Sunday 18 January 2009

The Wheatsheaf at Marsh Green

It's that time of year, as despite the 2009 Good Beer Guide only hitting the shops in the run up to Christmas, it's already time to start the selection process for the 2010 edition. In common with those members who bothered to turn up to the branch AGM, back in November, I was given a handful of pubs to survey. (Nominations for the Guide were taken at the AGM).

As is usually my wont, I put the forms to one side thinking that there was plenty of time to do the inspections. I did a couple just before Christmas, but still had one to go, and with the final selection meeting due to be held next weekend I decided I had better get my skates on. The outstanding pub was the Wheatsheaf at Marsh Green near Edenbridge, a long-standing guide entry, and a place renowned for the quality and range of its beer. Having decided to visit it on Saturday, the next question was how to get there.

It would have been easy just to have jumped in the car and driven there, but that kind of defeats the object. I wanted to sample more than one of the beers, and besides for mid-January, Saturday wasn't too bad weatherwise. I decided therefore to take the train from Edenbridge and then walk the three or so miles to Marsh Green. A look at the map showed I could cut across the fields, and as I had recently purchased a new pair of walking boots this seemed the ideal opportunity to try them out. I duly arrived in Edenbridge just after 12.30 and followed the long straight road down into the town. I hadn't realised before just what a pleasant little town Edenbridge is. One tends to miss so much by driving through a place, and it is only when one is on foot that the true charm (or otherwise) of a location is revealed. Edenbridge does suffer from a somewhat poor image, due largely to the London overspill estates built there during the 1970's, but I was quite impressed with the wealth of characterful old buildings and independent shops that I passed.

I branched off across country from the main road, the idea being to cut off a corner, and avoid a particularly busy main road, which drivers seem to regard as a race track! All went well and I was thoroughly enjoying being out in the country, until the path reached a gate which displayed a sign warning walkers that there was a bull in the field. Now I don't mind cows, and I have walked through fields of bullocks on several occaisions, but a fully-grown adult bull was a different proposition. I decided to deviate round the field, but then had trouble trying to re-locate the path. I managed this more by luck than judgement and eventaully arrived in the small hamlet of Marsh Green pondering the rights of walkers to pass unhindered versus those of landowners to use their land as they see fit. I decided I would definitely contact Kent County Council on Monday, as they are the body rsponsible for the maintenance of footpaths and public rights of way to see what their views are. Hopefully the landowner will be told to keep his bull elsewhere and not on a public footpath!

The slight detour had sharpened my thirst, but on entereing the pub I discovered that a shooting party had arrived a few minutes before and were busy ordering drinks and food. The wait gave me time to reflect on just what an excellent pub the Wheatsheaf is. It is divided up into four different areas, all with bare wooden floors. Open log fires provide the heating, and whilst television and games are present in one of the rooms, they are mercifully absent from the other three.

My first beer was Hogs Back TEA, always a fine beer and especially so here. Whilst enjoying my well-earned piny, Neil the landlord took time out from serving his many customers to pop over for a quick chat and to go through the inspection form with me. This was a nice gesture, as I don't go int the pub all that often (I would if I lived nearer, but unfortunately I don't). Like many rural pubs he said he was feeling the pinch; the smoking ban had not helped matters, but then neither had the Chancellor! Being a freehouse though he is in a better position than many pub landlords and, given what the pub has to offer, I'm sure he'll be ok. With five well-kept beers on sale, together with a range of good, reasonably priced home-cooked food to help satisfy the inner man, Neil is much more than halfway there when it comes to making a success of things. In addition, the Wheatsheaf really is the heart of the small community it serves and amongst other things holds an annual beer festival to coincide with the village fete. It has been voted West Kent CAMRA pub of the year on at least one occaision, and was also runner-up in the regional contest.

To return to the beer, Whitstable Native was the other beer that took my fancy, although at 3.7% abv it tasted slightly weak after the Hogs Back. Also on sale were Harveys Best and Harveys Mild. Neil told me that the brewery supply the latter in 4.5 gallon pins, in order to ensure a quick turnover.

I finished my visit with another pint of TEA; the pub was getting ready to cater for another party of shooters as I left. I decided to risk the walk back into Edenbridge along the road, rather than get lost trying to avoid several hundred pounds of angry beef. I just had time for a quick look round the impressive parish church before catching the train back toTonbridge after what had been a msot enjoyable afternoon out.

Friday 16 January 2009

Tunbridge Wells -Wednesday 14th January

After spending most of Saturday in Tunbridge Wells, I ended up returning there for a few drinks on Wednesday night. It was a CAMRA social evening and we were supposed to be going to the Brecknock Arms, at Bells Yew Green - just across the border into Sussex.

For those not in the know, the Brecknock is owned by Harveys of Lewes, who are not only one of my favourite breweries, but also brew some fantastic beers as well. The majority of their pubs are unspoilt, with many retaining a traditional public bar. The Brecknock is no exception, and as an added bonus is easy to get to by train. We were therefore all looking forward to an evening there, especially as they would have Harveys superb Old Ale on sale. Unfortunately the pub closed temporarily just after New Year, to allow some sensitive rennovation work to take place, but as is the tendency with building work, the project had over-run by several days. We didn't know about the building work at the time the social was first organised, but fortunately our membership secretary found out prior to our scheduled visit, and thanks to e-mail was able to alert members that the pub would not be open.

A walk round some of the pubs of Tunbridge Wells was put forward as an alternative - hence my second trip around a few of the town's hostelries in less than a week. The majority of the members started off in the peculiarly-named Ragged Trousers, a pleasant, but rather non-descript bar situated in the famous Pantiles area of the town. From what I later learnt I am somewhat glad that myself and a friend missed out on this establishment due to us bnoarding the wrong train! (Apparently the beer quality wasn't all it could be.)

We met up with the rest of our colleagues at the nearby Duke of York, a cosy corner pub, also in the Pantiles area, which was selling Bombardier, GK Abbot plus Harveys Best. Most of us stuck to the latter, which was in fine form. I am glad to report that the Duke of York has reverted to its original name after a spell as "Chaplins". As far as I know, the director and silent film star had no connection with either the pub or the town, so like many locals I was particularly pleased when this in-appropriate name was dropped. The other nice thing about the DoY was that there was no noisy and obtrusive music to disturb our conversation. Definitely a pub to go back to!

From the DoY we made our way up to the Grove, a fine old locals' pub, situated in the "village" area of Tunbridge Wells. Although they had a seasonal beer from Everards on offer ("Sleighbells"), most of us stuck to the Timothy Taylor's Landlord, which was excellent. The beer was so good in fact that we ended up spending what remained of the evening in the Grove.

Whilst it would have been nice to have sampled some Harveys Old, we all had a very enjoyable evening. I shall look forward to visiting the Brecknock on another occaision to see what changes have been made, and also to see what seasonal ales are on offer.

Sunday 11 January 2009

Tunbridge Wells - Saturday 10th January

It's been a week or so since I last posted anything on this site, although during this time I've been quite active posting comments on other peoples' blogs. Since my last posting I've survived my first week back at work - it was quite nice to get back and actually do something, as although I've got several projects lined up at home, it's not really the best time of year to be starting them. I've also survived the cold weather - I say survived but that's a bit harsh really as I much prefer bright, crisp but cold days to gloomy wet and windy ones, however mild the latter may be.

On Saturday I attended the Kent CAMRA Regional Meeting, which took place in the grandiose surroundings of Tunbridge Wells Constitutional Club. This venue was recently voted Kent Club of the Year by local branches of CAMRA, and at a pre-arranged break in the proceedings, a photographer from the local paper duly came along to take the obligatory photo's of the club steward being presented with his certificate. The attendance at the meeting was reasonable despite the extreme cold, and four cask ales were available for us to sample. I confined my sampling to just two of these (Old Hookey plus Ringwood Fortyniner), but they were both good, and to help soak up some of the beer, we were provided with a buffet lunch.

Now it's several years since I last attended one of these meetings, having decided after the last one that life's too short. As my local branch were acting as hosts though it semed rather churlish of me not to to show my face, and besides I wanted to see what the Constitutional Club was like for myself. As well as representatives from our own branch there were a number of familiar faces in attendance, but one thought struck me more than any other - namely, none of us are getting any younger. This thought was made more poignant by the absence of one regular attendee who is in hospital recovering from a heart attack. More than ever CAMRA needs an influx of new blood. Membership levels may well be approaching the 100,000 mark, but we desparately need some younger faces in order to carry on the campaign.

On a lighter note, the meeting finished remarkably early - thanks largley to our own branch chairman Ian who, in his capacity as Area Organiser for the western half of the county ably chaired the meeting, and kept discussions properly on track. Half a dozen or so of us embarked on a mini-pub crawl of Tunbridge Wells afterwards. The first port of call was the up and coming Royal Oak, where we enjoyed some excellent Larkins Porter.

From here we walked straight through the town centre up to Sankeys, on Mount Ephraim. This is a wonderfully idiosyncratic establishment which as well as selling two well-kept cask ales from Harveys and Goachers, also offers the best selection of draught continental beers in this part of Kent. Amongst the offerings are Hacker-Pschorr Helles and Erdinger Weiss Bier from Germany, Lieffmans Kriek and Fruhli Strawberry Beer from Belgium and Lindeboom from Holland. The walls and ceilings are festooned with what must be one of the most comprehensive collections of enamelled metal advertising signs in existence, most of which relate to long lost, but not forgotten local breweries. If you are ever in Tunbridge Wells, do give this place a try.

From Sankeys, my companions had one last port of call - the unspoilt Grove tavern, tucked away in the" village area" of Tunbridge Wells. I stayed for one last pint in Sankeys though before making my way down to the station through the cold and frosty streets, where I caught the train home after a good day out.

Saturday 3 January 2009

New Year's Day

Unlike past New Year's Eve's I not consumed a lot of drink, and had also gone to bed at a reasonable hour. The result was that I felt pretty much ok the following day, so it seemed a good idea to take a drive out to the countryside in this unspoilt corner of Kent and visit a few local pubs. My son was at work, and my wife and sister had decided to hit the shops, so this left just me, plus my brother-in-law Ernie, and 14 year old nephew Jack as we set off to sample some of Kent's finest.

Our first port of call was the Spotted Dog at Smart's Hill near Penshurst. Although a bit of an eaterie drinkers are still made to feel welcome, and with beers from Larkins, plus low beams and warming log fires, what better place to take my American guests. My nephew couldn't believe people lived in such a small and isolated place with just a few cottages, a chapel (now converted to residential use) and the pub. Another thing I like about the Spotted Dog is that it has it's own Farm Shop attached. This stocks all manner of local produce and is a good example of a pub showing both enterprise plus support for the local community.

The beers were good too, with both Traditional and Porter on offer from Larkins, plus a beer from Cornish Brewers - Sharps, whose name unfortunately escapes me. As I was driving I stuck to halves, but from the Spotted Dog we set off for what is one of my favourite pubs, passing en route another excellent hostelry - the Bottle House, also at Smart's Hill.

The pub in question was the totally unspoilt Rock Inn at Chiddingstone Hoath, which if anything is even more isolated than the Spotted Dog. The Rock belongs to the local Larkins Brewery and is their only tied pub. With its floors of well-worn, bare-brick, low-beamed ceilings and log-burning stove ablaze in the large fireplace it too was another place to impress the visitors. My brother-in-law is particularly fond of dark beers, so the Larkins Porter did not disappoint. We bumped into an old friend of mine there as well, and this coupled with one or two other local "characters" made quite an impression on my nephew Jack.

Our last port of call was to have been the equally unspoilt Castle Inn situated in Chiddingstone village. Several of the old houses in Chiddingstone, including the pub itself, are owned by the National Trust and whilst the Castle is undoubtedly expensive it is a fine example of a village inn that still serves its original purpose of providing good food and drink, plus a friendly welcome as it has done for the best part of 300 years.

In the end though we didn't go in, as my nephew was by now getting rather hungry. Car parking spaces also appeared to be somewhat limited, so with a bit of reluctance I turned the car round and headed for home. It was an excellent day out though and for my visitors a good taster of some of our finest local pubs.

New Year's Eve

Drinking on New Year's Eve hasn't been what it used to be for some time now. At the risk of showing my age, I can remember when it was fun to walk from pub to pub, having a few drinks in each before deciding which had the best atmosphere that evening and therefore the pub to remain in for the rest of the night.

All that seem to change, probably around ten or so years ago; pubs started to charge admission for New Year's Eve and became ticket only venues. This was when I stopped going to the pub in order to see the New Year in, as I strongly object having to pay to enter what is supposed to be a "public house". Even when there is some form of entertainment laid on as part of the admission charge it inevitably is something like an 80 decibell disco or, worse still, the dreaded kareoke!

During the six years that my wife and I had our off-licence, we would shut the shop at 10pm and wander down with our son to a local restaurant where we had booked a table. The meal was always good and there was decent entertainment laid on, but so far as I was concerned it still wasn't the same as seeing the New Year in in some nice hostelry.

This year looked as though it was going to turn out somewhat different. My sister and her family were over from the United States and were spending a few days with us before flying back. Ernie, my American brother-in-law, is particularly fond of English beer - having spent 13 years stationed over here during his time in the United States Air Force. He told me beforehand that he was determined to spend at least part of New Year's Eve inside a traditional English pub, so it fell to me to try and organise something. A bit of detective work revealed that, sure to form, most local pubs were operating a ticket only policy. However, this was not the case at one nearby pub operated by a national chain, although they did inform me that they would only be opening until 11pm.

This seemed like a reasonable bet, so just before 8 o'clock we all wandered down to the said establishment to be greeted at the door by the manager with the words "Can I help you?" "Well, we would like a few drinks" was our reply, so imagine our horror when mine host informed us that he was only opening for people who had pre-booked a meal, as he hadn't got the staff to look after hoards of drinkers as well. Now had the place been bursting at the seams I could perhaps have understood this attitude, but even then the answer would surely have been to take on extra staff. As it happened though the pub seemed remarkably quiet, so I informed the individual concerned that I had been in the pub the previous day and had been told by the bar-staff that they would be staying open for drinks until 11pm. My wife and sister were just about ready to tell this latter day Basil Fawlty what he could do with his pub when he relented and said that we could stay until 10pm, but no later. In the absence of an alternative game plan we decided to accept this offer and found ourselves a table, where we spent a very pleasant couple of hours catching up on family news whilst enjoying a few drinks.

The beer choice wasn't particularly inspiring, consisting of Directors, London Pride and Wells Bombardier, but the pub itself is pleasant enough and in the normal course of events is a nice place to visit where one can have a quiet drink without getting one's eardrums blasted out. What I don't understand though is the attitude of the person running the place. The pub remained quiet throughout the two hour period we were there, and I doubt if it got any busier after we left. At no time were any of the staff run off their feet; on the contrary things looked very low-key and relaxed. Mine host though seemed determined to turn trade away; a strange thing to do at any time, let alone on New Year's Eve during a recession!

As for us, we wandered off home before 10 o'clock, as we certainly weren't going to give the manager the pleasure of refusing us a last round of drinks! For myself and my brother-in-law there were some decent bottles of Belgian beer waiting in the fridge, whilst for the ladies plenty of wine to keep them happy. My American nephew though was left with a pretty poor impression of English hospitality and just coudn't understand the attitude of the pub's management.
For me this particular incident, together with the whole idea of pubs charging an entrance on New Year's Eve, just about sums up all that is wrong with this country when it comes to service, giving people what they want and value for money. Businesses that adopt this "we don't need your trade" approach deserve to fail; after all why go into the licensed trade if you don't want customers? Such attitudes are hard enough to understand even when times are good, but when things are tough, and likely to get tougher still, they really do beggar belief.

Friday 2 January 2009

Dereham Norfolk - 28th December 2008

As I mentioned in my last post I was planning to visit Norfolk between Christmas and New Year, for a short family get together. This took place, with me travelling up last Sunday, and once all the formalities of family greetings, exchanges of presents and a good post Christmas meal had been dispensed with I checked into the very pleasant and centrally situated Hill House Hotel in Dereham, before hitting the town. My drinking buddy for the night was Ernie, my American brother-in-law, who has been staying over for Christmas and New Year, along with my sister and nephew.

I met Ernie in the Good Beer Guide-listed George Hotel, which alongside Woodfordes Wherry had Bitter, Broadside and Tally-Ho on offer, all from Adnams. Making a mental note to leave sampling the Tally-Ho until later in the evening we tried the Wherry plus the Adnams Bitter, both of which were in fine form.

Despite my initial reluctance to leave the George, Ernie wanted to try a couple of other pubs in the town. With this in mind we made the short walk along the High Street to the Bull. Although a Greene King pub it did have the seasonal Rocking Rudolph on offer. This former Hardy & Hanson brew was pleasant enough, but to my mind at least, nothing particularly special.

Not caring much for the language of some of the younger clientele in the Bull, we adjourned to the King's Head, despite the warning of the barmaid at the Bull that it was a bit pricy. Although primarily a hotel bar it did have St Austell Tribute on offer, and the barmaid even changed the barrel for us; the old one being on its last legs.

A couple of pints here saw us heading back to the George where, despite our previous intentions we elected to give the Tally-Ho a miss. The other two Adnams beers were both excellent though, so the evening ended on a high note.

The next day, after breakfasting with the American branch of my family, I made a brief lunchtime visit to my parents' house at nearby Swanton Morley, before setting off to drive back to Kent.

I would have liked the chance to enjoy a few beers at the Angel in Swanton Morley, which is an excellent pub, but drinking and driving are obviously not a good combination, so I will have to save that particular treat for another time. As for the pubs in Dereham the George was by far the best of the three which we visited the previous night, and fully deserves its listing in the Good Beer Guide.