Sunday, 9 August 2009

Sunday in the High Weald

Having done all the domestic things on Saturday, including the shopping and mowing the grass, Sunday dawned warm and bright - just perfect for a walk in the country. In common with other West Kent CAMRA members I've volunteered to hawk our recently published "Gateway to Kent" around a few of the local hostelries. Apart from the town ones (Tonbridge), the rural ones I've selected are all within easy driving distance from where I work, meaning I can cover them at lunchtime. Well most of them; the Kentish Horse, in the small hamlet of Mark Beech was just that bit too far for a lunchtime visit, so I decided a weekend walk in the country, taking in the aforementioned pub would be a better solution.

I travelled out by train to the small, pleasant town of Edenbridge, alighting at the top station. I then made my way to Edenbridge's other station; Edenbridge Town. Like several towns in this part of the country Edenbridge has two stations, a relic from the days of different, competing companies who originally built the railways. From the Town station there were just two stops to my final destination of Cowden. I'm ashamed to say that in the twenty-five years or so that I've lived in this part of Kent I have never travelled, until now, on what is known as the Uckfield Line. I am doubly ashamed of this fact, as for the past 15 years I've been a member of the Wealden Line Campaign - an organisation campaigning to restore rail services from Uckfield (where the line is currently truncated), through to Lewes. The link was originally cut in the late 1960's to make way for a mis-guided relief road scheme in Lewes, thereby transforming what was a useful through route into nothing more than a branch line to nowhere. Despite the obvious benefits of restoring just 8 miles of track, successive governments and railway management, have shamefully buried their heads in the sand and have poured cold water on all proposed re-opening schemes. East Sussex County Council must be singled out here for particular criticism, as it was their road scheme that led to the cutting of the line in the first place, and it has largely been their intransigence that has prevented the line re-opening. I digress, but it's something I feel rather passionate about, having worked for three years in Lewes. It always niggled me that apart from the long way via Redhill, I was denied the opportunity of direct travel by train from my home town of Tonbridge; something that was quite straight forward, prior to 1969.

Cowden station is pretty and very rural in its location, but like many others in this part of the world is some distance from the actual village itself. My route to the Kentish Horse lay through some woodland alongside the tracks. From here it was a short walk over the top of Cowden tunnel to Mark Beech itself. It was cool and very peaceful walking through the woods, and apart from the noise of the up-train, nothing disturbed the solitude. Imagine my surprise then when I stumbled upon a small, but attractive looking house in a clearing, right in the middle of the woods. It was like something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and I half expected to see an old lady, dressed in black, in a tall pointed hat, leaning on her broom-stick by the front door. I later found out that the house is a holiday let, that can be reached by car via a narrow track - so much for romantic illusions!

Leaving the shade of the woods behind me, I was soon exposed to the full heat of the midday sun. Once again though, apart from the noise of the planes departing from Gatwick, no man-made sounds disturbed the quiet of the countryside. I could see the spire of Mark Beech church in the distance, and made my way towards it. The path led trough the churchyard, and the Sunday service having just finished, I was invited in for a look by a member of the congregation. The church is mid-Victorian, and quite attractive in its own way. It was certainly nice and cool inside.

However, I had a pint waiting for me, and a king-sized thirst to match, so I passed out of the churchyard and into the rear garden of the Kentish Horse. It is several years since I last had the pleasure of visiting this pub, and I was not disappointed with what I saw when I stepped inside. The pub has a bright and airy feel to it, which complements its obvious antiquity. Harveys Best and Larkins Traditional were the beers on offer; I opted for a pint of the latter. The landlady was pleased to take some guides off me. I too was pleased as it meant I would not have to carry them back with me.

The pub was starting to fill up nicely, no doubt in part due to the excellence of the menu. I took my second pint outside and sat there enjoying the sunshine and watching the world go by. I decided to make my next stop at the legendary Queens Arms, at Cowden Pound. A visit to this CAMRA National Inventory-listed pub really is like stepping back in time, as nothing much has changed in this simple country ale-house since the 1930's! Known locally as "Elsie's", after its delightful and quick-witted landlady, the Queen's Arms is one of a small number of fast vanishing, unspoilt, heritage pubs. Elsie was born in the pub, and her mother ran the place before her. No-one is quite sure exactly how old she is, and no-one would certainly dare ask her. However, Elsie has not been too good recently and apart from Sunday lunchtimes, the pub is now only open during the evenings.

The Queen's Arms' other claim to fame is the fact that it does not sell lager, in any shape or form. A sign outside proclaims to to the outside world "Lager not Sold Here". One single draught beer is sold; currently Adnams Bitter, but back in the days when the pub was tied to Whitbread, Fremlins, and then Flowers were the beers sold A bank of three hand pumps adorns the bar, apart from that there is nothing else; no fancy chilled cabinets, and only three optics. In the old days, Elsie did not sell vodka either, but has relented since the collapse of communism! She used to serve simple bread and cheese lunches, in ample portions, but unfortunately has had to stop since her health took a turn for the worse. The pub still has two bars, but the larger saloon is only used for special occasions, like the regular folk evenings. The public bar is very basic, with a lino floor, and bare wooden bench seating around the outside walls. A welcoming coal fire provides the heat during the winter months. The Adnams is served in over sized, lined glasses, and costs just £2.70 pint. If you don't like Adnams, gin, whisky or vodka, there is a choice of bottled Guinness, Ramrod or Strongbow!

I had just missed Elsie when I called in. The chap looking after the bar for her told me that she had gone out the back for her Sunday lunch. This was a real shame, as she is quite a character. She is one of the very few people I know who still speaks with the soft burr of a proper Kentish accent. Unfortunately, the county's proximity to London has meant that the much harsher "Estuary English" is now the "lingua Franca" in these parts. As I mentioned earlier, no food is available at the Queens Arms, apart from plain crisps that is! However, some of the regulars have taken to bringing in their own, and there were some cheese and crackers on counter that I was invited to share.

Pubs like this are a dying breed and one has to fear for the future of the Elsie's once she is no longer capable of running the place. I left happy and contented after a couple of pints of Adnams. I made my way to Hever station and caught the train back to Edenbridge. I was going to stop for a pint in the town, but after the experience of the Queens Arms, anything Edenbridge had to offer would have seemed a poor second best! If you are ever in this part of Kent, then call in at Elsie's, before this marvellous piece of living history vanishes for ever.


Tandleman said...

Nice report that Paul.

Paul Bailey said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Tandleman. I only decided to go to Elsie's on the spur of the moment, having sold all the pub guides I was carrying in my back-pack at the first pub. I'm glad I did, as I don't often get the chance to visit there, and I fear it won't be too long before this gem from the past is lost for ever.

The Tomahawk Kid said...

Another good report. I find all your reviews very helpful. I know these two pubs, living just up the road in Chiddingstone. I am surprised you missed the opportunity for a pint at the Greyhound on your way back to Hever Station, but I guess you went the more direct route. There is a nice footpath that takes you from Mark Beech (before you get back to the Kentish Horse) down to the Greyhound through the woods.

Unknown said...

Lovely write up Paul,
As a child I used to play in the woods you describe . I grew up in Grove Cottages about a quarter mile up the track from Hole Cottage, which is the one pictured. My mother was caretaker of Hole Cottage for over 20 years. Strange how little you appreciate how special something is when you are so close to it!