Monday 27 August 2012

August Bank Holiday 2012

Well the last Bank Holiday weekend of the year is nearly over, and like the weather it's been a bit of a mixed bag. August Bank Holiday sees many beer festivals taking place, including on our own doorstep the one at the Halfway House, Brenchley. This award winning pub, and current West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year, holds two such events each year;one over the Late Spring Bank Holiday and one over the August Holiday weekend.
Unlike previous years, and indeed the earlier festival, the forecast for Saturday was wet and windy, with torrential thundery downpours predicted. It certainly wasn't the weather for walking, so I joined a few of my CAMRA colleagues and caught the bus over to the pub. We arrived in the midst of a downpour, so went straight inside the pub, rather than sitting out into the garden where the majority of the beers are normally racked. Fortunately the pub was quite quiet, so we were able to grab a table and peruse the beer selection at our leisure. Compared to the event held over the Jubilee Weekend, this festival was somewhat toned down in nature, with only 50 beers available instead of the 70 on sale earlier in the year. Possibly landlord Richard Allen had seen the long term forecast, or alternatively with many people still on holiday at this time he though it wise to cut back on the beer order. Nevertheless, the beers that were available were a good selection  from Kent and Sussex brewers, which was the theme behind this  particular festival.

Beers that really stood out for me were Gravesend Guzzler from Millis Brewery and Beyond the Pale from Kent Brewery(my beer of the festival). I also caught up on same old favourites, including Blue Top from Old Dairy, Dark Star Original, plus a couple of beers from the Swan brew-pub at West Peckham which, although quite close to where I live, is not a pub I get to visit as often as I would like.

Round about one o'clock the sun came out, so we decided to move out into the garden, and the enjoyed the rest of the afternoon sitting outside. I grabbed a very tasty Cajun chicken burger to help soak up the beer, and whilst people began arriving as the day wore on, I can't say the festival was as busy as previous events.

On the way home we stopped off at the Bedford, in Tunbridge Wells, where alongside a selection of different beers two 5.0% offerings from Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewery caught my eye; Helles and Golden Ticket. The former is, as its name suggests, is a pale German-style beer, whilst the latter is a golden ale, with a fine slightly fruity flavour. Both beers were good, but of the two I preferred the Golden Ticket (think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roal Dahl). 

I have written before about the renaissance of the Bedford, under the careful stewardship of Simon Lewis, who is also the founder, owner and the driving force behind RTWB. Well the pub just seems to get better with each visit;  it's certainly the place to enjoy a relaxing pin in pleasant surroundings in the company of like minded people, and so it proved on Saturday. Do call in if you are in Tunbridge Wells and see for yourselves.

The rest of the holiday weekend has been pretty mundane, catching up on domestic chores, gardening and even a spot of decorating! Having got these tasks out of the way by mid-afternoon, I jumped on my bike and headed down into Tonbridge to pick up a few last minute items. I also took the opportunity of calling in at the Humphrey Bean, (our local JDW)  to see what was on offer. I was disappointed not to find Thornbridge Jaipur on sale, as this excellent beer has become a semi-permanent fixture on the bar. My disappointment was mitigated though by two beers from Hopdaemon from Newnham, near Faversham. I tried both the 4.0% Incubus and the 4.5% Skrimshander;  the latter beer definitely having the edge over the former. I bumped into a couple of friends at the pub, so was able to enjoy a pleasant interlude catching up on things over my beer.

Tomorrow it's back to work. No doubt the weather will suddenly take a turn for the better but hey, that's what English Bank Holidays are all about!

ps. Check out the purpose built shelters in the bottom photo. With the summer we've just had, these could  soon be catching on at other pubs.

Sunday 26 August 2012

The Pubs of Tonbridge - Part 2

Following on from the previous article about Tonbridge pubs, and moving a bit closer towards the town centre, we come to the New Drum, tucked away down the steep narrow side street of Lavender Hill. It is worth noting that before turning into the aforementioned street, one passes one of Tonbridge's long lost locals. On the opposite side of Pembury Road, just down from the Primrose, is an attractive terraced house that was once the Druid's Arms. Evidence of this pub's former past can be ascertained by the stout post in the front of the building, which is the remains of the pubs former sign. The Druid's closed long before I became acquainted with  the town, but it looks as if it must have been a small and rather basic town local.

The New Drum is similar in appearance, and is evident that it started life as two adjoining Victorian terraced cottages that were knocked through into one some time in the late 19th Century. I first became acquainted with the pub in the early 1980's, when a work colleague took me there. It had recently been modernised and was then called  the Victoria Tavern. From memory I found it a bit too modern for my liking, preferring back then olde worlde traditional pubs. I am not certain what beer(s) it sold, but I have a feeling King and Barnes Sussex may have been one of them, which would have been unusual for the area at the time.

Shortly afterwards the pub changed hands. It's new owners were an elderly couple named Tom and Margaret. With the new owners, came a new name; Uncle Tom's Cabin - probably one of the daftest names for a pub I've ever come across, but one that seems to have stuck over the years. Even though the pub changed its name. yet again, in the mid-nineties to its present moniker, people still sometimes affectionately refer to it as the Cabin or Tom's. I have a particular soft spot for the pub, as for the half dozen or so years between my moving to Tonbridge and the birth of our son , BC (Before Child) as my wife likes to call those years, Tom's was very much my local. I wasn't in there every night, or even every other night, but one session I never missed was Sunday lunchtime. I would take the dog for a long walk, and then invariably end up in the pub, joining a very erudite bunch of regulars who, like me, were all thirty somethings. As well as putting the world to right we would consume several pints of beer, chosen from an ever changing list (Tom's was a free house). There was also a weekly meat raffle, so it was an added bonus if I could return home in triumph, with a joint of meat ready for the following Sunday's roast.

Tom's was also notorious for lock-ins. In the days before all day Sunday opening, come 2pm one of the regulars would be told to slip the latch on the door and the drinking would continue. It was not unusual for me to leave the pub at 4 pm, stagger home for a nice Sunday lunch, before dozing off into front of the tele. Nocturnal lock-ins were equally notorious, "Pull the curtains across, put the door on the latch and try not to make too much noise when you leave"!

Tom and Margaret were succeeded by another couple, Richard and Joan. For a while they obtained their beer from the Crown Brewery (former South Wales Clubs Brewery) of Pontyclun, but the Welsh beers were not to the taste of the locals (including myself), and the couple switched to Greene King. The Suffolk company was not particularly well represented in the South East at the time and their beers were a welcome addition to the local scene. Things continued in much the same vein as before, but my pub-going started to tail off following the birth of our son Matthew in late 1991.

Eventually yet another change of hands saw experienced licensee Tony, who also ran a pub in Goudhurst, buying the pub and putting his son Matt in charge. They made some welcome changes, opening the pub up and extending it even further backwards. They re-named it the New Drum; a far more sensible name than its previous one! The downside, so far as I was concerned, was that Matt was an out and out sports fanatic and, no matter what time of day or night one visited the pub there would be sport of some description showing on one of the all-pervasive television screens. It might have been golf, tennis, show-jumping or tiddly winks, but what ever it was Matt was engrossed in it, so much so that  at times it was difficult to get served!

The pub  has changed hands a couple of times since those days, but is pretty much the same. I don't tend to go on there that often, as I find it rather cliquey, and also the wall to wall TVs remind me of an American bar, rather than an English pub.

Heading down further into town along Pembury Road, one comes to the Somerhill, prominently sited on the junction with Priory Street. This is another pub with a chequered history. When I first came to Tonbridge it was a pretty basic, working man's local. It was called the Somerhill Arms back then; Somerhill being the name of the family seat of the D-Avidor Goldsmid family - the local big-wigs, cum-Lords of the Manor. Back then it was run by a chap called Vic and his wife, who's name escapes me. It was a rather non-descript sort of place, but it did have two bars.

When Vic passed on the Somerhill went through the first of a series of intermittent rough patches that have dogged it ever since. For a while it was definitely NOT the sort of place to enjoy a quiet drink with the locals!. Then some time in the early 1990's, the pub was bought by a small independent pub chain, called the Hooden Horse Group. They were based in Ashford but had gradually expanded westwards, also acquiring the John Brunt VC, pub in Paddock Wood. The Somerhill was given a complete re-fit; the ceilings were lowered, the bars were knocked through into one, and the serving area was moved over to the back wall of the pub. There were plenty of bare boards and beams, plus candles for lighting, but the whole thing wasn't really in keeping with what was a typical, late-Victorian building. Nevertheless the Wonderful Hooden Horse, as the pub was now called, did major on traditional draught beer with Hop Back Summer Lightning as one of its regular ales, alongside Old Hookey from Hook Norton. Mexican-style food, for some bizarre reason, was the pub's other attraction.

Like all fads this one eventually ran its course; the pub became increasingly run down, so much so that come the new millennium its kitchen had a closure order slapped on it by the local Environmental Health  Department. Cue another new owner, this time a member of the landed gentry. Unfortunately for him the pub's reputation had been severely damaged by the rats in the kitchen fiasco with the previous owners. Try as he might, this individual struggled on, but with a flawed reputation he was on a hiding to nothing. What made matters worse is that following years of neglect by various past owners, the building itself was in a a parlous state. The roof leaked like a sieve and the whole place suffered from problems of severe damp. Another new owner stepped up to the plate, but this chap was no fool when it came to running a pub. Steve and his wife had run a successful pub in Gravesend and were now keen to try their luck with the Hooden Horse.

They completely gutted the place, ripped out the false ceilings, moved the bar back to close to its original location, installed some comfortable seating, whilst still retaining an area for darts, pool etc. Finally they restored the pub's name to something like its original, but instead of the Somerhill Arms it became the Somerhill. They did really well for a number of years; the pub proving particularly popular with local builders and fellow tradesmen.  Beer wise the pub was nothing special, with Greene King IPA as the token cask ale, and with Steve resisting calls from local drinkers to put Harvey's on instead, they missed out on an important sector of trade. When the economic slump started affecting the construction industry the Somerhill's trade really began to suffer. What made matters worse was the closure (and subsequent demolition) of the Railway Bell, sited at the other end of Priory Street. Many of that pub's less desirable customers found their way up to the Somerhill, putting off the more gentrified customers it could, and perhaps should, have relied on.

It is still open today, but has had a succession of different licensees, Rumours surface, from time to time, that because of its prime corner site the pub is ripe for redevelopment, but fortunately to date none of these have proved true. At least the pub sells Harvey's these days, which has to be an improvement!

Two thirds of the way down Priory Street  is the Cask and Glass. For nearly six years this off-licence that specialises in draught cask beer (and cider)to take away, was run by my good self. I won't say any more about the Cask & Glass for now, suffice to say I have lots of very happy memories (plus the odd bad one), of the time I spent behind the bar there, of caring for the cask beer we sold, sourcing new or unusual beers and generally enjoying acting like a pub landlord who's customers went home to drink, rather than remaining on the premises.

At the far end of Priory Street, at the junction with Priory Road, stood the Railway Bell. Once billed as the roughest pub in Tonbridge, the Bell called time for good back in 2008 and was subsequently demolished. Flats now occupy the large, corner site, which is a shame as the pub itself was an attractive, late Victorian building which still could have had a viable future in the right hands.

Running parallel with both Lavender Hill and Priory Street, is St Stephen's Street, home to the penultimate pub in this part of town. The Punch and Judy is yet another pub that has undergone several name changes in recent years. When I first moved to Tonbridge, it was the Gardener's Arms, and whilst it was probably the most traditional pub in the town, it was one of the few not to sell any traditional beer. If you wanted a pint of "top-pressure" Fremlins, then this was the place to go. Perhaps the locals liked it that way, but the pub didn't get much custom from me because of this. The pub is constructed on two levels, and back in those days the public bar was at the front of the building. with a separate saloon bar to the rear.  Nowadays the interior has been opened up into a large single bar that extends a fair way back. It is now known as the Punch and Judy, having had the misfortune to be called Clown's Piano Bar for a short while.

As pubs go it is by far the best traditional pub in Tonbridge, but according to a friend who used to drink there regularly, the beer quality can at times be a bit variable. I can't really confirm this, as I've never had a really bad pint there, but then again I am a rather infrequent visitor.. Several years ago, the Punch was one of three pubs in the town owned by legendary Irish landlord, Colm Powell. We'll come onto his other former pubs in a later article, but for the record they were the Station Tavern (now Mojo's), plus the Ivy House. Colm was quite a character, but after many successful years of running his three pubs, became embroiled in a dispute with his landlords, Enterprise Inns.  This led to his hunger strike and sleeping in a coffin stunt, .in protest at the rent and beer prices being charged by Enterprise Inns. Unfortunately this culminated in his eviction from the pub. Colm managed to achieve nationwide publicity out of this though, being carried out of the Punch in a coffin, and then driven away by a horse-drawn hearse. Another memorable occasion was when he laid real turf in the bar, as part of the pub's St Patrick's Day celebrations. It took staff days afterwards to clean up all the soil and other mess left behind by this stunt!

Like in Colm's day, the Punch hosts regular quiz nights, live music evenings and other similar events. It has also re-commenced serving food. It is a real community local, and for the cask ale drinker, offers Harvey's, alongside a beer from local concern, Tonbridge Brewery.

The Forester's Arms is the last pub in this part of Tonbridge, and is also the town's only Shepherd Neame pub.  Anyone who knows me will know I dislike the Faversham brewer's beer with a vengeance, so much so that I can't remember the last time I set foot in the place! That's not to say it isn't a good pub.Sited on the main A26 heading out of town towards Tunbridge Wells, the Foresters is also the nearest pub to West Kent College, and is therefore popular with students.

When I first moved to Tonbridge, some 27 years ago, we lived just up the road from the pub and would pop in for a few drinks from time to time. Back then it was a traditional two-bar local with a small saloon and much larger public bar. The saloon was the haunt of Les, the one-eyed landlord, who would be sat on a stool at the bar, surrounded by a bunch of cronies, nodding to his bar-staff as to who to serve next. Not the most welcoming sort of place! When Les retired a very pleasant young couple took the pub on and made a real go of the place. It may have been around this time that Shep's renovated the pub and knocked the two bars through into one. It was probably also around this time that recipe for the company's beers changed for the worse, and I found I was no longer enjoying them.

As I said earlier, I haven't been in the Forester's for years, even though I drive past it twice a day on my way to and from work. There are blackboards outside advertising a multitude of different attractions, including various football matches, karaoke and other forms of entertainment, none of which appeal to me. The pub seems popular enough though with its own crowd, so it must be doing something right.

This then concludes the second instalment of our tour around the pubs of Tonbridge.  Part 3 will follow at an unspecified later date. ie. When I get round to writing it!

Saturday 18 August 2012

The Way Forward?

There was an article published, a month or so ago, in CAMRA’s "What's Brewing" newspaper in which correspondent Neil Harvey from Tyneside branch, argues the case for scrapping CAMRA branch meetings, and conducting all business via Facebook or Twitter instead.  He claims that  "it's either evolution or extinction for the campaign", arguing that unless CAMRA fully embraces modern technology it will fail to attract younger members and, as the older ones pass into obscurity then so will CAMRA itself. 

Whilst not quite willing to go all the way down that route, after all you can’t beat a good get together in a decent pub over a few pints, Neil does have a point. Formal branch meetings tend to be long and boring; such meetings are bad enough at work, so why subject oneself to more of the outside the workplace? Fortunately I’m no longer on the committee of my local branch, so no longer feel pressurised into attending such events. The trouble is, many of my fellow branch members would agree, as evidenced by the fact that few, if any, non-committee members turn up to what are billed as "open branch business meetings". With stuffy, out-dated, formal proceedings: “Point of order Mr Chairman,”; “Put it to the vote”; “Minute that, please secretary”, it's small wonder  that most younger members, as well as quite a few older ones, are put off attending such meetings.

Socials though are different and are definitely something that local branches should be encouraging. Over more years than I care to remember, my local branch (West Kent) has struggled to attract members to our socials; to say nothing of the aforementioned formal branch meetings! We have tried mailing people who live locally before holding a social in their particular town or village; we have tried adverts in the local paper and advanced notices via the branch website, but all to no avail. It seems that barring a few exceptions, we are stuck with the same old faces week in week out. Meetings, of course, are advertised each month in “What’s Brewing”, but judging by the poor attendance do people bother to consult the “Branch Diary” section? Or is what we are currently offering just not appealing to the majority of our 450 odd members?

Over the course of the last few years we have changed tack and have been updating members by e-mail instead..  This approach seems slowly to be working, but current data protection/anti-spam legislation means that members have to actively “opt in” to the e-mail circulation list before we can contact them. Over the years the numbers on the list does seem to have grown steadily, meaning we can inform more and more of our members about up and coming events.

As mentioned above, branch socials, along with business meetings, are listed in “What’s Brewing”, but the ridiculously short deadlines for notifying events for listing in the paper, does mean that the branch diary often has to be arranged weeks in advance,  leaving little opportunity for change or alterations to take place nearer the time. In short, the system is inflexible and arguably outdated.

Recently the branch has found a way around this by holding “unofficial” socials. It was realised, quite a long time ago, that there was just a small hardcore of members turning up to socials, and trips out, on a regular basis. This was especially true of events held at weekends or to places further afield. A number of us decided to start organising additional trips, either by public transport, or as part of a walk in the country, on days that didn’t clash with official branch events, staying in touch with each other by e-mail, and circulating details about travel arrangements, best pubs to visit etc amongst ourselves. This arrangement seemed to work quite well, and to date we have conducted various walks to hard to get to country pubs, and have also had days out to towns such as Lewes, Canterbury and indeed London, together with visits to the Kent Beer Festival and GBBF. 
As these unofficial and informal socials seemed to be working well, we decided to publicise them to a wider audience, by circulating details, by e-mail, on the branch mail-out system. This has led to other activities taking place, such as historic pub tours, (one of our committee members is a qualified “Blue Badge” tourist guide, and is happy to organise such tours). These events are now being publicised on the West Kent CAMRA Facebook page as well, and in turn members prescribing to the page have been putting up their own suggestions for walks/trips out etc, along with suitable dates. The whole thing is starting to snowball and become self-perpetuating, which has to be a good thing.

Obviously because these practices by-pass “What’s Brewing”, they have to remain unofficial, but it does seem to be the way forward in encouraging people to support their local branch, and to actually get involved.

I wonder what the views of other branches are on this matter?

Thursday 16 August 2012

GBBF 2012 Friday

I attended the Great British Beer Festival, as planned last Friday and was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Fears, aired by some correspondents, over travel difficulties proved groundless from the point of view of my party, with three of us (son Matthew,  friend Don plus myself)  travelling  up from Tonbridge by train, to Waterloo and then catching a train to Clapham Junction. From here we caught a London Overground service involving just three stops, to Olympia. This was a far better option than battling along on the District Line and then having to wait ages on the platform at Earl’s Court for a shuttle, which wasn’t running anyway.

Once inside the venue, we picked up a programme, plus a glass each and then grabbed a quick beer (Worthington E in my case), before heading up onto the new mezzanine floor at the rear of the hall. This proved a good move as we were able to commandeer a table at which we based ourselves for the rest of the day, taking it in turns to issue forth on forays to the various bars or food stands for essential supplies. Our base was more or less adjacent to the Czech and German bar, which pleased Matthew as he is a lager drinker rather than a real ale fan. There were several beers on sale here that he was already familiar with from our past trips to Germany, including Andechs, Augustiner, Kneitinger and Tegernsee. It was also on a trip back from this bar that I bumped into Peter Alexander aka Tandleman, who was waiting to start his stint behind the aforementioned bar. Having been a regular follow of Tandleman’s entertaining and highly readable blog for several years, it was really good to meet up with him in person, and put a face to the name, so to speak. We had a chat about how the festival was going, his recent trip to Berlin and things in general, and after going our separate ways bumped into each other again a bit.later on.

I didn’t say so at the beginning of the post, but walking into Olympia that day was just like old times. The bright and airy feel that the impressive glass-canopied roof gives to the venue was in stark contrast to the gloomy, oppressive feel of Earl’s Court, where there is no natural lighting, and apart from space constraints one can’t help wondering why CAMRA ever moved from here in the first place.

Well, that’s the transport arrangements and the venue dealt with, so what about the most important part of the festival, namely the beer? In the days preceding the event I had made full use of the interactive “list-creating” feature on the GBBF website. Over this time I’d built up a list of some 30 possible beers to try, most of which were well-hopped, pale or golden beers. With one or two exceptions, I had selected beers that were brewed using a proportion of American or New Zealand hops, as I like the crisp, citrus-like aromas imparted by these varieties. I was slightly disappointed that some of the more cutting edge breweries were not represented at the festival, but with a list of nearly 30 beers to choose from I was sure I would find plenty to my liking, which I of course did. I was tempted to include some actual American-brewed beers in my list, but as I would be drinking all day, the high alcoholic strength of most of them  put me off. There was also the thought that it would be rather churlish to be drinking American beers at the Great British Beer Festival!

Looking back I tried just over half the beers on my list. Unfortunately being the penultimate day of the festival quite a few of the more esoteric beers had sold out, and thus I was denied the delights of Black Cherry Mild from Kissingate Brewery, Chocolate Orange Delight from Downton and Chocolate Orange Stout from Amber Ales. What I did manage to catch though was 5X from Greene King. This 12% ABV aged beer is normally only used for blending with another beer to make Suffolk Strong (6% ABV). It undergoes a long maturation in oak vats at the brewery, like a keeping or stock ale of old. As far as I’m aware this is the first occasion that Greene King have allowed it to be served, unblended to the general public. There was a catch though,  because of  the beer's rarity value there was only one firkin per day on sale from 5pm onwards, until it ran out, (which wasn’t long!). In addition, it was only available in third of a pint measures, with each one costing £2.00. (Highly reasonable in view of its high strength and the limited quantity available.)

After queueing up and procuring my sample I set about tasting this legendary beer. It was mid-brown in
colour, virtually devoid of condition, but with a complex and varied palate that resembled a fortified wine such as Madeira or Amontillado sherry. It really was like travelling back to the 18th Century when such strong, vatted keeping ales were much more commonplace, and when large country houses would have had their own brew-house turning out such beers for the landed gentry to enjoy. Whether Greene King could produce enough of this beer on a regular basis, bearing in mind the long maturation period it undergoes is open to question, as is whether there would be sufficient demand for such a strong and unusual beer.

As well as the aforementioned, golden, hoppy American style pale ales, there were a couple of other beers that really caught my fancy. First Old Dairy Silver Top, a very drinkable recreation of the now rare Cream Stout style of beer, with toffee, chocolate and coffee flavours from the roasted malts used,  and Worthington White Shield, a beer that needs no introduction in bottled form, but which on draught tasted even better.  Molson Coors, please take note and make this excellent beer more widely available on draught! I had one foreign beer, Schumacher Alt – a copper-coloured alt-style beer from Dusseldorf, with a strong malty flavour.  I wanted to end with another foreign beer; an old favourite and one of the most unusual and highly flavoured beers available. Unfortunately draught stocks of  the legendary Schlenkerla Rauchbier from Bamberg had been exhausted for the day, and whilst it was still available in bottled form, a half litre at this late stage of the proceedings would not have been advisable. 

Having dealt with the beer, mention should be made of the food. We had bought a packed lunch with us, but as late afternoon turned into early evening we became peckish again. There had been snacks such as pork scratchings and pies to help soak up the beer, but by about 6pm both Matt and I were hungry enough to be attracted to the Thai food stall.  I had a very good Thai green curry, whilst Matt had Thai noodles. There were also plenty of other food stands to chose from, ranging from fish and chops to Cornish Pasties and Bratwurst. 

We  eventually left the festival shortly before 9pm. It had become increasingly more crowded by this time with the arrival of  the after work crowd, and people were three or four deep at the bar waiting to get served. When one has to fight one's way to the bar, then it ceases to be a pleasant experience. All power to CAMRA's elbow though, as once again the festival was obviously a rip-roaring success. It's early days yet, but with talk of Earl's Court being demolished, plus the West Hall being available next year at Olympia, then the latter seems the logical venue at which to hold GBBF. I for one certainly hope so.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Lost in Hyperspace

This post is primarily intended for fellow bloggers, although casual readers and visitors to this site might also be interested, and may even be able to offer some advice.

A most annoying thing happened yesterday evening, in fact it's something that has never occurred before in four years of blogging, and I hope  won't happen again. I was putting the finishing touches to the post about my recent visit to the Great British Beer Festival, when the whole, quite lengthy post just vanished. I say "just vanished",  there was some input from me in the form of  clicking on the "undo" button on the toolbar, in order to re-instate a photo that had decided to delete itself after I'd re-positioned some text. The next thing I knew I was left with a completely blank dashboard, and before I could exit the post, without saving - so as to return to what had been there a few moments before, the auto-save function kicked in thereby saving a totally blank post!

I tried all sorts of options to try and recover my work, including looking back via the history function, but every time I tried  it just re-hashed the latest (ie. blank) version of my post. I wasted even more time by carrying out various on-line searches along the lines of "how to re-instate posts that had been accidentally deleted", but all to no avail. It appears that if the post has been published, then there would be every chance of recovering it by searching for it, and then accessing it that way. However, if, as in my case, the post was only in draft form, then that's it, it's gone for good! Several people had pointed out that Blogger does not have a very good recovery option when it comes to dealing with situations like this, but what I want to know is why the wretched thing deleted itself in the first place?

I have used the "undo" option many times in the past without any problem, so why did my carefully constructed article just disappear into hyper-space? I would be pleased to hear from anyone who has had similar problems, and would be even more grateful if someone could tell me if there is a way to recover my post.

In the meantime I am re-writing my post on GBBF 2012.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

GBBF 2012

Well I've purchased my advanced tickets for Friday, printed them off, and have just about finished sorting out my beer list using the interactive feature on the GBBF website. Having missed last year's event, I am really  looking forward to this year's, especially as the festival is returning to Olympia. I much prefer this venue to Earl's Court, which always seemed like an underground car park to me; gloomy, all concrete pillars and roof, with no natural lighting! My son is accompanying me for the first time, and although he's a lager drinker, I am sure there will be plenty of beers that will interest him at GBBF.

Whilst on the subject of beers, I have to say there seem to be a number of glaring omissions with regard to those breweries chosen for the festival. Whilst one might not have expected  Brew Dog to feature, given their somewhat rocky relationship with CAMRA, I am surprised, and somewhat disappointed that the likes of Camden Town, Dark Star, Hawkshead, Kernel, Meantime etc are not featured. I am also disappointed that only four Kentish breweries have been selected (and one of those is Shepherd Neame!). The Garden of England now boasts twenty-five breweries for heaven's sake, so come on organisers, what are you playing at? Also, there appears to be no Czech beers amongst the foreign beers selected. Surely one of the world's greatest brewing nations deserves better than this?

Despite these gripes, I'm managing to wade my way through the assortment of boring brown beers with silly names, and come up with a selection that I look forward to trying on the day. I am also looking forward to visiting the various stands. especially the CAMRA bookshop and food stalls, scattered throughout the hall, and hopefully meeting up with friends both old and new.

One final gripe: as mentioned above,  I bought my tickets in advance, using the on-line booking facility on the website. This offers a £2 reduction off the "on the door" price. However, CAMRA then spoil things by charging a transaction fee of £1.06, so this is not quite the bargain offer it first appears.Admittedly this fee is charged per order and NOT per ticket, but it is still over the top, especially when one is using one's own paper and ink to print the tickets out! One might expect this  from Ryan Air, but surely not from the Campaign for Real Ale?

Moan over. I know a huge amount of work goes into organising, running and staffing the Great British Beer Festival; the vast majority of it carried out by an army of unsung volunteers who give up their spare time, and in many cases part of their annual leave, to ensure the festival is a resounding success. I take my hat off to them all, and look forward to enjoying the fruits of all their hard work when I visit Olympia on Friday.

Footnote: I see that  Coniston No 9 Barley Wine, has won the Champion Beer of Britain, Congratulations to the brewery,  but whilst it's good to see this style of beer wining the top award, I can see them running into all sorts of problems in trying to meet the inevitable demand there will now be for this ale. Winning the CBOB award can sometimes be a poisoned chalice, as several previous winners have found to their cost!

Monday 6 August 2012

Three More Classic Pubs

Regular readers of this blog will know how fortunate those of us who live in West Kent are to have so many picturesque,  unspoilt pubs on our doorstep. The only drawback is that many of these gems  are sited in rural areas, well off the beaten track and well away from public transport links. Of course one could always drive out to them, but that defeats the object. However, with a bit of forward planning it is possible to visit even the remotest of these outlets by combining public transport with a bit of physical exercise.

And so it transpired that after last week's successful day out on the Spa Valley Railway, a group of us arranged an impromptu visit on Saturday, to a few of the more remote rural pubs, that we don't often get the chance to visit. Our main goal was the CAMRA National Inventory listed, Old House at Ightham Common. The Old House is a real time-warp pub which, following a period of uncertainty, has recently been brought into the 21st Century. The Old House has limited opening hours,  and is not open weekday lunchtimes. The reason behind this is that owner and licensee, Nick Boulter has a full time job in the city, which means opening has to be restricted to weekday evenings and weekends. Nick's brother Richard, ran the pub for 20 years prior to Nick taking over and it was the uncertainty over the succession that had called the pub's future into doubt. Fortunately, things turned out  fine in the end, and following some much needed renovation work, the Old  House is well and truly back open again for business.
The Old House is situated to the south of Ightham village in Redwell lane, and whilst an attractive, part 17th Century tile-hung building, there are few clues externally that it is actually a pub! There is no pub sign and the signboard on the right gable has faded beyond recognition!  All doubts as to the building's purpose vanish once one steps inside where there are two bars. The main one is to the left, whilst to the right is a smaller bar that looks more like someones front room, complete with armchairs, chaise long etc. The main bar has a plank and beam ceiling, and bare wooden parquet floors. During the winter months it is heated by a large brick inglenook fireplace, which was unveiled by the present owners - previously there was a Victorian tiled fireplace in front of it.  All the beer is served by gravity and is fetched from the cellar room behind the bar. The pub also boasts a selection of 200  different whiskies, many of which are quite rare.
It was a good ten or so years since I last visited the Old House, and as that occasion was  part  of a mini-bus tour of "hard to get to" rural pubs, organised by the branch, it was a bit of a whirlwind visit. I was therefore looking forward to returning to the pub, and to spending a more relaxing time there. So  last Saturday morning a group of eight of us boarded the 222 bus  in order to fulfil this quest. The Old House, however, was not to be our first port of call; instead we alighted  in the village of Plaxtol, and walked the short distance along to another wonderfully unspoilt pub: the Golding Hop. The reason for this deviation was to enable those of us that wished to eat, to take advantage of the Golding Hop's basic, but generously portioned cheap pub-grub selection, before moving  on to the Old House where, apart from crisps and nuts, food is not available.

The Golding Hop needs little introduction; I have written about it on a number of occasions, and it is another time-warp pub. Located in an unbelievably idyllic rural setting to the north of Plaxtol, the pub offers gravity dispensed beers and ciders (including a home-made "house rough"), simple and good value for money food, in surroundings that have not changed for many a year. Long serving licensees, Eddie and Sonia provide the welcome and whilst dogs are allowed in the pub, children are not, although there is a large garden opposite, with facilities such as swings, climbing frame etc. to keep families occupied.

On Saturday, Adnams Southwold,  Wadworth Henry's IPA and Fullers Seafarer's were the beers available; whilst I didn't try the Seafarer's I have to report the Henry's IPA was very good, but the Adnams much less so. Unfortunately variable quality beer has been a feature of the Golding Hop over the years, in my experience at least, and on this occasion those CAMRA colleagues who previously wouldn't hear any criticism of the pub's beer, had to agree that the Adnams, and also the Seafarer's, really wasn't up to scratch. Beer quality aside, the pub is still an excellent place to visit, and I enjoyed my Henry's IPA, priced at just £2.60 a pint, along with my quarter pound beefburger in a bap, for a mere £2.80!

Suitably fed and watered, we departed the Golding Hop, and set off to walk to the Old House. Our route took us through several orchards, all laden with apples and pouring cold water on fruit growers' fears about the cold, wet summer leading to a  poor harvest! We climbed steadily upwards, away from the Bourne Valley, towards the higher ground of the Greensand Ridge. Thirty minutes or so later, we had crossed the busy A227 and were descending down into Ightham Common and the Old House.

The exterior of the pub was as described above, although there was a large Union flag draped below the anonymous signboard. Internally nothing much appeared to have changed, although a closer inspection revealed it had undergone a thorough spruce-up, which included a complete renovation of the toilets and a  new coat of paint for both the bars. We arrived shortly after one o'clock and there were only a handful of people in the pub, including one slightly larger than life character who we knew quite well! There was a good selection of beers, including Wadworth 6X, Young's Ordinary and Special Bitters, plus two offering from Dark Star Brewery. I opted for the latter, starting with a pint of Hophead before moving on to the American Pale Ale. Both beers were excellent, but the latter had the edge over the Hophead and I just had to have another pint before we departed the pub, round about three-thirty in the afternoon.

During the time we were there the Old House filled up nicely, with a good number, and good mix, of regulars. I couldn't help noticing  though, that we were the only customers to arrive by foot; all the others had driven there! That aside, the Old House remains a timeless classic which seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance under its new owner. The beer quality was excellent and so far as I was concerned, knocked that of the Golding Hop for six! Both pubs use gravity dispense, and both pubs keep their beers in a room out the back. The difference being that the Old House uses a cooling system, that was clearly evident in the temperature of the beer and its subsequent high quality; the Golding Hop on the other hand. employs no such cooling, and unfortunately this has a negative effect on beer quality, particularly in summer!  Surely there is a moral here somewhere?

As mentioned above, we reluctantly left the Old House after a most enjoyable session, as it doesn't stay open all afternoon. Before heading back to Tonbridge though, we had one other pub on our itinerary. The Plough at Basted, is another isolated rural pub, situated on the other side of the Bourne Valley from the Golding Hop. It is also a pub that I thought had closed long ago, especially as it was some thirty years or do since I had last visited it! We re-traced our footsteps, passing through the same orchards, but this time we kept straight on until we reached the bottom of the valley. Here we turned left (due north) and followed the course of the River Bourne up towards its source. River is a bit of a misnomer, as the Bourne is nothing more than a stream. In times past though it must have been a much larger and more powerful watercourse to have cut such a valley through the surrounding line of hills.

Eventually we reached our destination and turned right up a steep, narrow lane to the Plough. The pub is sited right next to a large, industrial looking farm, but apart from that it's situation is pleasantly rural. Thirty years is a long time, but with the exception of an internal coat of blue-coloured paint, the Plough didn't seem to have altered much. Adnams Bitter was on sale, alongside a couple of other beers, but it was the Southwold beer that caught my fancy. After the disappointment  earlier in the day, this time round the beer was just right. Being a warm and sunny afternoon, we sat outside on the raised decking at the front of the pub. There were one or two other people there, but it was that strange time, similar to what we had experienced the previous week at the Crown in Groombridge, between the afternoon and evening sessions when most pubs are on the quiet side.

We only stayed for one beer at the Plough. Ian and Don, who were acting as our guides, were keen to press on, particularly as the last bus back was due at around 6.30pm. Their plan was to continue along the course of the Bourne before striking north and heading into Borough Green. Here not only would we be able to catch the bus home, but would also be able to enjoy one final pint in the Black Horse, a pub I am not familiar with. Leaving the Plough, and turning right at the bottom of the lane, led us into a rather strange development of modern, and very upmarket houses, that seemed totally incongruous with the surrounding rural setting. I had a vague recollection that there once was an industrial operation carried on in this location, but a look at the map revealed no real clues as to what had once been carried out here. I remembered that a large publishing firm were once based to the south of Borough Green, and when I arrived home a bit of Internet research proved that my memory had not been playing tricks on me!

My researches revealed that back in the early 18th century Basted was the location of a water-powered paper mill; one of a series along the River Bourne.  The mill was later converted to steam power and finally closed after flooding in 1968. The site was then taken over by the legal and accountancy specialist publishers Butterworths, and this is how I remember it. Butterworths departed in 1997 and the mill has been redeveloped as housing, which takes advantage of the attractive waterside setting and surrounding green space. Some of the water features have been preserved or reconstructed, such as the mill pond and a waterfall, and these, along with the concrete channelling of the watercourse, were noticed as we followed  the footpath through the new development.
Unfortunately the best laid plans can go astray, and we somehow took a wrong turning in the woods. Despite following the stream for some distance, we eventually emerged into a field that was not part of a dedicated right of way. We had to clamber over a fence in order to get out of the field and reach a housing estate that led us in to Borough Green. By this time though  there was insufficient time to visit the Black Horse and make our bus. This was probably just as well as I, for one, had had a surfeit of ale by this stage and was keen to get back home.

We walked down to the railway station, which acts as a turn around for the bus. This turned up, after a short wait, and even had the same driver from our outward journey in charge. Twenty minutes or so later, we were dropped off back in Tonbridge after yet another excellent day out in the Kent countryside.

For more information about the Old House,  plus some excellent photographs of the pub's interior. by Michael Slaughter, please click on the link here.