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.


Anonymous said...

A compelling case Aylesford, and some lovely detail. Thanks for the kind words too.

I'm amazed you should write about the Little Gem. Only this week my friend Charles was reminiscing about it as a great pub from his time working there. I'd never heard of it, so that detail in your post is very timely.

I've one nearby pub (actually the Village Club in Marden) to visit in the next few months, and will take a stroll round Aylesford while I'm at it !

Paul Bailey said...

Glad you enjoyed the post, Martin. Aylesford is an interesting little village and there are other attractions further along the Medway Valley, and up onto the North Downs on either side.

It’s a real shame about the Little Gem. It was bad enough the pub closing, but to deliberately let such an historic old building decay like that is nothing short of scandalous. I think it unlikely that it will reopen as a pub, and I imagine its whole future depends on how far the rot has progressed. Unfortunately many towns have buildings left in various stages of dereliction, and councils are often powerless to stop such things happening.