Monday, 30 July 2012

Spa Valley Railway Re-visited

Back in July 2010 West Kent CAMRA enjoyed a run on the Spa Valley Railway's "Fish and Chips Special". Travelling through the delightful Kent countryside, seated in comfortable old rolling stock and hauled by a vintage steam engine, we travelled down to Groombridge, on the Kent-Sussex border where, after enjoying our fish and chip supper on the train, we walked the short distance up the hill, to the historic and unspoilt, Crown Inn. Here we enjoyed a few pints of locally brewed Sussex ales. (Harveys and Hepworths), before catching the train back to Tunbridge Wells.

Two years on and the Spa Valley Railway has been extended, and now operates right down to Eridge, where it connects with Southern mainline services on the Uckfield to London Bridge line. The new extension has opened up additional possibilities for pub visits by train, so to take full advantage of this, the branch arranged a further trip on the railway. The idea was to visit the Huntsman pub, just outside the station, stay for a few pints and possibly some lunch, and then catch the train back to Groombridge, in order to re-visit the Crown. For those keen to get a bit of exercise, and also to enjoy the unspoilt scenery of this part of East Sussex, there was an option to walk from Eridge back to Groombridge whilst the remainder of the party travelled back by train.

For me this was a good opportunity to re-visit the Huntsman; a pub I had last visited back in 1985. This was shortly before the former Eridge line closed. Back then it was possible to catch a direct train from Tonbridge down to Eridge; a situation taken full advantage of by what was then Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells CAMRA Branch in order to visit the aforementioned pub. In those days the Huntsman was owned by the late lamented King and Barnes, and afforded a rare, local opportunity to enjoy their fine Horsham-brewed ales. Following the acquisition of the King & Barnes by Hall and Woodhouse, and the brewery's subsequent closure, the Huntsman now sells Badger beers. Like King and Barnes before them, Badger beers are not that widely available in West Kent either, so I was looking forward to a pint or two of Blandford's finest. I was also looking forward to seeing whether the pub had altered much in the intervening quarter century, and also to travelling there by train once again.

Before boarding the train, a bit of history, lifted direct from the Spa Valley Railway's website: The line from Tunbridge Wells West station, through Groombridge, once offered a variety of destinations: Direct to London via Oxted, Brighton via Lewes, Eastbourne via Polegate, Three Bridges via East Grinstead, Tonbridge and all the stations in between. However, by the late 1960's, many crucial lines had closed, such as the: Cuckoo Line between Eridge and Polegate, Uckfield to Lewes line, route between Groombridge, East Grinstead and Three Bridges. Your choices were by now reduced to a shuttle between Tonbridge and Eridge, with some carrying on to Uckfield.
By the early 1980's under-investment had left the five miles of line between Grove Junction (Tunbridge Wells) and Birchden Junction (north of Eridge) in need of track and signalling replacement. The track and signalling upgrade for the Tonbridge - Hastings line electrification was being planned and the removal of Grove Junction would obviously save money. Tunbridge Wells West and Groombridge station sites were obvious assets for development (as long as they did not have a railway running through them). 
Not surprisingly, British Rail decided that the line was surplus to requirements and announced its closure on 10th September 1982, with the intention of withdrawing services on 16th May 1983. Following various objections and legal proceedings, closure was postponned until 6th July 1985, when Tunbridge Wells West station was decked in black bunting, a black flag flew above the entrance and a coffin stood in the gas lit booking hall. Many people visited the line to pay their last respects. Two "Oxted" diesel units were used, to provide the shuttle service between Tunbridge Wells Central and Eridge.
However, shortly after closure, the Tunbridge Wells and Eridge Railway Preservation Society was formed with the intention of bringing the line back from the grave. Many said it couldn't be done, but events have proved them wrong! A brief history of the Society is on the history page. Twenty six later Tunbridge Wells West is again a busy railway depot, this time for the Spa Valley Railway. Passenger services run between Tunbridge Wells, Groombridge and Eridge.
It was therefore with considerable excitement that along with son Matthew, who wasn't even born the last time I travelled to Eridge by train, plus 10 other CAMRA members and friends, I boarded the 11.55 am train from Tunbridge Wells West to Eridge. Comprising just a couple of restored ex-Southern Region coaches, and hauled by a vintage British Rail tank locomotive (don't ask me what type or class, as I haven't got a clue regarding things of  that nature), we pulled away slowly down the line towards Eridge; our journey taking just 25 minutes. En-route we called at High Rocks Halt and Groombridge stations, but once we'd reached Birchden Junction we were running on rails that were parallel to Network Rail tracks. A short while later, we were pulling into Eridge station, which has been lovingly  restored by the Spa Vally Railway's many dedicated volunteers staff.

From the station it is just a couple of minutes walk to the Huntsman, and entering the pub through the front door was like stepping back in time. With bare wooden floors, and wood-panelled walls, painted in colours to match those of Eridge station's Southern Region white and green, the overall effect was bright  breezy and welcoming. There were three Hall and Woodhouse beers on hand pump; Hopping Hare, Tanglefoot and their version of K & B's Sussex Bitter (how can you have a Sussex bitter that's brewed in Dorset?). I opted for the Hopping Hare, which was a very pleasant and dangerously drinkable 4.5% golden ale. Matthew went for the Blandford-brewed Hofbraeu; a watered down 4.0% version of Munich's Royal Court Brewery's Original.

Being a warm day we opted to sit outside on the terrace in front of the pub. There is also a much larger garden to the side. The Huntsman formerly bordered onto the busy A26, but since the early 1990's, this former notorious stretch of road has been re-routed, and the pub is now a haven of peace and tranquillity. With no juke-box, piped muzak, TV or other electronic intrusions on ones' eardrums, the same applies to the inside of the pub as well. Apart from the removal of a former internal dividing wall, the place was pretty much as I remembered it from back in 1985. The nice weather seemed to have attracted a good sprinkling of customers, including a large party of walkers, but most of us had ordered our food early on in the proceedings, and therefore did not have to wait long for it to arrive. My minted-lamb wrap, with creme fraiche went down particularly well in view of the warm weather, although the pint of Tanglefoot I chose to accompany it was not quite as quaffable as the Hopping Hare.

Those of us who were walking to Groombridge, reluctantly departed, (I will not leave it so long next time before making a return visit), leaving the remainder, (roughly half of the party) to enjoy a further pint before catching their train. Our route followed the line of the railway for quite a long way, until we eventually crossed it at Forge Farm level crossing. Then with the track on our left, and the high ground of Harrison's Rocks on our right we continued our walk towards Groombridge. It was around this juncture in time that we were passed by the train carrying our friends, as it laboured up the gradient towards Groombridge. Eventually we too reached the village, arriving at the Crown Inn some 90 minutes or so after departing from the Huntsman.

I was feeling pretty thirsty by now, especially after the climb up the hill to the Crown. The pint of Harveys Best I ordered therefore slipped down a treat and, having obtained our drinks, us walkers joined the rest of the party who were ensconced at the benches and tables, outside the flower-bedecked pub, overlooking the village green. I had two pints at the Crown; they also had Young's Ordinary on sale, but the Harvey's was so good I stayed with it. The pub itself is an attractive old tile-hung building dating back to 1585. Inside there is everything one would expect from a building of this age, including low-beamed ceilings, bare-wooden floors and the obligatory inglenook fireplace to the side of the bar. Apart from our group, the pub was quite quiet, but it was mid-afternoon and I'm certain that trade would have picked up again come the evening. We did however, learn that the Crown is on the market, for reasons unknown.

We left the Crown in good time to catch what was the last Spa Valley train of the day back to Tunbridge Wells. En route to the station we passed Groombridge's other pub,  the Junction Inn. The plan had been to call in there as well, but we had dallied a bit too long at the Crown! Oh well, there's always another day I suppose. We boarded the 17.35 train, and some fifteen or so minutes later were steaming into the Tunbridge Wells's West station. For most of us the day was not quite yet over. We walked the short distance up to the Town's historic Pantiles area, and stopped off at the Ragged Trousers. As all the al fresco seating at the front of the pub was taken, we found a couple of unoccupied tables inside and made ourselves comfortable. Beer-wise there was a pleasant surprise at the bar in the form of Long Blonde: a light yet powerfully hopped,3.8%  golden ale from new Sussex brewers Long Man Brewery.

Despite the temptation to stay for more beer, Matthew and I decided to call it a day, especially as we knew there was some food waiting for us back home. We therefore said farewell to the others, some of whom looked as though they were getting settled for the evening, and made our way back to Tonbridge. This stage of our journey however, was by modern, electric train. All in all though it had been another most enjoyable day out, combining vintage steam trains, unspoilt country pubs, good beer, some attractive scenery, some gentle exercise and above all the good company of friends and fellow beer lovers.


Tandleman said...

Must come Kent for all these unspoilt pubs. Great report Paul.

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks, Peter. You're most welcome to visit us anytime, and I promise not to take you to any Shep's pubs!