Saturday, 27 June 2009

Another Friday, Another Ramble, Another Pub

I've had one more day's leave to use up, and fancying another long weekend booked last Friday off. I arranged to meet up with two companions who I'd done the walk to Plaxtol with the previous week. The plan this time was less ambitious; we would walk across country, to the Dovecote at Capel.

There had been thunder overnight and the air was still very warm and humid when we set off. We walked up through the Somerhill Estate, crossing the bridge overlooking the ornamental lake, and then on through the park and up the hill towards Somerhill House. For non-local readers, the Somerhill Estate is the former manor house and surrounding parkland, which up until comparatively recent times, was the principal manorial estate, controlling a large part of both south Tonbridge and the nearby village of Tudeley. Today the imposing stone-built, Jacobean-style country house is home to a private school, but as various footpaths criss-cross the area, much of the estate is open to the public.

We passed the school by means of a sunken pathway, lined on both sides by a high stone wall. One of my friends told me that this type of structure was constructed to prevent livestock gaining access to the grounds of the house, without spoiling the landowner's view with a wall or fence. It seemed a pretty expensive means of keeping tabs on your cattle to me, but when you're Lord of the Manor, then I suppose money's no object! We passed through some woods and an orchard before crossing a field of ripening barley. We swore that we could detect a malty smell in the air, which may have been due to the effect of the high temperature and humidity on the maturing grain. It certainly had us anticipating the pint awaiting at the end of our journey!

We stopped en route at the tiny All Saints Church in Tudeley, to admire the contemporary stained glass windows which are the work of Russian emigre artist, Marc Chagall. The windows were originally commissioned by the then owners of Somerhill House, Sir Henry and Lady d'Avigdor Goldsmid, in memory of their daughter Sarah, who died tragically in 1963 as the result of a sailing accident. She was only 21.

The church was being decorated for a wedding, and it was nice and cool inside. We were tempted to linger, but the thought of that pint drove us on and we continued across another barley field, and then through a paddock. We crossed the busy B2017 road close to the George & Dragon, an attractive old weather- boarded inn. We would have popped in if the pub had been open, but as there were still some minutes to go until opening time we carried on. We walked through another churchyard, this time that of St Thomas a Becket at Capel. The church is no longer in regular use, although occasional services, such as weddings and funerals are conducted there.

Eventually we reached our goal, and passed inside for a welcoming pint. The Dovecote is not that much to look at from the outside. I was going to take a photo for the blog, but the pub's sign is currently being re-painted, and without this feature there is little to suggest that this row of white-painted cottages is home to one of the best pubs in this part of Kent.

The Dovecote serves its cask beers by gravity. The casks are housed in a temperature-controlled room behind the bar, and the special long cask taps pass through the wall into false wooden barrel fronts, mounted on the wall. The result is a perfectly served pint, kept at the ideal temperature. Harveys Best, Young's Bitter, Taylor's Landlord and Gales HSB were the beers on sale that day. I started with the Youngs before moving on to the Landlord. One member of our party stuck on the HSB for the whole session, but I find this beer a bit too malty for my taste.

We sat outside on the partially covered patio, at the rear of the pub, soaking up the hazy sunshine whilst enjoying our pints. We treated ourselves to a light lunch; my prawn baguette with chips was especially nice. The pub was bustling with a good mix of both diners and drinkers, proving that even in a recession pubs offering the right mix of good beer, good food and good service will continue to do well.

We walked back by a slightly different route, climbing up through orchards and then into woodland. Some of the sweet chestnuts had been copppiced recently, and we came across a workshop in a clearing, where the poles were being made into fencing posts and other useful items. Eventually we picked up the path again through the back of the Somerhill Estate. We noted, with some amusement, the wooden shelter built to protect the little darlings from the elements whilst they wait for mummy or daddy to collect them after school in the family Mercedes, or "Chelsea Tractor", but all joking aside I am glad the former manor house is being put to good use. (Just think, it could have become the headquarters of a religious cult, or a training camp for fundamentalist extremists!).

A short while later we were back in Tonbridge. Although it had only been a relatively short walk ( seven or eight miles at most), the high levels of humidity had made it seam a lot longer. It is a walk however, that I intend to repeat in the not too distant future.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

A Good End to the Week

I managed to get away from work last Friday and enjoyed a glorious day's rambling in the Kent countryside. Four of us did the walk, travelling by bus to the village of Mereworth, and then climbing up through the woods that are named after the village. Despite having lived in this part of Kent for thirty odd years, this was the first time I had walked up through the woods which cover this section of the Greensand Ridge. What was particularly appealing was the number of isolated dwellings, set down narrow side roads seemingly miles from anywhere, that we came across. We were especially taken with the aptly named Keeper's Cottage, set in a clearing all on its own - like something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

Eventually we left the shelter of the trees passing through orchards instead. This small area of the county is the centre of the Kent Cobnut growing industry and it was good to see the trees already laden with small, immature nuts indicating a good harvest come September. Our destination was the Golding Hop, a wonderfully unspoilt pub, in an idyllic rural setting, which lies on the opposite side of the Bourne Valley. We reached our goal shortly before one o'clock, and entered keen to sample one or more of the gravity-drawn beers.

The choice that Friday included Adnams Bitter, Thwaites Nutty Slack Mild, Marstons Ashes, plus a beer from Springhead Brewery, who's name escapes me. For those not in the know, the Golding Hop is run by Eddie and his wife Sonia, and has been for the past twenty five years or so. The pub itself is built into the side of a hill, overlooking a narrow lane, and is over 300 years old. As mentioned earlier, the beers are served by gravity from casks stillaged in a room behind the bar. The Golding Hop is also famed for its cider, and as well as varieties like Westons the pub produces its own "rough cider", from a recipe that has been handed down over the years from one licensee to the next.

We sat outside on the small terrace in front of the pub, enjoying the late spring sunshine, but in winter the interior of the pub, with its low beamed ceilings and wood-burning stove is equally appealling. On the other side of the lane is an extensive garden, complete with swings and climbing frame for the kids, plus a large car-park; such is the popularity of the Golding Hop on summer weekends. A small, limited menu offers basic pub-grub of the chips and baked beans with everything variety. The food is good value though, as are the beers. The most expensive were the Adnams and the Marstons at £2.60 a pint; the Thwaites was the cheapest at just £2.20, with the Springhead somewhere in between. With these prices it is hard to believe towns like Sevenoaks are just a short distance away, whilst London itself can't be more than thirty miles distant!

We reluctantly said goodbye to the Golding Hop just after the 3pm closing time, and set off to walk into the nearby village of Plaxtol. On the way we passed some very attractive and expensive looking properties, and before entering the village were rewarded with some spectacular views across the Bourne Valley. Plaxtol itself is quite a large village but without an obvious centre. We passed the former Rorty Crankle pub, now sadly a private dwelling, before coming upon the Papermakers Arms.

We hadn't intended to stop for another pint at this stage, but the pub was open and looked very inviting. It is probably getting on for thirty years since I last had a pint in the Papermakers so a return visit was long overdue. Internally the pub has one large bar, divided into two distinct halves. The servery is to the right, whilst to the left is a carpeted area, complete with a red-beige pool table, plus some comfortable sofas. Leading off from here is the pub's dining area. Two cask ales were on offer, Harveys Best - dispensed from a cask behind the bar, plus Timothy Taylors Landlord. We opted for the latter, price £3.10 a pint, and in excellent condition.

We were the only customers in the pub that afternoon, but we had an interesting chat with the landlady, who told us she was planing to switch over to gravity dispense, using a system similar to that of the Halfway House at Brenchley. The food menu at the Papermakers looked good and reasonably priced, with fish cooked in beer batter their speciality. At the rear of the pub is an attractive and well-laid out garden area, with a" play cottage" for the kids. We were all impressed with the pub, and were glad we called in.

It was onwards, and in this case, downwards to our final destination, the Swan on the Green at West Peckhham. First we had to get there though, so we descended down towards the valley of the River Bourne. which in reality is nothing more than a stream. We were joined on this section of the walk by a mother and her two boys, plus the family dog, who were making their way home from school. The mother confirmed we were on the right path, and we walked with them towards their family home. When we parted company, we all thought how refreshing (and unusual) in this day and age of molly-coddling children, to walk home with them, across the fields through some very attractive countryside, instead of turning up at the school gate to whisk them home in the family 4x4!

Climbing up the other side of the River Bourne, we made our way along the Greensand Way, which follows the line of the ridge of the same name. We passed fields of both strawberries and raspberries, the latter ripening under large poly-tunnels. This is a renowned soft fruit growing area, being ideally suited with warm south-facing slopes and easy draining soils. Eventually, just before 6 o'clock opening time, we reached the tiny village of West Peckham. This really is a settlement on the road to nowhere; a turning off the Mereworth-Plaxtol road leads into the village and stops abruptly at the attractive village green. The latter has a cricket pitch, and is overlooked by the small church plus, of course, the village pub.

The Swan in the Green is a brew-pub, and has been so since the start of the millennium. A range of 10 different beers are brewed in the small micro-brewery at the rear of the pub, including a mild, a porter and a lager, which complement the various bitters and pale ales that are the pub's mainstay. What's more, the beers are all realistically priced. Having consumed a fair amount of beer already that day, I sensibly stuck to the weakest beer on offer the Fuggles, which as its name suggests is a well-hoped session beer at 3.6%, costing a very reasonable £2.50 a pint. My companions tried a couple of the stronger bitters, which included Cygnet at 4.2% and Bewick at 5.3%. The latter was still good value at £2.90. I can thoroughly recommend the Swan; despite having an accent on food at one end of the pub, it still functions as a village local. Drinkers are every bit as welcome as diners, and the pub-brewed beers are well worth sampling.

We left the Swan whilst it was still light, and walked back along the road to Mereworth. Here we were just in time for the 8.40pm bus back to Tonbridge, although we nearly boarded a bus taking a group of weary fruit-pickers back to their accommodation by mistake. It had been a truly excellent day out, and one that had taken us through some magnificent countryside. The fact that such unspoilt rural vistas are virtually on our doorstep made us realise just how lucky we are living in this part of the country. That there are still some wonderfully unspoilt and thriving pubs around, selling good beer at reasonable prices makes me feel that well-run rural pubs still have a future. I could go on to contrast the prices we found on our walk with those encountered just a couple of days previously, and only a dozen or so miles away, but I appreciate I have waffled on long enough. Thank-you for your patience; I hope you have enjoyed my description of our walk through the Garden of England.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Start of a Good Week?

Yes, as predicted, it hasn't been too bad a week. Sure there were a few problems that cropped up at work, and by Thursday evening I was pleased I had booked the Friday off. However, none of the problems were intractable, and none of them distracted from the serious business of the week, namely a couple of good drinking sessions.

On Wednesday evening a small group of us caught the train over to Penshurst, and walked across the old WWII airfield to the Greyhound pub, situated in the tiny hamlet of Charcott. This was the venue for the West Kent CAMRA social. The Greyhound is a pleasant bright and breezy local, with views across the fields towards the hills that form the start of the High Weald. It has a separate restaurant area, as like many country pubs these days it relies heavily on the food trade. There still seems to be three distinct areas in the main part of the pub, although the divisions that marked the former bars are long gone. During the winter months, open fires supplement the central heating. The couple and their family that run the pub are very pleasant, and they seem to attract a reasonable trade. The Greyhound is close to where I work (yes I am lucky to be employed in such a rural idyll), and I often walk by during my lunch break and note the substantial number cars parked outside. There is a secluded garden to the left of the pub, plus benches and tables directly outside.

On the night of our visit two beers were on sale; Summer Perle - a seasonal, single varietal hop beer from Westerham Brewery, plus that old favourite Harveys Best The Summer Perle is a particularly refreshing, pale coloured and well-hopped beer, but at £3.30 a pint it was perhaps a beer to savour, rather than swill down The Harveys was slightly cheaper at £3.20, but this is still some 30-40p more than one is used to paying in Tonbridge.

Worse was to come though price-wise. We left the Greyhound whilst it was still just light enough to walk back across the airfield; our destination being the Little Brown Jug at Chiddingstone Causeway, directly opposite Penshurst Station. One of the quirks of the Victorian railway era was that many stations were often several miles from the places they were named after. Penshurst is no exception, with the village being some two miles or so away, but with the coming of the railway, a settlement grew up around the station, and became known as Chiddingstone Causeway (Chiddingstone Village is about three miles away). Confused?

The pub opposite the station was originally called the Station Tavern, and functioned for most of the last century under this name until it was bought by a jazz and big-band enthusiast and renamed Little Brown Jug, after the well-known Glen Miller tune.

I've known the pub over the years, especially as it's easy to reach by train. It's had several changes of owner since the name change, and it's been extended and knocked about internally as well. Its most recent incarnation took place in February 2007, and I must say the design team did a pretty good job on it. The Jug, whilst tied to Greene King, is owned a small chain of pubs that include several other well-known local hostelries, all renowned for their food, and there lies the rub. The food is very good; I've eaten there on quite a few occasions, but mainly when someone else is paying! By someone else, I mean the company I work for. Being so close to our workplace, the Jug is the venue of choice when entertaining visitors, and was also the place where last year's Christmas Party took place.

You will probably gather that the food is towards the dear end of the pub-grub spectrum, and you would not be far wring. Still in the case of the Jug you get what you pay for, and in this case the portions are generous and the food is of the highest quality. What I don't quite get though are the beer prices When we walked in last Wednesday evening, we were pleased to see that Brains Reverend James was the guest beer. What we were not so pleased about was the price, £3.40 a pint! The Abbot was the same price, but as no-one tried the IPA, despite the fancy new handpump, I don't know how much that particular beer cost.

The shame of all this is that I really like both pubs, especially the Greyhound, but can't understand the prices they are charging for their beer. Both seem to be thriving; the car park of the Jug is always full when I walk by at lunchtime, so they must be doing something right. Perhaps they are merely charging what the market will stand, as people seem prepared to pay these prices. Look out for my next post where I discover, not a million miles away, two pubs at the opposite end of the pricing structure.

Monday, 15 June 2009

A Good Weekend & A Good Week To Come

It's been a good weekend. The weather was just right and whilst I didn't indulge in much beer drinking, I feel I achieved quite a lot.

I have just about finished laying the base for our new patio; I finished clearing my greenhouse out - following years of neglect, and planted some tomato plants I'd been given by a work colleague; I re-jigged the guttering and down-pipes on my shed so that the rain water will now run into a water-butt, rather than straight onto the ground. I also mended the garden tap that had been leaking since being damaged by frost back in January, and replaced the rather tattered flag of St George that flies on my shed with a brand new one.

We went shopping in Maidstone on Saturday. I bought a replacement cartridge for my turntable, allowing me to play my old vinyl LP's again - much to the rest of the family's annoyance! I'm on a bit of a "save-it" campaign at the moment, putting money aside for our Munich trip later in the year, so was pleased to see ASDA's selling 500ml bottles of Czech Lager for 91p. Not a bad drop either.

Off to the pub for a CAMRA social on Wednesday evening though - we are walking to the Greyhound at Charcott, an unspoilt pub in a tiny hamlet, close to where I work. When I popped in the other week I was surprised to see Woodfordes Wherry on sale, alongside the Westerhan Summer Perle and Harveys Best, although at £3.20 a pint you can perhaps understand why I'm drinking ASDA's Czech lager!

As I've got a couple of day's leave to take before the end of the month, I'll be taking Friday off. Another walk is in the offing; this time a long postponed ramble to the Golding Hop near Plaxtol. This is a wonderfully unspoilt pub, in a remote and idyllic rural setting, run by a landlord who's a real character and something of a local legend. Will report back on these trips when I get a spare moment.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

I'm Still Here!

Haven't posted for a while, as have been taking advantage of the light evenings to sort my garden out (amongst other things!). Have been to two CAMRA presentations recently, one for West Kent CAMRA pub of the year - the Rose & Crown at Halstead, and the other for the joint runner up- the Anchor at Sevenoaks. Landlord, Barry Dennis was also celebrating 30 years behind the bar, making him the longest serving licensee in the area by a long chalk. Congratulations Barry - you wouldn't get that for murder!

Had some good beers, in both pubs, and enjoyed some very pleasant company. Looking forward to a weekend in the garden, and hopefully the odd beer or two!