Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Pubs of Tonbridge - Part One

Well  I've been threatening for some time to post about my adopted home town of  Tonbridge, but the article seems to keep growing. You see when you've lived in a place as long as I have there's so much to write about, so many pubs I have known over the years, and so many changes that have occurred. So where to begin?  Let's start with a short description of the town, mixed in with a bit of history, then we'll look at the pubs. There's a lot to get through, so this feature will be in several parts. The first  is about the three pubs that are virtually on my doorstep.

Tonbridge is a busy market town, situated on the River Medway at the upper limit of navigation. It has a population of  some 30,300 people. Although today it is overshadowed by its larger and better known neighbour,  Tonbridge is far older than the upstart Tunbridge Wells, tracing its origin back to Saxon times when it was an important crossing point of the Medway. The Normans certainly recognised its strategic importance, as they constructed a castle, overlooking the river, soon after the conquest. The castle was enlarged and replaced by a stone-built structure during the 12th Century, when it was held for the crown by the de Clare family. Although slighted by Parliament after the Civil War, when much of the surrounding walls were dismantled and used as a source of high quality building stone, the impressive gatehouse remains largely intact, and indeed was recently re-roofed as part of the town's millennium project.

For many years the majority of the town's trade depended on waterborne traffic along the Medway, but in 1842 the town's fortunes changed with the opening of the line between London and the Channel coast, via Redhill. Today Tonbridge is an important junction on the rail network, with lines to London, Ashford, Hastings and Redhill. The town became known for printing and publishing, but both these industries have declined in recent years along with what was once Tonbridge's other mainstay - the production of cricket balls and other sports goods. Today the largest companies in the town are involved with light engineering, distribution and financial services, but the rail link to London also means that many Tonbridge residents are commuters; a fact that almost certainly has a bearing on the trade in local pubs.

One would expect an important market town like Tonbridge to have its fair share of decent hostelries, and until fairly recently this was the case. Unfortunately, in common with towns up and down the country, a substantial number of pubs have been lost during the last quarter of a century; a process that has accelerated in recent years.

I first became acquainted with the town back in 1979, when I started work as  Company Chemist for a firm involved in the Water Treatment industry. Five years later I moved to the town itself, rather than having to commute each day from Maidstone. I have now lived in the town for the best part of 30 years; far longer than I have lived anywhere else. I therefore feel more than qualified to write about Tonbridge's pubs, both past and present.

I am quite fortunate in so much that within 5 minutes walk of my home there are still three fairly decent boozers; even though they have, without exception, changed out of all recognition since I first knew them. Probably the nearest is the Cardinal's Error which, whilst a centuries old building, has only been a pub since the early 1950's. The Cardinal's started life as two adjoining 15th Century farm cottages, which were converted into today's pub in order to serve the post-war housing development that was springing up all around them. Although the pub has been knocked around a bit over the last 60 or so years, there's only so much one can do with a listed building without totally ruining it. Even though the latest alteration added  an extension to one side of the building,  the Cardinal's retains the essential feel of the two-bar pub it started life as. I visited it with my son, a couple of weeks ago and although it was a Friday night we had virtually the whole of the former public bar to ourselves - all the other punters being crowded into the other section of the pub which houses the TV (why on earth do people go to the pub to watch the tele?). The Harveys Best on sale wasn't the best pint I've drunk, but it was still quite drinkable.

The same distance in the other direction, lies the Primrose Inn. From the outside this is an attractive white-painted, typically Kentish weather boarded inn, but getting on for twenty years ago the former two bars were knocked through into one, and the serving area moved over to one side.  I first knew the Primrose back in the early 1980's when myself plus a group of  work colleagues would go there once a week for a lunchtime drink, (how we ever got any work done in the afternoon after three pints of Fremlins Bitter is beyond me, but that's another story!). Harveys Best and London Pride are the cask ales on offer here today, in what is a small, cosy and  comfortable pub, with low ceilings and a number of different alcoves.

Slightly further away is the Vauxhall Inn,  a former coaching inn situated on the edge of town on what was, until fairly recent times, the main road from London to Hastings. This is another pub that has been altered out of all recognition. When I first moved to Tonbridge my wife and I had a dog and this was a perfect place to go with said hound after she had been exercised around the adjacent fields. Back then, like many local pubs, the Vauxhall was owned by Whitbread.  It was fairly basic and perhaps a trifle run down, but it had character and a welcoming open fire in the winter.

Then the pub was sold off to a local pub company, who had a hand full of pubs scattered across West Kent. It was extended to the rear and also joined to the neighbouring, former stable block. This effectively trebled the pub in size. The original part of the building contained the bar, whilst the rear extension, plus the old stable block formed the main dining areas. The real open fires were replaced by fake, gas-fuelled "log-effect" fires and the place re-opened as a "Chimneys" restaurant.  Dogs of course were no longer welcome, so I too decided that my custom was not wanted either, and took myself elsewhere. Like the Primrose, the Vauxhall is weather boarded and over the years since its enlargement has mellowed with age. Today, unless you are in the know, you would be hard pushed to distinguish the old parts from the new.

Also today, the Vauxhall has new owners, and is now a Chef and Brewer pub. It's a pleasant enough place to go for a quiet drink, even  though prices are on the dear side. The beer range consists of London Pride plus one or two guest ales from the Chef and Brewer range (typically Adnams Bitter and Broadside,  Everards Tiger, Wells Bombardier and Young's Bitter), but the beers are spoilt by being pulled through a sparkler which the pub management are reluctant to remove - even when asked politely if they can do so. (Whatever happened to the customer always being right?). On the plus side, there is a Premier Inn adjacent to the pub, which makes this a good base for those visiting the area.

Well that sums those pubs which are nearest to me. It must be said, they are not a bad selection, even if the choice of beer is rather limited.  Next time we'll look at those a bit further afield, before venturing down into the town centre and exploring what Tonbridge has to offer on a  Friday or Saturday evening.


Anonymous said...

A very rosy picture of those pubs you've painted there Paul.
I'd say one would have to be pretty desperate to visit any of them tbh.


Paul Bailey said...

I think you're being rather harsh in your judgement of the pubs, Matt. Yes, I did try and paint then in a positive light, and compared to say, Tunbridge Wells we're not particularly well served in Tonbridge with top-notch pubs. However,the old saying of "use it or lose it" never was more true than it is today, and with the way pubs have been closing recently, especially at the other end of the town, one has to try and encourage those that are still open to carry on trading.

What I'm trying to say is that totally negative reviews don't help anybody, and I would hate to see any more pubs calling last orders for good. I believe there are still a few local pubs under threat, and I will be touching on this in future postings. In the meantime I would be interested in your recommendations as to where to drink in Tonbridge.

Outraged said...

A very positive and interesting article Paul, thank you. Both the Prim and Cardinals are great little pubs. Matt surprise us, I guess you are a Weatherspoons drinker of past it's sell by date slops! Lol.