Monday, 25 February 2013

Club Festival Scoops Rare Beers

Orpington Liberal Club seems an unlikely venue to hold a beer festival, but as a small group of West Kent CAMRA members found, when they attended on Saturday afternoon, it turned out to be a really good event. We had been alerted to the festival, via Facebook, by club chairman Duncan Borrowman, and were previously aware that cask ale features very high on the clubs' agenda. Three of us therefore took the opportunity to make the 20 minute journey to Orpington, by train, on one of the coldest days of the winter so far to see what was on offer.

Because of the freezing temperatures we were glad that Orpington Liberal Club was just a five minute walk, downhill from the station. The club itself wasn't that easy to spot as it's basically a converted 1930's suburban house, with a period style garage attached on one side, but once in we announced our presence at the bar and collected, and paid for, our pre-ordered tickets.

There were around twenty beers on offer, the majority of which were housed in the adjoining function room. With the exception of an American IPA from Adnams, all the beers were locally sourced from breweries in London, Surrey, Kent, Sussex and Essex. They were divided into the following categories: Milds; Traditional English Bitters and IPA's; Golden Ales; American IPA; American Brown Ales; Black IPA's; Porters and Stouts. Amongst the beers were a number of rarities and one-offs, including #4 American Brown Ale from Shamblemoose Brewery - the first beer, from a new brewery, that was launching at the festival; another American Brown Ale, called Altered States, this time from Kent Brewery of Birling, launched the previous week and the 2013 recipe for Gardenia Mild, from Kissingate Brewery, again launching at the festival. The latter has rosemary and rose petals added to the cask to give a floral and somewhat unique flavour. There was also a couple of beers from new brewery Clarence & Frederick of Croydon. All in all some pretty interesting and unusual beers.

For much of the afternoon there was a variety of different folk acts playing in the function room. Some were quite good, others were not, so we adjourned next door, where we found ourselves a bit of space literally propping up the bar. We made regular forays into the other room to re-fill our glasses, and late on to procure some solid refreshment in the form of cheeseburgers.

Shortly after six o'clock, another of our regular members arrived, freezing cold from sitting on the terraces watching Charlton Athletic lose to Nottingham Forest. Having previously lived in Orpington, and been a member of the local CAMRA branch, Don was able to introduce us to a group from Bromley CAMRA, who were sitting at a nearby table; they even had a few empty chairs and invitied us to join them. After standing for a couple of hours, it was nice to take the weight of ones feet!

I'm not quite certain as to the exact time we left, but I think it was around 9pm. It had certainly been a good festival, with some new and interesting beers to sample. I found the following beers particularly noteworthy: Brentwood Marvellous Maple Mild, Clarence & Frederick's Golden Ale, Portobello Pale,
Shamblemoose #4 American Brown Ale, Franklin's Pudding Stout 
and Ramsgate Oatmeal Stout. There were three others I would liked to have tried: A Head in a Hat - Titfer, Canterbury Ales Black IPA and Late Knights Hairy Dog Black IPA. However, as my head told me next morning I had sampled enough, so it was probably just as well that I ended up saving these beers for another day!

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Bloomsbury Brown Ale

There's been quite a bit of talk recently about low-gravity beers. Tandleman, in particular, posted about a couple of them; one dark and the other light - both produced by well respected brewers, Dark Star and Saltaire respectively.

I experienced an almost "Road to Damascus" - like conversion the other night, whilst drinking one of the beers I was given for Christmas. Amongst several beer-related festive gifts, was an eight bottle presentation box of Harvey's beers. Harvey's are quite unusual in that they still offer a wide range of beers in traditional half pint (275ml), returnable, multi-trip  bottles. Twenty or thirty years ago there would have been nothing remarkable about this, but those breweries that still produce bottled beers today, do so in non-returnable, one-trip 500ml bottles, designed to fit on supermarket shelves.

I've been gradually drinking my way through them. and indeed the other day drank, and reviewed, their Diamond Jubilee Elizabethan Ale. Lurking in the box was one called Bloomsbury Brown (formerly Nut Brown). It weighs in at just 2.8% yet is bursting with flavour, and proved to be a remarkably pleasant drink. The bottle features a picture of  the artist Duncan Grant, who was a member of the influential "Bloomsbury Group" of  writers, painters and intellectuals, during the 1920's. Along with his partner Vanessa Bell,   Grant made his home at  Charleston Farmhouse,  on the South Downs, not far from Lewes. With his long greybeard, straw hat and farmers smock, he looks every bit the bohemian artist of legend. The blurb on the bottle tells us that Harvey's Nut Brown was reputed to be one of  Grant's favourite drinks.

It certainly is very pleasant and, given the right mood,  is a beer I could quite happily drink all night. I'm wondering whether this beer is a bottled version of Harvey's Sussex Mild, in the same way that their Blue Label is a bottled version of their Best Bitter. Anyone got any thoughts on this?

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Czech Out This Porter

I've just been enjoying a bottle of Porter I brought back with me from my visit to Prague last September. Pardubicky Porter 19 Originalni Tmave Pivo - Original Dark Beer.  I can't remember exactly where I bought it, but I think it may have been in Tesco's large outlet in the centre of Prague, of all places!

It's a bit of a mouthful both in name and beer wise, but seeing as I'd be saving this one for some time. it was well worth the wait when I finally opened it. Rich, velvety-chocolate overtones, balanced with a background of roasted barley and brewed at a decent strength of 8.0% abv. There is a nice warming feel to the beer as well, despite my serving it chilled.

From a land famed for its golden, Pilsner-style lagers, this dark, traditional porter is a real eye-opener, and a thoroughly excellent beer.  I noticed that Boak and Bailey posted on this beer, amongst others, back in 2008, so it's not that new.

Whilst on the subject of  non-indigenous beers, I remember now that I enjoyed a 6.3% IPA at the Strahov Kloster Monastery,  near Prague Castle, on the same trip, so it looks as if the Czechs are, like other nations, experimenting with other beer styles. Interesting!

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Black Malt

I don't like black malt in a beer. It imparts a nasty burnt, acrid taste to the finished product and I wish brewers would stop using it to colour their dark beers! Actually, I think most have, preferring instead to add chocolate malt, which not only imparts the desired dark colour, but also contributes a lush chocolate-coffee flavour which is much more acceptable to my palate.
I am writing this because the other day I cracked open a bottle of Harvey's 2012 Elizabethan Ale, which was included in a selection box of the brewery's beers that I received as a Christmas present from a work colleague.The blurb on the side of the bottle states "An exact replica of the "Coronation Ale" brewed by Harvey's Brewery in 1952 and marketed as Elizabethan Ale. In contrast to its modern counterpart, the original recipe includes flaked barley and black malt. This dark barley wine with its full, rich malt character is well hopped with local Fuggle and Golding hops and is brewed in celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.".

I instantly recognised the black malt, which was hardly inconspicuous and lurking in the back ground! My familiarity, and dislike of this ingredient, dates back to my home brewing days, when having just mastered the technique of full-mash, rather than extract, brewing I keenly followed some of the recipes in the late Dave Line's "Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy". A number of recipes, particularly those for darker beers, included a proportion of black malt in the grist. I think this was more because the vastly superior chocolate malt just wasn't available for the home brew market but, unfortunately, black malt was.

I remember being disappointed with both the flavour and overall balance of beers brewed using this malt, and made a resolve not to use it in the future. Later, when Graham Wheeler's brewing books appeared, chocolate malt had become available to home brewers, so I was able to recreate a whole variety of porters, stouts, old ales, dunkles etc. that were much more in agreement with my palate.

The taste of Harvey's 2012 Elizabethan Ale therefore brought back a few slightly unpleasant memories, but was for me, as well as for the brewery themselves, an interesting look back on the world of brewing 60 years ago.

Black Malt - made by roasting high nitrogen malt at a temperature marginally below that which would carbonise the grain. Used to add flavour and colour to mild ales, porters and stouts. Black malt should  not be used in high quantities else its flavour becomes overpowering.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Half and Half

Looking back on my recent visit to the Castle Inn at Chiddingstone the other week, when my friends and I met up with Bob Dockerty, from Larkins Brewery, I was reminded of a practice which was once common-place, but which I thought had virtually died out. In the pub, Bob was drinking a mix of his brewery’s Porter and Traditional Ale (Trad), which he referred to as “half and half”. We all gave this blend a go and had to admit it was rather good, combining the rich chocolaty notes of the Porter, with the refreshing hoppiness of the much weaker Trad. I also remember Larkins supplying this blend as a brewery mix to the Wheatsheaf pub at Marsh Green, near Edenbridge, a few years ago, where it was sold under the name “Wheatsheaf Wobble”. 
When I started drinking, some 40 years ago, it was quite common to see beers being drunk in “mixed form” in pubs. The most common blend was “light and bitter”, a drink that consisted of half a pint of ordinary bitter, with a bottle of light ale to top it up. Whilst this mix was fairly common in East Kent, where I grew up, it was always much more a London thing.

 The reasoning behind it's popularity was two-fold. First, back in the 50’s and 60’s, the quality of the draught (cask) beer in many pubs was rather variable, to say the least, so the addition of a bottle of light ale helped pep it up (it would certainly add condition to a draught beer that may perhaps have lost most of its own, and would to all intents and purposes be virtually flat). It may also have helped mask “off flavours” associated with poorly-kept cask beer. The second reason was a slightly crafty one on behalf of the drinker, in that before the advent of marked glasses, and metered pumps, many landlords would dispense slightly more than half a pint of draught beer meaning, that when the light ale was added, the drinker would receive a bit more than a pint of beer!

The other common, but slightly less popular mix, was “brown and mild” (sometimes referred to as a “boilermaker”); basically a half pint of draught mild, topped up with a bottle of brown ale. Again the reasons for the popularity of this mix were exactly the same as described above. Other, less common mixes were “old and bitter” (known universally as a “mother-in-law”), “black and tan” - Guinness (or other stout) and bitter. and “mild and bitter”, sometimes simply abbreviated to “AB” – these letters standing for “and bitter” and date back to when mild ale was the most common and popular draught beer sold in pubs. The abbreviation inferred the publican knew you wanted your half pint of mild topped up with draught bitter.

During my late teens, my friends and I went through a phase of asking for this mix, partly because it was quite a pleasant drink, but also out of a sense of mischievous curiosity, just to see what reaction we would get from the bar staff. Actually, most landlords and landladies knew what we were asking for, especially old school licensees. Back then most had either been in the trade for some time, or had come from pub-owning families, and there was certainly not the high turnover of publicans there is in the trade today.
The late Richard Boston, in his excellent book, “Beer and Skittles”, lists several more mixtures, and reminds readers that drinks such as shandy and lager and lime ( the latter not often seen these days, but very common back in the early 1970’s) are of course, mixtures. Incidentally, the strange practice of requesting a dash of lemonade to be added to one's pint, in the form of a “lager top”, has taken over from adding a shot of lime juice to lager  He also informs us that mild and bitter is known as “Narfer narf”. (Perhaps my friends and I should have tried our luck with this name back in the 70’s!)

The mixing of different types/styles of beer to achieve the taste desired by the drinker, of course dates back many hundreds of years. Many people know the story (true or otherwise), about the origin of porter, or Entire Butt to give the beer its correct name. Formerly, drinkers would have mixed three different beers - pale, brown and stale (old ale), to create a blend known as "Three Threads", but in 1722  Ralph Harwood of the Bell Inn, Shoreditch hit on the idea of combining the different attributes of this blend in one single beer hence, name Entire Butt. However, despite the popularity of porter, drinkers continued to mix beers, well into the 20th Century, in the way I have described.

I’m not quite sure what caused practice to die out; it may have been the increasing popularity of keg beers during the 1960’s and early 70’s, when drinkers were presented with a much more consistent, albeit bland, product. Alternatively, it may have been the influence of CAMRA and the growing interest in beers from different parts of the country, combined with the desire to sample and enjoy them in their pure, unadulterated form (ie. on their own and not mixed with another type of beer). Most likely it was a combination of both factors which caused the mixing of two different types of beer to virtually vanish; but not in Chiddingstone it seems!

As a way of rounding off this subject, I would be most interested to hear other people’s thoughts and experiences of drinks such as light and bitter, brown and mild etc, along with any other strange combinations they may have come across, (and even tried!).

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Two Kentish Festivals

Beer festivals are like buses, you wait ages for one then two come along at once! This was certainly the case last weekend, when two Winter Ale festivals were held at opposite ends of the county and I was lucky enough to attend both!

The White Cliffs Festival of Winter Ales  is organised by Dover, Deal and Sandwich CAMRA, and is now in its 20th year. It is held at the historic Maison Dieu (God's House), a lovely old medieval building in the heart of Dover that now functions as the local Town Hall. Being a winter ales festival the organisers make great play of the fact there are no beers on sale that are below 5.0% abv. A degree of caution is therefore both advisable and, indeed, necessary when approaching and selecting which beers one wishes to sample.

The other festival took place much closer to home, in fact it was a mere 20 minutes walk  from my house. Successful local Rugby Club, Tonbridge Juddians (TJ's for short), have acted as hosts for the SIBA South East Regional Beer Festival (normally held in July), for a number of years now. Last years event had to be cancelled, owing to unseasonal weather which flooded the sports ground where the marquee housing the festival is sited. The club did manage to salvage something from the flood though, and held a mini-festival in the clubhouse, which is constructed on stilts above the level of the floodplain. This event proved so successful that it prompted  event organiser Gary, and cellar manager, Chris to run the club's first "stand alone" beer festival and, seeing as it was taking place at the beginning of February, a winter ales festival at that.

Originally I had only planned to attend the latter, local event, having previously been caught out at Dover, by too many strong ales (and by the ease at which they seem to slip down), but was persuaded the previous weekend, by a group of friends that providing we all took it easy, it would still be a good festival to attend. The group were also looking for a fourth member to make up the party, as this would allow us to take advantage of South East Trains admirable Group Travel offer, where four people can travel for the price of two, providing all four travel together as a group. This brought the return ticket price down from £22.20 each to a much more reasonable £11.10!

The four of us met at Tonbridge station, on a wet and windy Friday, to make the hour or so journey down to Dover, arriving in the town at around 12.30pm. The festival didn't open until 1pm, so we headed for the Eight Bells, the town's JDW outlet, for a bite to eat as a sensible precaution prior to the strong ales we would be drinking later. The Eight Bells is a very pleasant Wetherspoons outlet that features in the current CAMRA Good Beer Guide. A range of local ales were on offer and I opted for the Gadds' No.5 a clean tasting 4.4% bitter from the Ramsgate Brewery. It went down well with the "All Day Brunch" that I, plus the rest of my companions, selected.

As well as providing the chance of a bite to eat, our diversion into Wetherspoons meant that by the time we'd finished our meal and wandered along to the Maison Dieu, not only was the festival open, but the entrance queue had disappeared. Our CAMRA membership cards entitled us to free entry, after which it was purchase a glass, plus some beer tokens, and then set to with the sampling. Although billed as a "winter ales festival", there were a substantial number of paler, and even a few golden ales on the list; the sole criterion for selecting them was they were above the magic 5.0% abv cut-off. I resolved  to stick to the darker ales, wherever possible, and  apart from a glass of Saltaire Stateside IPA, which I just couldn't resist, kept my resolution.

As in previous years, the beers  were stillaged in a long line beneath the stained glass windows that light the right hand side of the medieval hall. Hanging from the top of the walls are a number of large, full-sized portraits of past Lord Wardens of the Cinque Ports, including the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother. Leading off to the left is a later addition to the Maison Dieu, built in Victorian times, and it was in here that long rows of tables and chairs were set out for thirsty punters to sit at. I was quite surprised when we walked into this part of the building at just how many people were present, as it was not at all obvious from the hall where the beers were kept. We still managed to find  a space that accommodated the four of us, and we took it in turns to wander off into the adjacent hall for fresh supplies of beer.

Sticking to my other resolve I was quite moderate in my consumption, but I did enjoy some truly excellent beers. Beer of the festival, so far as I was concerned, was Gadds' Black Pearl Oyster Stout (6.2%), from Ramsgate Brewery, closely followed by Tsar Top Russian Stout (8.0%), from Old Dairy. I also enjoyed  Kent Brewery's Porter, Nightlight Mild from Elmtree Brewery and the aptly named, I Can't Remember, from Tripple fff. Whilst there I bumped into some old friends from Maidstone & Mid Kent CAMRA, who had also travelled down in a group like ourselves.

I said the Tripple fff beer was aptly named, and I'm really not certain as to what time we eventually left the festival. I think it was some time after 6.30pm in order to catch the train which left a few minutes before 7pm. Our colleagues from Maidstone branch accompanied us for part of the journey. Fortunately I felt ok, having moderated my consumption throughout the afternoon. There was certainly no repeat of the time when I literally fell through my own front door after putting the key in the lock!

The next day (Saturday), was the second day of the TJ's Festival, but as I had a number of domestic duties to attend to, it was mid-afternoon before I was able to wander down there. I had looked at the beer list in advance and knew they had 30 beers on; all of them local from either Kent or Sussex and, being a winter riles festival, plenty of dark ones. The clubhouse was quite crowded as the two wide-screen tv's were showing the Wales v Ireland game. Later on, when the England v Scotland match started, the place got really packed.

The majority of the beers were racked on stillages tucked away in the opposite corner to the main bar. The casks were all jacketed, with a cooling system in place, so the beers were in tip-top condition. As at the Dover festival, I stuck in the main, to dark ales, although I did relent once in order to try the Hop Rocket India Pale Ale from Westerham Brewery which, as its name suggests, was pure hops in a glass! The biggest scoop, so far as I was concerned, was TJ's managing to get hold of a couple of beers from Rectory Brewery, run by Godfrey Broster, the Rector of Plumpton, to generate funds for the maintenance of three parish churches, with 107 parishioners as shareholders. Godfrey's 5.0% traditional dark Old Ale was particularly good,

Whilst at the bar I had a chat with TJ's cellar manager, Chris who told me they had taken a deliberate decision to source locally-brewed ales and that they had been especially lucky to get hold of the brews from Rectory. There were also a couple of beers from a brewery I hadn't heard of before; Pin-Up Brewery. Based at Stone Cross, East Sussex, but originally from Essex, Pin-Up according to their website, plan to take the world of brewing by storm. Their slogan is "The best of British brewing mixed with foreign hops . What are you waiting for?". The beers, as their name suggests, are named after a series of 1940's style "pin-up girls", with pump clips to match. This is definitely one for Jeff Pickthall's Pump-Clip Parade!, but also one to look out for as they definitely seem to mean business.  Sticking to my dark beer pledge, I sampled their 4.8% Milk Stout, which was a fine example of this almost forgotten style of beer.

Whilst at the festival I met up with Jon and Nigel, who I had  journeyed down to Dover with the day before. I also bumped into several of my near neighbours, all enjoying the excellent selection of beers on sale. I left shortly after the England v Scotland ended, with England keeping hold of the Calcutta Cup in spectacular style! As for my favourite beer, well Dark Star 1910 Porter, with Black Cat, Black Cat (their new 4.9% seasonal dark ale), coming in a close second. Special mention should also be made of Rectory Old Ale, Pin-Up Milk Stout and Westerham Hop Rocket.

Thanks to all the staff and volunteers for putting on such a fine festival. Not only are they hoping to repeat it next year, but this July they are once again hosting the SIBA Festival. It runs from 12th - 14th July, so put these dates in your diary!

Saturday, 2 February 2013

The High Weald

I’ve said it umpteen times before, but we really do have some cracking pubs in this part of Kent. This is especially true of the district to the immediate north-west of Tunbridge Wells, where there is an area of high ground overlooking the valleys of the River Medway and its tributary, the River Eden, known as the High Weald. This quite isolated country of sandstone hills and ridges, crowned with substantial areas of woodland, does not really give itself to arable farming, so sheep and cattle graze in the pastures, whilst woodland activities such as coppicing and charcoal burning are carried out in the forests. The roads too are dictated by the topography and there are lots of small, isolated settlements, old farmsteads and, of course, some wonderful old pubs.

 Last weekend I was privileged to visit a few of these, mainly as part of surveying for next year’s Good Beer Guide, but also as the final act in relinquishing my Brewery Liaison Officer duties. With regard to the latter, for a period of ten years or more, I  acted as CAMRA’s BLO for Larkins Brewery, until I decided to stand down in November 2011. I agreed to continue covering this role, in a temporary capacity, until a replacement could be found, little thinking this would take quite so long. Finally, following the exit of Moodleys of Penshurst from the brewing scene, Simon, their former BLO, became available and agreed to step into my shoes and take on this role for Larkins. Although Simon lives close to the brewery, he works farther afield, so as we needed to formally introduce him to Larkins owner, and brewer, Bob Dockerty, we arranged to meet up in Bob’s local, and the nearest pub to the brewery, the Castle Inn at Chiddingstone.

Therefore on Saturday, Simon picked me up in Tonbridge, along with fellow friend and CAMRA member Jon, and we drove over to Chiddingstone for our meeting with Bob. Chiddingstone is an ancient village, well off the beaten track. Opposite the church there is a well preserved row of old houses, which are owned by the National Trust. One of these buildings houses the village shop and post office, but on its own, at the end of the row and outside the gates to Chiddingstone Castle (not really a castle, but the former manor house, re-built to resemble a medieval castle), stands the village’s crowning glory, the 15th Century Castle Inn. 

This attractive old, part tile-hung building is also owned by the National Trust, but is leased out to an approved tenant. Stepping inside the pub, especially into the right-hand public bar, really is like stepping back in time to a simpler age. With its quarry-tiled floor, low-beamed ceiling and log burning stove, the bar is the haunt of proper country types, who visit in their working clothes, often accompanied by their (working) dogs. It is a place where the world gets put to right and where the cares of everyday life can be forgotten for a while over a well-kept pint of Larkins beer, brewed just a few hundred yards down the road.

Bob was already there when we arrived, and was holding court amongst a small group of regulars perched at the bar. We ordered ourselves a pint each, (Larkins naturally); I opted for the Porter, whilst my two companions decided to go with the “half and half” mix that Bob was drinking (half of Porter, mixed with half of Traditional).  We stayed for about an hour and a half, during which time I effected the introductions, Simon had a chat with the landlord in order to complete his Good Beer Guide survey whilst Jon and I enjoyed, and joined in with, the banter that was going on. There were various comings and goings in the bar, but eventually we decided it was time to move on and drive the short distance to the next pub on Simon’s list, the equally unspoilt Rock at Chiddingstone Hoath.

The latter place consists of a few scattered groups of old cottages and isolated farms, occupying the high ground mentioned earlier. The Rock Inn stands opposite one of these groups of cottages and is named after one of the nearby rocky sandstone outcrops. Parts of the pub date back to the 14th Century, but most of the building is much younger. Until quite recently the Rock was tied to Larkins Brewery, but when the lease came up for renewal, a couple of years ago, Bob decided not to go ahead with a new one as the building was in need of some quite substantial repairs. The toilets especially were in urgent need of upgrading. The pub was close for a while whilst the improvement works were carried out, but the essential character of the pub was maintained, including retention of the ancient, uneven, bare-brick floor, which ‘elf ‘n safety had wanted to concrete over! The Rock now trades as a free house, but still of course offers Larkins beers. Traditional and Porter were on sale when we called, along with a Christmas offering from Cotleigh Brewery, down in the West Country.

The pub was pleasantly busy, which is encouraging for a damp late January night, but we still managed to find a vacant tables and sat down to fill out the survey form, enjoy the excellent Porter and just generally relax. A little later the landlord joined us for a chat. He confirmed that business had been pretty good over Christmas and told us a little bit of the pubs history. The Rock was formerly a drover’s inn, used by herdsmen taking their flocks to market. He also told us some tales of ghostly goings on at the pub; some of which he had witnessed himself.

A little later we witnessed his prowess at “Ringing the Bull”, an unusual pub game involving trying to swing a metal ring, attached to the ceiling by a piece of string, onto a hook attached to the nose of a large, stuffed bulls head, mounted on the wall. This handsome looking, but rather unfortunate beast met its end in Africa, back in the 1920’s, and eventually found its way to the pub and its present purpose. The Rock is one of only a handful of pubs where this unusual game can be played, but be warned before taking on the locals, as they are well practised and highly skilled at it!

We had one more pub to inspect before the evening was out; the Plough at Leigh. This is a bit nearer to home and not really within the High Weald area. It is probably the nearest pub to Simon’s house, which might explain why he had left surveying it until last. My family and I know the Plough quite well, as we are able to cycle out to it across Tonbridge sports ground; a route which is largely off-road and therefore much safer for those on two wheels. Like the other pubs listed above, it is an ancient old inn, but one which was opened out some 30-40 odd years ago to reveal much of its internal structure.

Unlike the previous two pubs, the Plough was quite quiet when we arrived, but this was during that strange time between early and mid-evening when the last of the afternoon drinkers have departed, whilst the first of the evening’s drinkers, and diners, have yet to arrive. I didn’t take a huge amount of notice of the beer, but did spot Harvey’s Best and Westerham Grasshopper. The one which did catch my eye though was an offering from Tonbridge Brewery that I hadn’t come across before. My companions were also attracted to this one; a pale low-strength 3.6% beer which, after the much stronger Porter, made a refreshing and welcome change.

All in all, it was an excellent night out, especially as it allowed us to visit some top-rate pubs which we don’t often get out to. Special thanks then to Simon for acting as our chauffeur for the evening, but these three weren't the only pubs I visited last weekend.

The previous day I called in at another pub in the High Weald, the Kentish Horse at Markbeech, a tiny village consisting of just the pub, the church, plus a scattering of houses. Again my purpose was to carry out a 2014 GBG survey, but also to check how sales of our local “Gateway to Kent Guide" had been progressing. Somewhat embarrassingly, I noted from my records that I had last visited the pub in July2009. I remember the occasion well, as it was a scorching hot day and I had walked up through the woods and then across the fields from Cowden station. After enjoying a pint of both the Kentish Horse’s well-kept Larkins and Harvey’s, I had left six guides with the landlady, on a “sale or return” basis. Little did I think it would be three and a half years until my next visit!

Friday’s visit, on a cold, wet January evening on my way home from work, was therefore a little different, but no less pleasant. The pub was quite busy for early evening, although I imagine many of the customers were like me – on their way home after work. They seemed a pleasant enough crowd and were mostly crowded around the bar, keeping the landlady on her toes dealing with their various drink orders. During a break in the proceedings, I was able to settle our account with the landlady; she had managed to sell three of the six guides that I’d left her, which was good going on her part.

Like my previous visit, Harvey’s plus Larkins Traditional were the cask beers on sale. As I was driving I stuck with the 3.4% Traditional, which is a fine tasty pint for its low strength. Whilst sitting there, enjoying my pint, I noticed a chalkboard advertising that day’s particular specials on the food menu. They certainly looked appetising and keenly priced, and I almost wished I was able to stay for a bite to eat myself. 

Driving home, I headed towards Penshurst, passing the turning that leads down towards the Rock, and eventually back to Tonbridge. Like I said at the beginning of the article, the High Weald is very isolated country for somewhere that is so close to London, and I feel very fortunate to live so near to it.