Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Off the Beaten Track

I’ve been quite active recently, with two hikes through the Kent countryside having been undertaken on consecutive weekends. The fact that these walks also involved stopping off at some of our best countryside pubs made the physical exertion involved all the more better.

I’ve gone down on record, on several past occasions, stating how lucky we are to have such lovely scenery, along with such attractive pubs in this part of the country, and whilst the second of the two walks re-visited three of the pubs I have written about before, the first explored some relatively new territory, and took in pubs I last visited during my late 20’s.

The most recent walk was a joint CAMRA social arranged between ourselves (West Kent), and our neighbours from Maidstone & Mid-Kent branch. We met in the excellent, National-Inventory listed, Old House at Ightham Common, where there was a good choice of well-kept beers on offer. Betty Stoggs Brazilian, from Skinners plus Old Father Thames from West Berkshire were both particularly good.

This timeless old 17th Century rural inn is bang up to date so far as modern communications go though, which was especially useful for me seeing as our home phone-line (and hence Broadband connection), was out of action at the time. The Old House’s free Wi-Fi connection therefore proved extremely valuable in allowing me to pick up the emails and other messages which form such a part of 21st Century life. There are few other concessions to modernity at the pub, and certainly no food is available, apart from nuts and crisps, but landlord Nick, was quite happy for us to eat our sandwiches out in the small, tree-shaded garden at the side of the pub.

We left at around 2.20pm to walk to the next unspoilt rural idyll on our list; the Golding Hop, at Sheet Hill, just outside Plaxtol. Our route was mainly along quiet country lanes, but there was a stretch which led us through some orchards. The Golding Hop is another classic country pub. Not as old as the Old House, but nevertheless an isolated white-painted building, possibly dating from the early 19th Century, and set in its own secluded valley.

The front of the pub is a real sun-trap, and I have spent many a happy hour sitting out on the small terrace, over-looking the garden, enjoying a pint or three! On this occasion we walked over to the garden, on the other side of the lane, commenting on the sawn-up remains of a huge tree which, until recently, had stood guarding the entrance to the car park. Landlord, Eddie, told us it had come crashing down during last winter’s storms, but fortunately had caused little damage. There will certainly now be an ample stock of fire-wood  for the pub’s open fires in the coming winters!

Adnams Lighthouse was my beer of choice here served, like at the previous pub, on gravity from a room behind the bar. Other members of the group sampled the Whitstable Native, plus Wadworth 6X; the latter being a beer we don’t see that often in this part of Kent anymore.

Onwards and upwards, and definitely the latter, we ascended the lane leading up Sheet Hill (Steep Hill would be a more accurate name!), and into the picturesque village of Plaxtol. Passing the long-closed Rorty Crankle pub (an outpost for Bateman’s beers back in the 1980’s), we traversed the village before turning off in a south-easterly direction, across the fields, to our final port of call, the Kentish Rifleman in the hamlet of Dunk’s Green. This part of Kent is known as the Bourne Valley; named after the stream which flows through its midst, and was formerly a centre for paper-making, on a pre-industrial scale. One of these former hives of activity, Roughway, Mill is close by, and a pub in the centre of Plaxtol commemorates this industry in its name; the Papermaker’s Arms.

The Kentish Rifleman is another attractive old building, which has been well-restored following a disastrous fire back in 2007 which almost completely destroyed the roof, and caused extensive damage to the rest of the building. Apart from the photo’s hanging in the public bar, showing the fire at its height, you wouldn’t know that such a catastrophe had befallen the pub.

We sat out in the secluded garden behind the pub, but there were quite a few locals, and their dogs, sitting out at the front of the building watching the world go by (OK, there’s probably not a lot going by in such a quiet rural retreat, but being nearer to the bar, they seemed to like where they were sitting.) There was a good choice, beer-wise, with Tonbridge Rustic, Whitstable Native (again) and Tolly Cobbold English Ale complementing local favourite, Harvey’s Best. The Tolly English Ale appears to be a regular beer at the Rifleman, as I have drunk it here on several past occasions. For a 2.8% beer it certainly packs in plenty of flavour, and makes perfect sense as a “must stock” beer in such an isolated pub, where the car is often the only means of getting there, particularly in the evenings when the bus ceases running.

No problems for us with the bus, or there wouldn’t normally have been, but road repairs had meant a diversion from the normal route. We were well aware of this, as the driver had pointed it out on the outward journey. A short walk, back along the lanes took us to a point where we could pick up the last bus back to Tonbridge, and with 16 or so of us boarding the bus was much fuller than it normally is.

Our Maidstone colleagues left us in Tonbridge to catch a bus back to Maidstone, although a few joined some of us for a final pint in the Humphrey Bean, our local JDW outlet). I wimped out though, resisting the lure of the Thornbridge Jaipur, and sensibly opting for a large coffee instead. My clear head the following morning and general feeling of well-being told me I made the right decision!

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