Sunday 26 July 2009

War & Peace

No, not the lengthy novel by Count Leo Tolstoy, but the world's largest military vehicle and World War II re-enactment event. Held at the former Whitbread Hop Farm, over at nearby Paddock Wood, the "War & Peace Show" attracts thousands of visitors, and exhibitors from all over the world.

I was in Paddock Wood for most of last week, taking part in a First Aid Course, and throughout the week the numbers of vintage military vehicles driving up and down the High Street, and the numbers of uniformed personnel dressed in appropriate military costume, steadily increased. Some friends of mine, most of whom are members of Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA, belong to one such re-enactment society; in their case the Home Guard. Every year they set up camp, alongside hundreds of other exhibitors, over at the Hop Farm, and spend the week under canvas living the sort of life that servicemen would have done sixty or so years ago, (without the danger from real bombs and bullets of course).

My wife thinks it's all a bit sad, but they enjoy it and they're not doing anyone any harm. In the case of those enthusiasts who turn up with a fully restored Tiger or T-34 tank, then it really is an example of "boys and their toys"! My son likes going to the show though, so this year like several others before, we joined the thousands of visitors thronging the Hop Farm on a sunny and very warm Saturday. We watched a couple of re-enactments taking place in the large arena at the top of the farm. The gun shots and explosions were both noisy and realistic, as were the battle scenes that were taking place.

Afterwards we wandered up and down the aisles perusing the dozens of stalls selling everything from army surplus to spare parts for your 1945 Willy's Jeep, plus everything in between. There were stall holders from all over Europe, and even a few places beyond. We dropped in on the Maidstone Home Guard re-enactment group, knowing that they usually have a couple of casks of decent ale tapped in their mess-tent. Unfortunately we caught them at a busy time, and they were unable to break off from guard duty (collecting on behalf of the RAF Benevolent Fund) to stop an offer us a beer. No problem we thought, we'll check out the beer tent, but not holding out too much hope of a decent pint. Sure enough there was the usual fizzy rubbish on sale - Fosters, John Smiths and the like. Not wishing to lower my standards, despite a raging thirst, I headed for the nearby Vegetarian Stall which I remembered last year was selling bottled Belgian beers. This year a small blackboard next to the stand was advertising the presence of "real ale". Not seeing much evidence of this on the stall itself I made further enquiries and was shown to an adjoining display of Bottle-Conditioned beers, specially brewed for the event under their own Bi-Veg label. I chose the 3 Strikes London Chocolate Porter, which at 5% abv, was just right. The bottle was nicely chilled, and although I had to pour it into a plastic glass, it slipped down a treat. £3.30 for a 500ml, hand-crafted BCA at a show like this wasn't bad. Unfortunately I wasn't able to ascertain who had brewed this interesting range of beer, which also included an Organic Pilsner and an IPA, but the beer I had was outstandingly good.

All this set me thinking, why do us Brits put up with such appaling mass-swill at these sort of events? Surely there is room for a few more entrepeneurs here, like the Bi-Veg crew, to offer something different and more distinctive. I can't imagine shows and events taking place in Germany, for example, without a decent drop of local beer on tap, so why not here?

Friday 24 July 2009

First Aider

I only spent one day at work this week; the other four were spent attending a First Aid at Work Course run by the British Red Cross. Today (Friday) was our assessment, and I'm pleased to report that we all passed. There were only seven of us on the course, but they were a nice bunch of people, from very different and diverse backgrounds and it was good to mix with people I perhaps wouldn't have done otherwise . The best bit, of course, is that we've all been trained in the basics of First Aid, and if push came to the shove would be able to step in and help people when they're injured or taken ill. I hope none of us are ever put in an extreme situation, but who knows one day we may even go that stage further and end up saving someones life!

Sunday 19 July 2009

Spa Valley Railway

I've been out and about again today, trying to persuade outlets to take our new pub guide. I must say I'm glad I don't earn my living as a salesman as I'm not naturally a pushy person.

This morning I visited the Spa Valley Railway in Tunbridge Wells, as our CAMRA committee thought this prime tourist attraction might be interested in stocking the guide in their shop. They are, in principle, but it has to be done through the right channels. This means a formal written approach through their commercial director. OK I can understand where they're coming from, but why does everything have to be so dam complicated these days?

Speaking of which, I was talking to a couple of the staff in the railway's well-stocked shop, and asked them how the extension of the line down to Eridge was progressing. Well, nearly everything's in place now they told me; the infrastructure's all there, but because their newly-laid section of track runs alongside that of Network Rail. and because they are leasing one of the bay platforms at Eridge station from said organisation, the bureaucracy and red-tape is seriously delaying things. The railway had hoped to be running trains from Tunbridge Wells right through to Eridge, thereby connecting with the national rail network, by spring this year. It now looks as though this will not happen until October, just when things are starting to run down at the end of the tourist season and we head into winter. I really felt for the people who run this attraction. Like most heritage railways they rely almost exclusively on an army of unpaid volunteers. Despite all their hard work, it now looks like they will miss the all-important summer season, through no fault of their own. I wish them well; I don't want to sound like an anorak but if I ever win the lottery and can afford to retire early, I will go down and volunteer myself, as projects like this one really do deserve to succeed!

As a bit of background, the line from Tunbridge Wells West to Eridge only closed in 1985; a victim of the Thatcher government's obsession of trying to make British Rail turn in a profit. Although the West Station was originally constructed as a terminus, a short length of line was laid in the late 19th Century linking it with the town's other station, which used to be called Tunbridge Wells Central. When the line from Tonbridge down to Hastings was electrified in the early 1980's, BR used this as an excuse to sever the connection to the West Station and proposed closing the rest of the line. A severe backlog of maintenance on the Eridge line didn't exactly help either, but many cynics, myself included, believed that the main reason for closure was the substantial area of land occupied by the West Station. Sure enough this land was sold to developers following the line's closure, and a large Sainsbury Superstore now occupies much of the site.

As is so often the case, there was strong local opposition to the closure, but this counted for nothing so far as the then Transport Secretary, Nicholas Ridley was concerned, and he duly approved the closure order. Now, after a gap of over twenty years, trains will soon be running again all the way down to Eridge. This means that local CAMRA members will once again be able to travel by train to the Huntsman pub, next to the station. This former King & Barnes is well worth a visit, especially as Badger Beers are quite rare in this part of the country. It is also worth noting that the Spa Valley run special "real ale" trains, similar to those on the Keighly and Worth Valley Railway, alongside their "fish and chip" specials. The Crown at Groombridge is another fine pub, that is well worth travelling to by train, as is the High Rocks, set in its own spectacular location just outside Tunbridge Wells.

If you are in the area then, it is well worth checking out the Spa Valley Railway.

Saturday 18 July 2009

A Typical Saturday in Tonbridge

I've been out and about a bit today. I was supposed to be out trying to sell copies of our newly published "Gateway to Kent" pub guide. I did manage to sell a few, one to a friend who I met up with in our local Wetherspoons, plus several to the owner of MR Books, a fascinating and slightly quirky independent bookshop, tucked away just off the High Street, near the old market quarter of Tonbridge. I was glad I popped into the bookshop; not only did I have a lengthy and very interesting chat with owner Mark Richardson, but I also managed to pick up a copy of a book I had been looking for for ages. (Now I've got something interesting to read on holiday!)

As well as running his bookshop, Mark is also the author of the Tonbridge Blog, which is a very useful source of gossip regarding what's going on in the town. The comments and feedback also make for interesting reading, especially if they're a bit controversial. Being a former small-business owner myself, we compared notes and swapped a few tales - mainly regarding the incredibly long hours worked by most small-business owners, for very little financial reward.

I was going to pop into the Ivy House afterwards, but decided against it it in the end. The Ivy, as it is known locally, is an attractive old pub, at the top end of the town, that has recently re-opened after an extensive re-fit. It used to be a good "drinkers" pub, but now mainly caters for diners. As I still haven't been in there since the pub re-opened I don't really feel qualified to comment too much, except that I'd heard they are charging £3.50 a pint for their guest beer, and that the food prices are also a "little on the dear side". Quite what Tonbridge will make of the place remains to be seen, but it is either extremely brave or extremely foolhardy to be opening such an upmarket establishment in the middle of a recession. Nevertheless I am pleased that the pub has re-opened and wish the new owners well with their venture.

My main reason for not visiting the Ivy House though, was not one of tightness, rather the fact I'd already had a couple of pints in Wetherspoons. As I knew I would be driving later in the day, I did not wish to imbibe further, for obvious reasons. Having had to endure some of the clientele in Wetherspoons though, I can perhaps understand the Ivy House's new owners policy of charging higher prices; if it keeps the riff-raff, DSS (sorry, taxpayer)-funded underclasses out, then perhaps it is well worth paying the extra! This may sound rather elitist, but my friend and I had to queue for what seemed like forever at the bar to get served in Wetherspoons, as there were not enough staff behind the bar. This is nothing new for mid-morning on a Saturday, and may explain why Spoons manage to keep their prices so low. I can live with that, and the short measure pint I was eventually served with, but I can do without some of the more obnoxious characters that seem to be a permanent, all-day fixture. In the end though, like so many things in life, it boils down to paying your money and taking your choice.

Friday 17 July 2009

Larkins Brewery

I nipped over to Larkins Brewery yesterday. It's only a short drive from where I work and I wanted to deliver in person the brewery's Trade Tickets for the Great British Beer Festival. Owner and brewer, Bob Dockerty was pleased with the tickets, but doubts he'll be able to spare the time to go. He told me that Larkins have just recorded their best June ever in terms of beer sales, and on top of the pub trade he has been kept busy supplying local beer festivals. The recent SIBA Festival, held in Tonbridge featured four of the company's beers, and Mick the drayman had been over to Canterbury the day before, delivering beer to the Kent Festival.

It is worth recording that this is the 35th such festival to take place under this name, making the Kent Beer Festival the second oldest such event in the country. As far as I am aware, Gill Keay has been the organiser for all 35 festivals, which is a pretty remarkable achievement! Unfortunately, due to family commitments, I will be unable to attend, but the festival, which is held on a farm just outside Canterbury, is one of the most popular and best attended beer bashes in the calendar.

Larkins will also be supplying their beer to the Great British Beer Festival; this year it is their Traditional Ale that has been selected. This 3.4% session beer packs in a taste way above its modest gravity. Bob poured me a pint which I enjoyed whilst we sat and chatted. He has recommenced growing his own hops; the harvest will not be particularly large this season as this is the first year that the bines will have produced a crop. The dry weather has not helped, and Bob told me he was out watering the hop garden the previous evening - by hand!

I love calling in at the brewery, as it is such a laid-back, easy going place. Office Manager, Guy's dog, Humphrey can often be found curled up asleep on a chair in the office, whilst Bob's desk always seems to be buried beneath a pile of well-thumbed Morning Advertisers and other such publications. Being a warm day when I visited, Bob had the rear door of the brewery open, affording a view right across the valley of the aptly named River Eden. This truly is a rural idyll if ever there was one.

Larkins, unfortunately, do not have a website, but the CAMRA Good Beer Guide gives full details of their range of beers. As they carry out their own distribution and do not use wholesalers, their beers are restricted to within a thirty mile radius of the brewery. This means you will have to visit this very pleasant corner of the Garden of England if you want to try them then. If I have tempted any of you, then drop me an e-mail and we can meet up for a pint or two of "Kent's Best Real Ale"!

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Gateway to Kent Pub Guide

I had thought that there wasn't much to post about at the moment, but on reflection there's been quite a bit happening behind the scenes. Had a quiet weekend after the rather hectic one the week before. Attended a CAMRA committee meeting last night, held at the Sennockian - Wetherspoons outlet in Sevenoaks. The pub was packed, mainly with youngsters celebrating the end of their exams, but looking at some of the girls in particular. we had to wonder how many of them were of legal drinking age! Having said that, there was no trouble and no real signs of over-intoxication.

The meeting went on longer than intended, but we had a lot of business to get through. It's been an exciting time for the West Kent Branch with the publication of our new "Gateway to Kent" pub guide. Produced in conjunction with our neighbours from Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA, the guide lists 500 real ale pubs across the region, with dozens of full-colour photographs. The guide is not just aimed at CAMRA members, but at the many tourists that visit the area - hence the name "Gateway to Kent".

To assist with this aim, there are articles on walking and cycling in the area - which happen to take in a choice selection of good pubs. Another article concentrates on travelling to the pub by bus or train, plus of course the usual campaigning articles about CAMRA, real ale and real pubs. At just £4.99 it represents terrific value for money.

My contribution to the guide was rather modest; consisting of carrying out some pub surveys and writing a couple of articles, but after the hard work put in by the editorial team and the guide committee, the equally hard task of selling the guide now has to be undertaken. Some members are off to Canterbury this coming weekend, where the 35th Kent Beer Festival is taking place. I will be visiting the Spa Valley Railway, in Tunbridge Wells, to try and sell some copies to this preserved Heritage Railway. That's apart from getting on with decorating the spare room, and finishing the preparation for our new patio - you know, all the domestic, but very necessary stuff that still needs doing!

By the way, copies of the guide will be available from CAMRA Headquarters, and will be on sale at the Great British Beer Festival. Copies can also be ordered through the branch.

Monday 6 July 2009

Three Beer Festivals and a Trip North

It's been a very hectic seven days. Last week saw me making a whistle stop business trip to West Yorkshire, whilst back home there were three local beer festivals on over the weekend. This coupled with the long awaited publication of the "Gateway to Kent Pub Guide", meant that my feet have hardly touched the ground recently. Now that I've had time to catch my breath, it's worth looking back over these events.

I didn't get much chance for some serious ale-supping in Yorkshire. The two business colleagues I travelled up with are not really cask-beer drinkers, and by the time we found our hotel in the small pleasant town of Brighouse, checked in and enjoyed an excellent Italian meal in the adjoining restaurant, there wasn't much of the evening left. The local Wetherspoons though was quite a revelation, being a conversion of a Grade II listed, former Methodist Chapel. If you are ever in the area, then check out the Richard Oastler. They had a good range of local ales on sale, including offerings from Goose Eye and Elland Breweries. There just wasn't the time to sample as many of them as I would have liked! Our business visit the following morning, to nearby Elland, was also successful, and was well worth making the 500 mile round trip for.

As mentioned earlier, there were three beer festivals taking place back home. The first was the 3rd SIBA South East of England Beer Festival which this year was hosted by Tonbridge Juddians Rugby Club. The previous two events were held at the former Whitbread Hop Farm (now known as the Hop Farm Country Park), near Paddock Wood. Tonbridge, with its excellent rail connections is a much better place to hold such an event and whilst not actively invovled with the organisation of the festival, West Kent CAMRA were invited along to assist, where necessary, and to run a stall promoting both the campaign and our newly launched pub guide.

I was there on the Friday evening, which was perhaps a bit quiet for the opening night, but there was a good atmosphere and some cracking beers on offer. For the number of people who attended over the 3 days there were far too many beers (100 + from 30 different breweries) but it is worth remembering that these SIBA events are primarily run as competitions for their members, and with some eight different categories of beer to be judged many breweries will supply quite a range of beers in order to enter as many categories as possible. The beers are also supplied at the brewer's own expense, so any financial losses to SIBA, and the host organisation, are kept to a minimum. Even so, for a beer lover like myself it is heart-breaking to see so much unsold beer left over at the end of an event.

On Saturday, a number of us did a similar spell at a beer festival in nearby Sevenoaks. This event was organised by the local Lions Club, as part of the Sevenoaks Festival and, with just 30 firkins of beer, was a far more modest affair. As a CAMRA branch we had tried to disuade the organisers of this festival from holding their event over the same weekend as the Tonbridge one, but their hands were tied by the dates of the town festival. and the availability of the venue. As their first attempt at such an event though it was quite successful, and I understand is likely to be repeated.

A local pub was also holding a festival; the Beacon at Rusthall, just outside Tunbridge Wells ran their own, slightly more modest event. A couple of branch members were present at this do as well, once again promoting CAMRA and selling our new guide.

The three events did stretch our resources to the limit though, and I think in the end worked against each other by spreading the attendance of drinkers too thinly. We were quite pleased though in having sold around 100 of our guides, but next year please can the organisers of these events try and avoid clashing if at all possible?