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.

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