buttermarket pub, in the shadow of the gate to Canterbury Cathedral, enjoying one of the best and certainly one of the most welcome pints I’ve had in a long time. I felt like a pilgrim who has reached his destination, even though three days walking would be rather lightweight for someone on a proper pilgrimage.

As for the name of that particular pint? Well, I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait until one of the following posts to find out.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Starting over on the North Downs Way

At the beginning of March 2018 I wrote of my intention to complete the North Downs Way (NDW), long distance footpath. I said at the time that it would be a "work in progress," unlike my previous long-distance walks (South Downs Way and Weald Way). Those were all completed within a set timetable, and over the course of a couple of summers.

Fifteen months on from my intention, it dawned on me that, apart from a few occasional thoughts about the walk, I’d done nothing towards building on what I’d achieved the summer before last.  This was walking a couple of sections of the NDW’s  northern “Canterbury loop,”  starting with Wye to Chartham,  in the hills above the Stour Valley and followed a couple of weeks later by the more open stretch between Shepherdswell and Dover.

I’d accomplished these walks in the company of a small group of friends, one of whom had completed the NDW from Farnham to Dover, via the more southerly route, and was now looking to complete the northerly one. My idea is to do what my friend did, but in reverse.

This will mean completing the southerly section from Wye to Dover, before moving on to the missing gaps in the loop. This entails Shepherdswell to Canterbury, and then if time, and my legs allow, the final four miles to Chartham.

Once both northerly and southern sections of the route east of the Stour Valley have been completed, I can set my sights on the long westward journey towards the finish of the trail, in the Surrey town of Farnham.

I’ve set aside three days for the walk, with a couple of overnight Bed & Breakfast stops on the way. I’ve been promising myself a some time away from work, after what seems like a manic start to the year; a year which is already more than halfway spent. In addition, apart from a few weekend mini-breaks away, with Mrs PBT’s, I haven’t had a holiday. (Those business trips to Germany and China, don’t count!)

I’ll also be walking alone as I’m craving a bit of solitude. Although it’s nice to have company, walking on my own means I can go at my own pace without trying to keep up with someone. I’m not the fastest walker in the world, as some of my CAMRA friends will tell you, and I dislike feeling that I’m holding them back when we walk as a group.

The first day looks like the hardest, as it’s a 14 mile stretch from Wye rail station to my B&B in the hills above Folkestone. It’s then only eight miles to Dover on the following day; the uneven distances being entirely due to the lack of available overnight accommodation at the halfway point.

I’ll then take the train from Dover to Shepherdswell, for my second overnight stop, before continuing towards Canterbury on the last day of the walk. If, as I said before,  I feel up to it, I'll continue on to  Chartham Hatch, where my friends and I finished up almost exactly two years ago.

So that’s the plan, and now with rucksack packed as light as possible, and boots ready by the front door, it’s off to bed for an early night, and an equally early start in the morning.

Sambrook's find a new home

I was somewhat taken aback to read that south London independent brewers Sambrook’s, are upping sticks and moving to a new site in the heart of Wandsworth. Their new home will be in the “Ram Quarter, ” a mixed-use development centred on the old Young’s Brewery, which closed in 2006.

Sambrook’s new brewery will be set within the restored Grade-II listed brewery buildings which were once home to the much-loved, and greatly missed, Young & Co. Alongside their new brewery, Sambrook’s will operate a tap room, with outdoor seating, set around the Ram Quarter’s central square. There will also be  a visitors’ centre housing a brewery museum, showcasing the history of brewing in London.

The new facility will be opening in Spring 2020, after which Sambrook’s current site in Battersea will close. The company has operated there since it was founded  in August 2008.  There have been lots of changes in the London brewing scene since then, but Sambrook’s has remained at its heart, and is now the second oldest independent brewer in London.  

Duncan Sambrook, founder and managing director of the company, said: “Our move to the Ram Quarter feels like a homecoming. Wandsworth has had a rich brewing heritage and we’re excited to be able to continue this and secure the future of Sambrook’s brewery. It’s a fantastic location for us to expand our retail offering and is just metres from the River Wandle after which our most famous beer takes its name.”

Sambrook’s first beer was the award winning, Wandle Ale, and since its launch the company has expanded to brew a well-regarded range of British inspired cask and keg beers, which are distributed throughout London.

Returning to the Wandsworth site, brewing has been taking place there  since at least 1533. Famously the site was home to Young’s until 2006. During redevelopment the Ram’s brewing legacy was preserved by former Young’s master brewer, John Hatch, who maintains a nano-brewery at the site. The relocation of Sambrook’s will re-launch the commercial brewing from the site and continue its brewing heritage.

I mentioned at the beginning of the post that I was surprised, about this recent, and most welcome development, and that surprise is centred around Young’s decision to leave their home at the Ram Brewery in the first place.

It’s water under the bridge now, and whilst like many others I was shocked when Young’s announced they were leaving Wandsworth, with hindsight this was not such a surprise, after all. Two years prior to the closure decision, Young’s had announced a “Review of the options for Ram Brewery,” and given the size and central location of the Wandsworth site, the move was perhaps inevitable.

Wandsworth was a boom area for property developers, and selling up no doubt made millions for Young’s and its shareholders. The company’s colourful former chairman, John Young, was not a well man by time the move was announced, but whether he could have prevented the deal is open to speculation.

John Young sadly died, just six weeks after contracts were exchanged on the Ram Brewery, but earlier in his career he won fame for his stubborn refusal to stock keg beer in Young's pubs, keeping faith with traditional draught ale. This was back in the mid-1960s, when all the major brewers were converting their pubs to keg beer.

The Ram Brewery officially closed at the end of business, on Monday, 25 September 2006. At the time of its closure it was a mix of ancient and ultra-modern plant, including a steam engine which had been installed in 1835 and had been in regular use until the 1980s. I visited the brewery during the early part of that decade and would agree with the assessment above.

The brewery was famously home to a dozen working draught shire horses, which were used for local deliveries of beer to locations within a mile or two of the brewery. There were other animals as well, including a ram - the brewery mascot, plus a number of geese.

The Greenland Group, who are the current owners of  the site, are now working on their  £600m master-plan to transform the historic 4.5-acre Ram Brewery site, in a development that brings together a mixture of retail and residential properties.

A spokesman for  Greenland said,  “We have always recognised the importance of Ram’s brewing legacy, and safeguarding its heritage has been crucial to our development plans. We’re proud to be keeping Wandsworth’s beer tradition alive, while creating an exciting new destination, in partnership with a local business.”

So watch this space. In the meantime let's offer congratulations and best wishes to Sambrook’s on their expansion plans, and look forward to seeing the new development on the banks of the Wandle.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Too much going on?

Like most summer weekends it’s been a busy one, with lots happening on the domestic front and even more in the outside world.  Summer is prime time for village fetes, agricultural shows, carnivals, outdoor festivals and of course outdoor drinking.

There was a fair bit of that taking place, but I’ll just concentrate on two events that I was aware of; one I managed to attend, and the other I didn’t, even though I would have liked to.

The first event was a summer party that the Bailey family were invited to. My good lady wife looks after the accounts for a number of local building firms, and the largest of these companies lays on a summer party for all its employees, and their spouses. This is instead of the more traditional Christmas party/dinner, which most firms hold for their workers.

I think I’m right in thinking that Saturday night’s party was the fourth such event, and this time, as son Matthew had been invited along as well, we had the benefit of a chauffeur!

The venue for the party, once again, was the Carpenters Arms, at Three Elm Lane, just off the Hadlow Road in a rural setting on the northern fringe of Tonbridge. It’s a pub I don’t visit that often, even though it is just a short hop from the nearest bus route, but each time I do the place seems to have improved from the time before.

Saturday was no exception, and as well as an extended and improved terrace area at the front of the pub, there were four cask ales awaiting our approval on the bar; three of them local. I gave the two brown beers, Doom Bar and the Larkin’s Traditional a miss, opting instead for the paler duo of Cellar Head Summer Pale 3.7% and Gun Brewery Extra Pale 3.9%.

I had two pints of each. Both were good, but the Cellar Head came in as the winner, scoring 3.5 NBSS, with the Gun Brewery offering not far behind at 3.0 NBSS. There was plenty in the way of solid nourishment too, with home-baked sausage rolls, mini-burgers, pork pie, quiche (one of the smoothest and creamiest I have tasted), door-step sandwiches plus, scotch eggs to die for – warm and with the rich yellow yolks just slightly off from runny.

One thing missing from the buffet this year was the salad. Mrs PBT’s told me that being a bunch of “salad dodgers” the various tradesmen had specifically requested that "rabbit food" be left off the menu. A minor grouse from me, as whilst I am not the world’s greatest carrot cruncher, I do find that a little bit of greenery goes well with buffet food of this nature, and I anything helps complements it.

Being with a bunch of builders and other tradesmen, the banter and the jokes were flowing, but it was all good humoured and certainly wasn’t offensive. All in all it was an excellent evening, and if an abject lesson in keeping your workforce happy was needed, then this was it.

As I said earlier, there have been a number of improvements at the Carpenter’s, including the provision of  overnight accommodation. At the rear of the well-laid out garden, there are a number of  small gazebos which can be hired in advance, for small groups. Mrs PBT’s will be checking them out this coming Friday, when she meets up with a number of old friends from her ante-natal group, so I shall be expecting a full report.

The second event which, as I was unable to attend,  I’ll mention only briefly, was the Greyhound at Charcott, celebrating its second anniversary under the careful stewardship of Richard and Fran Gilliat-Smith.

The couple rescued the pub, which had been closed by its previous owners, Enterprise Inns, and earmarked for conversion to a private dwelling. They then spent three months carrying out an extensive and sympathetic refurbishment which transformed the Greyhound into the lovely little country pub it is today.

This second weekend in July marks two years since the newly restored pub opened its doors to the paying public, and Richard and Fran had a big party planned in order to celebrate.  Amongst the events planned was a mini-beer festival, a barbecue, plus live music. Several of my CAMRA friends and colleagues were heading over there on Sunday afternoon, to present a certificate and to join in the celebrations.

Regrettably I had too much to do at home. I am going away for a few days, later in the week – nowhere exotic, and nowhere which involves hopping on a plane. I won’t even be leaving the county, but all will be revealed in the next few days.

Aware that I might miss the Greyhound’s birthday celebrations, I popped in for a quick one last Friday lunchtime. Richard and Fran were away at a wedding, so I wasn’t able to congratulate them in person, but the pub was busy with lunchtime drinkers and diners. I recognised a couple of the drinkers, as they are local folk, so I joined them for a quick chat over a very enjoyable pint of Larkin’s Traditional.

They are justifiably proud of their "born-again" local, and were looking forward to sharing its success with people from further afield. As I’m sure I’ve said many times previously, I think it’s brilliant that the Greyhound has been saved from extinction, and in the right hands, is now thriving and doing what a pub should be doing – namely offering good food and drink, backed up by a warm and friendly welcome, to an appreciative mix of regulars and visitors alike.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Meet up at the Hidden Seller

The Beer Seller in Tonbridge, which as been open for over half a year now, continues to go from strength to strength, with two more strings recently added to the pub’s bow.

I last called in shortly after my return from China, just over a month ago, but since then I’ve noticed from the pub’s website that an off-licence section has been opened, along with a couple of meeting/function rooms.

I had the opportunity to see the latter for myself on Monday evening, as my local CAMRA branch had booked a room for their July business meeting. These are bi-monthly events, ie they take place every two months, and rotate between the three principal towns in the area (Sevenoaks, Tonbridge & Tunbridge Wells).

The off-licence, which is called the Hidden Seller, is on the first floor of the building, above the bar area, and is housed in the smaller of the two meeting rooms. It offers a range of interesting beers, wines and spirits, sourced from local and artisan producers. 

The items for sale are hanging from the wall, secured by the type of security tags used in supermarkets. Customers are requested to write down their purchases, on one of the thoughtfully provided slips of paper, and present it to the bar staff downstairs. They will then collect the items and bring them ready for payment.

The beers include: East London Brewery, Burning Sky Brewery, Siren, Lost & Grounded, Nirvana and Hawkes, whilst the wines, which are mainly local, include such luminaries as Chapel Down, Bolney Estate,  Sedlescombe, Kingscote and Nyetimber.  A range of spirits is also stocked, but I won’t bother listing these. If you’re really interested, you can check the details on the Beer Seller’s website.

Our CAMRA business meeting kicked off in the off-licence section, and it was rather a squeeze fitting 14 of us around the high, central “posing table,” but when we adjourned for a beer break, we discovered that the much larger function room was free, and that we were welcome to use that instead.

The room is situated at the front of the building, again on the first floor, and overlooks Tonbridge High Street. It is quite plainly decorated (not sure about those “wallpaper books”), with exposed brick fireplaces at either end of the room, and some wood panelling along the bottom half of the walls.

It was just right for our meeting, although possibly slightly too alright, as the proceedings did drag on rather longer than they should have done. I won’t go into detail, as I don’t want to wash the branch’s dirty linen in public, but things did get rather heated at one point.

A discussion about how many Good Beer Guide places the branch has been allocated, compared to the rest of the county, led to me losing the will to live, and I seriously question whether I ever wish to attend another such meeting. Getting bogged down in such trivia demonstrates quite clearly that CAMRA has lost the plot. I was very tempted to walk out at one stage, and when the meeting finally ended, my remark “That’s two hours of my irreplaceable life I’ll never get back,”  was acknowledged with a wry grin by the member sitting next to me.

Fortunately the beer range and quality made up for having to endure such piffle, and pride of place must go to the two offerings from Maidstone brewer, Goacher’s. Both the Best Dark and the Gold Star were on top form, scoring a worthy 3.5 NBSS apiece. The other beer sampled came from Northdown Brewery, a recent, part crowd-funded start-up, based in Margate. Their He-Bru IPA wasn’t quite as enjoyable, but it still came in with a solid 2.5 NBSS.

Three pints was enough for me, especially on a Monday night, and whilst some members adjourned to Spoon’s – why, for heaven’s sake? a handful of us remained at the Beer Seller. The manager was obviously pleased we’d chosen his pub, and reckoned his takings were about three times more than they’d normally be for a Monday.

Having a function room available, for clubs or organisations like us, seems like a wise move, as places where such groups can hold meetings, without disturbance to themselves or to other pub users, are few and far between. Although next time my local CAMRA branch book the place, I think I’ll forgo the meeting, and stay downstairs in the bar!