Saturday 30 April 2016

Doris Jemison - Red Lion, Snargate

Doris last year, receiving her GBG 30 year certificate
I am sure that many lovers of traditional and unspoilt pubs will know by now, that Doris Jemison, the legendary and long-serving landlady of the Red Lion at Snargate, sadly passed away last Sunday. Her daughter Kate has advised that the pub will be closed until further notice, and our thoughts, of course, are with her and the rest of the family.

As an infrequent visitor to the Red Lion, I don’t feel qualified to write much about Doris, apart from saying that she was always there. Sometimes she would be serving behind the bar, but more often than not she would be sitting in a corner, close to the bar, either reading or knitting, but still with time to chat to the customers. On my last visit to the Red Lion, Doris's daughter Kate was behind the bar, but later on the lady herself put in an appearance, although she left the serving to Kate and her partner. Wherever she happened to be, her presence was always there, so it is no wonder the pub was known far and wide, simply as Doris’s.

Doris was an ex Land Girl, originally from London. After joining the Land Army when she was 18, she was posted to a farm near Snargate. She met her future husband in the village, where his father was landlord of the Red Lion. Doris and her new husband eventually took over the running of the pub, keeping it much as it had been since the beginning of the last century. When Doris’s husband died 30 years ago, she decided to keep the place just how it was, and today it serves as an example of a pub where time really has stood still.
My last visit to the Red Lion - March 2010

The Red Lion features on CAMRA's National Inventory of unspoilt Heritage Pubs. It has been run by the Jemison family since 1911 and, except for the odd lick of paint, has not been redecorated since 1890. It is situated on the busy B2080, close to the 13th Century St Dunstan’s Church in Snargate; a small village on Romney Marsh. The church was one of the many mediaeval churches on the Marsh that were involved with smuggling; their isolation making them good places for the smugglers to hide their contraband goods before their distribution.

Romney Marsh is a flat and sparsely populated wetland area which just out into the English Channel. The majority of the Marsh is situated in south-east Kent, although a small section to the far south-west lies in East Sussex. Romney Marsh covers about 100 square miles. The Marsh has been built up over the centuries, with land gradually being reclaimed from the sea. Because of its situation it is sometimes known as the “Fifth Continent”. "The world according to the best geographers is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Romney Marsh" from the Ingoldsby Legends, written by Reverend Richard Harris Barham (Rector of Snargate).

Bar counter - Red Lion
The Red Lion is believed to date back to 1540, but unlike many old pubs of a similar age, the inside has not been modified and there are a series of inter-connecting rooms. The walls are decorated with a series of original World War II posters, and other memorabilia, and the rooms are also home to a selection of traditional pub games, such as "Devil Amongst the Tailors" and "Shut the Box". Although there is a set of three hand pumps on the marble bar top, they have not been used for many years. Instead all beers are served direct from casks stillaged behind the bar. Local beers feature prominently on the menu, with Maidstone brewer's Goachers being a firm favourite.

Apart from crisps and nuts, the Red Lion doesn't serve food, but Doris was always quite happy for people to sit in the games room and eat their own sandwiches and in summer time, there was always the sheltered garden behind the pub. The other thing for lovers of traditional pubs to note is the toilets are outside!

I have known the pub for many years, and whilst I don't visit it as often as I’d like, I do so whenever the opportunity arises. An excellent pub like this is not the sort of place to drive to, (for obvious reasons), but equally it is not somewhere which is readily served by public transport, because of its isolated situation. However, with a little forethought and slightly more effort, it is entirely possible to enjoy more than a few pints in the Red Lion without getting behind the wheel and breaking the law.

The Marsh-Link rail-line runs from Ashford, across Romney Marsh, down to Rye and eventually on to Hastings. I have walked to the Red Lion from both Ham Street and Appledore stations; sometimes across country from the former and along the road from the latter. However, the 30 minutes walk, from Appledore station, along the busy B2080, is not particularly recommended and sometimes requires quick-witted action to avoid speeding motorists who seem to regard the road as a race track. An OS Map though, will allow the keen walker to take the far more pleasant and scenic cross-country route from Ham Street station.
Games room - Red Lion

Although I am an infrequent visitor to the pub, there are plenty of tales I could recount of my experiences at the Red Lion. It’s the sort of pub where everyone gets drawn into the conversation, and like as not you will meet some real characters there.In view of Doris’s passing I will save these tales for another time, as for the moment thoughts must be with Kate and other family members and friends. As I mentioned earlier, the Red Lion is currently closed, but I am sure CAMRA’s WhatPub website will provide details of when it eventually re-opens.

In the meantime why not raise a glass to a lady who was one of the longest serving licensees in Kent, and whose name will live on as the unofficial title of the wonderful pub she ran for so long.

Photos - Ashford, Folkestone & Romney Marsh CAMRA;; Paul Bailey.

Thursday 28 April 2016

My First London Pub Crawl - Part Two

In this concluding part of my tale about the London Pub Crawl a friend and I undertook 40 years ago, we catch up with the pair of us snoozing in Hyde Park, after a rather heavy lunchtime session. With just two pubs to go I look back and reflect on how awful the first beer of a renewed session always tastes, after an enforced afternoon break!

The name "Queen's Elm" can just be seen on the stonework.
"Six or seven pints is enough for anyone at lunchtime, and would absolutely slaughter me today, but when you're 19 years old, with  the world still at your feet, you can abuse your body in this fashion from time to time and get away with it! We adjourned to nearby Hyde Park for a lie down on the grass, to sleep off our surfeit of ale. Presumably we also ate at some stage during this interlude, although I don't recall anything about this.

I obviously don’t over-indulge to such an extent these days, but I do remember similar past occasions, before the advent of all day opening. The trouble is when you start drinking again the first pint always tastes atrocious. If you have been asleep as well, this effect is exaggerated, and the first pint will taste doubly foul. Whether that was the case back then is lost in the mists of time, but after waking up, we caught the tube to South Kensington and found our way to the Queen's Elm; a Courage pub, known for its literary connections.

My friend and I were used to Courage beers as our home town of Ashford was rather awash with that particular brewer's ales. However, the chance to sample them in their "real" form was a rare treat, as all our local Courage pubs used top-pressure as a means of dispense. We had another reason for visiting the Queen's Elm; namely the opportunity to sample Courage Directors, a beer which was extremely rare in any form, and rumoured to be on the verge of extinction. Unfortunately this legendary ale was not on sale when we arrived at the pub, so we were disappointed in that respect. According to CAMRA’s first (1974) Good Beer Guide, real ale was re-instated at the Queen’s Elm, “By popular demand; aided by a boycott”. The Guide also described the pub as “Basic and smoky”.

We were not disappointed with the Queen’s Elm, and I don’t remember it being excessively smoky. It had bare wooden floors and was decorated with a large collection of pipes mounted on the wall. Unfortunately this attractive old pub ceased trading in the 1990’s, and has now been divided up into a number of retail outlets. The artists, writers and actors who at one time or another frequented the pub; luminaries such as Laurie Lee, Francis Bacon and Richard Harris, would be turning in their graves if they knew that the Queen’s Elm is no more.

Whilst in the pub, we sat at the bar, planning our next move, which was to be a short walk up the road to the Anglesea Arms. The Anglesea was probably the first free house in London to capitalise on the growing interest in "real ale", by offering a selection of beers which could not be found anywhere else in the capital. It was certainly a pioneer in this field, leading the way where others could only follow.

The Anglesea Arms became a regular place of pilgrimage over the next few years and, certainly during my student days, no visit to the capital was complete without a trip to South Kensington in order to see what was on offer there. To walk in through its doors and be greeted with a new set of pump clips was always a pleasure.

Eventually, other London pubs followed suit and the capital became awash with ales from all parts of the country. Possibly for this reason I began to frequent the Anglesea less and less, eventually stopping altogether. I made a point of visiting the Anglesea on a trip to London, a few years ago. The pub remained unspoilt, and the splendid old mirror, advertising Thomas Salt & Co.’s Pale Burton Ales, was still hanging on the wall. There was a selection of comfy chairs to sink into and, of course, the famous outside terrace, scene of many a happy summer’s evening spent enjoying fine ale and good company.

Back in 1974, my friend's guide informed us that the Anglesea Arms had a good selection of hand pumped ales available, including the revered Abbot Ale from Greene King. It was this latter beer that we were particularly keen to sample. Because of the constantly changing variety of beers on offer I am unable to remember which particular beers were on sale at the time of our visit, but I do remember, that Abbot Ale was not on tap that particular day. As it was a warm summer's evening we sat outside in order to enjoy our drink. We hadn’t been there long before my friend got it into his head that we should drink up and take the tube up to High Barnet where, according to his guide, Greene King's one and only London tied house was situated. There we would finally be able to try a pint or two of Abbot Ale!
Interior Anglesea Arms - slightly different 40 years on
Time though was marching steadily on and, even in my rather inebriated state, I reckoned that the time necessary to make the journey to this unknown part of London, plus the time it would take to find the pub, would take a good hour or more. On top of this we would probably end up spending at least a further hour in the pub. This, coupled with our return journey to central London, would almost certainly lead to us missing our train back to Kent.

My father was due to collect us from Ashford station that evening. I was certain that he would not appreciate turning out after midnight - even assuming we managed to catch the last train home. In addition, both my friend and I were due at work the following day (we were working as cleaners at a local hospital). My companion took a little more convincing than myself of the folly of his plan, but after a further pint he agreed that our best course was to drink up, make our way via the District Line, to Charing Cross and then take the train back to Kent.

When I finally reached home, I collapsed into bed - the day's excesses having finally caught up with me. Both my friend and I made it into work the following day, although I had the most horrendous hangover imaginable! It was a splendid day out though, and the trip definitely wetted my appetite for further such visits. My interest in exploring the pubs of London had thus been awakened in a big way; an interest which I am happy to say remains to this day."

Sunday 24 April 2016

Why I Won't Be Supporting CAMRA's Mild in May Campaign

We’re fast approaching the month of May, and as many CAMRA members, particularly the older ones, will know “May is a Mild Month”. I’m not talking about the weather here, especially as temperatures are below the seasonal average for the time of year; instead I’m talking about CAMRA’s longest running campaign, “Mild in May”.

According to the Campaign’s own website - “CAMRA promotes Mild throughout May. This year we are asking the active CAMRA branches to encourage at least one pub in their area to stock at least one Mild during May for the local pub-goers to try. We would also encourage non-active members to speak to their local licensees to see if they would be willing to try some Milds during May”. Well, that’s going to make a huge impact, or not as the case may be!

The idea behind “Make May a Mild Month”, is to draw attention to a style of beer which went into terminal decline during the latter half of the last century, and which despite the successful revival of other once popular styles, such as porter and milk stout continues to be shunned by beer drinkers and enthusiasts. This is despite over 30 years of effort by the Campaign for Real Ale to try and raise the beer’s profile.

I wrote a lengthy article on this very subject, around this time last year, and my views on mild, and CAMRA’s almost obsessional efforts to save it, have not changed. If anything my stance against this ineffective campaign has hardened. The message is not getting through to St Albans and CAMRA blindly churns out the same failed campaign, year after year, without pausing to consider that perhaps the drinking public don’t actually LIKE mild. “Mild in May” is now a totally superfluous campaign which continues more due to habit than anything else.

Whilst not denying that, in their day, some UK milds were very good, many were not, and this is undoubtedly the reason for their decline. Back in the 1970’s quite a few independent family brewers openly admitted that their mild was little more than their ordinary bitter with added caramel. It was also common practice, and one of the brewing trade’s worst kept secrets, that in many pubs, slops from the drip-trays, and other left-over beer were filtered back into the mild barrel! Ugh, no wonder drinkers began deserting the drink in their droves.

Fortunately such sharp practices have ceased and the majority of the surviving milds are brewed to carefully-crafted individual recipes designed to showcase the best aspects of the style. So really these beers should be standing on their own merits and not needing a special campaign to promote them. 
Are images, such as this, really going to persuade drinkers to try mild?

CAMRA of course thinks otherwise, yet is in denial that they are “flogging a dead horse”. Part of the problem, of course, is the poor keeping qualities of mild ale which, given its low ABV and equally low hopping rates, is not really surprising. A cask of mild really needs to be shifted in around three days; otherwise the quality starts to really suffer. This isn’t a problem where a pub puts a cask on specifically for a CAMRA event, but at other times of the year the interest in mild ale just isn’t there.

However noble these local campaigns by individual CAMRA branches might be in raising the profile of mild ale, they are only having a temporary effect, and as soon as the promotion ends, sales slump back down to their previous levels. This is why campaigns such as “Mild in May” are, in the end, doomed to failure. It is not possible to create a demand for a product if the demand isn’t there all year round. CAMRA really would be better off dropping this long-running, out-dated campaign and concentrating its efforts elsewhere. It really is time to recognise that the drinking public has voted with its feet and deserted mild in its droves. Why then should it be worthy of special promotion?

Needless to say, I shan’t be imbibing much mild this May or indeed any other month. Not that there’s much chance of stumbling upon the beer in these parts. Local revered independent Harvey’s do produce small volumes of their Dark Mild throughout the year, and also brew a seasonal 3.0% ABV Light Mild, called Knots of May during this month. However, I find Knots of May pretty insipid, and I am sure I am not alone here. One of two smaller independents also produce the odd drop of mild, but that’s about it, as this part of the country has never been mild territory; at least not since the Second World War.

To me “Mild in May” is nothing more than a habitual and irritating campaign, attempting to revive a style of beer which the drinking public have lost interest in. But then CAMRA loves these sorts of campaigns because it looks as though the organisation is doing something.  Surely it’s time for the penny to drop and realise that over three decades of running a yearly campaign for this beer, which nobody but the most diehard of members wish to drink, have failed to arrest its decline. Talk about the Emperor’s new clothes?

Final word; if a campaign of this nature IS going to be run, why confine it to a specific month? If it wasn’t for the alliteration of “Make May a Mild Month”, then it could be run at other times. March has the same alliteration, of course, but perhaps not the mild weather, but if past years are anything to go by, neither has May!

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Castle Inn Chiddingstone Closed

In a surprise move the historic Castle Inn, situated in the equally historic village of Chiddingstone, closed its doors last Sunday. The first that many of us knew about the closure was an announcement on the pub’s Facebook page, inviting people along to the pub for its “last day”, and to join staff and regulars from 2pm for a buffet and open bar. The event was TICKET ONLY, costing £25 in advance, and attendees would be able to eat & drink until it has all gone!

The locals obviously knew about the closure, but I must say it rather threw the rest of us. For a start, the Castle had been selected for next year’s (2017) CAMRA Good Beer Guide, but fortunately the branch has managed to get the entry pulled. The pub closing threw me as well, especially as I’d only written about it a few weeks ago. I also wonder where Bob Dockerty, owner and founder of Larkin’s Brewery, who are based just down the road, will drink whilst the pub is shut.

Some friends who visited the Castle a few weeks ago have told me that the lease on the pub had run out, and that the current tenant was moving on elsewhere. This is a real shame, as although I didn’t go there that often and I didn't really know the landlord, he always made me feel welcome every time I popped in. As well as a friendly welcome, the beer too was always in tip-top condition; hence the pub’s selection for the GBG.

Like much of Chiddingstone village, the Castle is owned by the National Trust, and apparently some repairs are needed to this lovely old 15th Century inn. The departing licensee posted the following message on Facebook: “I would like to thank you all for your support of the Castle Inn over the past 6 years. Hopefully it will not be too long until the National Trust complete their repairs & the pub is open again. John.”

That’s as much as I know at the moment, but it does seem rather strange for the NT to be closing the pub just as the tourist season starts to get into full swing. Perhaps the repairs are quite extensive (structural even?), and they were left with little choice but to close it until the work is complete.

Watch this space, as they say, but in the meantime I would like to wish the departing tenant all the best in whatever venture he turns his hand to next.

Sunday 17 April 2016

CAMRA's Pub of the Year Competition

I’ve been thinking a lot recently. Okay, I know it’s a dangerous thing to do sometimes, but the Revitalisation project which CAMRA recently embarked on has provided plenty of food for thought, and last week’s presentation to the Windmill at Sevenoaks Weald, for achieving West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year, for the third year in succession, sparked off a train of thought about this award and my past involvement with it.

I’m not certain exactly when the CAMRA Pub of the Year award traces its roots back to, but I imagine it started off as something fairly low key, organised by individual branches. Not all branches would have run such a contest, and regional and national awards would have been unheard of.

The award came into my consciousness, sometime during the late 1980’s-early 1990’s, when my local CAMRA branch committee, invited members to submit their nomination(s) for branch pub of the year. This would have all been in the days before email communication, when everything relied on the Royal Mail, so the request would have gone out via the branch magazine, Inn View News (now sadly defunct). There may have also been a mail out – possibly tied in with the invitations for the branch AGM.

The idea worked, and several prominent local pubs won the title. One, at least is sadly no longer trading, but the award scheme did attract quite a lot of local attention at the time, including some welcome publicity in the local press, for both the pubs concerned as well as the branch.

Later, the idea of a mini-bus trip to survey all the pubs short listed (normally six), caught on, and became a very popular annual event amongst branch members. It was a logistical nightmare to organise though, and I member one memorable occasion when the van broke down, stranding us on the edge of Tonbridge after only making it to one pub!
The major flaw in the process was that as the day progressed, and the number of pubs visited increased, the amount of alcohol consumed also increased, and peoples’ judgement became increasingly impaired, so much so that by the last pub, some participants had little clue as to what they should be scoring and voting on.

In addition, because of the numbers of people involved, it was only fair to check with the pubs beforehand, rather than just turning up mob-handed on a Saturday lunchtime. To their credit, the organisers didn’t let on about the purpose of the trip, and as far as the pubs were concerned it was just a jolly for local CAMRA members.

Unfortunately, the real purpose behind the trip did become public knowledge, on a number of occasions (some people can’t even hold their own water!), so there were instances of landlords putting on beers specially for us, or even plying us with free food.

In recent years West Kent CAMRA have abandoned the mini-bus idea and instead have asked volunteers to visit survey and score every pub on the short-list. They can do this individually or as part of a group and they can obviously carry out these surveys over a number of weeks, but for their votes to count they must have visited all the pubs (usually six) on the list.

Unfortunately working full time precludes me from taking part, but we have plenty of retired people amongst our members, who are able to spare the time. In addition, their dedication to the task does make for a more balanced and more objective results, compared to sending a load of people out in a mini-bus on a glorified piss-up – even if it was enormous fun at the time!

A pattern emerged quite early on from these processes, and it is still evident today. What seems to happen is that is most of the winners go on to claim the award for two or three years running. When a winner is eventually toppled, it is hard to determine exactly why. Has the pub concerned become complacent and allowed standards to slip? Has an even more worthy winner crept up from behind to claim the crown? Or have people just become bored with the same pub winning year after year?

It does appear that natural selection ensures that whilst a pub may win the award several years on the trot, no pub hangs onto it for ever. In our case it doesn’t deter contenders, (as far as we know), because the short-list of pubs is drawn up each year by members, rather than pubs nominating themselves.

Some CAMRA branches automatically exclude the current winner from consideration in the following year’s competition. This is to avoid allegations of a pub being regarded as” branch favourite”. West Kent CAMRA feel that to do this means the branch is not operating a level playing field and a pub may feel that it has done everything right, only to find itself excluded from the contest purely for being the best.

People can be very fickle anyway, and few are totally objective in their judgements – often allowing personal prejudices or personal favourites to ride rough shod over the reality of the situation. For these reasons, CAMRA has issued guidelines to be observed when selecting a Pub of the Year, and these guidelines have evolved, and inevitably lengthened over the years.

Branches sometimes put their own interpretation on things, but some of the most detailed guidelines I have seen appeared on the Ipswich and East Suffolk CAMRA Branch website. You can get the full picture by clicking on the link opposite, but I have have listed the categories by which a pub is judged below, along with a brief summary plus a few comments of my own,

Is the beer, cider and/or perry sold of good/excellent quality? Pretty obvious really, but this is the most important single factor in judging a pub for a CAMRA award.

In addition, quality always wins over the number of beers/ciders on offer, although having a range of beer/cider styles may be a factor, provided that quality is high.

The pub should provide a comfortable, pleasant, clean and safe environment throughout, with a friendly atmosphere. Is it a nice place to be? Care over matters such as hygiene and cleanliness, normally translated into licensees and their staff, taking care over the beer as well.

The service should be welcoming, friendly, polite and also prompt whenever possible. If the pub is busy, a friendly acknowledgement of your presence is desirable.You should be treated like a valued customer and made to feel at ease.

The pub must be inclusive and feel welcoming to all age groups and sectors of the community.  Where appropriate, does the pub have a community focus, eg. supporting local groups, sports teams, etc? Does the pub have information on the local area which may be of use to locals and visitors to the area?
Little things in themselves, but things which can add up and make a big difference.
If a pub’s up for a CAMRA award, then it stands to reason it should broadly adhere to CAMRA’s principles. There are too many to list here, but things to look out for are misleading dispense methods, full measures, range of beer styles and strengths, prices and opening hours being clearly displayed and real ale (cider and perry where applicable) being promoted in a positive way.

Little things again, but things which matter.

This category covers those undefined elements that are not considered elsewhere; the most important of which is did you enjoy your visit to the pub?

Obviously not all these criteria are followed to the letter, neither does every branch apply them all, but I would like to think my own branch makes a reasonable attempt to follow them as closely as possible.

Some might question the point of these Pub of the Year competitions, and others might even deride them for being divisive. It’s probably true that only a small percentage of pubs, within a given CAMRA branch area, ever get a look in, but if you look again at the above criteria, the things CAMRA is looking for in an ideal pub are both specific and quite exacting. The positive benefits derived from these awards outweigh the negatives by a large margin, so I do not see Pub of the Year disappearing any time soon, no matter which way CAMRA’s “Revitalisation Campaign” takes the organisation.

Friday 15 April 2016

Windmill's Hat-Trick

For the third year running, the Windmill at Sevenoaks Weald has won our local CAMRA Branch Pub of the Year award. The award reflects the hard work licensees Matt and Emma plus their team have put in over the past year to ensure customers receive the best possible pub experience. As in the previous two years, a group of branch members visited the pub to present the award, and this took place last weekend.

Whilst the majority of our party travelled to the Windmill either by bus, or by car, five of us walked over from Hildenborough station. The route we took was along country lanes to begin with, but before long we left the road and set off across some gently undulating countryside. We followed the same footpaths we had taken last year, although a look back at the diary shows that we were a month earlier this time round.

The bluebells were again in full bloom, and I imagine the mild winter had played a part in their early appearance. Like last year, I took some photos, but they don’t really do justice to the vivid blue carpet lining the banks on either side of our path.

It was much muddier underfoot this year, and we had to pick our way through some boggy conditions in a number of places. We skirted the local golf course before descending down a track past a couple of isolated cottages. We then walked through some thicker woodland (and more bluebells), towards railway line, where we crossed under the tracks by means of a narrow pedestrian underpass.

After crossing a couple of fields, we came out onto the intriguingly named Egg Pie Lane, but not before having to negotiate the wettest and muddiest spot on the entire walk We passed a riding stables, and then a farm before reaching a T-Junction, and turning right into the equally intriguing Scabharbour Road.  Some fifteen minutes later we arrived at the Windmill keen to see which beers were on offer in order to quench our thirst.

The pub was busy with diners when we arrived, so some of us decided to sit out in the garden and make the most of the sunny weather. Before doing so we grabbed ourselves a beer. My first choice was Gun Extra Pale; a well-hopped 3.9%, light-golden coloured beer, which was just the sort of thirst-quenching beer I needed after my walk. Gun Brewery beers are un-fined, but mine only had the faintest of hazes. The brewery are based deep in the Sussex Weald, to the north-west of Hailsham, and pride themselves on “small batch beers”, which are big on taste. This is the second time this year I have enjoyed this beer, and I thoroughly recommend it to all concerned.

We moved back inside shortly afterwards, as our pre-booked table had just become free. There we joined the rest of the group. What with various people coming and going, as not everyone was eating, we must have numbered around a dozen members and friends all told. My second pint was Goacher’s Dark, a 4.1% full-bodied bitter, which is quite dark in colour due to the incorporation of a high proportion of crystal malt in the mash. Billed as “The original Goacher’s Ale”, this was the first beer the company produced, when they started brewing back in 1983. It was another fine beer, and one which I knew would go well with my dinner.

We had a bit of a wait for our food to arrive, as the pub was rather full that day and the kitchen kept very busy, but it was worth the wait as my fish pie was very tasty indeed and packed full of cod, salmon and prawns. The period waiting for the food to arrive, also meant more time for drinking and chatting, but once we had all been served and were tucking in to our food, it was amazing how quiet our two tables became.
I moved up a notch for my third beer. This was In Yer Face; a 5.8% limited edition, American Pale Ale from Oxfordshire based, Loddon Brewery. The beer was aptly named, as there were hops aplenty ready to jump out at you and, like the previous ale, this too went down well with my meal.

I didn’t have room for a sweet, and besides I was ready for another beer. The rarely seen Goachers 1066 Old Ale fitted the bill nicely. Named after the beer’s original gravity, this rich and fruity 6.7% barley wine strength ale has been brewed by Goacher’s, in small quantities every winter since 1983. It was the perfect beer to finish on; dark mahogany red in colour, with a fine mellow taste to it, reminiscent of Madeira wine.

The presentation of the Windmill’s certificate took place shortly after; with the obligatory speeches and photo opportunities. The award was richly deserved though, demonstrating how attention to customer service and providing an all-inclusive atmosphere have paid off for this reborn village pub.

We left some time after 6pm. We were down to just four for the walk back, as one of our party had accepted a lift home to Leigh. Our route back to Hildenborough station was along the lanes, rather than cross-country, and basically it involved heading down Scabharbour Road, Egg Pie Lane and then into Philpotts Lane.  I’m sure I remarked on this last year, but there are some really impressive and, at times, quite stunning multi-million pound properties tucked away down these lanes, and we all wondered what sort of people possess the money necessary to buy such places.

There was a 15 minute wait for our train back to Tonbridge, but this gave us time to rest our feet, and catch out breath. As I have said before, do give the Windmill a try if you are ever in the area. I promise you won’t regret it.

Monday 11 April 2016

Musket Brewery - Meet the Brewer Evening

Last Thursday, Barry Dennis, the inimitable landlord of the Anchor in Sevenoaks, held another of his “Meet the Brewer Evenings". As the name of these events implies, the evening revolves around a brewer, normally a fairly local one, who gives a short presentation about his or her company, and the beers it produces.

At the same time, Barry will have one or more beers on tap, from the brewery concerned. There is normally a short question and answer session at the end of the presentation. As can be imagined, these evenings are popular with both the Anchor’s loyal regulars and occasional visitors, like me. Thursday’s presentation had a particularly relevance as far as I was concerned, as the brewer giving part of the talk was an old friend of mine.

Musket Brewery is a microbrewery based at Loddington Farm at Linton in the heart of the Kent countryside. It started production in October 2013 producing a range of cask ales using the finest malts and Kentish hops and now sells to more than 115 pubs and clubs throughout Kent.

Musket director Tony Williams and his wife, Linda were present, with Tony talking about how the brewery started, the premises and the type of brewing plant equipment used, but the presentation on the actual brewing side of the operation was given by their head-brewer, Nigel Deas.

I have known Nigel for the past 30 years, since I first met him at an MMK CAMRA meeting, shortly after my then wife and I had moved to the area. In April 1981, Nigel  and I travelled up to Durham for our first CAMRA National AGM, and in the summer of that same year we went out on a couple of beer collecting expeditions; picking up casks of beer from breweries in Dorset and the Thames Valley for the 1981 Maidstone Beer Festival.

These expeditions were back in the days before the advent of Beer Agencies, when it was necessary to go to the brewery itself in order to pick up beer. On one trip we visited Palmers down in Bridport, and then called in at Hall & Woodhouse, in Blandford Forum, on the way back. The second trip saw us collecting beer from Brakspears, in Henley-on-Thames, and Whitbread subsidiary, Wethered’s of Marlow.
The Musket team - Nigel is in the middle

I mention these trips because we were both interested in breweries, and were passionate about beer. Nigel had developed this passion further and had become a dedicated home-brewer; turning out some excellent and highly quaffable full-mash brews. He was later able to apply his skills further by working full time as a brewer; initially for Goachers in Maidstone and later for Larkin’s out at Chiddingstone.

It was only natural then that Tony and his business partner, Mark Stroud should select Nigel to be their head brewer at Musket. I only found about the presentation at the Anchor the night before, thanks to social media, so forsaking my own branch’s social in Tonbridge, that same evening, I took the train over to Sevenoaks to catch up with Nigel, and with Musket Brewery. Nigel’s wife, Christel was also there, and it was nice to spend some time chatting, as I hadn’t seen her in ages.

As I said earlier, Tony and Nigel covered the presentation between them, but for the technically minded amongst you Musket brew on a five barrel plant, using pre-crushed malt, obtained from Crisps Maltings, whole leaf hops and dried yeast. Their site is a converted building which was once used to grow mushrooms. Five standard beers are brewed, ranging from a pale ale, right up to a porter, with a best bitter, a dark and a golden ale in between. Nigel told us that they will be shortly launching a mild; in fact he had brewed the beer that very day.

There were three Musket beers on at the Anchor that night - Fife & Drum, an easy drinking 3.8% golden ale; Flintlock, a darker 4.2% Best Bitter and One Shot Bitter, 4.0% ABV. The latter is a “house beer”, brewed specially for a local free-house. My personal favourite of the three was the Fife & Drum. In case you hadn’t already realised, all the beers have a “musket” theme, but for further information, check out the brewery’s website here.

Thanks, as always to Barry for setting up this informative, enjoyable and, for me, nostalgic evening.

Saturday 9 April 2016

Aylesford - with acknowledgements to retiredmartin

Aylesford, Kent

Martin Cambridge writes an excellent beer and pubs blog, under the name of retiredmartin. In his blog, Martin describes his visits to towns and villages throughout the UK, with the underlying theme of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide and a good walk to unite his posts.

If I have understood his modus operandi correctly, Martin aims to visit all new entries in the GBG, each year, as well as returning to some old favourites. With the view of keeping his fitness levels up, and to prevent himself falling victim to the lethargy which afflicts many retirees, Martin combines these visits with a long walk. He is a prolific blogger; often posting on a daily basis, and whilst I don’t know where he finds the time to visit all these different towns, let alone write about them, I always look forward to reading his latest post.

retiredmartin was uppermost in my thoughts this afternoon when I visited Aylesford, a small settlement on the River Medway, to the north of Maidstone. I was in the area as my car was due its annual service. I bought the vehicle, a year ago, from a main dealer on the Quarry Wood Estate, just off the A20, and as the package included a complimentary major service, it was worth taking half a day’s leave and dropping the car off at the dealership whilst the work was carried out. The only dilemma was what to do during the 2-3 hours the service would take.

It was a work colleague who had suggested a walk into Aylesford, and looking at the map it didn’t seem that far. As it happened the walk took about half an hour, as I set off in a roughly northerly direction, past the Royal British Legion Village, under the M20 motorway, and the across the Medway Valley rail line by means of a level crossing.

The tide is high - Aylesford Old Bridge
When I lived in Maidstone, during the early 1980’s, I would sometimes cut through Aylesford on my way to work in Tonbridge. Back then the village was something of a bottleneck, with northbound traffic routed over the picturesque, but rather narrow 14th Century stone bridge; whilst southbound vehicles traversed the river by means of a Bailey Bridge to the east of the village. Today, a modern, permanent bridge, close to the site of the temporary structure, carries two-way traffic, in quite large volumes across the river.

These “new” arrangements allowed me to cross over the ancient stone-arched bridge in complete safety; but not before stopping to take a few photographs. I had, of course, visited Aylesford on quite a few occasions, but I think this was the first time I had witnessed the tide being in. Although the Medway flows through some tranquil rural countryside on its journey to the sea, the river is tidal as far south as the sluices at Allington Lock; a few miles upstream from Aylesford. There is a considerable tidal rise and fall on this stretch of the river, and at low water, the river resembles little more than a narrow stream with mud banks either side. It was therefore good to see it at high water, with the waterway full and encroaching right up to the margins of the banks.

The former George Inn - now a private residence
After crossing the river, I turned immediately right, pausing for a look at the long closed George Inn. A former coaching inn, the pub is said to have closed some time in the 1970’s. The old etched glass is still in place, with windows advertising the presence of the Public Bar, Private Bar and the Smoking Room. It looks as though it was a really good pub, back in its heyday, but it had been closed for several years before I moved to the area.

When the George closed, its licence was transferred down the road to a restored 12th Century property, which had operated as a café for many years. Known as the Little Gem, this tiny pub offered, in its heyday, a wide and varying range of different cask ales and ciders. The Gem was reputed to be the smallest pub in England, so it is extremely sad to see it in its present state for unlike the George, which looks well maintained and properly cared for; the Little Gem has been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair.

Sad and falling into disrepair - the Little Gem
The pub closed its doors for the last time in 2010, and has since become increasingly more derelict, as it seems no one is prepared to give the asking price of £230,000 for the building. An online petition and Facebook page was launched last December, with the aim of rescuing the pub, but the owner, who does not live locally, has applied to the local authority for change of use to a private dwelling. Whatever the building’s fate, it will require a lot of work before it can be restored to anything like its former condition.

I walked along from the Little Gem towards the edge of the village, as my work colleague had said I would find a tea-room. However, after passing the upmarket Hengist restaurant, I reached the conclusion that, like the Gem, the tea-room must have shut up shop. I retraced my steps and after crossing the road, climbed the hill for a look at the Parish church, which is dedicated to both Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

The church stands on higher ground, overlooking the village, and I suspect its elevated position was chosen to protect the building from flooding. The church dates back to Norman times, but with obvious later additions. It was unfortunately locked; a sad indictment of the times we live in, but I was rewarded with some fine views over the village and across the river, from the churchyard.

The Chequers - Aylesford
Thwarted in my attempt to find a tea-room and my desire to look inside the church, I followed a series of steps leading back down into the village and made my way to the one place where I knew I could find some refreshment; the Chequers. This Grade II listed timber framed, former wool merchant’s house, dates from 1511. The main attraction for me though was the terrace area, overlooking the river, at the rear of the building.

The Chequers has the sort of beamed interior one would expect from a building of this age, and is a bit of a maze of interconnecting rooms on different levels. There were a handful of people in the pub; either playing pool or watching the golf on the tele, but apart from the dreaded Doom Bar, there was little to tempt the serious beer drinker. Undeterred I ordered myself a coffee and took it out onto the terrace to enjoy the views.

View from the terrace - Chequers
The tide was still coming in, and it seemed strange to see the water flowing in the opposite direction to the normal flow of the river. The terrace obviously doubles up as the pub’s smoking area, although there is no obvious shelter for inclement weather. The pool players were taking advantage of it, and the language was a bit colourful at times. It didn’t bother me, but I imagine it might put some people off; however, it was nice to take the weight off my feet for a while and to sit there watching the odd boat going down the river and the people walking over the old medieval bridge.

A look on WhatPub reveals one other pub in Aylesford; the Bush, which is situated on the Rochester Road. I am not sure if I have ever been there, but I wasn’t tempted to give it a try on this visit. I had some shopping to do back at the Quarry Wood Retail Park, along with some investigative work relating to a sat nav we are looking to buy for the car.

I therefore decided to retrace my steps and head back towards the A20. It had been an enjoyable interlude, and a good way of spending time whilst waiting for the car to be serviced. As I walked around Aylesford earlier, I had been thinking about retiredmartin, and I now mused on the fact that it is sometimes nice to look around a place I wouldn’t normally think of going to. I might be back there, in a year’s time, when the car is due its next service, but who knows. For an interesting little stop-over though, I can thoroughly recommended Aylesford.

Tuesday 5 April 2016

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Nine - Adnams of Southwold

Adnams, who brew in the genteel Suffolk resort of Southwold, are known as the “seaside brewery”. Their Bitter, to my mind, is one of Britain’s finest “quaffing beers”, and on top of this, the company own some excellent and unspoilt pubs.

I first became familiar with the name of Adnams after reading “The Death of the English Pub”; the excellent, and pioneering exposé of Britain’s big brewers, written in the early 1970’s by Christopher Hutt. Adnams were praised by Hutt for retaining traditional cask beers, brewed to suit local palettes, and for their policy of keeping open many marginal rural pubs. This was in stark contrast to the activities of Watneys, who as well as phasing out traditional beer, had also closed scores of village locals throughout East Anglia.

The Brewery
Shortly afterwards I met up with an old school friend of mine, who was studying at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich. My friend informed me that the bar in the Students’ Union at UEA sold Adnams, and it was on a subsequent visit to my friend’s university that I first sampled Adnams. I must confess that it didn’t strike me as anything special at the time, but I put this down partially to inexperience on my part and to possible poor cellarmanship on behalf of the students union. More to the point if the students’ union bar was using plastic “glasses”, as was the practice at Salford where I was studying, then even the best kept pint would have tasted pretty dire.

Several years later, I visited Southwold itself, in order to sample Adnams ales on their home territory. This was not my first visit to the town however. As a child, I had been taken there, on a day’s outing, along with my sister. We had both been spending part of the summer holidays with our grandparents, at their bungalow in Friston; a small Suffolk village not far from Saxmundham. Towards the end of our stay, our grandmother announced that she would be taking us to Southwold, by bus.

Where's the sand?
Apart from the journey seeming to take an absolute age, I remember little of our visit. What I do recall though is that there was precious little sand at Southwold, a fact that came as something of a disappointment to two children used to the sandy beaches along the Kent coast.

When I returned, nearly twenty years later, it was not sand but some of Southwold’s finest ales that I was after. En route to Southwold, I had stopped in the coastal town of Aldeburgh, famous for its connections with the composer Benjamin Britten. Here, in the unspoilt Cross Keys, my companion and I enjoyed an excellent seafood lunch, washed down with Adnams Bitter, before travelling on to Southwold itself.

The Sole Bay Inn and Southwold lighthouse (Ian Brereton) / CC BY-SA 2.0
The Sole Bay Inn, which acts as the brewery tap afforded the opportunity of sampling Adnams Old Ale for the first time, as well as being an excellent pub in its own right. Later, during that same visit to Suffolk, the classic and unspoilt Jolly Sailor in the tiny town of Orford was visited, which again afforded the opportunity of trying yet more Adnams, including their mild. Orford is a quaint little settlement on the River Alde. It is over-looked by an imposing medieval keep; all that remains from a once extensive castle. As a child, I had visited the castle with my parents, and my sister and I had also fished for crabs from the jetty, using hand-lines baited with bacon rind.

Subsequent visits to Southwold, this time in the company of my new wife, allowed more time for exploring this well-preserved Victorian town. On one occasion we enjoyed a superb lunch, plus some excellent Adnams, in the Lord Nelson, overlooking the seafront. Another visit showed just how much the Adnams Brewery had been expanded. Walking back from the seafront, along a side street, we were surprised to notice a gleaming row of fermentation vessels behind the window of what appeared to be an ordinary terraced house. A closer inspection revealed that the whole row of houses had been adapted for brewery purposes. As much of Southwold is a designated conservation area, where redevelopment and new building are subject to strict planning regulations, Adnams had simply bought up the houses, and converted them to the purpose described above; a neat solution to a tricky problem.

It’s been 20 years or more since I last visited Southwold, and since then there have been even more changes at Adnams. For example new fermenting vessels were installed in March 2001 to cope with increased demand, and the brew-house was completely re-equipped in July 2006, making it one of the most energy efficient in Europe. In addition the company opened a brand new, eco-friendly, distribution centre in the nearby village of Reydon, in order to expand its business

The beer range has also been substantially expanded, and now includes a keg beer called Spindrift, alongside a range of seasonal beers, plus a whole host of one-off commemorative and collaborative beers. Unfortunately, Adnams Extra, my favourite of the company’s beers, was inexplicably dropped several years ago. The decision to axe this beer was all the more puzzling in view of the fact that it was awarded the title of Champion Beer of Britain at CAMRA’s annual Great British Beer Festival in 1993. From memory it was a lovely hoppy beer with a tremendous depth of flavour.

In 1999 Adnams introduced its famous "ribbons" logo and successfully relaunched Broadside in award-winning bespoke 500ml bottles, and in 2005 the company refreshed its brand with new-look pump clips and a stylish bespoke pint glass. In 2013 a new range of beers was introduced under the Jack Brand label, including Adnams first ever lager – Dry Hopped. The company have also produced a range of exclusive beers for Marks & Spencer, including both a Summer and a Winter IPA. Both are excellent, but after many samplings I still can’t decide which of the two I prefer.

What I find most fascinating is the company’s decision in 2010, to open their own distillery, which sits in the room where the old brewing coppers once stood. Initially set up to produce gin and vodka, two additional still were added in 2015 to allow whisky to be distilled. This surely is a first for any UK brewery.

Adnams have only around 50 pubs, but their beers are quite widely distributed. A number of free-houses in this part of the country stock the company’s beers, and Broadside seems to be a permanent fixture on the bar of our local Wetherspoon’s. Adnams Ghost Ship also seems a pretty regular guest ale in the same outlet as well.

So there we have it; Adnams have become one of the country’s most innovative and forward-thinking brewers, whilst at the same time maintaining a fine range of traditional ales and traditional pubs, in which to drink them. They have achieved this by invest heavily both in their future  and the people who work for the company, so long may they continue to brew their fine Suffolk Ales!

For a much more detailed look at the company, its history, its philosophy, its beers, its pubs and now its spirits, log on to Adnams excellent and highly informative website.

Sunday 3 April 2016

Ightham Common Re-visited

I am pleased to report that the CAMRA National Inventory listed, Old House at Ightham Common is alive and well. It was certainly busy when I called in at lunchtime today, and with a fine range of beers on offer, and customers in both bars, it was definitely worth my stopping by.

I don’t often get over that way; even though Ightham Common is only about eight miles drive from my house; but this could all change. Our son has recently started dating a girl who lives in nearby Ightham village. She has a car, but he doesn’t; in fact he has yet to book himself some driving lessons, let alone take his driving test! The upshot of this was dad’s taxi had to run him over to Ightham at lunchtime, and with the time being just after 1.30pm, it seemed an ideal opportunity for me to make a slight detour on the way back and see how the Old House was doing.

I noticed a number of racing bikes lined up against the wall when I arrived, but there was only one other vehicle parked outside. I think this 4 x 4 belonged to the landlord, who was sitting outside, having a crafty cigarette. I said hello, and made my way inside; choosing, as always, the left-hand public bar, which is the larger of the two bars.

The owners of the bikes were sat in the adjacent saloon, all looking very professional in their black and yellow cycling gear. There were four or five of them, all looking older than me, but much fitter and leaner. They were all drinking pints, but as I’ve heard beer is isotonic, it was probably just the right drink to replace lost body fluids after all that exercise. I later discovered they were from the Sidcup area, and from their conversation, they appeared to be real ale enthusiasts, or possibly fully paid upCAMRA members.

There were a couple of old boys, dressed in their Sunday best, sat at the bar in the public enjoying the plate of sausage rolls and scotch eggs laid out on the counter. They acknowledged my presence and shouted for the landlord, but as he had already seen me, he soon appeared on the scene. I can’t remember all the beers on sale, but I did see Harvey’s Best, Dark Star Cappuccino plus a Red Ale whose name escapes me, Titanic Bitter, Mr Swift’s Pale Ale from West Berkshire Brewery, plus Oakham Inferno.

It was a toss-up between the latter two, but with the landlord recommending the Inferno, I went with that. It was pale golden in colour and bursting with citrus flavours from the North American hops used in the brewing. I had quite liked the sound of the Mr Swift’s as well, but as I was driving I wisely limited myself to just the one pint.

The public bar began to fill up soon after my arrival. Everyone seemed on first name terms with both each other and mine host, so they were obviously all locals. I was offered some sausage rolls, which went well with the beer, as did the peanuts on the bar. It was a nice fairly warm spring day outside, so the door had been left open.

The cyclists filed in from the other bar for refills (thirsty work riding up and down all those hills between South London and Ightham!). Most opted for the Cappuccino, although Titanic also seemed a popular choice. In contrast, the regulars were drinking Harvey’s, to a man, but Sussex Best is regarded as a “must stock” beer in this part of the South East, so this wasn’t surprising.

As I said, I restricted myself to just the one, secure in the knowledge that, providing the romance lasts, I’ll be making a few more trips over to Ightham. It was good to see the Old House nice and busy, and I thoroughly recommend a visit if you ever find yourself over that way. Just remember though that it has limited opening times, as it is something of a “hobby pub” and the landlord has a full-time job elsewhere.

Rifle Volunteers - Maidstone
As a side note, whilst sitting there, enjoying my beer, I picked up a copy of Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA’s newsmagazine - Draught Copy. One of the articles was about the Rifle Volunteers, a back-street Maidstone pub, which has just been placed on the CAMRA National Heritage list as it has an historic interior of regional importance. This is just a step down from a listing for being of national importance.

I know the Rifle Volunteers well, as I used to live in Maidstone.  Back then it was a Shepherd Neame tied house, but more recently it has belonged to local brewers, Goachers. It is well worth a visit, but check it out first, either on WhatPub, or here on the National Inventory website.