Wednesday, 19 June 2013

A Success Story for a Change

The sight of a pub empty and boarded up is sadly an all too common one these days. Only recently I posted about the closure of the Harp at East Peckham; a pub that seemed to have lost its way and had resorted to exotic dancers and lap dancing to lure the punters in, only to have its license revoked following a storm of protest from local residents. We read too about the insatiable greed of the big pub companies (Punch and Enterprise), who milk their hapless tenants for every penny they can by a double whammy of high rents plus prices for beers and spirits that are way above what they would pay in the free market. It’s both refreshing and encouraging then to learn of a success story, of how a pub was saved from closure and conversion into residential accommodation, by an enterprising landlord and a lot of  TLC.

The Windmill, in Weald village, just outside Sevenoaks, hit the headlines a few years ago for all the wrong reasons; in fact the story about the pub’s then landlady allegedly refusing to allow a collection for the Royal British Legion’s  annual poppy appeal was even covered by the national press. Many villagers were naturally upset over this action, and ended up boycotting the pub. The landlady moved on, the pub was closed and put up for sale by owners Greene King. That’s when it could have ended up as a private house, but fortunately it was bought by experienced licensees, Matthew and Emma, who had previously run the award winning Stile Bridge at Marden, near Maidstone.

After being closed for a period of extensive refurbishment, the Windmill re-opened last October, under its new owners, as a genuine free house. Being free of any tie Matthew and Emma were able to follow the same policy they had at the Stile Bridge of supporting local breweries and cider makers. The pub now offers six cask ales, all sourced from Kent or Sussex, plus a number of traditional Kentish ciders, including Chiddingstone, Biddenden and Double Vision.

 Rumours of just how good the refurbished pubs was under its new owners began to trickle through, and back in the winter a number of local CAMRA members called in to check it out and see whether the reports were true. Without exception, they were all enthusing about the place, but unfortunately I was unable to join them on both that occasion and also on a couple of “unofficial” visits undertaken later by a handful of members.

I finally got the chance to visit the Windmill last Sunday, as our social secretary had arranged a branch social at the pub. Travelling by bus from Tonbridge station, four of us alighted in Weald village and walked the short distance up to the pub. Two other members were already there, and later on we were joined by half a dozen others.  We were all delighted by what we found. The long “L”-shaped bar has been divided up into two parts by a glass screen, with a dining area at the far end. The newly painted walls are hung with various old brewery advertising material, including a selection from Belgium and Germany. Along shelves, just below ceiling level, are a large collection of brewery jugs, with again examples from the continent  mingled with  a number from closer to home, (spot the old Worthington “E” jug!). There are a couple of attractive tiled-fireplaces, to provide warmth during the winter months, but during the summer the pub has a bright and airy feel to it, enhanced by its freshly decorated look.

As reported, the Windmill stocks six cask ales, and on Sunday these were Harvey’s IPA, Larkins Platinum Blonde, Long Man Best Bitter, Sambrook’s Junction, Whitsable Oyster Stout and Westerham Audit Ale – the latter weighing in at a hefty 6.2%. I sampled the last four, all of which were in fine form. I was particularly impressed with both the Long Man and the Sambrook’s beers. What is equally refreshing, apart from the real ales and ciders, is the fact that the pub does not stock a national lager brand, (no Fosters or Stella here!); instead it offers Cristal from Alken-Maes in Belgium and locally-brewed Saxon Lager from Hepworth’s. The Windmill also stocks Hepworth’s keg Irish stout, Conqueror, in place of Guinness.

Being Father’s Day, the pub was doing a roaring trade, but our branch secretary Carole, had had the fore-sight to book ahead and had reserved a table for those of us wishing to eat . The menu looked enticing, with dishes ranging from the traditional Sunday roast to something a little more contemporary. I opted for the hake, served on a bed of Mediterranean vegetables with chorizo sausage and new potatoes. It was certainly both satisfying and filling, and was complimented well by the Sambrook’s Junction.

After eating, we congregated in the bar area, leaving our table free for another party who had booked their table after us. We had a presentation to make to landlord, Matthew, namely an award for most improved pub of the year. This is now the third year that West Kent CAMRA has made this award; previous winners being the Bedford, Tunbridge Wells and the King William IV at Pembury.

The Windmill certainly was a worthy winner this time round. As the afternoon progressed, the pub began to fill up nicely, with a good mix of casual drinkers, dog walkers as well as those wishing to dine. We noticed how Matthew made a point of going round from time to time, checking that everything was alright for his customers, but in such a way as to be unobtrusive and not fussing. This surely is the mark of a good host?

We left, shortly before five o’clock, to catch the bus back to Tonbridge. The service only runs every two hours on Sundays, but strangely enough the Sunday service is better than on Saturdays, or during the week, making it the perfect time to visit. In fine weather the pub can easily be reached via lanes and footpaths from Hildenborough station making for a pleasant stroll out in the country.

The Windmill certainly is a welcome addition to our stock of fine pubs and just shows what sympathetic owners, who know what they are doing, and who listen to what their customers really want, can achieve. I will certainly be returning at the earliest opportunity.

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