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.


Orpington Liberal Club said...

The 3.6% Plough Bitter is the same beer we sell as Orpington Buff Bitter and the crown at Otford sell as Three-in-a-bed. You may have tried it at our festival, it was on hand pump.

Orpington Liberal Club said...

Spoken to Paul the Tonbridge brewer. I am getting my Ploughs confused, but not my beers.

The Plough at Langley sold the 3.6% (labelled Traditional on the casks) as Plough Bitter. They haven't taken any for a few months. However the other Plough did take a batch when Paul ran out of Coppernob.

Jeremy Young said...

Hi Paul
Nice post which I came across on the West Kent CAMRA site. However, as a geologist I should point out that Chiddingstone, Penhurst and Leigh are all firmly down on the Medway below the High Weald, you need to get up the slope to e.g. Bidborough or Speldhurst to be in the High Weald. Well actually I suppose you could argue that you were in transition zone, since topographically these are definitely in the Low Weald but they aren't actually on the Weald Clay. However, the same applies to North Tonbridge which is obviously part of the Low Weald.

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks for putting me right, Jeremy. I studied geology as far as “A” level at school, so ought to have known this. My excuse is my schooldays were a long time ago, and we lived in East Kent back then. I could probably tell you all about the River Stour and the valley it cuts between Ashford and Canterbury, but not so much about the Medway.