Friday, 24 May 2019

First time in China

Just under a week ago I mentioned that I was heading off on a business trip, so wouldn’t be posting for a while, but last night I arrived home, tired and bleary-eyed from my first visit to the People’s Republic of China.

The purpose of the visit was to carry out an audit on a potential new supplier, who will be providing plastic tubes for a new prophylaxis paste (dental tooth polish), we are developing in conjunction with our parent company in Japan. Because of the importance of this project to both our companies, it was deemed necessary to send representatives from the quality departments of both firms, so I was joined on the trip by three of my Japanese colleagues.

Travelling to China is relatively easy for them, as it’s only a four hour flight across from Osaka. Furthermore, Japanese citizens do not need visas (rather surprising considering the past history between the two nations), but UK citizens definitely do. Applying for the visa was the reason behind my two visits to London, earlier this month, and in addition, as I was visiting China for commercial reasons, I required a business visa, which meant obtaining a "letter of introduction" from the company we were going to audit.

Fortunately, the whole process was relatively straight forward, so last Saturday morning, I took the train from Tonbridge, across to Gatwick Airport, to begin a two-stage flight to the city of Guangzhou. Formerly known as Canton, this sprawling metropolis of 14 million inhabitants, is situated on the Pearl River, in the south of China, fairly close to Hong Kong, and whilst South China Airways do offer daily direct flights, these operate out of Heathrow.

Heathrow is a pain to get to from where I live, and also the timings of the direct flights were not particularly convenient. Instead I booked return flights from Gatwick, with Qatar Airways, which involved  a short stop-over in Doha – the capital of Qatar, and the venue for the 2022 Football World Cup. For the aircraft buffs amongst you, the Gatwick –  Doha stage was operated by Boeing  Dreamliners, whilst the Doha – Guangzhou leg uses Airbus 380’s; the world’s largest passenger planes.

I arrived at Guangzhou sometime around four in the afternoon, and after disembarking, joined the queues at immigration. As the crowd  approaches the first of the checkpoints, an electronic temperature monitoring system is in place for recording the body temperature of each individual. I noticed myself on a screen,  surrounded by a swarm of humanity, but fortunately there was a green ring showing around my visage.

The reason the Chinese authorities are looking for individuals running a temperature is because they are concerned about people carrying the flu virus. I wasn’t able to see what happened to those who failed the test, but presumably they were either denied entry, or were quarantined somewhere.

After having my fingerprints taken again (I’d already provided them at the visa application centre in London), and  passing through Passport Control, I collected my suitcase which was then screened. I then found myself in the People’s Republic of China, and free to head off to my pre-booked hotel. My Japanese colleagues had also booked the same accommodation, but as they wouldn’t be arriving until later the following day, I had an evening and the best part of a day to myself, free to explore and get to know my new surroundings.

First I had to journey into the centre of Guangzhou, and locate my hotel, which was situated close to the main railway station. I had already decided to take the Metro, as I am no fan of taxis, particularly foreign ones. This decision was to prove correct the following day, after my colleagues and I “enjoyed” a white-knuckle ride of a taxi journey to and from the company we were visiting.

The Guangzhou metro operates around nine lines which connect with most parts of the city. The trains are fast, spotlessly clean and air-conditioned. The system is also incredibly cheap, with the trip from the airport costing just 7 RMB (CN¥). With just under 9 RMB to the Pound, this was amazing value for a journey of around 25 kilometres.

But first I had to suss out the ticket machines and access the system, and to do the latter I had to have my bags scanned yet again. I don’t know whether there’s been some sort of security issue in China, or whether the authorities are just being cautious, but at the entrance to every metro station, there are airport-style bag scanners manned by security staff. Bearing in mind that most stations have several entrances, that’s a lot of people employed in keeping passengers safe.

After a 45 minute journey, and one change of line, I arrived in central Guangzhou, and now had the problem of finding my hotel. The Google street-car  seems to have been denied access to most of the city, so "Street-View" was out of the question. Instead I had to rely on an old-fashioned map which I’d downloaded back home. The temperature was in the low thirties and the humidity sky high. There was that much perspiration running off me, it felt like I was melting!

I had a photo of the hotel, but try as I might I just couldn’t locate it. I tried phoning, but I ran into the same problem I always seem to have when using my mobile abroad, as the number was “not recognised.” I was just beginning to despair, when I found a local security guard who could speak a little English.

After I’d asked him where the Baiyun City Hotel was, he grinned, and told me to look up above me. I looked up at the sign and found to my immense relief that I was standing right outside the place! Happy or what?

Friday, 17 May 2019

Leaving on a jet plane

Just a quick post before I head off to the airport tomorrow morning for a trip to foreign climes. It’s another business trip – the second one in as many months, and more than I’ve had in most previous years in my current position.

Still don’t knock it, as you never know when the chance might come again; or perhaps not! I’ll be wanting a holiday when I get back, but there’s little chance of that as on top of organising my trip, I’ve been busy wrapping up a lengthy recruitment process.

So a week after my return, I’ll be welcoming a new member of staff to the QC department and getting stuck into the training process – all good fun, as they say; or perhaps not?

I took today off, not for pleasure or anything remotely like it,  but Mrs PBT’s and I had a funeral to attend, and has the deceased was my wife’s former boss, it was only fitting that we should go and pay our respects. It helped that he was a genuine, all-round good guy and even though it was some time since either of us had seen him, it was good, in a therapeutic sort of way to catch up with a few of his friends and what remains of his extended family, swap memories and share a tale or two.

Friday’s weather had a real funereal feel about it; dull, overcast and with intermittent drizzly rain, which was quite heavy at times. There was also a cold easterly wind blowing – not what you’d expect for the second half of May.

The service itself was a fitting tribute, and apart from a quick rendition of Amazing Grace, followed by the Lord’s Prayer, was  more humanist in nature than religious. Much to my late mother’s eternal disappointment, and despite her best endeavours in sending my sister and I to Sunday school, I never really "got religion", so to attend a service which only paid lip-service to the almighty, was right up my street.

There was a small gathering afterwards at the Black Horse in Pembury; a real Tardis-like pub, right in the centre of Pembury – a village which, since the opening of the by-pass a couple of decades ago, is now virtually traffic free.

There were still too many parked cars though, and precious free parking spaces; a situation made worse by the central car-park now in  the process of being turned into housing (it’s no good building all these houses if there’s nowhere for residents to park!).
I dropped Mrs PBT’s off outside the pub, before turning round and heading along to the nearby Tesco superstore, where there were plenty of free spaces. After a brisk 10 minute walk, I was back at the Black Horse, stepping inside for the first time in eight years.

It’s a lovely old building, with a typical Kentish tile-hung, frontage. Inside there’s a large inglenook fireplace and a central bar, which you can walk right around. The front of the pub seems popular with locals, whilst the area to the rear of the bar, is more of a dining area.

There were just three cask-ales on the bar, so I knew I stood a good chance of getting a decent pint. The beers were Fuller’s London Pride, St Austell Tribute and a “house beer”Black Horse Bitter. I’ve never been a fan of so-called “house beers”, as you just know they’re either just a re-badged, bog-standard bitter, or they’re a “brewery –mix” of two beers the brewery wants to get rid of. I played safe and opted for the Pride, which was in good form, and scoring an easy 3.0 NBSS.

After a quick look round, I made my way to the restaurant section at the rear of the pub, to find Mrs PBT’s and the other mourners. We stayed for about an hour carrying out the sort of conversation you so at funerals – quiet and polite to begin with, but becoming more relaxed and laid-back as the initial awkwardness wears off and the drink begins to lubricate the proceedings.

We left shortly after 2pm, as we had some shopping to do, and I had my packing to finish off. As we departed I reflected that whilst I’m by no means a regular visitor to the Black Horse, I’ve known the place for the best part of the last 30 years, and I’m pleased to report that very little has changed during this time.

According to the pub’s website,  landlord and landlady Gary and Michelle, have been at the Black Horse since December 1990. Such longevity is rare in the licensed trade these days, so it is comforting to see that the pub has been in the capable hands for the past three decades. The couple are obviously doing something right, and long may they continue.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Curious and curiouser

I’m not sure how many beer drinkers will have come across Curious Brew on their travels, but I first became aware of the company, and its “curiously-branded” products after spotting some of their bottles on sale at Waitrose.

I’m not certain as to when this discovery took place, but a search back through my blog archives, unearthed this post from February 2016, which covered the story about Curious Brew’s ambitious plans to construct a “state of the art” brewing facility in Ashford, Kent.

Their parent company, Chapel Down Winery, who are based in nearby Tenterden, had launched a crowd-funding campaign to finance the project, and at the time of my article the campaign was nearing completion, with a figure approaching £1.5 million reached.

I must admit I rather lost touch with the story, although I did keep it in the back of my mind largely for sentimental reasons. I spent my formative years living just outside Ashford. I grew up and went to school in the town, and I also began my drinking “career” there, if that’s the right word!

John Salmon / St Mary's Church, Ashford, Kent / CC BY-SA 2.0
I also witnessed some of the appalling decisions taken by the then newly constituted Ashford Borough Council (ABC), which saw the town become slave to the motor car, following the construction of a ring road – which turned into more of a race track.

Worse was to follow, with an equally disastrous and insensitive redevelopment scheme which tore the heart out of the town in exchange for a garish new shopping centre, and a concrete monstrosity of an office block built as the head quarters for an Anglo-South African mining corporation, called Charter Consolidated.

Many of Ashford’s finest hostelries fell victim to ABC’s avaricious schemes, and much loved pubs, such as the Duke of Marlborough, the Somerset Arms, the Coach & Horses and the Lord Roberts were erased from the face of the earth.

The loss of the latter was especially tragic, as not only was it a popular watering hole for my friends and I, it was also one of my favourite pubs in the town. It still rankles today that the Lord Roberts was demolished purely to make way for a service road for the aforementioned Charter Consolidated building.
I overcame my disappointment with the town of my youth, by moving away from the place, only returning for visits to the family home but, as I alluded to earlier, I remained curious as to what Curious Brew’s plans were for Ashford.

All has now been revealed, with the opening of the “state of the art” Curious Brewery; a multi-million pound facility set right in the heart of Ashford, directly opposite the town’s  international railway station.

The building is set in a 1.6 acre site and houses a 50HL 5-vessel brew-house, complete with 19 fermentation tanks, giving a total capacity of 2,900hl. For those who like statistics, the new brewery can hold almost 500,000 pints of beer at any one time.

The new brewery will transform Curious Brew’s production,  enabling the company to more than quadruple its current total brewing volumes, producing approximately 80khl of beer, or more than 4.5m pints, per year. Despite these impressive production figures, the new plant is incredibly versatile, as it allows the brewing of smaller batch sizes, to ensure  improved freshness and quality. It will even enable the launch of an exclusive small batch series.

Now all these facts and figures have been taken from the company’s press release, and having read and digested at least some of these statistics, it would be nice to visit the brewery and see the place at first hand.

Well Curious Brew not only have an onsite bar and restaurant, which is open daily from 12 noon until 11pm, but also offer pre-booked tours. For further details click here on their website, where you will also discover more about the company’s  range of beers and ciders.

As an exiled Ashfordian, I am excited that after years of botched planning schemes, something good has come to my former hometown. I shall certainly be booking a place on one of the tours in the not too distant future, but in the meantime enjoy looking at the photo’s of the new brewery, which have come courtesy of “Well Hello Communications”, the PR people who are promoting Curious Brew’s prestigious new development.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

A couple of old favourites

Last Bank Holiday Monday I repeated the previous month’s walk to the Hopbine at Petteridge. This time around I had a companion who accompanied me from Paddock Wood station. There was also a second pub involved, in the shape of the Halfway House, just outside the village of Brenchley.

There should have been three of us on the walk, but one of our small group had missed his connecting train from Tunbridge Wells, and had said he would catch us up. Undeterred, Simon and I set off from the station, but rather than walk along the road out of Paddock Wood, found a much more pleasant route which involved leaving the  built up areas much sooner. The downside was that this alternative path added a couple of miles to the overall journey.

Small matter, the path took us through some very pleasant countryside and as an added bonus the sun started to peak through the clouds. The temperatures were still on the cool side though, and a complete contrast to the warm wall to wall sunshine when I’d undertaken the walk at the end of March.

Although we’d taken a slightly different route, there was still the stiff climb up onto the northern edge of the High Weald to test our fitness and stamina. Back on level ground, we thought we could see our missing companion Tony, striding out ahead. Unfortunately there was slightly too much distance between us, and with no binoculars (why do I always forget to pack my set?), it wasn’t possible to make him out.

The opportunity was lost when the shadowy figure in the distance disappeared into an area of woodland, and by the time we reached the road into Matfield, there was no sign of our wayward friend. With all possibility of catching him up lost, we took a slightly different route into Matfield, which brought us out onto the village green, just by the pond.

To our left was the impressive Matfield House, a charming brick-built, Georgian house which dates from 1728. It is a perfect example of the type of house built by  well-to-do farmers or small landowners. As well as the carefully restored main house there is a courtyard surrounded by other buildings from the same period, such as some stables and a brick-built barn. Seeing this lovely old set of buildings was proof, if proof were needed, that if you step aside from your usual route, you can often see things you never knew were there.

After crossing the busy road running passed the green, we picked up the High Weald Landscape Trail, which took us all the way to the tiny hamlet of Petteridge and the lovely old Hopbine Inn. This was the same route I had taken on my previous walk.

As Simon and I headed along the lane that runs in front of the pub, who should come around the corner than our missing companion Tony. He was as surprised to see us as we were to see him, but it turned out that we were correct in our assumption that it was indeed Tony who we saw ahead of us, in the distance, as we approached Matfield.

Despite starting 30 minutes or so behind us, he had stolen a march on us by taking the direct route out of Paddock Wood, rather than the meandering and more rural one which we had taken. Then, by walking fast, not only had he arrived at  the Hopbine ahead of us, he’d also had time to knock back a pint!

When we bumped into him, he was just leaving the Hopbine and was en route to the next pub. He’d apparently sent us a text, but with an intermittent signal in the area, Simon and I had both missed it. After our walk we were both gagging for at least one pint at the Hopbine, and with Tony needing little persuasion to join us for a further beer, we trooped inside.

There were a handful of people inside, but the pub was by no means packed. Tony said that it had been much busier earlier, but the paucity of customers meant there were plenty of table to sit at. Beer-wise there were two offerings from Cellar Head, plus Best Bitter from Long Man and Traditional from Tonbridge Brewery. Simon and I opted for the Spring Pale Ale from the former, whilst Tony went for the Tonbridge beer.

The Cellar Head offering was nice and refreshing and definitely most welcome after our walk, and it was tempting to stay for another, but with a second pub to visit we all thought it best to get going. On the way out we took a look at the area of terraced decking at the rear of the pub.

It was too cold for sitting outside, but the terrace looked like it would be popular on a warm day. The route to the Halfway House is one  which is quite familiar to West Kent CAMRA members, and it involves a cross-country track which runs between two farms. We the walked along a series of minor roads which took us past some  rather attractive-looking and very desirable properties.

I wasn’t timing our walk, and it as nowhere near the length of the outward one, but once again that first pint was very welcoming. For the benefit of my less local readers, the Halfway House is a well regarded and long established free house, which offers a wide range of cask ales, but a range which doesn’t tend to vary much.

The majority of  beers at the Halfway House are from  reasonably well known, and mainly local breweries, so it is not unusual to see the likes of Goacher’s, Kent Brewery, Rother Valley and Westerham on sale. Betty Stoggs, from Skinner’s is also normally available; this Cornish ale proving the exception to the rule.

All cask beers are served direct from the barrel, using exactly the same system as the Dovecote at Capel. This is not surprising given that landlord Richard Allen developed this innovative means of storing and dispensing beer whilst at the Dovecote, and when he moved to the Halfway House, he installed the same system there.

We grabbed a table in the top right-hand section of the pub, in sight of the bar, and quite close to the door. I started with a pint of Goacher’s Fine Light before moving onto a rare find in the form of Family Stout from Westerham Brewery. Both were in good condition, and I scored both beers at 3.5 NBSS.

The Halfway House is an easy-going sort of place, with creaking timber floors, open fires and a motley assortment of all kinds of bric-a-brac. People seemed to come and go, as the pub ticked over in an equally relaxed sort of way. The Halfway has been West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year on several past occasions, and seems to just carry on, ploughing its own furrow, in its own sort of way.

In a way that’s hard to describe, we found ourselves drawn into the same easy going atmosphere, exuded by the place and were only prompted to leave when we noticed just how much the clock had ticked on.

The route back to Paddock Wood took us into the charming village of Brenchley, but a place now bereft of pubs.  The attractive, half-timbered Rose & Crown closed its doors for the last time many years ago, and now the Bull has sort of followed suit.

The former pub, in the shadow of the 13th Century village church, has morphed into the Little Bull Café & Bar. It is run by a local couple and looks pleasant enough. The ideal place perhaps for a bite to eat or a cuppa but, as its name implies, it is a café rather than a pub with limited opening times and craft, rather than cask beer.

After passing through the village, we made our way to the familiar path which descends through an abandoned golf course, and back to Paddock Wood. This area of countryside is a victim of the 2008 banking crisis, and it is fascinating to witness how it is continuing to revert back to nature.

The land is being grazed, but only in parts, and as first scrub and then young trees gradually take over, the greens and the fairways have disappeared, with just a few overgrown bunkers still visible.

So with change happening all around, it is good to report that, pub-wise, the Hopbine and the Halfway House are both still as good and reliable as ever. Long may this continue.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Following the crowd

“Is it some kind of strange “herd instinct” which makes certain people gravitate to where others are sitting, even when there’s acres of empty space elsewhere?”

The above is lifted straight from my recent post about a “Hungry Horse” breakfast. It describes a situation which I’m sure strikes a chord with many people, as it is something which many of us can relate to.

Regular correspondent Etu describes a similar situation in a large and almost deserted car-park, where his desire for a spot of shut-eye, and some fresh air, was disturbed by the hooting of another motorist who wished to park right next to him, despite there being acres of space either side.

This herding instinct isn’t just prevalent in car-parks; a work colleague told me of a similar situation where him and his wife, desiring both peace and a bit of space, parked their campervan at the furthermost extremity of a virtually empty campsite. After setting up camp, they went off for an exploratory walk, finding to their horror, when they returned to their vehicle, that a family had set up camp right next to them.

The “family” came complete with several noisy and energetic children – nothing that untoward there, except for the fact that my colleague’s wife hates kids! What made the situation worse,  especially for her, was there were no other tents or vans within  that particular field.

So what is it that makes some people want to get as close to others as humanly possible? What is it that makes them want to stick like glue to their fellow human beings?
“Herd mentality” (also known as mob mentality) describes a behaviour in which people act in the same way, or adopt similar behaviours as the people around them — often ignoring their own feelings in the process. Think of a sheep blindly following the flock no matter where they go "just because that’s what the herd is doing."

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Leeds found that humans flock like sheep and birds, subconsciously following a minority of individuals. The study showed that it takes a minority of just five per cent to influence a crowd's direction - and that the other 95 per cent follow without even realising it.

I don’t want to go into too much depth regarding the reasons behind this type of behaviour, as there are a host of psychological and perhaps survival factors at play here. However, whilst I can understand it in crowds situations, where there are strong parallels between animal grouping behaviour and human crowds, it doesn’t really explain why, when you’re sitting in a virtually empty pub enjoying a quiet drink, either on your own, or as a couple, other member of the human race will come along and plonk themselves down, right next to you!

Several years ago, my wife and I attended a performance by the legendary Kaiser Chiefs at Bedgebury Forest. Dressed in our warmest concert-going gear (it can be quite cold during the evening in the Great British outdoors – even in June), we took our picnic chairs, and picnic along and staked out a nice little spot with a good view of the stage, but not too close. We left, what we thought was a reasonable amount of space between ourselves and the people in front of us.

As might be expected, people were gradually occupying the space behind us, but this apparently, was not good enough for two families and their assorted off-spring who squeezed themselves into the space in front of us whilst behaving like prats for the duration of the concert – on the phone talking loudly to their mates, taking “selfies” of themselves against the backdrop of the Kaiser Chiefs performance.

This is a nightmarish scenario for many people, especially where there is no escape. For some time now, Mrs PBT’s and I have been contemplating a cruise, but for my good lady wife having our space invaded by the proverbial “couple from hell”, is a prime factor in convincing herself that cruising is not for her. This is despite my assurances that a cruise-liner is sufficiently large to be able to escape, and indeed hide, from such boorish individuals.

So next time you are out enjoying a quiet drink, or perhaps admiring the view from a local beauty spot, keep an eye out, as you may well find you are not alone!

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Something lacking

Well for Dave’s benefit, here is my summary, and my thoughts, on  the five bottles of Kölsch I brought back from Cologne the other month. Before launching into the full-blown descriptive narrative, it’s worth noting that all five bottles were brands of  Kölsch I’d not come across before and, as you may recall, I picked them all up at a supermarket close to our hotel.

So, without further ado, here are the five beers listed in the order I drank them in.
Reissdorf Kölsch 4.8%. Packaged in a 500ml bottle - sufficient for two and a half Stangen (Kölsch glasses), and adorned with an attractive label. This Kölsch is quite a soft, gentle and pleasant beer, with notes of malt on the nose. It is quite sweet in taste, with a slight hint of fruit.

According to the label Reissdorf is a Privat-Brauerei, so I presume it is family-owned. Like most of the other beers below, this is one which I haven’t come across before on visits to Cologne.

Richmodis Kölsch 4.8%. At first I thought that this is another independently owned Kölsch brewer, but it turns out that Richmodis was bought out by Gaffel who are one of the larger independent brewers in Cologne, in 1998. The brand is now produced exclusively for the REWE supermarket chain which, surprise-surprise, is where I bought this bottle.

The beer comes in a 330ml bottle, is extremely pale in colour and is rather sweet in taste. It is still quite quaffable though, and reminds me quite a lot of Gaffel.

Sester Kölsch 4.8%. Another Kölsch packaged in a 500ml bottle. Less sweet than the other bottles sampled so far, but equally less hoppy.

The beer has a deep golden colour, with a sweet malty nose and pours with a light, fluffy head. A pleasant and easy drinking  Kölsch, but nothing to get overly excited about.

Gilden Kölsch 4.8%. “Traditionally brewed, with a fine hop aroma”, if I have correctly translated the text on the back of the bottle.

This Kölsch is a bit more like it, being hoppier and less sweet, than some of the others. Pale golden and pours with a rather thin head, which soon dissipates in the glass. Nice and refreshing. A “big brand” Kölsch, brewed by the Kölner Verbund Brauereien.

Schreckenskammer Kölsch 5.0 %.  I’m mightily relieved that the last of the five  has turned out to be the best and most enjoyable, as I was starting to get more than a little fed-up with the style.

Schreckenskammer has a deep golden colour and has quite a bit more body than the other Kölsches sampled. It’s also marginally stronger at 5.0%, although I don’t think that an extra 0.25% alcohol is going to make much difference.

Situated opposite the church of St. Ursula, and first documented in 1442, Schreckenskammer was the oldest brewery in Cologne, until it was destroyed by a bombing raid in 1943. Production didn’t re-start until 1960 at the modern-looking,  Zur Schreckenskammer brew-pub.

What I find surprising is that I have not only missed this particular brew-house, but have been completely unaware of its existence, despite all the times I’ve been going to Cologne. What is even more annoying is it is situated just the other side of the rail tracks, virtually opposite the hotel we normally stay at, whilst attending the biennial dental exhibition which takes place in the city.

Back to the main point of the exercise which was a comparison between drinking Kölsch at home and enjoying a few in one of Cologne’s atmospheric beer halls.

Unsurprisingly the two don’t compare favourably, which is no reflection on the beers themselves, but more a case of missing the fast-drinking and social interaction associated with enjoying Kölsch on its home turf.

As stated before, Kölsch is a beer designed to be drunk fresh. Leaving a newly poured glass standing for any length of time allows the beer’s condition to dissipate, and is not conducive to enjoying it at its best. This is why it is usually served in small, plain cylindrical glasses known as Stangen, which typically hold just 20 cl of beer.

This isn’t very practical at home – I don’t have any Stangen for a start, and neither do I have a waiter bringing me a fresh glass of beer for as long as I wish to continue drinking. So, for the ultimate Kölsch experience, it really is necessary to take a trip to the Rhineland, and to Köln itself.