Saturday, 13 December 2014

No More "Disgusted - Tunbridge Wells". Pt.One

In my last post I put the blame for my, at times, hermit-like existence on the paucity of decent pubs in my home town of Tonbridge. As I described, there is little, pub-wise, to tempt me out in the evening, so most nights I am at home, stuck in front of the computer with just the odd bottle of beer (decent beer though!), to keep me company. I did say that if I lived in Tunbridge Wells, things would undoubtedly be different, and it is this noticeable difference that I want to explore in this article. With just over four miles separating the two towns, they might just as well be on separate worlds!

Summer evening crowds in Tunbridge Wells
Unlike its near neighbour and the town which it was named after, Tunbridge Wells has an abundance of excellent pubs and bars. Places which will delight the beer drinker and pub lover at every turn. If I lived in the town I certainly would be going out a lot more. I might end up poorer in pocket, but my pub-going and beer drinking experiences would be that much richer; certainly a lot more than they are now!

I’m not sure how this dichotomy came about, but for those readers who are unfamiliar with the town, it’s worth taking a look at Tunbridge Wells and its excellent drinking scene. Royal Tunbridge Wells, to give the town its official title, has a rather snooty, upmarket image; at least in popular folklore. However, the glory days of its late Victorian and Edwardian heyday have long faded, and whilst it remains a pleasant and thriving place, like many towns in the 21st Century, Tunbridge Wells is not without its share of problems. Being slowly choked to death by relentlessly increasing traffic is amongst the foremost of these, and unfortunately there is no easy or quick fix to the curse of the motor car, but leaving this aside let us examine what the town has to offer in the way of decent places to drink.

We’ll assume that the visitor is arriving in the town by train, as this is by far the most sensible, and obviously the only safe and lawful option for anyone intending to enjoy a few beers there. The town’s main station, and indeed now the only mainline option, is the former South Eastern station on Mount Pleasant. Originally known as Tunbridge Wells Central, in order to distinguish it from the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway’s West station, (now home to the Spa Valley Railway Heritage Line), this stop on the London to Hastings line is conveniently situated right in the town centre. The new arrival will therefore have choicer as to which direction to head off in.

I recommend turning left out of the station and ascending the steep and aptly named Mount Pleasant. At the top of the hill continue across the traffic lights in the same direction, until you come to a pedestrianised area known as Fiveways. This is opposite the town’s main shopping centre (Royal Victoria Place) and the pedestrianised precinct in front of it. From here head up via Mount Ephraim Road to the top of London Road, on the edge of the Common, from where you will be rewarded with a view over the town below. You will also have worked up a king-sized thirst, which can be slaked at the excellent and slightly off-beat Sankey's; virtually opposite the defunct former Kent & Sussex hospital, which is now the site of a major new housing development.

Although best known for its highly regarded fish restaurant, the upstairs section of  Sankey's (the one at street level), is actually a thriving and very popular pub. The Sankey family have been in the pub game a long time, and whilst Guy Sankey has now handed over the reins to his son Matthew, he still takes an active interest in the business. Back in the 1960’s, Guy’s father, Dick ran the historic and unspoilt George & Dragon at nearby Speldhurst; a fascinating old building which dates back to the 13th Century. Today, Matthew has expanded the seafood side of the business, with the establishment of a traditional fishmonger, close to the station, and the opening of a champagne and oyster bar in the historic Pantiles area of the town. (More about that later).

Interior Sankey's
To return to Sankey's, the pub boasts one of the best and most extensive collections of old original enamel advertising signs I know of. Several of these were rescued, by Guy, from the late lamented Hole in the Wall; a unique tobacconist-cum-gentleman’s smoking salon which boasted a separate bar hidden behind a curtain at the back of the shop. The pub sadly closed back in the 1980’s, but along with the metal signs, Guy also managed to retrieve a couple of magnificent cut-glass, pub mirrors. These feature downstairs in the restaurant. 

Sankey’s has always has a reputation for good beer, and was almost certainly the first pub in the area to stock a range of imported Belgian and German beers. It also serves cask beers from Goachers and Tonbridge breweries, plus craft keg from Brew Dog, along with various fruit and other speciality beers from Belgium. With open fires in winter, and a south-facing terraced beer garden in summer, Sankey's is deservedly popular amongst discerning drinkers in the town.

Beer selection at Fuggles
Sankey’s is the farthest point north on our crawl, so the visitor now needs to partially re-trace his or her steps and head toward Grosvenor Road. A short cut via Mount Ephraim and Hanover Roads leads in the right direction, towards Fuggles Beer Café, the next stop on the tour. Despite only being open just over a year, Fuggles has quickly established a reputation for offering one of the finest selections of beer in town. Decorated in a minimalist style, with exposed ductwork and RSJ’s in the ceiling, this former shop has up to six cask ales on sale, plus around a dozen craft-keg beers. Tonbridge Copper Nob appears to be the regular “house cask”, with Cristal Pilsner the "house lager". Regular craft offerings include beers from the likes of Beavertown, Burning Sky and Kernel together with a smattering of Belgian beers. At the time of writing Larkins Porter takes pride of place amongst the cask ales. As if the draught beers were not enough, Fuggles boasts around 75 different bottled beers in its fridges, and a draught cider, which varies from time to time, is also available.

Tasting Rack at Fuggles
The discerning spirit drinker is not forgotten either with a range of around 15 gins and 20 whiskies and bourbons; all chosen for their taste, quality and provenance. The food offerings centre around items such as pork pies, scotch eggs, various cured meats (Charcuterie), plus a small, but unrivalled selection of British and Irish cheeses. A selection of sandwiches, supplied fresh daily from Kett’s Kitchen are also available, as are various combinations of cheese, pork products and cured meats. Speaking of combinations, Fuggles offers tasting racks consisting of 3 x 1/3 pt tasters. Owner/manager Alex Greig and his team deserve to be congratulated for opening one of the best beer outlets around, and their boast that “We work with some of the best breweries and brewers our mighty fine Island has to offer along with some of the best Belgian beers we can get our hands on!” is no idle one. Fuggles Beer Café therefore is a definite “must visit” on any beer lover’s list.
JDW's Opera House Tunbridge Wells
Turn left out of Fuggles and head back down towards the station. On your left, before you reach the 1930’s art deco Town Hall, you will hardly fail to notice the ornate exterior of the former Tunbridge Wells Opera House. Now a JDW outlet, still called by its former name, the Opera House is well worth stepping inside for a closer look. Carefully restored to bring out its best and most interesting features, the drinker is given the choice of two bars; one facing the stage and the other, actually on the boards themselves. Standing here and looking back and up at the ornate circle and dress-circle, with their ornate and rather opulent fittings; it is easy to be transported back to the Opera House’s Edwardian heyday, when the stars of the day would perform in front of a packed house. Definitely worth a look in; even if you are not a Wetherspoons fan!
Interior - Opera House

After leaving the Opera House, continue back down Mount Pleasant and past the station towards the High Street and the lower and most historic part of the town. We will break here for the time being, and continue this tour at a later date. 
Footnote: Royal Tunbridge Wells (often shortened to Tunbridge Wells) is a large town in the west of Kent, about 40 miles (64 km) south-east of central London by road, 34.5 miles (55.5 km) by rail. The town is close to the border of the county of East Sussex. It is situated at the northern edge of the High Weald, the sandstone geology of which is exemplified by the rock formations at the Wellington Rocks and High Rocks.

The town came into being as a spa in the Restoration period and had its heyday as a tourist resort under Beau Nash when the Pantiles and its chalybeate spring attracted visitors who wished to take the waters. The town has a population of around 56,500 and is the administrative centre of Tunbridge Wells Borough.

In the United Kingdom Royal Tunbridge Wells has a reputation as being the archetypal conservative "Middle England" town, a stereotype that is typified by the fictional letter-writer "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells". Source- Wikipedia.


Stonch said...

My pub the Finborough Arms in London has a large collection of enamel signs on the walls - I acquired them in a (very expensive and time consuming) period of a month earlier this year. But I can't compete with the Maltings in York!

Paul Bailey said...

Jeff, I imagine original enamel signs don't come cheap, given their rarity value.

I must call in at the Finborough and see them, (and say, Hello), next time I'm in London.

Curmudgeon said...

When I visited Tunbridge Wells in 2002 I remember going in the Rose & Crown which was a very nice little "proper local" in the heart of town.

Paul Bailey said...

Curmudgeon, the Rose & Crown is sadly not the pub it used to be, and hasn’t been for a number of years. A decade or so ago, our local CAMRA branch held several AGMs there, as the pub had an upstairs meeting room, (something of a rarity these days!). Yes it was a “proper local, in the heart of the town”, but alas no more.

I haven’t visited the Rose & Crown in years, but a work colleague still drinks in there occasionally. She thinks it may be living on borrowed time; a situation not helped by a road closure, a couple of years ago, caused by a blocked sewer. The pub lost a lot of trade due to this, and has struggled to recover.

It’s a former Whitbread pub, so not sure whether it’s Punch or Enterprise who are the owners now.

Anonymous said...

Still waiting for Pt. 2?

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