Sunday 25 October 2009

Saturday's Bus Trip

Saturday's tour of some of the more remote pubs of West Kent and East Surrey was a great success. Despite the rain, our vintage coach turned up on time, and we were transported through the leafy lanes around Edenbridge and Lingfied to some splendid rural hostelries.

We started at the Rock, an unspoilt rural gem on high ground to the west of Penshurst. "Bandit country", was one comment heard on the coach as we climbed up through the woods, and then down through a cutting made in one of the sandstone outcrops that makes up this part of the High Weald. The tiny hamlet of Chiddingstone Hoath, where the Rock is situated, certainly is in the middle of nowhere, although the only "bandits" are the super-rich who inhabit many of the very attractive, upmarket, converted cottages and farmhouses in the vicinity.

I have written about the Rock before, with its floor of well-worn bare-bricks, and its unusual hexagonal wooden hand pulls on the bar, but it seems changes are afoot. For many years the pub has been tied to Larkins Brewery, but at the end of the month, the lease runs out and Larkins will not be re-newing it. We have been told that the pub will be closing for a while to allow renovation work to be carried out. These works include installing a new kitchen and upgrading the toilets (whatever that means!). It will the re-open as a free house. Hopefully not too much else will be altered, otherwise the Rock could lose its essential character.

We all managed to squeeze into the Rock, and sample both the Larkins Traditional and the stronger Best Bitter, before re-boarding the coach and heading off to our next destination. The Royal Oak, at Staffhurst Wood was a new pub for most of us. It is situated on the other side of Edenbridge, just over the border into Surrey. Although the rear of the pub is given over to dining, the Royal Oak is still very much a traditional country pub. The bar is sited at the front of the building, and alongside the regular beers of Harveys, Larkins and Westerham, perched up on the bar were three casks containing dark ales. These were Kings Old Ale, O' Hanlon's Port Stout and Dark Star Espresso. What made these beers even more attractive was their price of just £2.00 a pint. The landlord later revealed the strategy behind this promotion, the idea being to give his regulars something a bit different to try, at a price well below what he would normally charge. As he said to me, "at this price I know I will sell the cask(s)", (normally he has just one on). "If I sold them at the same price of my other beers, the danger is that I would end up having to pour half of the cask away". This "loss leader" is an excellent idea - other landlords please follow suite!

Most of us had pre-ordered a meal, and my Suffolk Pie (bacon, leeks, cheese, potatoes and mustard) was both filling and tasty. The rain had given over by the time we left the Royal Oak, and whilst the next pub was not that far as the crow flies, by road it took the best part of 30 minutes. The pub in question was the Wheatsheaf at Marsh Green, an old favourite of the branch and a perennial Good Beer Guide entry. Landord Neil, had laid on a good selection of beers for us, including Tripple fff Alton's Pride , O ' Hanlon's Firefly and two seasonals from Harveys - Old Ale and Star of Eastboune.

Continuing the dark theme, I was straight in on the Harveys Old - one of my all time favourite dark beers, and the first of the season so far as I was concerned. We didn't seem to have much time in the Wheatsheaf; either that or I was talking too much! I was just about to order myself a half of Star of Eastbourne, when our tour leader announced it was time to get back on the coach and head off for the final pub of the trip. There was just enough time to thank Neil for the excellent range of beers he had provided for us before we were off.

It wasn't far to Cowden Pound and the Queens Arms, aka "Elsies"; our last port of call that day. We just about managed to fit inside this unspoilt, CAMRA National Inventory-listed, time warp pub. Fortunately Elsie's helpers had opened the other, larger, but rarely used left-hand bar. For many of our MMK colleagues, this was their first experience of the Queen's Arms and they weren't disappointed. Elsie only sells the one draught beer, namely Adnams Bitter and of course no lager at all! She put in an appearance, sitting behind the bar whilst her two lady helpers coped admirably with keeping our glasses re-charged.

We finally arrived back in Tonbridge around 7pm. After saying farewell to our Maidstone colleagues, a few of us adjourned to the nearby Punch & Judy, which is fast becoming south Tonbridges's best watering hole. Harveys Best and Hobgoblin were the beers on offer. I only stayed for one, as it had been a rather long, but very enjoyable day out.

Thursday 22 October 2009

Vintage Bus Trip

I'm really looking forward to Saturday. West Kent CAMRA members have been invited along on a Vintage Bus Trip organised by our neighbours in Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA. The bus will be calling at four pubs, three of which are in our branch area.

The Rock, at Chiddingstone Hoath will be our first port of call. This tucked-away rural gem is the only pub belonging to Larkins Brewery, but not for much longer it seems. We will then make our way across the border onto Surrey, to the Royal Oak at Staffhurst Wood for a lunchtime stop. This is the only pub not in our branch area. The Royal Oak has a good write-up in the current Good Beer Guide, so I am looking forward to visiting it.

Our third pub is an old favourite of the branch; the Wheatsheaf at Marsh Green. This excellent free house has been a consistent GBG entry for many years, and landlord Neil is bound to have an interesting selection of beers waiting for us.

The last pub is the legendary Queens Arms at Cowden Pound. Known locally as "Elsie's", after its octogenarian landlady, the Queens Arms really is like stepping back in time. Adnams Bitter is the only draught beer on sale, and Elsie even has a notice outside advertising the fact that "Lager is not Sold Here". I have written about the Queen's Arms in a previous posting, and it will be good to re-visit this CAMRA National Inventory-listed pub again. It will also be good to catch up with old friends from our neighbouring branch.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Sennockian 10th Birthday

One of the three local Wetherspoons in our CAMRA branch area celebrated the 10th anniversary of its opening last weekend. The outlet in question was the Sennockian in Sevenoaks (Sennockian meaning someone who comes from, or lives in Sevenoaks). Yesterday (Monday), we were invited to a "meet the brewer" evening at the Sennockian, only the person in question wasn't a brewer, but the free-trade rep from Hogs Back Brewery. (Hogs Back employ a female brewer, so the evening would have had to be called "meet the brewster" had she turned up).

Anyway, the Sennockian was showcasing Hogs Back's products , with four of the company's beers on tap. These were TEA (re-badged for the evening), Hop, the seasonal Autumn Ale and OTT. They were on sale at the special promotional price of £1.79 a pint. and very good they were too. There was a free buffet, including birthday cake, and a raffle in aid of Clic Sargeant, Wetherspoon's own special charity.

The local press turned up for a photo-shoot, as did Wetherspoons own photographer. It was an excellent evening, with a good turnout from local CAMRA members. Our thanks to Sennockian manager Jo and her staff for organising the whole event.

Monday 12 October 2009

Brew Dog - Hardcore IPA

Finally managed to track down some Brew Dog at the weekend. Sainsburys in Tunbridge Wells had some on their shelves. Going straight in at the deep end I chose a bottle of Hardcore IPA. Only 9% abv said the bottle, with enough hops to "ensure your mouth is left feeling punished and puckering for more".

They weren't kidding either. Just opening the bottle released a strong hoppy aroma, which was further enhanced when I poured the beer into a glass. It reminded me of my home-brewing days, when the hop cones are added to the wort as it comes up to the boil; absolutely incredible! The uncompromising bitterness of the hops is balanced by the strong residual malt sugars present in this powerful brew. This really is extreme beer at its best!

33cl isn't normally enough for me, but in this case it was. Hardcore IPA is definitely not a beer for everyday drinking, but for special occasions it really hits the mark.

Thursday 8 October 2009

A Day in Winchester

Having arrived the previous evening in Winchester, following the successful completion of the South Downs Way, the narrative continues the following morning.

Despite being billeted on the second floor, garret room of a large imposing Victorian house, and despite Eric's best attempts to scare us half to death with tales of vampires, were-wolves and other undead creatures of the night, we slept soundly and awoke without any puncture marks on our necks, or without experiencing any other ghostly manifestations! We wandered down to breakfast where we joined the house's other guests, Helle and Ulla - two very pleasant and charming ladies from Denmark who were visiting Winchester for the weekend.

We enjoyed a most interesting conversation over breakfast about our common ancestry (Danish kings such as Canute, Viking place names and Norse words etc), before packing our bags and heading off into the city centre to explore Winchester. Our first stop was the Tourist Information Centre, housed in the imposing Victorian-Gothic-styled town hall. This is situated right at the bottom of the High Street almost opposite the statue of Winchester's most famous ruler, King Alfred the Great. We enquired as to where we could obtain our certificates for having completed the South Down;s Way, and were somewhat surprised to be presented with one each there and then. It was slightly disappointing that no actual proof of us having walked the 100-mile trail was required, meaning any old Tom. Dick or Harry could have walked in off the streets and requested one. However, we both know that we have completed the walk in its entirety, and as well as the photographic evidence have the scars on our feet to prove it!

I had read in the official National Trail Guide that a fitting way to end the South Downs Way is to walk to the Hospital of St Cross, a mile or so to the south of Winchester, knock on the door of the Porter's Lodge, and request the "Wayfarer's Dole". The latter consists of a small beaker of ale, plus a morsel of bread, and is said to be the oldest charity in England. Eric and I had been determined to do this, right from the start of our journey in Eastbourne, so we set off to to find the Hospital after first visiting Winchester's huge and imposing cathedral. Only we didn't actually go inside the cathedral, as it would have cost me £6.00 and Eric (being a pensioner) £4.80.

Now neither of us are cheapskates, but having to pay to enter a house of God seemed totally wrong to us. It appeared as though we weren't the only ones objecting to the entrance fee, as a group of tourists, just behind us, also made their objections known. Earlier in the year, I had stepped inside Cologne's huge cathedral, without having to pay a cent. I of course, put some money in one of the collecting boxes upon leaving, and both of us would gladly have done the same in Winchester had we been given the choice. After vague mutterings about the money lenders in the Temple, and Jesus's reaction to them, we decided to have a look around the thriving Farmer's Market, that is held in the cathedral precinct, instead. We were tempted to buy a take-away container of Itchen Valley beer, at £2.00 a pint, but didn't want to have to carry it around with us. Eric was also tempted by a watercress burger, but I managed to persuade him that it would not be a good idea!

We made our way south through the water meadows, alongside the River Itchen, towards the Hospital of St Cross. The sky was overcast and the temperature was much cooler as we made our way along the gravel path. It must have been a "country mile" as it seemed to take quite some time to reach our destination. The scenery was pleasant though, passing initially through the back of the college grounds, and then along a stretch of the river with exclusive fishing rights. To our left we could see St Catherine's Hill, another Iron Age Hill Fort, and one that is perhaps more deserving of the title "Old Winchester Hill", than the one in the Meon Valley.

Eventually we reached the "Hospital of St Cross & Almshouses of Noble Poverty". The Hospital was founded around 1134 by Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester and grandson of William the Conqueror. It is Britain's oldest charitable institution. Today it is home to a community of elderly gentlemen, who still wear the traditional black or red gowns, in accordance with the Hospital's monastic foundation. We made our way to the Porter's Lodge, which somewhat disappointingly has been converted into a gift shop. We knocked on the counter and the porter appeared from an office to the rear.

The Porter was a very pleasant lady with a strong local accent, and a very dry sense of humour. Apparently visitors have to actually request the "Wayfarer's Dole" before it can be given; not that we were slow in coming forward when it came to asking for beer! We were pleasantly surprised to witness it being poured from a mini-pin under the counter, as we had half expected it to be something awful like John Smiths Extra Smooth! The Porter told us the beer is specially brewed for the Hospital by Fullers, but as it was given to us in a pottery beaker we couldn't really see what colour it was. We enjoyed our small beaker of beer, plus the small square of white bread (only the best for the poor traveller, according to the organisation's founder), and had an interesting chat with our hostess about the Hospital, and also the South downs Way. It transpired that she had cycled the route herself several years ago, but was now planning to walk it, as we had done. We posed for the obligatory photo's as after all, for us, this was the real end of our walk.

Whilst we were chatting who should walk in but the two Danish ladies, Helle and Ulla whom we had breakfasted with earlier. They saw us enjoying our beaker of beer and asked for the dole themselves. Coming from Denmark they were no strangers to beer, and enjoyed it as much as we had done. The subject of lunch then came up. Eric asked the Porter if she could recommend a decent pub nearby. She suggested one called the Queen Inn, and gave us directions of how to find it. Hearing this the two Danish ladies asked if they could join us for lunch, to which of course we agreed. Thanking the Porter for her hospitality, we departed through the imposing gatehouse and made our way back towards the town centre, but this time by road as suggested.

We found the Queen Inn without too much trouble, and despite it being tied to Greene King, entered for further, and more substantial refreshment. We ordered pints of Abbot all round, before finding a table in the raised area to the left of the bar. I was impressed with the pub; it was bright and airy, having recently been decorated in an attractive cream colour scheme. There were posters advertising up and coming events, and the place had the feel of a real community local. Our companions also liked the pub, and we spent a very entertaining half- hour or so swapping tales and doing our bit to promote Anglo-Danish relations, before ordering lunch. Lunch called for more beer, which washed down well the home-made burger and chips that my friend and I had ordered. The two ladies had chosen sandwiches and were a bit taken aback by the size of them, until we explained that slices of bread that thick are known as "doorsteps" in England!

Our companions had booked a tour around the cathedral for 3pm. so we bade them farewell and thanked them for their very pleasant company. We departed a little bit later, with no clear intentions of what to do next apart from finding another pub. We walked back into the city centre, and then turned up the High Street so that Eric could find a bank. On the way we stopped to watch a very entertaining, and rather dangerous piece of street theatre, which involved a performer juggling a scimitar plus a chain saw! Don't try this at home folks!

We eventually found ourselves at the top end of the town and guided by the notes I had made from the latest Good Beer Guide, made our way along Hyde Street to the Hyde Tavern. This small, medieval, timider-framed pub specialises in beers from local breweries. The landlady informed us that there are normally seven on sale at weekends, but as they were holding a party that evening, there were eleven on sale that day! Some of the beers were on hand pump, whilst others were stillaged behind the bar. I couldn't resist the Hop Back Entire Stout to begin with, which I then followed with Goodens Gold from the Flowerpots Brewery.

The landlady told us how she had turned the pub's fortunes' around by concentrating on local beers and not stocking major lager brands. Conversation is the order of the day at the Hyde Tavern which makes a pleasant change from a lot of town pubs these days. We would both have liked to have stayed and sample more of the beers, but time was getting on and we thought we had best return to the B&B to collect our rucksacks, and then make our way to the station for the train home.

We were both very impressed with Winchester as a city, and thoroughly enjoyed our stay there. The pubs were excellent, the people we met were smashing and there were no signs of the moronic behaviour that seems to mar so many of out towns and cities these days. In short, Winchester couldn't have proved a more fitting place in which to have celebrated the completion of our walk.

A Night in Winchester

Arriving in Winchester last Friday evening, footsore and weary after finally completing the South Down's Way, our first thought was to find a pub, sit down and then study the town plan so we could find our way to our bed & breakfast accommodation. As I mentioned in my previous post, a lady dog-walker we'd met, kindly directed us to the Black Boy, an ancient old inn situated on Wharf Hill.

Although the pub seemed packed when we stepped inside (it was Friday evening after all), we managed to find a seat at a table in the furthermost room. My friend had ordered us a pint each of the well-hopped Flowerpots Bitter, which was just what the doctor ordered. The pub's clientele were mainly young, student types which of course meant there were some attractive young ladies to admire and help further brighten our evening. There appeared to be at least four rooms all leading off from the central bar. There were bare wooden floors, plus all manner of unusual objects adorning the walls and no music blaring out to distract people's conversation. There was even a log fire smouldering away in the grate next to the bar.

I would have liked to have stayed longer - after all we had something to celebrate having just completed the final stage of a 100 mile walk. This was my sort of pub for all the reasons listed above, plus the fact it specialised in selling beers from local breweries. However, it was getting dark and we thought we'd better find our accommodation before it got much later.

We reluctantly departed the Black Boy, and after crossing the River Itchen by a footbridge next to an old mill, we made our way past the ancient city walls, skirted the front of Winchester College before finally arriving in the centre of England's ancient capital. We located the bed & breakfast place without too much trouble, and after a quick wash enquired of the proprietor as to the best places to get something to eat. Our host suggested a pub called the William Walker, situated in the centre of town in a area known as the Square. We decided to give it a try.

En route we came across the Wykehan Arms, a Fullers pub that we had passed a short while before on our way to the B & B. We popped in for a quick drink, both choosing the Chiswick Bitter for its refreshing and thirst-quenching properties. The pub's clientele seemed to be drawn mainly from the nearby Winchester College. They weren't really our sort of people; to describe them as the "chattering classes" would be polite, but a few other less choice terms may have been slightly more accurate. As there was no chance of getting a bite to eat at the Wykeham, except in the rather posh and expensive restaurant, we drank up and left.

We walked through the cathedral precincts and quite by accident spotted the William Walker. There was a menu posted outside the pub, offering "pub grub" of the basic, down to earth sort of stuff that appealed to two hungry and weary walkers so we hurried inside and inquired from one of the attractive barmaids as to whether the pub had stopped serving food for the evening. We were just in time; another 5 minutes or so and we would have been too late. We ordered our food, plus a pint each (Deuchars IPA and Sharps Doom Bar), and seated ourselves at one of the high tables overlooking the bar.

The William Walker was that curious mix of an old building decorated in a modern contemporary style. Sometimes this works and other times it doesn't, but in this case it certainly, did and we were quite happy sitting on our high perches observing the goings on in the pub. We had both ordered steak in ale pie, complete with mash and peas - good hearty pub grub that was just the ticket after a hard day's walking. We had a couple more pints before deciding to call it a night and head back to the B & B for a good night's rest.

To be continued.................

Sunday 4 October 2009

South Downs Way - The Final Leg

My travelling companion and I arrived back late last night. We had spent the day in Winchester, visiting its historic sites, as well as some of its finest hostelries and generally just soaking up the atmosphere of this attractive old town. On arriving back in Tonbridge we called in to what is rapidly becoming the most improved, and up and coming pub - the Punch & Judy.

We had spent two invigorating days walking the final stretch of the South Downs Way, arriving in England's ancient capital just before 6pm on Friday evening. The weather had been glorious, the scenery and the views superb. We had visited some excellent pubs, drank some fine beers, eaten some good food and, most importantly, met some really interesting people.

Our walk had started at Buriton, an attractive, two-pub village close to Petersfield, where we re-joined the trail. We walked through the partly wooded Queen Elizabeth Country Park before ascending Butser Hill, one of the highest points on the South Downs. We stopped at the summit and ate our packed lunch, before continuing our walk. Our route took us past the now closed HMS Mercury, a land-based naval establishment, as well as the Sustainability Centre, where we stopped and had an interesting chat with the person manning the entrance.

We traversed the Iron-Age hill-fort of Old Winchester Hill, before beginning the long descent down into the Meon Valley. We had overnight accommodation booked at the Bucks Head in Meonstoke, but en-route we passed through the neighboring village of Exton. As it was approaching 6pm we made a bee-line for the strangely named Shoe; an imposing Wadworth's pub. Despite having seen two thirsty travellers waiting outside, mine-host wasn't that keen on opening on time, and when he did the welcome wasn't the warmest I've ever received. The Cask Marque accredited 6X was in fine form though, and made up somewhat for the indifference of the barman.

The welcome we received at the Bucks Head was far more friendly, and although the pub is tied to Greene King, the Old Speckled Hen was in tip-top condition. After a much needed shower and a change of clothing, we settled down for the evening to enjoy several more pints plus a hearty meal. We were both very impressed with the Bucks Head. It still functions as a true village pub, and what's more still has two separate bars. The local Young Farmers were holding a meeting in the Public Bar, so we stuck to the cosy and comfortable Saloon. The next morning, over breakfast, we looked on whilst the landlady provided coffee and bacon rolls for an early morning party of shooters, before they set off for their day's sport.

It was bright and sunny when we left Meonstoke, and by the time we had climbed out of the Meon Valley, via Beacon Hill, we were both quite hot and sweaty. A bit further on we made a most welcome lunchtime stop at the Milbury's Inn, near Beauwworth. I was expecting a somewhat up-market establishment, so was more than pleasantly surprised when we stepped inside a low-ceilinged old inn, complete with flagstone floors and a log fire burning away in the grate. Three cask ales were on sale, all drawn by gravity direct from the cask. We sampled the Goddards Ale of Wight plus the Palmers Copper Ale. The former was perhaps a little bit past its best, but the Palmers was in excellent condition.

The Milbury's is named after the nearby Mill Barrows, which are some Iron-Age burial mounds. It was formerly known as the Fox & Hounds, and one feature of its obvious antiquity is the 3o0 foot deep well, adjacent to the bar, that has been dug by hand down through the chalk. Next to the well is a large tread mill which, according to the guide book, was worked by a donkey to draw water up from the well. The bar-maid gave us some ice-cubes to drop through the grating at the top of the well. They took just over 4 seconds to make a splash in the water far below!

We had a light lunch, plus an interesting chat with the landlord and his some of his locals, before reluctantly departing to continue with our journey. We were both agreed though that the Milbury's had been not only the find of that stretch of the walk, but probably the best pub of the entire South Downs Way.

We were told at the pub that it was a three hour walk to Winchester. Although we could clearly see the city after this time, it took us another hour to reach the city centre. The weather, which up until now had been warm and sunny, started to cloud over. The wind got up and it began to feel a trifle chilly. We began the long descent from Cheesefoot Head, and then down through the village of Chilcomb. As we approached the footbridge over the noisy and extremely busy M3 motorway, we stopped for a chat with a woman who had been walking her dogs. She offered to show us a short cut into the city, and to direct us to a pub where we could rest our aching limbs, refresh ourselves with a pint or two of beer, and study the town map for directions to our bed and breakfast accommodation.

The pub turned out to be the Black Boy, a centuries old rambling old inn with a series of inter-connecting rooms. it was definitely one of Winchester's best alehouses. I will be posting a separate article on our stay in the city and describing some of the other excellent pubs that we visited.