Monday, 14 October 2013

At Last a Decent Pub for Tonbridge?

For many years now Tonbridge has been crying out for a really good pub, or at least South Tonbridge has  Those of you who have read my Four- Part Series on Tonbridge Pubs will know what I am talking about. The town centre has Wetherspoons, in the guise of the Humphrey Bean which, whilst not qualifying as a cosy intimate local where one could meet up with friends for a quiet drink, does offer a good variety of different ales (as well as other drinks), of the sort that are seldom seen elsewhere in the locality. Close by are the Chequers and the Man of Kent, both locals' pubs with the former dating back to the Middle Ages, and the latter probably to early Victorian times. Both are full of character and decent enough boozers, but both are somewhat restrictive in their choice of ale. (London Pride at the Chequers and Harvey’s plus Tonbridge Brewery at the Man of Kent).

A bit further on from these three establishments, past Tonbridge School, at the start of Shipbourne Road, is the George & Dragon. The pub is again, quite an old building, but one which has been modernised internally and altered quite considerably in recent years. Slightly more adventurous in its choice of beer than the Chequers and the Man of Kent, the George & Dragon still restricts itself to “safe” beers in the form of Wells Bombardier and Harvey’s (nothing wrong with Harvey’s, but it would be nice to see some of their seasonal beers appearing in the free trade from time to time).

So that’s the central Tonbridge catered for, and to a certain extent the beginning of the northern part of the town, but what about south Tonbridge, which is the area of the town where I live? Well last Saturday I met up with my friend and old walking partner, Eric down at the Punch and Judy in St Stephen’s Street. It was Eric’s suggestion we meet there, which suited both of us as it is just five minutes walk for Eric, and fifteen for me. Eric had also been feeding through some good reports about the pub, so I was keen to find out for myself just exactly how good the pub has become.

I arrived shortly after five o’clock; rather early for me to start drinking but Eric was keen not to be home too late, (I’m not sure why!). The pub was heaving and for a moment I thought that my friend had stood me up, but he had been sitting around the corner of the main bar and had spotted me coming in. As I made my way through the crowd, I struggled to see what was on the pub’s four hand pumps. I knew the pub stocked Harvey’s, and alongside their distinctive pump clip, I spotted a beer from Tonbridge Brewery, one from Otter, plus an unknown beer at the far end.

Eric was just about ready for another pint so I got a round in; Otter Amber for me plus Havercake Ale for Eric, this being a new 4.7% beer from Timothy Taylor. The Otter was nice and bitter, and slipped down well, but I was intrigued by the Havercake Ale, so come the next round I opted for this instead.  In the dim-light of the pub it was difficult to judge the true colour of the beer, but it had that distinctive, Timothy Taylor taste. It was so good, that I ended up drinking a further three pints!

So much for the beer, but what about the pub itself? Well after numerous changes of licensee in recent years, things have hopefully settled down with a new couple in charge behind the bar. Garry and his partner Stevie, have run bars between them in places as diverse as Brighton and Spain. What is unusual about this couple is that it is Stevie who puts in the hard work down in the cellar, leaving Garry to do the work upstairs. During a lull in proceedings, Eric introduced me to Stevie. She enthused about her passion for cask beer, and told us how much she enjoyed cellar-work, ensuring that the beer in the Punch & Judy is always served up in tip-top condition. It was refreshing to hear someone so young talking in this manner and someone so keen to share her passion for decent beer. Whilst on the subject of beer, the cask ales at the Punch are all keenly priced, with the Harvey’s and Tonbridge regulars costing just  £3.20 a pint, and the guests £3.50. Northern readers will no doubt baulk at these prices, but for this part of the South East they are very reasonable indeed!

The fact that the pub was as crowded as it was, so early on a Saturday night is testament to the hard work the couple have put in since taking over behind the bar of the Punch. As well as good beer, home-cooked meals are now being served and we were also introduced to the chef, who was being kept busy running up and down the stairs bringing customers their meals. Other attractions of the pub are regular live music evenings and a Wednesday night quiz. There is also a small garden at the rear, although given the deterioration in the weather following the onset of autumn that will not be seeing much use now until spring.

There was a good mix of people in the pub, some of whom I recognised as customers from my old off-licence, and whilst not all of them were drinking the ale, I noticed that many were. This all bodes well for the future of the pub. After a long period of uncertainty, it is good to see the Punch thriving, and I only hope that I am witnessing the re-birth of the pub, rather than yet another false dawn. I will certainly be keeping an eye on the place, and will be popping in whenever I get the chance. It would be nice, after all these years without a pub that I could really call my own, to have a proper local I can drink in once again.


Greengrass said...

Yes a real improvement,I was in there today (as was Eric). Perhaps you will use that awful 'Spoons'
less now. One small complaint I did get my Guinness served up in a larger glass. Do try the Primrose next.

Kirky said...

Been going to the punch for 7 years and I agree its a lot better with the new mamagement. As for the primrose, it used to be good, went there a couple of Fridays ago and it was completely empty and the family was sitting down in the bar eating their dinner (not a good sign). We stayed for 1 drink and left - the choice of beer was poor too.

Paul Bailey said...

Greengrass, "Spoons" has its place, especially when I want to try a new or unusual beer. I will be popping in there over the next few weeks as their Beer Festival is on, and there are quite a few interesting sounding beers coming up. I will also, of course, be popping back to the Punch.

Kirky, many years ago (probably 30 or more, if I am honest), I drank in the Primrose quite regularly. Back then the pub had two bars, and had a decent regular clientelle. I really fail to see what was gained when it was knocked through into one, as all the character seemed to get knocked out of it as well. The pub seems to have struggled ever since, under a succession of differnt owners, none of whom, seem to stay very long.

Although I haven't been in for quite some time, I feel sorry for the new owners, as they are obviously trying their hardest. I drive past, each evening on my way home from work, and notice that they are advertising food, and even serving breakfasts at one stage.

Unfotunately the Primrose is too far away from the town centre to attract the casual passing trade. Also, people's lunchtime habits have changed. Gone are the days of a leisurely lunch over a pie and a couple of pints. These days people are content just to grab a quick sandwich and a coffee before heading back to work.

You say the beer choice is poor, and that is part of the problem with many pubs today, but whether offering something out of the ordinary will cure the Primrose's problems is debatable. It is my nearest pub, but there is nothing to tempt me in there.

I really hope things work out for the new owners, especially as they are trying so hard. What it needs is either for a local brewery (such as Harvey's) to buy it, or for a private individual to acquire it as a genuine free house.

I'm not sure that I would want to buy it (assuming I came into money one day), as its location really is against it. However, I will call in there soon and see what I make of the place.

Curmudgeon said...

£3.20 to £3.50 is par for the course in many of the smarter pubs in the North-West now.

Mind you, I can still get Sam's for £1.80 and Holt's for £2.30.

Anonymous said...

Agree the Punch and Judy is by far the best pub in tonbridge followed by the New Drum but after that?

Paul Bailey said...

Holt's Bitter was described as "uncompromisingly bitter", when I was living in Manchester, back in the mid-1970's. As Boddingtons Bitter started becoming increasingly blander, as its popularity soared, most of my friends and switched our allegiance to Holt's. I was wondering is their bitter still as good, or has that too become "dumbed down"?

Curmudgeon said...

Oh, it's definitely been dumbed down. Still quite dry, and IMV a good beer, but noticeably darker and more rounded than it once was.

It must be about twenty years since I last had the old "shockingly bitter" Holts.

Mind you, apparently in the 1960s it was so consistently bad that it is said to have put a whole generation off drinking it.