Tuesday 28 April 2015

A Norfolk Village

All Saints Church, Swanton Morley
Swanton Morley is a large village, situated in the heart of Norfolk. It is 18 miles from Norwich and is located centrally between the market towns of Dereham, Swaffham and Fakenham, with Dereham being the closest at three miles away. Its origins go back to Anglo-Saxon times; "Swanton" being derived from the Old English for “herdsman's enclosure”, whilst the "Morley" part of the village name, refers to Robert de Morli, who held the lordship of the manor in 1346.

My interest in the village dates back to the early 90’s, when my parents moved there from Kent, following my father’s retirement from the Royal Mail. I obviously made regular visits to this Norfolk village, following their relocation there, but over the course of the past four months these visits intensified as my mother’s health deteriorated. Sadly she passed away at the end of February, but I have been back up to Norfolk several times since then to visit dad and check up on how he is coping with living on his own.

The most recent visit was last weekend, and I am pleased to report he is looking better than I have seen him for a long time; this I despite the Alzheimer’s which is starting to play havoc with his short term memory. What I want to write here though is a piece about Swanton Morley’s two pubs, particularly as I was able to visit them both on my most recent trip. This is something I have not done for a long time, so it was good to renew my acquaintance with them both.

Swanton Morley is a classic example of a liner village; that is it is long on drawn out. At one end is 14th-century All Saints Parish Church, a large “wool church”, typical of many in East Anglia, built as a statement to demonstrate the wealth of the area, which was derived from the wool trade. Just down the hill from the church is Darby’s, a pub which was originally a pair of 18th century farm cottages, before being converted into a pub in 1988. It is named after Ann Darby, the last person to farm from the site.. At the other end of the village is the close, where my parents’ bungalow is situated, and it is at this end that the 17th Century Angel Inn can be found.

Darby's Freehouse, Swanton Morley
Because of its proximity to my parents, I have spent more time in the Angel than I have in Darby’s, but I can safely say I like both pubs. On this recent visit I stopped off at Darby’s first, prior to visiting dad as I wanted to grab something to eat, after my journey up. (Dad has carers who pop in three times a day to make sure he is up and dressed, and to take care of his meals. As my arrival coincided with lunchtime, I decided it would be best to let him enjoy his midday meal uninterrupted; hence my decision to eat out).

Darby's is a typical Norfolk building, and the pub retains many features of the original farmhouse, such as exposed brick walls and an inglenook fireplace. There are tractor seats for barstools, farming memorabilia and plenty of stripped-pine tables and chairs which help create a real rustic feel. I arrived at around half twelve, before the pub started to get really busy. I grabbed a table close to the door, but not before I’d perused the range of beers on offer and ordered myself a pint.

Inside Darby's
My attention was drawn to Lacon’s Legacy; a beer from a brewery which I had read quite a bit about, but had not had the chance to sample before. Lacon’s Brewery was situated in Great Yarmouth and was established in 1760. By all accounts the brewery was pretty successful, but in 1957 the directors made the fatal mistake of selling 20% of the company to Whitbread (them again!). Eight years later, Whitbread bought Lacon’s outright, for £3.2 million and in 1968 shut the brewery down. And there the story might have ended had it not been for the determination of a few individuals and a member of the original Lacon’s family.

Back in 2009, after being intrigued by the presence of Lacon’s emblems on a variety of buildings dotted around the Yarmouth area, Mick Carver, managing director of Lowestoft-based drinks distributor JV Trading, started work to secure the rights to the Lacon’s name and associated intellectual property. After negotiations with Whitbread’s successors, AB InBev, he succeeded in this aim, and was also able to obtain the brewery's original yeast strains which had been stored at the National Collection of Yeast Cultures in Norwich,  for nearly half a century.

A modern brewery was set up, nestled within a historic courtyard. It was named the new Falcon Brewery, after Lacon’s iconic falcon emblem. Acclaimed head brewer Wil Wood was recruited and worked alongside William Lacon, son of the last Lacon family member to work at the brewery, in order to create an exciting range of handcrafted ales using the original Lacon’s yeast. 

The brewery was relaunched at the Norwich City of Ale Festival and Great Yarmouth Beer and Cider Festival in May 2013. Three new permanent beers were launched: Encore, Legacy and Affinity, and the company plans to extend the beer range to include some original Lacon’s recipes. My pint of Legacy was excellent, and one of the best beers I have had for a long time.

Lunch, but not a "Proper Pie"
I had of course, stopped off at Darby’s for lunch, so I ordered myself a beef and ale pie, served with mash potato and seasonal vegetables. The meat was nice and tender and the whole thing most enjoyable, even though it wasn’t a proper, pastry-encased pie.

I decided on further beer before leaving. My eye had been drawn earlier to Old Codger, a 4.0% beer from Tom Wood. I asked for sample, but as it wasn’t the dark, old ale I was anticipating, I opted instead for a half of Afternoon Delight, from local Norfolk brewer, Beeston. It was enjoyable, but not as much as the Lacon’s. Like many pubs in the locality, Darby’s dispenses its cask ales by gravity, from a temperature-controlled room behind the bar. The pump-clips adorning the non-operational hand-pumps are merely there to inform the customer as to what beers are on offer.
Angel Inn, Swanton Morley
As mentioned earlier, I am a lot more familiar with Swanton Morley’s other pub, the Angel. This pub is an attractive timber-framed building which was built in the 1610 by one Richard Lincoln, an ancestor of former US President, Abraham Lincoln. It was later refaced with brick in the 19th century. 

The present owners are long-standing CAMRA members, and as well as offering a range of well-kept cask ales, the pub hosts a beer festival each year at Easter. Inside, there is a large  and spacious main bar, complete with real fire, a dining room serving food lunchtimes and evenings (not Sun eve), plus a small games room with pool and darts. The extensive garden includes a bowling green, and the pub is home to a thriving bowls club.
Angel Inn
I would describe the Angel as much more of a locals’ pub than Darby’s is. The latter seems to attract more passing trade, as well as service personnel from the nearby Robertson Barracks. Despite this I have always received a friendly welcome from the landlord and the regulars in the Angel and this, combined with its proximity to dad’s bungalow, prompted my sister and I to walk dad down there for Sunday lunch.

There was no roast available, but I did have a pretty reasonable burger and chips. Dad’s ham, egg and chips looked especially good, as did my sister’s tuna and salad baguette. To drink, I enjoyed a couple of well-kept pints of local Norfolk favourite; Woodforde’s Wherry. Hop Back Summer Lightning was also available, and I understand from the pub’s website, that this is a regular beer at the Angel. Much as I like it, Summer Lightning is not a lunchtime pint, so I purposely avoided it; especially in view of the drive back to Kent later that evening.

This visit to the Angel rounded off my mini-tour of Swanton Morley’s pubs, but before ending, it is worth recording that until quite recent times, the village boasted a third pub. The Papermakers was a quite small pub, over-looking the village green; almost in the shadow of the church. I did venture in once, not long after my parents moved to the village, but if the Angel could be described as a locals pub, then the Papermakers was doubly so.
The now closed Papermakers Arms

I don’t recall that much about it, but I did manage to find a photo of it, on the Norfolk Pubs website. I am not sure when exactly the Papermakers closed, but given the state of the pub trade today, I would imagine that this third pub was just one too many for a village, even of the size of Swanton Morley. If I lived in the village, I would be quite happy to drink in both the Angel and Darby’s; after all, not everywhere has such a choice!

Thursday 23 April 2015

Farewell to The Wharf

The Wharf, Tonbridge

This coming Bank Holiday weekend, a popular and well-known Tonbridge pub will be calling “last orders” for the final time. The Wharf, in Lyons Crescent has been sold to developers and will be converted into yet more riverside flats.

One of the few old original buildings left along this stretch of the River Medway, The Wharf served as a reminder of Tonbridge’s industrial past; a time when the Medway was bustling with river-borne trade, playing an important role in the growth and development of the town.

For those not familiar with the town, Tonbridge grew up at an important crossing over the River Medway; the importance of which can be gauged by the impressive 12th Century castle constructed to guard this strategic point. Back in the times when roads were poor and largely un-surfaced, movement of heavy goods was slow and tedious. Transporting these items by means of the river was the obvious alternative, but the Medway itself first needed improvement to make it suitable for river traffic.  In 1740 an Act of Parliament set up the Medway Navigation Company with the aim of making the Medway navigable from Maidstone to Forest Row in Sussex (although the improvement works never progressed beyond Tonbridge), and from 1740 to 1911 the Company managed the movement of trade and goods down the river to Maidstone.

Once the river was navigable, the economy of Tonbridge improved dramatically stimulated by trade up and down the river. The main goods brought upstream were coal, lime and stone whilst downstream, the main freight was timber, hops and other farm produce from the Weald. The Medway Navigation Company’s operations had a big impact on the town, and were centred around the Medway wharf which ran for over a hundred yards downstream from Big Bridge on the south side of the river, but our interest lies in a warehouse on the opposite bank.

The arrival in 1842 of the South Eastern Railway in Tonbridge, led to a steady decline in waterborne trade, and in 1911 the Medway Navigation Company was wound up. The old warehouse buildings which fronted the river were either converted for alternative use, or were pulled down, but Lyons Warehouse, on the north bank of the Medway survived, and in 1981 the building was converted by Messrs Whitbread & Co into a Beefeater Restaurant.

The Wharf's attractive riverside setting
It was a fascinating old building; solidly built and extending over several floors, and was a nice place for a reasonably priced meal. A decade or so later, Whitbread converted the restaurant into one of their Hogshead Alehouses, and for the next ten years the pub offered by far and away the best range of beers in Tonbridge. Whilst some of the beers were kept downstairs in the cellar, and pulled up by hand-pump, many were dispensed from casks kept in a temperature-controlled rack behind the bar. Like other outlets in the Hogshead chain, Lyons Wharf held regular beer festivals, bringing even more variety to local drinkers.

With the approach of the new century, Whitbread slowly lost interest in the chain, and then in brewing altogether; selling off its brewing division to concentrate on running Premier Inns and Pizza Hut. The Lyons Wharf pub also lost its way, and the arrival of Wetherspoon’s in 1998, sealed the fate of the pub as a real ale venue in Tonbridge.

The Wharf, as the pub became known, struggled on in a variety of guises, hosting live bands, recorded music sessions, as well as providing meeting rooms for various local clubs and societies. In recent years it started offering a selection of reasonably-priced lunchtime meals, and also made several attempts at bringing back a limited range of cask beers. Its clientele though was mainly made up of younger people, with its late night weekend license proving a popular attraction.
Luxury flats, spreading like a plague along the river
All to no avail, as a report in the local newspaper confirms that The Wharf will pull its last pint on Sunday, May 3, before being converted into yet another block of flats. Local people are not happy at the loss of this popular riverside pub and music venue, and have accused the local council of turning its back on the river and lacking the vision necessary to make something of this attractive feature of the town.

Flats and luxury apartments are springing up all over Tonbridge; nowhere more so than along the river. However, without pubs, bars and cafés for people to spend their leisure time in, the town is in danger of becoming little more than a dormitory for commuters and other out of town workers.

I won’t be going along to the wake next Sunday, as not having used The Wharf in years; I would feel somewhat of a hypocrite. I am sure though that here will be many people present on the 3rd May, deeply disappointed they have lost their favourite watering hole just so one more property developer can line his pockets and our "couldn’t-care-less" local council can look forward to collecting yet more Council Tax!

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Bluebell Walk to Capel

Start of the walk, at Somerhill House

Every year round about the end of April and the beginning of May, the local woods are enhanced by a deep blue carpet of bluebells. These woodland perennials take advantage of the gap between the trees starting to come into bud, and the time when they carry a full canopy of leaves, in order to flower and show their blue finery in all its glory. What better time then to be out for a stroll in the local woods for a close-up view of this annual display of nature at its best? And when there’s a pub involved, at some stage of the proceedings, then there are few things finer than being out in the gorgeous Kent countryside.

With a walk which takes in one of the best display of bluebells to be seen locally, and which includes a stopover in one of the best country pubs in this part of the world, then what’s not to like? I received an email last week, from my friend Don, inviting me to join him, plus a couple of other mutual friends, on a walk to the Dovecote Inn at Capel. This is a pub slightly off the beaten track which is not that easy to reach by public transport. Seeing as it is renowned for serving an interesting range of gravity-served beer, it is a pub I would not want to drive to, as the thought of sitting there in the midst of all this good beer, nursing a single, low-gravity pint, followed by some unappetising soft-drinks, is not one which appeals to me. The fact that the Dovecote is easily reached by foot, from Tonbridge is therefore a bonus, made all the better by a route which takes us through some stunning bluebell carpeted woods.

I actually think this natural display will peak next weekend or even the one after, rather than this one, but there is a CAMRA branch outing to the Chequers at Laddingford, which is holding a cheese and real ale festival, in a week’s time, so it had to be this weekend or not at all. Regrettably I shall be missing next weekend’s outing, as I am Norfolk-bound, so in a way it was doubly good to be going out on this bright, but slightly chilly Sunday.

The four of us met up outside the Vauxhall Inn, a large Chef & Brewer establishment on the edge of Tonbridge. Unfortunately the bright sunshine of the day before had been replaced by cloud which, according to the weatherman, had rolled in from the North Sea. It did break from time to time, but there was a cold north-easterly wind blowing, which cooled things down a bit, even when the sun did come out. Our well-trodden route and familiar route took us up through the grounds of the imposing Somerhill House; the former home of the d’Avigdor Goldsmid family, which now houses a number of upmarket, independent, fee-paying schools.

Passing along the stonewall-lined sunken lane, designed to allow estate workers to pass by out of sight of the house, we walked through an area of undulating woodland, before coming out into open farmland. A couple of fields of oil-seed rape, which had just come into flower, greeted us; a poor substitute for the former orchard and the avenue of alder trees which used to stand here. Eventually we reached and crossed the busy B2017 Five Oak Green Road before heading off in a southerly direction into woodland where we knew there should be bluebells aplenty.

Dovecote Inn, Capel
My predictions, alas, proved only too right, although to be fair my companions had also reached the same conclusion regarding us being a week or two too early to witness this spring spectacle . Nevertheless there were odd patches of these distinctive harbingers of late spring, even though the rich carpet of bluebells these woods are renowned for was still largely a mat of bright green leaves. We climbed steadily, passing through some coppiced areas, as these woods are very much managed in the traditional way. We even passed a logging encampment, empty and silent for the weekend break, but no doubt ready to start up again on Monday morning.

Our route through these woods was not the most direct towards Capel, and eventually we changed direction and headed off towards our goal in a north-easterly direction. By this time we had left the woods behind us, and after passing along a narrow country lane, we passed through orchards, descending steadily as we neared our lunchtime watering hole.

Gravity dispense at Dovecote
As mentioned earlier, the cask beer at the Dovecote is served by gravity, and it was here that award-winning local landlord, Richard Allen first developed the system whereby the casks are kept in a temperature-controlled room immediately behind the bar. Extra-long cask taps protrude through the dividing wall, and out through false barrel ends, made out of wood, set into the wall. The result, beer kept at just the right temperature, and served in the most natural way possible – straight from the cask.

Almost a decade ago, Richard moved on to greater things, taking over the equally isolated Halfway House, between the villages of Brenchley and Horsmonden. After completely gutting this former Whitbread pub and carrying out extensive internal alterations, Richard installed the same temperature-controlled, gravity-dispense system at his new pub, but on a much larger scale.
I digress, and returning to the Dovecote, there has also been a recent change of licensee here as well, following the departure of long-serving licensees, Nick and Shelley. The new owners haven’t changed much, sticking with the same award-winning formula. Harvey’s Best and Gales HSB are the regular beers, supplemented by up to three guest ales. On Sunday, these were Caledonian Fool Proof, Mad Cat Pow Wow and a particular favourite beers of mine; Old Dairy Blue Top. Kevin, who was walking with us though, was most disappointed that his favourite beer, HSB was unexpectedly unavailable.  
Three thirsty walkers

The pub was packed, so we sat outside on the semi-covered terrace to the rear of the pub. All four of us started with the Mad Cat beer, which was quite pale in colour and bittered with hops which had an obvious American origin; being citrus-like and quite fruity in flavour. Later most of us moved on to the Old Dairy Blue Top; a 4.8% IPA, if my memory serves me well.

We had planned on a bite to eat at the Dovecote, but as mentioned above the pub was bursting at the seams with two large parties of diners to cater for. It appears that pre-booking is essential for Sunday lunchtime, which kind of spoils the spontaneity, but given the size of the pub is probably inevitable.

We decided to stay for one more, before making tracks for home by means of a more direct route. We passed through the churchyard of the delightful Capel Church, before crossing arable land, and eventually reaching the Five Oak Green Road again. As the path took us right along the side of the George & Dragon, which lies on the B2017 between Five Oak Green and Tudeley, it seemed rude not to pop in for a look.

It’s been quite a few years since I last set foot inside this attractive, white-painted, weather-boarded pub, but I was pleased to discover that not much had changed. We made our way to the saloon bar, which is larger than the public, and was less busy. The George is really an atmospheric old building, complete with low ceilings, massive old beams and an impressive inglenook fireplace. We sat down by the window, glad to take the weight off our feet for a second time that day, but not before ordering a beer each.

George & Dragon, Tudeley
With the choice restricted to Greene King Abbot, or Fuller’s London Pride, the latter was the selection of all four of us. It was well-kept, but not overly special. Still it was nice to sit there observing the goings on in the bar against the backdrop of the view of the fields from the window. The pub has only recently changed hands, so it was good to see it nice and busy. As an added treat, there were hot roast potatoes in dishes on the bar, and these were most welcome seeing as we’d had little else to eat apart from the odd packet of crisps or nuts. Kevin seemed particularly ravenous, perhaps making up for his disappointment at the lack of HSB at the Dovecote. His somewhat over zealous consumption was noticed, however!

Our walk back to Tonbridge took us through the grounds of another church (Tudeley), before walking through a farm with an impressive, and newly built equestrian centre. Eventually we rejoined our outward route and ascended back up towards the grounds of Somerhill House.

Homeward bound
This last leg seemed to take a lot longer than anticipated; probably because we were all a little weary, footsore and stiff. Despite this, and the lack of wall-to-wall bluebells, the walk out and back to these two not often frequented pubs was one of the best I have done for a long time; helped no doubt by the fine weather, the impressive scenery and the companionship of my three fellow walkers.

Saturday 18 April 2015

Something for the Weekend, Sir?*

I picked up these three beauties in Sainsbury’s this morning. They were on offer at three bottles for £5. Thought I’d post the photos as I really like the retro-style labels.

However, it's not just the labels which hark back to earlier times; Pilsner Urquell itself has changed little since its inception back in 1842, despite the brand now being owned by brewing giant SAB Miller. The brewery makes considerable play of its tradition, and the heritage which goes with the place where the world’s first golden lager was created. Even though some stages of the brewing process have been brought up to date; most notably the switch from fermentation in open oak vats and maturation in pitch-lined casks to modern stainless-steel conical fermenters, there are still other areas where tradition lingers.

For example, a time-consuming, and some would argue unnecessary, triple decoction mash is used to extract the sugars from the malt, with the company claiming they are the only large-scale brewery still to do so. In addition, Pilsner Urquell’s new brew-house, which opened in 2005, is fitted with copper mash and lauter tuns, although in a concession to modernity the wort kettles are constructed out of stainless steel.

Interestingly, a number of the old oak vats, together with some pitch-lined casks have been kept in use, partly to show visitors how things used to be done, but also to allow taste-matching to be conducted with brews fermented and matured in the new, hi-tech, stainless steel tanks. This is important to ensure the character of the beer remains un-changed, despite the switch to more modern methods of production,

The proof of this care and dedication to tradition can be found in the finished product, as Pilsner Urquell remains one of the world’s finest beers, and a definite classic in its own right. If you don’t know this already, then get yourselves down to Sainsbury’s and grab a few bottles. Better still, look for a pub selling unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell, dispensed direct from stainless steel tanks, (there are several in London). See website for details.

To read a report of the visit I made to the Pilsner Urquell Brewery, back in 2012, click on my other blog here.

*Post more of a "Tweet" when first written, but modified and added to on  24th April 2015.

Thursday 16 April 2015

A Phoenix from the Ashes

Bishop Nick - Ridley's successor
 In my recent article about the former Essex family brewers, TD Ridley & Sons, I hinted that the 2005 closure of the brewery wasn’t quite the end of the story. Like many family sagas things have gone full-circle and I am pleased to report that two members of the Ridley family are once again involved with both brewing and pub running.

To re-cap what I said at the end of the article, although Greene King were ultimately responsible for the closure of the Hartford End Brewery, they were not the real villains of the piece. The uncomfortable fact is the Ridley family themselves approached Greene King with regard to them taking over the business.

Nicholas Ridley, chairman of Ridley's, said at the time: "After many years of running the company as a local independent business, and following long deliberation by the board, we now believe Ridley needs to become part of a larger group. We view Greene King as the best owner to develop our business for the future."

Well-known beer writer, Adrian Tierney-Jones made the comment on my original article that many of Ridley’s pubs appeared under-capitalised so it wasn’t a surprise when the business was sold. This view was underlined by Nelion Ridley, Nicholas’s son and the sixth generation of the family to have been involved in the brewery.  He said, at the time, that it was becoming more difficult for small and medium-sized brewers to survive and that Ridley's had approached Greene King about the possibility of a takeover after doing its own review of the business.

Describing the takeover and closure of the brewery as “a sad day”, he went on to add "I was practically born here, and can remember my granddad working in the business."  At the time of the Greene King takeover, Nelion was Ridley’s marketing manager but after a few months working for the new owners, he decided it was time to move on. He did some charity work in India, spent some time working in the vineyards in the south of France and even did a teacher training course, but eventually he was drawn back to the family business of brewing.

To further this aim, Nelion went on a three week brewing course in Sunderland where he gained the knowledge and experience he wanted of the brewing process, before launching his own micro-brewery, Bishop Nick, in September 2011. The brewing of Bishop Nick beers was initially carried out at Felstar Brewery, just a few miles down the road from Hartford End, before moving to the town of Braintree.

So where did the Bishop Nick name come from?  As Greene King retained the rights to the Ridley name, Nelion had to look for a different title for his new brewery. He considered calling it Hartford End, after the old brewery site, but decided he didn't want to be tied to a geographical place. He looked at the history of the Ridley family and thought about Bishop Nicholas Ridley who was born in 1500 and became Bishop of London in 1550. He later fell foul of the Pope and was imprisoned in the Tower of London where he was tried for Heresy. In 1555 Queen Mary had Bishop Nick burnt at the stake for his religious beliefs. Somewhat ironically, Bishop Nick was actually the Ridley's symbol until the sale of the company to Greene King.

Three regular beers are brewed: Ridley's Rite, a 3.6 per cent bitter; Heresy, a four per cent golden ale; and 1555, a full bloodied, rich tawny ale, weighing in at 4.3 per cent. In addition, half a dozen seasonal beers are produced throughout the year; full details can be found here on the company website.

In a strange twist of fate, the first pub to take Bishop Nick’s beers was Ridley's old brewery tap; The Compasses, at Littley Green. Nelion's brother Joss had taken over the pub in 2008, following a few, presumably unsuccessful years as part of the Greene King estate. The Suffolk giant had attempted to sell it as a private house, but fortunately Joss Ridley stepped in. He talks about his decision to take on the pub on The Compasses’ website.
The Compasses, now back in the hands of the Ridley family

“The closing of Ridley's brewery hit the family quite hard. At the time I was an accountant in London rushing around in the rat race. After some thinking time in New Zealand I realised how important my heritage was and it was then that I took the leap of leaving London to get back to what my name represented in Essex. What better pub to be the landlord of than The Compasses known as The Ridley's Brewery Tap.”

He describes The Compasses as “a wonderfully traditional pub, which came with some loyal punters and brilliant staff who gave me a warm welcome”. By all accounts the pub is doing very well and now offers Bed and Breakfast in five ensuite rooms, in a detached single storey building adjacent to the pub. A beer festival is also held each year.

So good things did come from the sale and closure of Ridley’s in the end, and the story gets even better with the news that the iconic brewery buildings are to be converted into apartments, rather than being razed to the ground. I’m seriously thinking of stopping off at Hartford End and Littley Green, on my next trip up to Norfolk, to take a look for myself.

With thanks to the Essex Chronicle for the background to this article.

Sunday 12 April 2015

Thirty Years On

Saturday’s celebration marking the 30th anniversary of the re-constitution of the Tonbridge & Tunbridge Wells branch of CAMRA was a great success with getting on for 20 members (both current, and former) turning up at the Punch & Judy in Tonbridge to commemorate the event.

The pub was already busy with people watching the Grand National and the Oxford v Cambridge Boat Races when the various CAMRA members started filing in, but we managed to find space amongst the pub’s regulars whilst waiting for the main business of the afternoon to take place.
Enjoying the beer and the conversation in the Punch
The Punch had an interesting selection of beers on to attract our interest, including a 4.5% ABV seasonal offering from Edinburgh’s Caledonian Brewery, called Fool Proof, plus a new “experimental brew” from Tonbridge Brewery, produced specially to celebrate the branch’s 30th anniversary. These were alongside Wadworth 6X and, local pub stalwart, Harvey’s Sussex Best.

The Tonbridge brew, weighed in at 4.4% ABV, and was dark mahogany in colour, with a distinct toffee-caramel character. According to brewery founder Paul Bournazian, who turned up later with a member of his brewing team, the strong toffee notes came from the inclusion of rye malt in the beer; an unusual choice and one which seemed to polarise opinion. Some people really raved over it, whilst others, including myself, were not so keen. It will therefore be interesting to see whether the brewery decide to include the beer in their range of permanent brews.

The beer though took a bit of a back seat to the celebration itself, which was marked by branch chairman Iain Dalgleish making a short speech acknowledging the part played by the three members, Alan, John and Paul, who took on the task of getting the moribund branch back on its feet.

I am proud to be one of those three original members, and whilst neither I or my two companions responded with a speech of our own, I would like to state that at the time, getting the branch up and running again seemed a lot of fun, and certainly wasn’t hard or difficult work. For all of us there were some interesting pubs to visit and some good beers to be drunk along the way, and although we all eventually stood down from our various committee positions we are pleased to have helped lay the foundations for today’s successful West Kent branch.

We haven't changed all that much!
Out of the three of us, John and I both still live in Tonbridge and remain good friends. We both go along to the occasional branch meeting and always participate in the annual Good Friday Ramble, organised by MMK CAMRA. Alan, on the other hand went off travelling, following his retirement some fifteen or so years ago. After using some of the equity from the sale of his house to buy a motor-home, Alan then spent a decade travelling round the United Kingdom, staying at various caravan sites and picking up seasonal work, to help pay the bills, along the way. He has now bought an apartment on the South Coast, where he enjoys living today.

It was therefore especially good for both John and I to meet up with him again, as I think the last time we saw Alan must have been shortly after his retirement do, fifteen or more years ago. It was also good to meet up with Henry, one of the founding members of the original Sevenoaks branch.

Our thanks go out to the branch’s current social secretary Don, for organising the event, to Paul and his co-workers from Tonbridge Brewery, the landlord, staff and customers of the Punch & Judy, and finally to all fellow CAMRA members, past and present who came along to mark the occasion.

Friday 10 April 2015

Thirty Years Ago Today.

During the autumn of 1984, following the break-up of my first marriage,  I moved from my home in Maidstone to the nearby town of Tonbridge. Tonbridge was where I had worked for the previous five years, and it was also the home town of the woman I married the following year. Thirty years on the same lady remains my wife, soul-mate and mother of our now grown-up son.

Before all this could take place there had been a divorce to go through; not too acrimonious as there had been no children involved, but there were still wrangles over the value of the former marital home, and hence the amount of equity to be allocated to the two former partners. Back then, of course, it wasn’t a question of how to divide the CD collection, but how to do the same with the LP’s (vinyl)! Still, these things happen, and marrying young isn’t always a good idea, but on the other hand it’s easy to be wise with the benefit of hindsight.

During the five years I had been living in Maidstone I had become heavily involved with the local CAMRA branch (Maidstone & Mid-Kent), helping out with pub surveys and also assisting with the first Maidstone Beer Festival, (there were no beer agencies in those days and we literally had to hire a van and travel to the various breweries in order to collect beers for the festival). For a number of years I had also ended up editing, the branch newsletter – “Draught Copy”, as well as writing most of the articles. That was a real labour of love, as in those days it was literally “cut & paste”, with headings and sub-headings produced letter by letter using “Letraset” (remember that anyone?).

I digress; being involved with CAMRA had taken up a lot of my time, and whilst I wouldn’t say it was a factor in my marriage breakdown, it did leave me reflecting on the wisdom of devoting too much time to other interests. Consequently, after moving to Tonbridge, I was determined not to be so heavily committed to CAMRA this time around. That wasn’t going to be difficult as although there was a local branch covering both Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, to all intents and purposes it had ceased to exist.

The monthly “What’s on” listings in “What’s Brewing”, just gave a contact name and phone number, and there were never any details of socials or other branch events listed. Imagine my surprise then, when one evening in late March 1985, I returned from walking the dog to be told by my new wife-to-be that a gentleman, who I knew quite well, called Terry Whitta, had phoned requesting my help in getting the local branch back on its feet.

Terry is sadly no longer with us, but he was a larger-than-life character who had served a stint as area organiser for Kent, and had lately been elected to CAMRA’s National Executive. Despite these credentials, I was still reluctant to get involved with a CAMRA branch again, but my fiancé was quite insistent that I should, stating it would “do me good and get me out of the house more.”

Terry had gone so far as to book the upstairs room at the Prince Albert; an Ind Coope pub overlooking the railway lines, and close to the new Sainsbury’s supermarket which had opened in Tonbridge on the site of the former Angel Cricket Ground. He had also placed an advert/cry for help in “What’s Brewing”. With pressure like that I couldn’t really refuse, so on 10th April, I wandered down to the Prince Albert to see what would transpire.

On entering the pub, I grabbed a pint from the bar (Friary Meux Bitter, I believe), and made my way upstairs to the meeting room. After 30 years, I remember very little about the meeting, or who was there, but obviously Terry Whitta was both present and also chairing the meeting. John and Alan, my two partners in crime who, like me, volunteered to form the nucleus of a committee for the re-constituted branch were also there (more about them later). One other person who was there, and who reminded me of the fact when we were discussing it on the recent MMK Good Friday Ramble, was my old friend and fellow home-brewer, Nigel.

The person whose presence I cannot recall was the incumbent branch contact; a chap called Bob who lived in Crowborough. Rumour had it that the branch had turned into a drinking club for Bob and his cronies, but like I say, this was just a rumour. My two fledgling committee members and I did meet Bob at a later date; on his home turf at the Crowborough Cross – now a new Wetherspoons outlet, but back then an imposing Charrington’s pub, overlooking the crossroads in the centre of the town. At that meeting I remember him telling us that we were wasting our time, as he could see no future for the branch. Fortunately, he was wrong!

After several, not particularly impressive pints of Friary Meux, the upshot of the meeting was John, Alan and I stepped forward to form a new committee, with the three of us taking the posts of Chairman, Treasurer and Secretary, respectively. Our first task was to undertake a survey of all the pubs in the branch area for an up and coming Kent Pub Guide (the infamous one with the blue cover, poor quality paper and lack of proper typesetting).

The original "Gang of Three"
We managed this by roping in friends and acquaintances, although I do recall one memorable evening when the three of us managed to survey all seven pubs in Edenbridge and still catch the last train home!  We started holding regular socials which were advertised in “What’s Brewing” and slowly started to attract more active members. But it was an uphill struggle and to some extent has remained so right up until the present day.

That’s more than enough detail so far as this article is concerned, but I’m pleased to report that 30 years on the branch is still going strong. There have been a few boundary changes; the main ones being the loss of Crowborough and the surrounding parts of East Sussex. In exchange, the branch gained Sevenoaks and its surrounding villages, following the winding up of the local Sevenoaks branch. It was at this time that Tonbridge & Tunbridge Wells CAMRA was renamed West Kent branch.

The fact that my local branch has survived so long is certainly worthy of celebration, and to this effect a special event is being held this Saturday 11th April (tomorrow), in order to mark the occasion. Sadly the Prince Albert, where the re-constitution meeting took place, is now the site of Sainsbury’s Petrol Station, so the nearby Punch & Judy, in St Stephen’s Street, Tonbridge, has been chosen as a suitable alternative. The event kicks off at 4pm and whilst we are looking forward to seeing some old faces from the past, anyone else who wishes to turn up is more than welcome. As an added incentive, a special brew from Tonbridge Brewery will also be available to mark the occasion.

Footnote: despite trawling the net, I have been unable to find any photos of the sadly demolished, Prince Albert in Tonbridge. It’s almost as if the pub had never existed.

Monday 6 April 2015

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Eight - Ridley's of Hartford End

 This article, the 8th in this occasional series, takes a look at the Essex firm of T.D. Ridley & Sons. The company’s origins go back to the mid-19th Century, but 150 years later, Ridley’s beers were little known outside of their immediate trading area. The firm made it into the 21st Century, only to see the company chairman, and some of his fellow directors cashing in their chips by selling the company to Greene King in 2005. What follows is a personal look back at the company and its beers.

The Essex brewers T.D. Ridley & Sons were a relatively small concern, who owned 67 pubs, in and around the county town of Chelmsford, plus the surrounding villages. They were based in the small hamlet of Hartford End, approximately eight miles to the North-west of Chelmsford, just over halfway between the county town and the small town of Great Dunmow.

Ridley's Hartford End Brewery
The company’s origins date back to 1811, when William Ridley married Maria Dixon, the daughter of a mill owner at Hartford End. The couple soon took over the mill, and in 1814 their son Thomas Dixon Ridley, was born. He grew up to take charge of the business and in 1841 married Lydia Wells, who came from a Chelmsford brewing family.

Within a year, Thomas had built his own brewery close to the mill. A string of mainly country pubs was added over the years and TD Ridley & Sons Ltd became known for its mild and its bitter and, in later years, for beers such as Witch-finder Porter and Old Bob.

Despite the fact that the brewery was just 30 miles or so from London, Ridley’s were not very well known outside their immediate trading area (except to beer enthusiasts that is!). This meant that in order to enjoy the company’s beers it was necessary to travel to the Chelmsford area.

I first made this journey back in the mid 1970’s, with a friend from university. We were staying at his father’s house in Ilford during the summer vacation, and as we both had a keen interest in real ale, and were young and relatively fit, we decided to cycle to the nearest Ridley’s outlet. According to the 1974 Good Beer Guide, this was a pub called the Black Horse, situated in the tiny village of White Roding; a distance of 26 miles.

I am only aware of that distance now, after having looked up the journey on Google Maps. Had I known it was that far 40 years ago I don’t think I would have let my friend’s enthusiasm for sampling new beers persuade me to get in the saddle and start pedalling! Apart from it being long and quite arduous, I don’t remember much of the journey. For that matter I also remember little about the pub or even the beer, but after cycling that sort of distance I would have poured anything down my neck in order to slake my thirst and numb my aching limbs!

Several years later we discovered that Ridley’s PA was a regular beer on the bar of the Traveller’s Friend at Woodford Green. This was much easier to get to, as it was just over 20 minutes walk away from Woodford Station on the Central Line. Here I do remember the company’s PA Bitter as being very good; low in gravity, but well-hopped and nice and refreshing.

Those brief dalliances with Ridley’s were to be my last until some 15 years later, when as secretary of my local West Kent CAMRA branch, I organised a trip to the brewery. The visit took place in the autumn of 1990, on a bright and cheerful October morning. Our party set off, by mini-bus, to travel the 60 odd miles from Tonbridge to Hartford End.

Ridley's Brewery on the banks of the River Chelmer
The brewery was sited on the banks of the River Chelmer, in a truly delightful and very rural setting. According to the company's publicity material, the brewery buildings were only visible from a distance of 400 yards, no matter from which direction they were approached. This certainly proved to be the case, but the sight of the brewery emitting clouds of steam, whilst working away in such idyllic surroundings, was certainly a sight to gladden the heart.

Most brewery tours take place in the early afternoon, to allow the essential brewing tasks of mashing and boiling to take place before crowds of curious visitors start streaming all over the place. It also enables, particularly in the case of some of the smaller concerns, one of the brewers (or even the head brewer himself) to conduct the tour in person. A brewer can, of course, explain the process in far greater detail than the guides employed by some of the larger companies, and I have been privileged to have met some extremely interesting and knowledgeable brewers in the course of these visits.

Ridley’s was no exception to the afternoon rule, and our tour was not scheduled to begin until 2-15pm. I had however, made allowances for this and, bearing in mind my comments earlier about enjoying good beer in unspoilt pubs, had made enquiries as to the nearest local Ridley’s house. Actually I cheated slightly, as one of my companions on the trip had visited the brewery earlier the same year, and had suggested a pub called the Compasses, situated in the nearby hamlet of Littley Green.

I had phoned the brewery, a few days prior to our visit, primarily to double-check that everything was still in order. I asked the receptionist if she could recommend a pub where we could get something to eat. She confirmed my friend's choice, although she did admit to a certain element of bias. This was because although she worked as the receptionist at the brewery during the day, she was in actual fact the landlady of the said Compasses. Her husband ran the pub at lunchtimes, and she assisted him during the evenings. She therefore had no hesitation in recommending the pub, and yes, as they knew we were coming, they could provide food.

Compasses, Littley Green
Thanks to my friend's directions, our driver found the pub, which was a couple of miles away down some rather narrow country lanes, with relative ease. So shortly before midday, in the warmth of the October sunshine, we disembarked outside the Compasses ready to sample Ridley's ales on their home patch. Before entering the pub I insisted that everyone present line up outside for a photograph - strictly for the record, but a quarter of a century later I have unfortunately  been unable to find it. We were of course expected, and the receptionist's husband made us most welcome.

The Compasses turned out to be everything a country pub should be. It was plainly furnished, yet bright and clean. It had a tiled floor with walls that were part match-board and part painted plaster. The decoration was provided by a number of framed brewery advertisements, (Ridley’s of course!). Last, but by no means least, was the beer. This consisted of Ridley’s PA (as their ordinary bitter was called), dispensed direct from a row of casks kept in a room behind the bar. It was superb!

Essex Huffers
I mentioned earlier about the pub providing food. This they did in the form of the "Essex Huffer", a large, soft bap-type roll, which apparently is traditional to that part of Essex. Various fillings were available; the huffers being of a size so as to be virtually a meal in themselves. I still managed to scoff two of them though, my excuse being that they helped soak up the beer!

We spent a very pleasant couple of hours in the Compasses before driving back to the brewery, for the commencement of the tour. Our guide, for what proved to be an extremely interesting look around, was the head brewer himself. Ridley’s brewed along strictly traditional lines and much of the plant was of a very traditional nature. As is usual with such visits, the tour ended in the sample room, where we were able to try several others of the brewery's range of beers, including a number of interesting bottled ones.

Most of us though were itching to get back to the Compasses. We had already checked that our driver was both willing and able to stay out for an extra couple of hours. In addition, we had introduced ourselves to Ridley's receptionist and, after explaining our wishes to her, she very kindly telephoned her husband and made arrangements for the pub to re-open as soon as the tour finished. We were thus able to enjoy an extra couple of hours in the Compasses, thereby rounding off a most enjoyable day out.

Some seven months or so later, I had the pleasure of re-visiting the Compasses. I was en-route to Norfolk, along with my wife and pet dog for an early summer holiday. We turned off the A12, and made our way to Littley Green where we stopped for lunch. I only had the one pint, as I was driving, but I did have a carry-keg which I got the landlord to fill up for me. Both the beer and the huffers were every bit as good as before, and the pub was just as I remembered it.

In 2005, Ridley’s were taken over by Suffolk-based, brewing giant, Greene King for £46m. Three months after the sale, the charming old country brewery was closed with production of some of the Ridley’s brands moving to Bury St Edmunds. Around 160 people based at Hartford End lost their jobs.

However, there is  more to both this account and to the Ridley’s story, and I aim to bring things up to date in a subsequent article.

Footnote: although they were ultimately responsible for closing the Hartford End Brewery, Greene King were not the real villains of the piece; that dubious honour goes to Ridley's chairman Nicholas Ridley and the company board, who approached the Suffolk company and asked them to buy the business.

According to a Guardian report at the time, Mr Ridley and his immediate family made a cool £11m from the deal, so not exactly small beer!

Saturday 4 April 2015

Good Friday 2015 - Ramble On

It’s that time of year again when ageing CAMRA members dust off their walking boots, put on their wet weather gear and head off into the great outdoors. I am talking about the Good Friday Ramble, an event organised by members of Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA branch which is now in its 38th year.

It has therefore become something of a tradition, but the formula remains the same; meet up somewhere convenient for people to get to by public transport (normally a railway station), before setting off across country, up hill and down dale to a suitable local pub, for a lengthy lunchtime stop over. Suitably refreshed the party then walks back to the starting point, but normally by a different route, before we all depart and go our separate ways.

The walk is a good opportunity to meet up and catch up with people one hasn’t seen for a while, often since the previous ramble. As one wag succinctly puts it “It’s always interesting to see how many of us have survived another winter!” That remark, of course refers to the fact that none of us are getting any younger, so as a reflection of this the walks are gentler and less arduous than they were nearly four decades ago, with less hills and other natural obstacles. They are also shorter, being typically around seven to eight miles, rather than the ten to twelve miles traversed in our youth.

Although I belong to West Kent CAMRA, I know quite a few people in MMK Branch; the result of having lived in the county town during the late 70’s and early 80’s, and still keep in touch with old friends from this time. I am normally joined by a couple of my West Kent friends, both of whom appreciate a walk through the beautiful Kent countryside.
This year’s walk was slightly different in being linear, rather than circular, but it allowed a greater distance to be covered and also took us through some diverse areas of the county. The group met at Borough Green station, which wasn’t the easiest place for the Tonbridge contingent to get to, as it involved two changes of trains. Nevertheless we all made the 10.30am start and on a rather grey and overcast day we set off in an easterly direction towards our lunchtime stop; the King’s Arms at Offham.                  

Passing through Borough Green and along the busy A25 we turned off through the tiny village of St Mary Platt before climbing up into the woods behind the parish church. Our party of 14 was quite strung out by this time but there were people leading from the front, as well as a couple of experienced walkers who knew the route keeping up the rear. Traversing a local golf course we soon found ourselves in fruit-growing countryside and noticed poly-tunnels in the process of being made ready for this season’s strawberry crop.

King's Arms, Offham
After a distance of almost four miles we reached the village of Offham and our lunchtime stop of the King’s Arms. The King's Arms is now the only pub remaining in the village. Built in the sixteenth century, it was originally two cottages, which were later owned by a saddler and harness maker who ran his business there until granted a license in 1680. I do vaguely remember visiting the pub, back in my days as an MMK member, but I was probably more familiar with Offham’s other pub, the Red Lion, now sadly closed.

Our MMK colleagues knew the King’s Arms was hosting a mini-beer festival, and as we approached we saw evidence of this in the form of a small marquee adjacent to the front entrance. We passed inside and found a couple of tables in front of the fire which, as the weather had warmed up somewhat, wasn’t lit. There were four cask beers on sale in the pub, plus a dozen or so in the outside marquee.

Desiring something hoppy and refreshing, I opted for the Prohibition, a 4.8% pale ale from the pub’s near neighbours, Kent Brewery. The beer fitted the bill and had a real citrus flavour and hoppy bite to it. A couple of  Tonbridge Brewery beers followed; the pale and hoppy Alsace Gold, plus the dark, porter-like Ebony Moon. My final beer of the session was a half of Mad Cow; an amazing, dark, 7.5% Imperial Milk Stout, if there is such a beast!

Most of us also ate in the pub, my choice being a 6oz beef burger with chips and salad.  I was tempted thug to go for the London classic of "pie and mash with liquor". One of my Maidstone friends gave it a try, and reported that it was very good. It certainly looked attractive on the plate.

The Beer Festival
The landlord of the King’s Arms is the man behind the appearance of this Cockney classic on the pub’s menu. Hailing from souf’ London, mine host seemed keen to promote this slightly unusual dish. I didn’t catch his name, but he appeared to be quite a character, especially whilst sprinting from behind the bar to the outside marquee, and back. Apart from the pub chef, I didn’t see any other members of staff, but our licensee seemed to manage keeping everyone in this busy pub, suitably refreshed.

We left the King’s Arms shortly after 3pm, assembling outside for the obligatory team photo. We set off in a northerly direction to begin with, skirting Church Farm and the adjacent church after which the farm is named. From the logos on the buildings and processing sheds, this farm is given over to salad production, and on the crest of the hill was a whole complex of converted Porta-Kabins, no doubt used to house the seasonal workers and pickers who will be arriving later in the year. There was also an impressive collection of John Dere tractors standing proud in the yard; talk about big-boy’s toys!

Leaving this hive of rural activity behind, we turned due east and continued our walk towards our final destination, the small town of West Malling. Set against the backdrop of the North Downs, this part of Kent was looking very attractive, despite the gloomy conditions pervading at the time. We skirted the south of the town, passing en route the impressive 11th Century St Leonard’s Tower.
St Leonard's Tower, West Malling

This is a well-preserved example of a small, early, free-standing Norman tower keep, but according to English Heritage, “Very little is known about the history of the building, including its intended function and even who commissioned the build.” It’s position on a natural sandstone ledge near the head of a narrow valley, does indicate a defensive purpose, although some claim it was the tower of the now-demolished church of St Leonard.

The final stretch of our walk took us through Manor Park Country Park and along the edge of an attractive lake which is over-looked by Douces Manor; an 18th Century Manor House which saw service during World War II as the officers’ mess for fighter crew, stationed at nearby RAF West Malling.  From here, it was a relatively short walk to the station, although I unfortunately just missed my intended train.

Once again the Good Friday Ramble had provided a good mix of pleasant countryside, physical exercise, a fine choice of pub for lunch, plus the company of old friends along the way. I don’t know what more one could ask of a day out, so I would like to end by thanking Dick and Pam Wilkinson for once again organising the walk.