Wednesday, 3 July 2013

A Day in the Kent Countryside

I have written on at least two previous occasions about the CAMRA National Inventory listed Old House, at Ightham Common. Sometimes described as a “hobby pub” in so much it is only open during the evenings and at weekends, as owner Nick Boulter has a full time job elsewhere, it should more accurately, and more kindly, be described as a labour of love. It is always a wonderful experience to visit this marvellously unspoilt pub, not least because one is assured of being able to sample some excellent beer there.

So it was that last Saturday, a group of nine local CAMRA members and friends boarded the 222 bus outside Tonbridge station, to make the short journey up to Ightham Common. En route we passed through some unbelievably pretty places, including the large village of Plaxtol. This area was once known for paper making, and this industry is celebrated in the name of one of Plaxtol’s two pubs, the Papermaker’s Arms. However, we were leaving the delights of Plaxtol for another day, and another outing, and after our bus had climbed the steep escarpment of the Greensand Ridge, and deposited us just outside Ightham village, we made the short walk down along Redwell Lane, reaching the Old House just after 11.30.

Apart from regular customer and local CAMRA member Clive, we were Nick’s first customers; in fact he had nipped outside for a crafty cigarette before opening. He ushered us in and after we’d had the chance to peruse the beers on offer, suggested to keep things simple we hold a “whip” whereby each of us put a tenner into a kitty, and he would then take the drinks money from that, as and when required. This seemed a good idea, so we all chipped in and then proceeded to order our drinks. I started with Dark Star Hophead, a bit of a no-brainer really. It was pale, cool, refreshing and wonderfully hoppy, and I was tempted to go for another had it not been for  my attention being caught by a beer from the Bristol Beer Factory, called Seven. Now beers from this company are something of a rarity in rural Kent, in fact I haven’t come across them outside of London, so I made this  my second pint of the day, and was glad that I did. Not quite as overtly hoppy as the Dark Star, Seven was nonetheless an extremely good pint. Several of my companions thought so as well.

Before going any further, a word or two as to the intended format of the day. The 222 bus service runs back and forth between Tonbridge and Borough Green. It is operated by the same driver, which means that it runs once every two hours in each direction, with a three hour gap mid-afternoon to give the driver a break and the chance for some lunch. The idea was we would catch the 14.09 return service to Tonbridge, but would break our journey at the small hamlet of Dunks Green, home to the Kentish Rifleman, another excellent country pub which we don’t get to visit all that often. We could then spend the next three hours there, catching the 17.19 service back to Tonbridge or, mid afternoon, we could walk across country to the somewhat up-market Chaser Inn at Shipbourne, and then pick up the same bus there a few minutes later.

Either option meant a problem with food; apart from nuts and crisps, the Old House doesn’t do food, and we knew that the kitchen at the Rifleman closed at 2.30pm. We didn’t think the kitchen staff would fancy a rush, last minute scranble for food, so the sensible option was to bring a packed lunch. Nick had no problem with us eating our rolls inside the pub, but as it was such a nice day, several of us went and sat outside, enjoying the sun which has been sadly missing for much of the summer so far.

Alongside the Dark Star and the BBF beers, were Wickwar Coopers Ale, Mauldons Black Adder and Young’s Ordinary.  Dismissing the latter as no longer worthy of consideration since its move to Bedford, I gave both the Wickwar and the Mauldons a try before leaving, The pub had become quite crowded by the time of our departure; not just with ourselves, but a healthy sprinkling of regulars, plus a group from Croydon and Sutton CAMRA branch, It was also reported that a mini-bus load of SPBW (Society for the Preservation of Beer from the Wood) would be calling in as well. (We spotted them in their bus, en route to the Old House, whilst waiting for ours.) We departed shortly before 2pm, thanking Nick for his hospitality and his great beer, and were waiting at the stop in time for the onward bus to our next destination.

As I mentioned earlier, Dunk’s Green is nothing more than a hamlet, but it is fortunate in still having its own pub, and a pretty fine one too. Dating in part from the 16th Century, the Kentish Rifleman survived a serious fire back in 2007, which necessitated some major restoration work, especially to the roof. Looking at the pub today it’s difficult to imagine just how bad the damage was at the time. The front entrance leads straight into the main bar, which is long and low. Leading off from this is another long and quite narrow room, which is slightly more upmarket, and is mainly used by diners. At the rear of the pub is an attractive and secluded garden, and this is to where most of us gravitated; all that is except Eric and I who stopped to chat to a couple of characters sitting at the bar.

The Rifleman had four beers on offer – the low strength Tolly Cobbold English Ale, Whitstable Native, Harvey’s Best and Westerham 1965. The first two beers were on sale at £3.00 a pint, whilst the latter two were more expensive, at £3.50. This price differential reflects the wholesale prices charged by the respective breweries, as both Harvey’s and Westerham are well-known in the trade for charging higher rates for their beers. I sampled the Native and the 1965 and am pleased to report both were in tip-top condition.

Eric and I joined the others in the garden for our second pint; after all it was a shame to be stuck indoors on so pleasant a day. It was from here that the majority of the group decided that a cross-country walk to Shipbourne would be a good idea, as not only would it gives us some exercise, but it would also give us a bit of break from the beer. It was the perfect summer’s afternoon for a walk, most of which was across fields and through the odd copse. Eventually we could see the tower of Shipbourne church beckoning in the distance across the grassy expanse of the common.

I can’t remember the last time I’d set foot in the Chaser, but I wouldn’t mind betting it was a quarter of a century ago. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a somewhat up-market sort of place; nothing too stuck-up mind, just rather expensive. The pub is part of a small chain called Whiting &Hammond. The chain runs seven pubs in total, most of which are leased from Greene King. One of these is the Little Brown Jug at Chiddingstone Causeway, which is five minutes walk away from where I work.  My company uses the Jug for entertaining customers; leaving do’s and staff drinks each Christmas Eve, so I know the sort of package the group offers. It is a good package, and the food is especially recommended, with generous portions and some imaginative dishes, but of a normal lunchtime I tend to steer clear, if only so as to keep a clear head for the afternoon.

 As well as Greene King beers the Jug regularly stocks Larkin’s beer brewed just down the road, but like most local pubs the Larkin’s on tap is the 3.4% Traditional Ale. Now for a lunchtime pint this is a very good session beer that packs in lots of taste for its low strength, but it’s not often one sees any of the other beers that the brewery produces. I was especially pleasing therefore to walk into the Chaser and see Larkin’s Best Bitter on sale. At a much more respectable 4.4% abv, the Best is packed full of chewy-toffee, juicy-malt flavours which are perfectly complemented by the WGV and Bramling Cross hops grown on the brewery’s own farm.  In fact, so good was the beer that I didn’t mind paying the rather steep £3.80 a pint price tag.

We sat out in the garden at the side of the pub, which is just in front of the church, enjoying the beer and making those who had remained at the Rifleman jealous by posting text-messages telling them what they were missing!  We joined up with them just before 5.30pm, despite their having primed the bus driver not to stop for us! Back in Tonbridge, most of the party, being gluttons for punishment decided to call in at the local Wetherspoons. Myself and a colleague decided that discretion was the better part of valour and that we’d had more than enough ale for one day. Not only that but Spoons would have been somewhat of an anti-climax after three such excellent pubs, so we stayed on the bus for a couple more stops before walking back to our respective homes.

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