Sunday, 5 October 2014

Down to Margate

Margate seafront
“Down to Margate”, sang Chas n’ Dave in the classic Only Fools and Horses special, “The Jolly Boys Outing”. I was reminded of this song on Friday, when a group of us travelled to the Kent seaside town to enjoy the last of the summer sunshine and to take in a few of the micro-pubs which have sprung up in the Thanet area over the past few years.
The person behind the trip was a friend and fellow CAMRA member who was celebrating a significant birthday. He has requested that I don’t mention him by name, so I’ll refrain from doing so, but the trip involved a group of 15 friends and acquaintances travelling by train to Ramsgate, where we were met by Sean, our driver from Galvers Micropub Tours, and his comfortable 15 seater mini-bus. Sean then transported us around Thanet on a tour taking in six micro-pubs and one brewery – Gadds.

Although I grew up in East Kent, I have spent the majority of my adult life living in the west of the county. Consequently the far-flung Isle of  Thanet is a part of Kent I have only visited infrequently as, even as a child, this was an area my parents rarely took my sister and I to, preferring instead the beaches of Greatstone, Littlestone and St Mary’s Bay which border Romney Marsh.

The majority of the Thanet coast is built-up; with the best known towns, such as Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate gradually merging into one another. Further inland are villages, such as Minster and St Peters, but the whole island is quite compact and it is quite easy to travel around it in a day. During Roman times Thanet was separated from the rest of Kent by the Wantsum Channel, which was up to 2,000 feet wide in places. However, over the centuries, the channel gradually silted up, and by the mid-18th Century, Thanet was no longer an island.

The Hovelling Boat,  Ramsgate
Well that’s enough geography and history for now, and without further ado on with the narrative. It was a glorious sunny day when we arrived in Ramsgate, and our mini-bus took us down towards the seafront and past the harbour, before stopping in a narrow lane. Sandwiched in between two shops is the Hovelling Boat, the first micro-pub on our tour. Its L-shaped interior was bright and breezy, with a room towards the rear where the beer was racked, and a door leading to a small beer garden right at the back. The bare brick walls were decorated with various bits of brewery memorabilia, including several items from Tomson & Wotton; a former Ramsgate brewery taken over in the 1960’s and closed, like many others, by Whitbread.

There were three beers on draught, plus a couple of draught ciders. I went for the Wolf Edith Cavell, a pleasant 3.7% pale ale, followed by Eclipse Porter, a 4.2% brew from Blindman’s Brewery, who are based in Somerset. Both were served in excellent condition, and were nice and cool.

It was then back into the mini-bus and off to our next stop; the shop belonging to the Ramsgate Brewery. The Ramsgate Brewery is situated on an industrial estate outside the town. It is often referred to as Gadd’s, after its founder, owner and head brewer, Eddie Gadd. Eddie was a former Firkin Brewer, who set up on his own after the closure and sale of the Firkin chain. He acquired the rights to the name Dogbolter; the company’s best known and most iconic beer. Dogbolter Porter is brewed all year round, but I have only ever come across it in cask form, at beer festivals. I bought a bottle from the shop, as none was available on draught there either, but there was quite a range of beers on tap, including Gadds’ No 3 and No 5, Seasider, Green Hop Ale and Rye Pale Ale. I opted for the latter; a 4.0% pale ale brewed from malted Rye and Kentish Bramling Cross hops. It was so good I was tempted to have another, but I wanted to pace myself as there were still a further five pubs to go, so I resisted. By way of compensation I bought a Green Hop T-shirt, plus a bottle of the 12% Imperial Russian Stout – that one’s being saved for Christmas!

From Gadds we headed north across the island towards Margate; the original English seaside town. Several years ago Margate was very much down on its luck, but following the opening of the much-criticised Turner Contemporary Gallery, on the seafront and the injection of cash from a variety of sources, the town seems to be recovering some of its former pride and spirit. As we drove along the seafront, towards the harbour, there were lots of people sitting at tables outside the various pubs, soaking up the autumn sun.

Tomson & Wotton panel
Our destination, the Harbour Arms, is situated  in a blockhouse along the harbour wall, and faces back across the beach, towards the town. It is a tiny little place and was quite full. We decided to take advantage of the good weather and sat at one of the outside tables. It was here that I was specifically reminded of Chas n’ Dave’s song, as there was scene in the Jolly Boys’ Outing where the Trotters walk along the harbour wall and bump into Trigger, with an inflatable plastic dolphin tucked under his arm. As if on cue, a couple of blokes, dressed exactly like Chas n’ Dave, came out of the wine bar, a little further along the wall and, guess what, one was carrying an inflatable dolphin! You just couldn’t have made it up, but we later discovered the real Chas n’ Dave were playing a gig that evening, at Margate’s Winter Gardens.

Pig & Porter, Strangely Brown Green-Hop Porter 4.4% was my choice of beer at the Harbour Arms, but there were a couple of other ales on as well. Some of the party were tempted by a slice of Homitty Pie; an old English dish consisting of a pie filled with boiled potatoes, bound together by a mixture of egg and cheese.

Interior of the Yard of Ale, St Peter's
Leaving Margate we headed inland towards the village of St Peter’s, home of the Yard of Ale; the third micro-pub on our tour, and the newest one in Thanet. Housed in a converted stables in the yard of Nobles Funeral Directors (hence the name), the pub opened for business back in April. There are two partners involved in the running of the pub; one of whom is the person behind Galvers Micropub Tours.

Without doubt this was the most atmospheric pub on the tour, with the original brick floor and the flint-built walls all left exposed. The beers were kept in, and dispensed from a chilled cabinet at the far end of the pub, which ensured they were served in tip-top condition. Keeping the beers in a chilled area, and serving them by gravity, seemed a common feature in all the micro-pubs we visited. With no beer lines to clean, and no wastage, it makes perfect sense. I enjoyed both the Gadds Green Hop 4.8% and the Dark Star Hylder Blonde 4.2%, in this gem of a pub before moving on to our next port of call.

The Four Candles, at the other end of St Peter’s looks like a pub with its prominent corner position, but I understand the premises used to be a grocer’s shop. It is named, of course, after the famous Two Ronnie’s sketch, and a poster in the pub explains the local connection between Ronnie Corbett’s nearby holiday home and a local ironmonger’s shop which Ronnie Barker used as the basis for the comedy sketch.

Four Candles, St Peter's
With the early Friday evening crowd of regulars in attendance, it was quite crowded inside the pub, so several of our party slipped outside to enjoy their beer. I went for the Maben, a flavoursome, 4.3% amber-coloured bitter from the Derventio Brewery in Derbyshire (a new one on me!). Plans are underway to construct a one-barrel micro-brewery in the pub’s cellar, so watch this space!

We headed back into Margate for the penultimate pub. I imagine the zigzagging here and there was due to the opening times of the various pubs, but as I wasn’t in charge I was quite happy just to go with the flow. Ales of the Unexpected was my least favourite pub on the tour. Situated on the busy main road out of town, this converted shop seemed incomplete. It was almost like a pub of two halves, with a dimly-lit and distinctly gloomy front section, and a room at the rear with a bar area. Beers were again dispensed by gravity from a separate room, but the choice of Otter Bitter and Morlands Old Nutty Hen seemed rather strange. Still, as one member of our party pointed out, if these are the sorts of beers the locals like to drink, who are we to complain?

The aptly named Hare of the Dog was the last pub of the day. Situated in the village of Minster, this recently-converted, former hair salon has a bright and airy feel to it, plus a friendly welcome from the proprietors. Beers and ciders are served on gravity dispense from a cooled room accessed via a door behind the small bar counter.

Beer & cider menu, Hare of the Dog, Minster
The added bonus, so far as most of us were concerned, was the pub allows customers to eat a fish and chip supper in the pub. The fish fryer across the road certainly served up some excellent cod and chips, and we all enjoyed washing our food down with a pint or two of the pub’s equally excellent beer. I went for the 4.5% Canterbury Green Hop “Seriously Saison” and followed it with a glass of Mad Cat Brewery EKG Rye PA 4.0%. This was a good beer to end what had been a most enjoyable day’s sampling.

Once we had managed to marshal everyone out of the pub, our driver transported us back to Ramsgate station, from where we caught the train back to West Kent. It had been an excellent day out, made all the more enjoyable by good organisation, some real little pub gems, the splendid weather, good company and plenty of equally good beer.


Martin, Cambridge said...

Interesting read Paul. I visit Thanet quite regularly (my son goes to a skate park) in St Peters and am a great fan of the seaside towns, particularly Ramsgate.

My only regret is that the explosion of micro pubs seems to have pushed a few excellent traditional pubs out of the Beer Guide. It's possible beer quality has dropped, but the Great Tree, for example, has had some fabulous Gadds.

What did you think of beer quality in those micros ?

Paul Bailey said...

Martin, the beer quality was generally very good in the micro's we visited. I think keeping the beer in a temperature-controlled area, and serving it straight from the cask, both help, as does not stocking too many beers at one time. Practically all the beers I sampled were well-conditioned, nice and cool, and a pleasure to drink.

Sensible pricing,(most of the pubs were charging £3 a pint), helps with turnover, and this is possible given the low overheads associated with this type of operation.

I'm not sure about the Good Beer Guide thing, as I stopped buying the guide several years ago. If, as you suggest,"the explosion of micro pubs seems to have pushed a few excellent traditional pubs out of the Beer Guide", then this only serves to illustrate the flawed publication that the GBG has become. To me, it appears branch politics, and individual preferences may be playing a greater part in the selection process than they should.

Unknown said...

Hi. This is Shawn from Galvers Micropub Tours. Just seen this blog which made some interesting reading. Overall I'm glad you all had a great day. Thanks for taking the time to write such a comprehensive review of the trip.
Hope to see you all again soon.

Paul Bailey said...

Glad you enjoyed the write-up Shawn.

As you probably gathered, we all thoroughly enjoyed our day out in Thanet. Thanks again for putting together such an interesting itinerary, and for looking after us so well.

We must definitely do it again!