Saturday, 21 March 2015

Staying Local

When it comes to beer appreciation, and beer hunting, it is often all too easy to miss what it on one’s own door step. Last Thursday evening my local CAMRA branch held a mini-pub crawl which included two of the pubs nearest to my house, so the lad and I decided to join them. We had a good turnout for a mid-week meeting, and almost achieved double figures. This was pretty good for our branch, and for a cold mid-March evening was better than expected.

Vauxhall Inn
We started off at the Vauxhall Inn, a large Chef & Brewer outlet which has seen mixed fortunes over the years but which, at the present time, seems to be on the up. When I first move to Tonbridge, 30 years ago, the Vauxhall was a small, but attractive old weather boarded pub owned, as so many were locally at the time, by our old friends Whitbread. Being situated on the old London to Hastings road it was formerly a coaching inn, and the old stable block, which was originally a separate building, was incorporated into the main part of the pub when it was massively expanded back in the early 1990’s. Today’s Vauxhall is three times the size of the original, but it remains an atmospheric pub with plenty of character, particularly in the original part of the building.
There was welcoming log fire burning when my son and I arrived, but the rest of the group were sitting in a separate area the other side of the main fireplace. Two cask ales were on sale; Harvey’s Sussex Best and Vaux, a “house beer” brewed by Tonbridge Brewery, our local success story. Now I am not a huge fan of “house beers” as not only do they seem gimmicky to me, but they also seem something of a vanity project on behalf of the pub. A couple of my CAMRA colleagues agreed, and one remarked that you know full well that the beer is just the brewery’s bog-standard bitter, re-badged.

I wasn’t that keen on the beer, although I am normally quite a fan of Tonbridge Brewery products. Perhaps it was a dodgy cask, as it had a slight woodiness to it; either that or it hadn’t been looked after properly. My companions though confirmed that the Harvey’s was drinking well, so I suspect the former. There were quite a few people in the old part of the pub, but I couldn’t see how busy the dining area was, as it is sited on a lower level, but a pub like the Vauxhall is always going to appeal to the solidly middle-class inhabitants who live locally. An added bonus for those visiting the area is the adjacent Premier Inn; a throw-back to the pub’s days under Whitbread, but as both establishments are conveniently sited just off the southern end of the A21, Tonbridge bypass it makes a good base for exploring this attractive part of the Garden of England.

Primrose Inn
We moved on, just after 9pm, walking just a short distance down the road to another old weather boarded pub, the Primrose Inn. The Primrose is another former Whitbread pub, but whilst it has been knocked around considerably inside, it has not been extended externally, unlike the neighbouring Vauxhall.  It was fairly quite when we walked in, with just a few people sitting at the bar, although there was a darts match going on. Pub darts matches seem quite a rarity these days, although I know they must still take place, because a couple of my work colleagues are regular players for their local pub.

We found an alcove in the corner, adjacent to where the darts was taking place, but far enough away from the game so as not to be affected by it.  Harvey’s was the sole beer on, but it was in good condition. It was cosy and pleasant in the pub, but today’s Primrose is totally different from the pub I remember from when I first came to Tonbridge. This was back in the early 1980’s, when I was working in the town but living in Maidstone. Back then the Primrose was a traditional two-bar local, and myself plus a couple of co-workers would visit once a week for a lunchtime drink. This was back in the days when a “three-pint lunch" was both acceptable and quite normal. These days though, it would have me falling asleep at my desk!

We just stayed for the one, but the landlord thanked us when we left, no doubt glad of eight additional drinkers boosting his Thursday night cask sales. We had toyed with the idea of heading next to another former haunt of mine, but thought better of it, for reasons I will explain shortly.

Our next and final port of call was the Punch & Judy;arguably Tonbridge’s best surviving traditional pub, but in order to reach it we had to pass two other pubs. The first was the New Drum, tucked away down a side street called Lavender Hill, and a pub which has seen various changes of ownership as well as several different names over the years. Converted from two adjacent 19th Century cottages, the pub was originally known as the Drum, but when I first came to Tonbridge it had been “modernised” (gutted), and re-named the Victoria Tavern.

The new name didn’t last long, but it was a far better one than what it was called next! Some time in the early 1980’s a couple called Tom and Margaret bought the pub, and re-named it “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Fortunately this rather silly name was soon shortened by the locals to either “The Cabin”, or sometimes just “Tom’s”. The couple expanded the range of beers and the pub became a very pleasant place to drink in; attracting a youngish and slightly Bohemian crowd who I fitted in well with. By this time I had moved to Tonbridge and had adopted the pub as my local. The Sunday lunchtime sessions were not to be missed, with a meat raffle as an added attraction, but mainly it was the company of like-minded people which attracted me to the place. Most Sundays it was not unusual for me to stagger out of the pub at around 4pm, and whilst this might not appear out of the ordinary, one has to remember this was before all day opening came into force, and the Sunday lunchtime session was restricted by law to just two hours from midday to 2pm.

New Drum
As well as afternoon “lock-ins”, the Cabin was notorious for staying open long after the normal evening closing of 11pm. Customers sitting in the window seats were asked to draw the curtains, the house lights were dimmed and the door placed on the latch. Customers departing after this time were told to shut the door quietly and leave without disturbing the neighbours. I imagine the local constabulary were in full knowledge of this but, as there was never any trouble or rowdy behaviour, turned a blind eye.

Tom and Margaret sold the business, some time in the late 1980’s. Neither was getting any younger and Margaret was rumoured to be getting a bit too fond of the bottle – an obvious occupational hazard for publicans. Another elderly couple, Richard and Joan, bought the place and things continued in much the same vein. I continued to drink there until late 1991, when the birth of our son considerably curtailed my pub-going activities.
I’ve probably dwelled too long on this pub already, but since the mid 90’s, the pub has had a succession of owners, along with a change of name back to one which reflects its original one. Having been extended back and almost doubled in size, the New Drum promotes itself as a “sports bar”. If you like sport of every description, but especially football, shoved in your face from large TV screens mounted in every corner, then this is the pub for you. If you like a load of blokes in football shirts, ‘ffing and blinding then this is also your sort of pub; but it is not mine, and neither is it the pub most of my friends and colleagues enjoy either. Had it been a quiet night we might have been tempted to call in and sample the solitary remaining cask beer – Harvey’s. However, we knew from the Primrose that a EUFA Championship match was taking place so we thought the presence of eight strangers bursting in whilst the game was in full play might not have gone down too well. 

We therefore walked past the junction of Lavender Hill and then past the next junction where the second of the two “pubs to avoid” is situated. Like the Vauxhall, the Primrose and also the Punch, the Somerhill is another former Whitbread pub, but today, unless you like karaoke, loud music or again Sky Sports in you face it is somewhere best avoided. I won’t elaborate on its past history as, unlike the New Drum, it’s a pub I have never frequented all that much. It did go through a spell during the mid 90’s as a pub specialising in cask ales, when it was known as the Hooden Horse, but a succession of dodgy landlords, and equally dodgy owners inevitably led to it attracting the wrong crowd, and whilst it is nowhere near as bad as it once was, it is still not the type of pub I feel comfortable in.

Punch & Judy
The same cannot be said of the last pub on our walkabout, the Punch & Judy. With four cask ales on tap, including local favourites Harvey’s and Tonbridge, a welcoming log-burner, and a choice of different seating areas, the Punch ticked all the right boxes. We had another reason for wanting to visit the pub, as the Punch is hosting a beer festival over the Easter weekend, and we wanted to express our support. 

The pub was quite quiet for a Thursday, which meant we were spoilt for choice of somewhere to sit. We opted for the raised area at the rear of the pub, but not before availing ourselves of some beer. I opted for the well-hopped Black Sheep Best, whilst others, including our Scottish branch chairman, went for the Edinburgh Ale; a malt-driven beer from the Scottish capital’s Caledonian Brewery.

We stayed in the Punch until the landlord called “time”. With no other customers in the pub, he was probably keen on an early night. Before we left though, he gave us a copy of the beer list for the pub’s Easter Beer Festival. There are some interesting beers on the list, including one of my favourites; O’Hanlon’s Port Stout. I do feel though that the Punch will struggle to sell Fraoch; the heather ale from William’s Bros., but we will see.

The night proved an opportunity to visit a handful of local pubs which I normally wouldn’t bother with. What is interesting is they are all former Whitbread pubs, which just shows the monopoly this former Big Brewer had in the area.  Of the three, the Vauxhall came out best as a place for a quiet drink, but for a pub with something for everyone, well  that honour goes to the Punch & Judy.


Martin, Cambridge said...

Good to read about lesser-celebrated pubs. I've walked from my in-laws in Southborough to the Vauxhall, a great pub walk, and its not bad for that chain. Punch & Judy did a good Courage, which was/is still a decent pint.

The small Hooden chain seemed to be quite successful for a while, with a good mix of custom.

Citra said...

I'm all for keeping it local as long as they up the beer stakes,I am no longer content to put up with the likes of Courage Best or anything else of similar composition.

Paul Bailey said...

I quite like the Vauxhall, Martin, but it is a bit pricy (£3.70 a pint!). My son and his friend have stopped drinking in there due to the high prices, preferring the walk into town for a drink in Spoons instead.

Not sure about the Courage Best; in fact I’d echo Citra’s comment and would rather go without. There must still be a market for beers like this, but I suspect it’s an aging one, so consequently I’m a bit surprised that Charles Wells spent money on acquiring the brand.