Thursday 30 June 2016

Ode to Joy?

In my previous post I quite clearly stated that despite my immense disappointment at the EU Referendum result, I would not be writing anything further about it. My resolve remained steadfast in spite of the unravelling of the “Leave” campaign’s exaggerated claims about more money for the NHS and our ability to negotiate our own highly beneficial trade deals; claims which are now being exposed as fantasy at best, and outright lies at worst. The irony is that those behind "Brexit" didn’t even have a plan of what they should do if they won!

As I said, despite my increasing frustration about how the electorate has been misled I was still determined to remain silent. Something happened at work this morning to break my resolve and, as I am about to relate, it should strike a chord with all who care deeply about our country.

I was down in the warehouse, checking off an order for despatch. Standing next to me was a young Polish girl, who has been with our company for nearly three years. She is an intelligent and very pleasant girl, and is also a good worker who has picked things up well and made a valuable contribution to the business.

The face says it all
The radio was on and the news bulletin was dominated with items related to the fallout from the referendum. She turned to me and said, “If someone had spoken like that whilst claiming to represent my country, I would be deeply ashamed”. She was referring, of course, to Nigel Farage’s pantomime performance in the European Parliament yesterday. Grinning like a Cheshire cat, Farage berated his fellow MEP’s, taunting them that they had never done a proper day’s work in their lives, and topping that with the gibe that they weren’t laughing now.

Like much of the county I witnessed on TV his juvenile attempt at playing to the gallery; coming across like a naughty schoolboy looking around for the approval of his mates after thinking he had got one over on those in authority. Of course there were no “mates” present to slap him on the back for his idiotic remarks; instead he was greeted with the stony silence he thoroughly deserved.

There are unfortunately many people like the UKIP leader who believe the EU is some monstrous and sinister unelected dictatorship, determined to rule over us and crush us into submission beneath its jackboot. This is not how my Polish colleague sees things. She comes from a country which after being brutalised for six years by the Nazis, then endured 40 years of oppressive dictatorship under a Soviet backed regime. There were endless food shortages, foreign travel was either denied or severely restricted, but most of all people’s movements, actions and freedom to express themselves were strictly monitored.

How does my colleague feel when she hears the European Union being compared to what her nation had to endure under Hitler and Stalin? She is fortunately too young to have experienced any of this at first hand, but her parents remember only too well what life was like under the Communists.

The steady drip-drip of misinformation and black propaganda about the EU, spoon fed over the years, to a receptive audience, by newspapers such as the Sun and Daily Mail obviously poisoned many minds about an organisation which was set up to try and ensure Europe would never again tear itself apart in a disastrous continental war. It is therefore doubly ironic that on the eve of 100th Anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, Britain should be turning its back on the European Union and our friends in Europe. The slaughter which occurred on the first terrible day of that dreadful battle should serve as a poignant reminder, if one was needed, of the horror and futility of war.

I would like to end by addressing the many friends and acquaintances I have met during my visits to the Continent, and say to them there are many here in Britain who still care deeply about Europe. The “Leave” campaign won, if that’s the right word, by the narrowest of margins; meaning that just under 50% of the electorate voted in favour of the status quo, and to remain within the EU.

The damage has unfortunately now been done, and there is no going back, but I will still be making regular trips across the Channel to sample the beery and cultural delights, which Europe has to offer. I also extend a warm welcome to European beer lovers to reciprocate and come and visit us. As for my Polish colleague, she is intelligent enough and sufficiently worldly wise to know that self-serving politicians like Farage, Gove and Johnson do not speak for everyone in Britain, and I trust she will continue to work for our company and enjoy residing in the UK for many years to come.

Saturday 25 June 2016

Tunbridge Wells Circular Walk

I had booked Friday off a couple of weeks ago. I knew full well that the 24th June would be the day the EU Referendum result would be announced, but I had another reason as well for desiring a long weekend, as for four days last week we had an auditor from the United States Food & Drug Administration pouring over our quality management system.

Fortunately, apart from a few minor observations, everything was in order, but as a considerable amount of work had gone on prior to the audit,  I was grateful for the chance to unwind at the end of a long and tiring week. My friend Don had put together a plan for a circular walk from Tunbridge Wells to Groombridge; a picturesque village straddling the Kent-Sussex border. There would be an opportunity for a lunch stop at the historic Crown Inn, overlooking the village green and perhaps additional stops either on the way back to Tunbridge Wells, or in the town itself.

Friday dawned sunny and full of promise, although the shock decision that by a narrow majority, the British people had voted to leave the European Union did put more than a slight dampener on things to begin with. Still, the decision has been made and we will have to live with the consequences, so without wishing to dwell further on what for me, is an incredibly bad decision, life has to go on. This is a beer blog, after all, and unlike one prominent beer blogger, who has announced his unbridled joy at the referendum result, this is the last you will hear about it from me; unless the “leave” decision impacts on my employment situation!

So, fully kitted out for a walk in the countryside (decent boots essential after the torrential rain of recent days), two friends and I caught the 402 bus over to Tunbridge Wells. After alighting at the station, we walked along the High Street and down through the historic Pantiles area, to the large Sainsbury’s superstore which occupies the site of the town’s former West station. Here we met up with the fourth member of our party, who lives in Tunbridge Wells.

Following the southern part of the Tunbridge Wells Circular Walk, we closely followed the route of the old railway line towards Groombridge. The rail line is now operated by the Spa Valley Railway; a Heritage Railway group, which has worked hard over the 30 years since the original closure, to restore train services between Tunbridge Wells, Groombridge and Eridge.

After walking through a recently built housing estate, which overlooks the rail line, we passed into woodland. Fortunately the predominantly sandy soil underfoot meant the worst of the recent rain had drained away; although there were patches where it was still very slippery underfoot. 
High Rocks Pub
With the rail line visible on our right, and increasingly steep rocky outcrops on our left, we reached the appropriately named High Rocks. The latter is a restaurant, pub and wedding venue grouped below the adjacent towering sandstone rocks which give the area its name, and which also act as a visitor attraction in their own right. There was a wedding party outside the pub-cum-restaurant, getting themselves ready for the photographer, as we passed by. The whole complex looked very attractive, given its setting in this wooded valley and I know the venue is popular with visitors from nearby Tunbridge Wells. The Spa Valley Railway have even constructed a small halt, adjacent to the High Rocks, to enable people to arrive by a vintage stem-hauled train.

Groombridge Place (and below)

We carried on by and, after crossing under the railway, continued our walk towards Groombridge. The section of path which skirts around Southern Water's large wastewater treatment plant was not particularly pleasant, but eventually we passed out of the woodland and into more open countryside. Our walk brought us to the grounds of Groombridge Place; a moated manor house which dates back to the 17th Century. The house itself is a private home and is not open to the public, although the ornate formal gardens are, along with various other attractions.

We stopped to take a few photos of this impressive old building and its picturesque setting, before continuing up the hill and into the old part of Groombridge village. I say old part, because the county border, formed by the River Grom, is situated at the bottom of the hill, and the part of the village, on the Sussex side, is not only larger, but more recent in origin.

The Crown is an ancient old inn which dates back to the 16th Century. It has a sunny aspect over-looking the green, and it was on the village green that we sat eating our packed lunches, before venturing inside the pub. I have known the Crown for many years, and
Crown - Interior
although I haven’t been there for some time, it was encouraging to see that little had changed, and the changes which had been made, were ones for the better. By this, I mean the new and secluded outdoor drinking area at the rear, an enlarged car-park, also behind the pub and the provision of five bed and breakfast rooms.

We decided though to sit out in front of the pub, as not only were there a number of bench tables available, but the sun was shining at long last, and it was great to be able to enjoy it. The pub had three cask ales on sale; Harvey’s Sussex, Larkin’s Traditional and Black Cat Original. Most of us opted for the latter, as the beer is quite a rare find in this part of Kent. Black Cat Original is a copper coloured traditional English Best Bitter, with a good balance
Crown - Exterior
between malt and hops. This means there is some
residual sweetness remaining in the beer and it is not too bitter. A blend of Kent Goldings & Slovenian Celeia hops is used in the brewing process.

After our exertions, I treated myself to two pints of this excellent beer, giving it an NBSS score of 4.0. The landlord showed us a pump-clip for a weaker Black Cat beer called Tip Top, but with commendable honesty told us there was insufficient turn-over for the pub to support a fourth cask beer, so Tip Top appears as an occasional guest. If only more licensees were as honest, and as sensible!

It is particularly appropriate that the latter beer should be available at the Crown, as Black Cat Brewery began life back in 2011, just down the road, as the brain-child, and part time project of commercial airline pilot, Marcus Howes. Marcus developed a range of fine traditional ales on his 2.5 barrel brewery, but juggling the demands of  running the brewery, with his duties as a pilot working for Monarch Airlines, became too much so a few years ago Marcus sold the business to Paul and Kate Wratten, who have since relocated the brewery to Palehouse Common, near Uckfield. The couple are in the process of increasing the size of the brewing plant to 10 barrels to enable future expansion.

It was lovely sitting out in the late June sunshine, but shortly after 3pm we decided to get going again and to head back towards Tunbridge Wells. For the first few hundred yards, the Tunbridge Wells Circular Walk follows the steep gradient of Groombridge  Hill, as it climbs out of the village, but before long a footpath leads off to the left, and climbs up, along an even steeper section through woodland, before it emerges into open fields a the top. We then continued on towards the village of Langton Green.

Just prior to entering the village, we deviated off in a roughly easterly direction, through what seemed an endless residential development, along a series of alleyways and passages between peoples’ back gardens. After a couple of miles we suddenly arrived in the adjoining village of Rusthall which, with its rows of Victorian cottages and shops, was a real contrast to where we had just come from.

Mount Edgcumbe - exterior
It was at this point we cheated. Our original plan had been to drop down to the Toad Rock Retreat; a pub I wrote about a couple of months ago. Unfortunately the Toad does not open until 5.30pm, so not wishing to hang around for three-quarters of an hour, we caught the bus into Tunbridge Wells and put plan B into action.

We alighted at stop just outside the town’s prestigious Spa Hotel, and then wandered along the road at the top of the Common. About half-way along, a track leads down to the Mount Edgcumbe; a large attractive Georgian house, which now functions as both pub and restaurant. Our aim was to sit out on the rear terrace at the rear of the pub, especially as the sun was still shining. It seemed as though half of Tunbridge Wells had the same idea, but fortunately we managed to get a table with a view towards the imposing  Mount Edgcumbe Rocks.

Mount Edgcumbe Rocks
There was a good choice of local ales, including Old Dairy and Pig & Porter. I opted for the latter and found the brewery’s pale and hoppy, 4.0% Skylarking Session IPA especially palatable (NBSS 3.5). As I mentioned above, the place was buzzing, and was becoming busier as people knocked off work and popped in for drink. We too were planning our next move, based on the times of buses back to Tonbridge.

We decided to walk across the top of the Common to the recently re-opened George, opposite what was formerly the town’s Kent & Sussex Hospital, but which his now a massive building site. A pint there would allow sufficient time to catch the 19:10 bus from just across the road.

The George- Tunbridge Wells
It was my idea to visit the George, and I’m pleased my companions agreed with my choice. Actually, the friend who’d joined us in Tunbridge Wells at the start of the day decided to jump ship at this stage and head for home. We could hardly blame him, as he had been working as a teller at one of the local referendum counts the night before, and had not arrived home until 4am that morning!

The George is an old coaching inn which was established in Georgian times, when Tunbridge Wells first developed as a spa town. It continued in this vein until the early 2000’s when it became a late-night venue and cocktail bar, under the guises of Liquid Lounge and TN4. After being closed for a year, it reopened in April 2016, after being sympathetically restored to something approaching its former glory. The people behind the project are the owners of the Ragged Trousers and the Sussex Arms, at the Pantiles end of the town. Being experienced pub operators they have breathed new life into this lovely old building and it is now a welcome addition to the drinking scene at the top end of Tunbridge Wells.

The pub’s interior is bright and breezy, with an outlook across neighbouring rooftops to the town beyond. There are also a number of tables outside, but these were all occupied when we arrived. We chose to sit inside anyway, taking advantage of some comfortable leather settees grouped around a table. There were several local beers on sale, including Coppernob from Tonbridge, Best Bitter from Longman and Single Hop Pale #41 from 360° Brewing. Two of us opted for the latter (3.5 NBSS), and found it to be an excellent pale ale, with a pronounced citrus flavour. The third member of our group went for one of the ciders. We all thought very  highly of the George, and were especially impressed with its keen prices. Whilst we paid £4.00 a pint in the first two pubs, the George was charging £3.50 - £3.60, which was much more reasonable.

We managed to catch our bus back to Tonbridge alright; a little footsore and weary after what had been a 10 mile ramble. We were lucky with the weather as well as with the pubs, and the beer quality in all three was excellent. In addition, we were able to enjoy being out in the glorious Kent countryside, which just had to be better than stuck at work discussing the referendum result, (sorry, I wasn’t going to mention that again!).

Thursday 23 June 2016

British Guild of Beer Writers AGM 2016

Last night I attended the Annual General Meeting of the British Guild of Beer Writers. I have been a member of the guild for nearly two years, but this was the first formal meeting of the organisation I have been along to.

The AGM took place at the historic George Inn, which is just off Borough High Street and just a short hop from London Bridge station. The 6.30pm start gave me just enough time to get home from work, change my shirt and then hot foot it down to Tonbridge station and jump on a London-bound train.

The meeting was held in the Winchester Room, which is at the far end, and on the upper floor of this lovely old coaching inn. This was the first time I have been upstairs at the George, and it was nice to experience a bit more of the pubs history, at first hand. For those not in the know, the George is the last remaining example of the many coaching inns which were once present south of the river, and is the only remaining galleried inn in London.

The George Inn
The building dates from 1677, and has obviously seen many changes and witnessed many comings and goings in its long history, but today it still offers hospitality to visitors in the form of good food and drink, although it no longer offers lodging for travellers or stabling for horses. The George was originally constructed with two wings and a rear, which flanked a central courtyard, but unfortunately the section on the north side, along with that at the rear, was pulled down in the 19th Century by the Great Northern Railway, who used the pub as a goods depot. Today only the southern section remains. The George Inn is owned by the National Trust, who lease it out to Greene King; and it is the latter company we have to thank for their hospitality last night.

Before describing the meeting, a word or two about the Guild. The British Guild of Beer Writers was formed in 1988 to help spread the word about beers, brewing and pubs. Its 250 members include some of the country’s leading beer media experts, including journalists, authors, producers, photographers and illustrators, as well as humble beer bloggers like me. The Guild also numbers supporters from many of the breweries, companies and suppliers associated with the brewing trade, and many of these organisations and individuals are corporate members.

The only remaining galleried inn in London
I would estimate there were around 40 of us who took our seats in the Winchester Room; but not before we had grabbed ourselves a beer. There is a small bar just outside the room, and last night Greene King provided cask ale in the form of the rather good Mighty Moose IPA 5.6% ABV, along with a number of bottled beers from the Belhaven Craft Beer Range. These included a Pilsner, a Scottish Oatmeal Stout, an Oak-Aged Blonde Ale and a Scottish Ale. I tried several of these over the course of the meeting, but unfortunately the Oatmeal Stout had ran out by the time I went to get a bottle.

And so to the meeting, which was presided over by Guild Chairman, Tim Hampson, Treasurer, Paul Nunny and Secretary Adrian Tierney-Jones. Also present were many luminaries from the world of beer writing, including Good Beer Guide Editor, Roger Protz, leading beer historian, Martyn Cornell, London’s Best Beer, Pubs & Bars author, Des  de Moor, CAMRA Founding Member, Michael Hardman and much published beer writer, Pete Brown. There were a number of fellow writers and Bloggers who I have got to know over the past couple of years, including  Peter Alexander (Tandleman), Matthew Curtis, Bryan Betts and Ed Wray.

Adrian receiving his presentation
Actually, I was only introduced to Ed in person, last night, although I have been following his blog Ed’s Beer Site for many years. It was good to put a face to the name and to talk to Ed about his days at Old Dairy Brewery and his current work within the brewing industry.

There was a ballot to elect seven ordinary committee members to join the chairman and treasurer in steering the guild towards a new future. This is because the BGBW is changing this year from a private member’s club to a limited company. There was also a change on the top table, with Adrian Tierney-Jones standing down as secretary after 11 years in the role. During his time as Guild Secretary the membership, scale of activity and reputation of the Guild has grown out of all recognition, which is a tribute to enormous amount of hard work that Adrian has put in over and above his day job.

In order to take the Guild to the next level the committee have decided to recruit a secretary to work one day a week for the organisation, but before Adrian officially stepped down, Chairman Tim Hampson led the tributes and thanks for all his hard work over the years and presented him with a bound set of Alfred Barnard’s “The Noted Breweries of Great Britain & Ireland”.

With the formal stuff over, the meeting ended and we got stuck into a rather nice finger-buffet, along with more beer. This was obviously where the bulk of the socialising took place, and it was good to catch up with people and to hear about some of their experiences as writers in the multifaceted world of beer. As I mentioned earlier, it was good to meet up with Ed Wray for the first time, but it was also good to chat with Bryan, Matthew and Peter. Tandleman had just got back from a holiday in Albania, and was dressed as though he had literally just stepped off the plane!

I left, shortly after 10pm, as with the concluding part of a four day audit, at work, conducted by the US Food & Drug Administration, due the following morning I needed to keep a (relatively) clear head. I enjoyed my introduction to the Guild and its workings, and to meeting some new faces.

I have already pencilled in a few dates in my diary, including the organisation’s annual pre-Great British Beer Festival get-together which, this year, takes place upon the Tattershall Castle paddle steamer, and the Guilds Annual Awards Dinner, at the beginning of December.

Sunday 19 June 2016

I Predict a Riot

I Predict a Riot
I am certain others have written on this topic before, in fact I remember an article by beer-writer, Pete Brown several years ago on the very subject; but what I’m about to write about was brought home to me last night, when my wife and I attended an outdoor gig by the excellent Kaiser Chiefs.

The concert took place at Bedgebury Forest, close to the Kent-Sussex border, to the south-east of Tunbridge Wells. Bedgebury is home to the National Pinetum; a collection of over 10,000 trees growing across 320 acres, which includes rare, endangered and historically important specimens.

As such it is the perfect venue for outdoor concerts, providing the weather holds, of course! Fortunately it did yesterday evening and whilst it was a little chilly, the rain held off. The Kaiser Chief’s performed brilliantly and had the crowd singling along to hits such as Ruby, I Predict a Riot and Oh My God.

Overview of the site, before it started to fill up
We thoroughly enjoyed both the concert and the open air setting in the middle of the forest. We took along plenty to eat, in the form of a picnic, but as I was driving I forewent the pleasure of a few beers in favour of coffee and water. Forestry Commission rules do not permit glass or metal containers, so any drink brought in, including beer, has to be in a plastic container anyway, but there was a bar on site, which I couldn’t help having a quick look at.

The bar, and the abysmal choice of beers on sale there, is the subject of this post and it is a huge thumbs down to the event organisers and the catering company employed. Beer lovers had a choice of either Carling or Worthington Creamflow, served up, of course in a plastic glass. I didn’t see what the cider offer was but I’ve a feeling it was Strongbow.

Enjoying the setting
I realise this choice, if you can call it that, didn’t directly affect me; but there must have been hundreds of people who arrived as passengers, and were therefore able to enjoy the odd beer or three. To be offered just Carling or Worthington Smoothflow, is nothing short of an insult.

These days good beer doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to cask. With decent beer available in key-keg, there is no need to worry about set-up times, and any unsold beer can be kept back for another time. So to be limited to two of the very worst national brands, in a county which is home to over 30 independent breweries is a disgrace, and shows the contempt some of these so-called caterers, who seem to have the outdoor event scene pretty much sown up, have for their customers.

As Pete Brown said three years ago, on the very topic about the poor choice of beer at major festivals, “To go to a festival and be confronted with a range of drinks that any pub in the country would consider too narrow is anathema to the whole experience, and leaves a lingering bad aftertaste.”

I whole-heartedly agree

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Windsor & Eton "Tap-Takeover"

Our local Wetherspoon’s outlet in Tonbridge, the Humphrey Bean, has held a number of “tap-takeovers” during the past few years, where beers from the likes of Oakham, Sambrooks, Rockin’ Robin and Thornbridge have been show-cased. Earlier this week it was the turn of Windsor & Eton Brewery. I was alerted to this event via a message from a friend on WhatsApp, so after dinner I headed down to the “Bean” to catch up with said friend plus another member of our group, in order to check out what was on offer on the beer front.

I discovered four Windsor & Eton beers on sale, namely Eton Boatman, Knight of the Garter, Conqueror and a beer brewed specially for the Queen’s 90th birthday, called "90 Glorious Years". I started with Knight of the Garter before moving on to “90 Glorious Years”. With one of my regular check-ups at the Eye Clinic due the following morning, I thought I’d better moderate my drinking, especially as I didn’t want to turn up all “bleary-eyed”. I therefore stuck with just the two pints, enjoying the opportunity to catch up with a couple of friends as much, if not more, than the beer itself.

My friends, who had arrived before me, also gave the Eton Boatman and the Conqueror a go. The former is a 4.2% Golden Ale, whilst the latter is a 5.0% “Black IPA”; a style which is an oxymoron if ever there was one! My companions both liked it, saying it was much smoother than a stout, without the harsh bitterness often associated from the use of highly roasted malts. They also said it was pleasantly hoppy in character; hardly surprising given the inclusion of Summit and Cascade hops in the beer. Both agreed though, that one was enough.

I enjoyed my Knight of the Garter a 3.8% easy drinking Golden Ale, brewed with American Amarillo whole leaf hops giving a distinctive fresh citrus aroma reminiscent of cut grapefruit. “90 Glorious Years” wasn’t bad either; slightly darker in colour, and that pleasant earthy hoppiness which can only come from English hops.… either,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,...h.hops in th eber.t, without the harsh bitterness often associated from the use of ighl
Being a Monday, the “Bean” was quite quiet, with even the Belgium v Italy Euro 2016 game not providing sufficient attraction to pull in the customers. For me though, it made a pleasant change to be out on a Monday evening, and like I said it was good to catch up with friends; one of whom I hadn’t seen for a couple of months.

Windsor & Eton was formed by four friends who came together to bring brewing back to the heart of these two famous Berkshire towns. The brewery was launched on St Georges Day 2010; seventy-nine years after the closure of Windsor’s last brewery.  
Since then, Windsor & Eton have gone from strength to strength, offering a range of well-crafted and inspiring beers in cask, keg and bottled form. The company now turns over £2.5 million and employs around 30 people. Major customers include M&S, the House of Commons, Ascot Racecourse

The Humphrey Bean is Tonbridge's JD Wetherspoon outlet. Transformed into a pub from the town’s former Crown Post Office, the "Bean" is not one of the company's most imaginative conversions. The smaller section at the front is where the post office counters once were, but the much larger section to the rear was formerly the sorting office, and still maintains its shed-like appearance.

To be fair, it is bright and airy, with plenty of tables, and includes a raised area on the left-hand side. This section leads through to an attractive land well laid out garden, which looks out across the River Medway to Tonbridge's imposing 13th Century castle.

Sunday 12 June 2016

In the Club

There’s been some debate recently as to the merits, or otherwise of including clubs in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide. As I stopped buying the guide several years ago, and  even longer ago stopped from having any input to it, I have no strong opinions one way or the other, but before going any further I have to confess that I’ve never been a fan of clubs.

It’s hard to pin-point the reasons why and if I’m honest I can’t even remember exactly where and when I first became aware of the existence of your typical “Working Men’s Club”. In my mind, at least, clubs have always been regarded as something of a northern phenomenon, but I don’t think I ever set foot inside one during the four years I spent as a student in the Manchester area. Instead, it was my return to Kent which introduced me to the world of clubs; a world I took an instant, and long-lasting dislike to!

In essence, Working Men's Clubs are private social clubs which first appeared during the 19th century in industrial areas of Britain, such as the North of England, the Midlands, Scotland and parts of the South Wales Valleys. Their prime aim was to provide recreation and education for working class men and their families, in the form of a “controlled environment in which to socialise and drink”. (Where have we heard that before?)

Typical Working Men's Club interior
However despite their lofty educational ambitions, most working men's clubs are purely recreational. Today they provide an affordable way for local people to meet, enjoy live entertainment and play games. Typically, a club would have a room, with a bar for the sale and consumption of alcohol. Games such as snooker, pool or bar billiards are also pretty much the norm, as are televisions which are primarily for sport entertainment.

Most clubs will have a larger room, sometimes referred to as the concert or entertainment room, and here there will be a stage and a layout of tables, stools alongside more comfortable chairs. These rooms are used to provide night time entertainment, mainly on the weekends such as, live music, cabaret and comedy, but bingo and raffles are also popular activities. Many clubs are also known for their charitable works, and some these days will also provide food.

Eyes down!
In recent years, declining membership has seen many clubs close down and others struggle to remain open. In fact, despite the pleasure clubs afford to so many people, over the last three decades the number of Working Men’s Club (WMC’s) has halved from 4,000 to 2,000, and clubs continue to close at an alarming pace.

Some groups have attempted to raise the profile of individual clubs, pointing to their historical legacies and their community roles, but despite this the WMC’s are struggling to find their place in contemporary British society.

This situation is mirrored where I live in Tonbridge, with the Royal British Legion and the Constitutional Club now the only establishments remaining in the town. When I first moved here, 30 years ago, Tonbridge could boast its own Working Men’s Club, plus a club which belonged to one of the large printing companies (White Friars Press), which were once prominent in the town. Printing, as an industry, has vanished from Tonbridge and with a dwindling of retired employees remaining on the books, the White Friars Press Club closed its doors for the last time in the autumn of 2010.

Despite their legacy and role in the nation’s social history, I still find clubs (Working Men’s or otherwise), soulless and lacking in atmosphere. Their supporters would say that’s because I am not a member, and they would be right, as the fact that admission is limited almost exclusively to members’ means that most people belonging to a club will at least know some of the other members. It is this which gives the clubs their social cohesion and provides a feeling of belonging.

Tonbridge Working Men's Club (Nigel Cox) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Fine if that’s your thing, but as far as I am concerned I don’t want to join the club; preferring instead to spread my choice of watering hole to wherever happens to take my fancy. On those occasions where I have visited a club, (usually when there’s something connected with CAMRA taking place), not only do I find the whole rigmarole of “signing-in” a real performance, I also see it as something which sets a club apart from the all encompassing inclusive nature of a pub.

Then there’s the décor, with many clubs resemble a rather faded airport departure lounge, and with fixtures and fittings which seem little changed from the 1970’s, why would I want to spend my time in such ghastly places?

CAMRA’s interest in clubs stems from the fact that many now offer a wide range of interesting cask beers, often sold at subsidised prices. This at least is a much welcome change from a few decades ago, when all that you could find in a cub were national keg brands and well-known international lagers. I accept that many club stewards put in an inordinately amount of extra work, far in excess of what might normally be required, in order to offer a decent range of cask ales, all in tip-top condition. 

Including clubs in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide therefore does show recognition for the work these club stewards put in, but I wonder how many ordinary buyers of the guide, visit clubs which are featured in the guide? It’s OK to say for the guide to state that the club will admit card-carrying CAMRA members, but most GBG users are ordinary members of the public, and do not fall into this category. Also, my experience is that many clubs are far from welcoming of strangers.

CAMRA goes as far as holding an annual Club of the Year competition – COTY; although I dislike that acronym nearly as much as POTY – Pub of the Year! Many branches struggle to find, let alone nominate suitable candidates, but running this contest at least gives a CAMRA committee or two something to do.

The only club I have experience of, is the Tunbridge Wells Constitutional Club, where my local West Kent Branch hold their AGM. There is a nice quiet meeting room upstairs, along with a private room on the ground floor, next to the bar where the inevitable post-meeting buffet takes place. The club itself though, seems painfully quiet; although Saturday afternoons in late November might not be the time when people venture far from their homes. I hate to say it, but it reminds me of “God’s waiting room”, and by the time the meeting has concluded, and the buffet consumed, I cannot wait to leave and to head for a proper pub.

Perhaps political clubs like the Constitutional, and their Labour Party equivalents, still have some form of a future. The same could be said for the Royal British Legion. It is interesting that the latter organisation has now dropped its requirement for prospective members to have, or have had, some connection with the armed forces or the emergency services. So in effect, although continuing to raise money for the Legion, the RBL has turned into just another social club with about the same appeal of the others I have previously described.

To sum up, give me a pub any day. Somewhere I don’t have to be a member, and somewhere I can just walk into when I fancy a drink, something to eat, or just want to meet up with a few friends.

Saturday 11 June 2016

The Pantiles and all that jazz

The famous "Pantiles"

The other evening I nipped over to Tunbridge Wells for a social organised by my local CAMRA Branch (West Kent). The event was billed as a “Pantiles Walkabout”; signifying it was a mini-pub crawl of a few of the pubs which are grouped around the historic Pantiles area of the town. It was a warm summer’s evening; one of the first evenings so far this summer where one didn’t need a jacket, so it seemed perfect for a spot of al fresco drinking.

The rest of Tunbridge Wells obviously thought the same, as the whole Pantiles area was buzzing, with many pubs packed out and no outside table space at which to sit and enjoy a beer. Worse still, plastic “glasses” were the order of the day.  To explain further, Thursday evenings thought the summer, are set aside for a series of “Jazz on the Pantiles” events, with live music being played from the bandstand opposite this famous colonnade of shops, restaurant and pubs.  This, combined with the very welcome warm weather, is what had brought people out in their droves.

The vast majority of the crowds thronging the area were under 30, and included a disproportional number of rather attractive young ladies. However, that was obviously just my perception of it, as our brains, via our reticular activating system (RAS), only show us what we want to see, and filter out other “less important” information. I’m certain therefore, if I was a member of the opposite sex writing this, my RAS would have shown the complete opposite, and I would be raving about the number of fit young blokes.

Outside the Ragged Trousers
I digress, and what ever their gender it was good to see so many people out and about enjoying the warm summer evening, although my observation was there didn’t seem to be that many of them listening to the music. This included us; not because we dislike jazz, or other forms of live music, but rather because we were thirsty and hankering after a pint!

We had arranged to meet at the Ragged Trousers; a converted shop situated almost in the middle of the colonnade, but like many of the pubs it was absolutely rammed. I spotted a couple from our group who had managed to get served, but with lengthy queues at the bar we decided to try our luck elsewhere. 

Unfortunately the Duke of York, a fine old pub belonging to Fuller’s Brewery was equally crowded, so we gave up on that idea and headed for the Sussex Arms. Being tucked away in a maze of alleys, our reckoning was the Sussex should be a bit quieter.

The Duke of  York
It was to a point and not only did we managed to get served almost straight away, but we found a few seats and a table – result. The only downside was the plastic “glasses”, but these are insisted upon by the local constabulary, and with people wandering around with drinks in their hands, and clambering up and down steps, I can perhaps understand why. Having said that, I absolutely detest the things and anyone who claims they don’t have a detrimental affect on the taste and perception of the beer is either talking b*ll*cks, or works for a company which supplies these abominations. 

Think I’m kidding about the taste of the beer? Well, it was visually impossible to assign meaningful beer scores to the Long Man Best Bitter and the Taylor’s Landlord, which were the two beers I drank at the Sussex. Also on tap were Tribute and Proper Job from St Austell, plus a beer from local newcomer Ashdown Ales. I also noticed the improved lager offering at the Sussex, with Czech Budvar and Staropramen on the “T”-bar, with the latter proving particularly popular with punters.

Being a warm evening I would have preferred to have sat outside, but all tables in front of the pub were taken. Besides, it was quite nice tucked away in the corner watching the comings and goings, including of course the aforementioned young ladies.

Eventually though the comings began exceeding the goings and the pub started getting uncomfortably full. Equally, to a man, we all had the desire to drink beer from a proper real glass, so we decided to head a little way back into town. By following the maze of alleys and narrow side streets, we passed into the historic and rather quaint, but extremely pricey, “village” area of Tunbridge Wells, our destination being the Grove Tavern, ably kept by Steve the landlord, who is also one of our branch committee members.

The Grove Tavern
Steve himself was behind the bar to greet us when we walked in; an unusual sight as Steve has a number of experienced staff to look after the bar, whilst he concentrates on his other job of installing software and fixing peoples’ computers. It was good to see him though, and it was nice from our point of view at least, to find the Grove relatively quiet, as it is often quite difficult to find space to stand, let alone sit.

Wainwright, from Lancashire brewers Thwaites, was my beer of choice, although Harvey’s Best and Taylor’s Landlord were also available. The Wainwright was in good condition and, of course, tasted all the better from being drunk from a glass. I think this was the first time I’d sampled this beer in draught form, but whilst refreshing enough it seemed to lack something, and this was particularly noticeable following on from the Taylor’s Landlord. I’m therefore not really sure why people rave over this beer, but Steve the landlord seemed pretty pleased with it, and said it was literally flying out the door.

I only stayed for the one pint. With a busy work schedule the following day, plus a concert in the evening, I took the opportunity of the Grove’s proximity to the station, to slip away and catch the 22.39 train home. It has been an enjoyable evening, especially as we were able to welcome a new member to the branch. However, next time we arrange a Pantiles Walkabout, we’ll check the calendar more thoroughly and choose a quieter evening!

Tuesday 7 June 2016

Castle Inn, Chiddingstone - Update

Several weeks ago I wrote a short post about the sudden closure of the historic Castle Inn, in the National Trust owned village of Chiddingstone, near to Tunbridge Wells. The closure was something of a shock to both locals and visitors alike; especially coming as it did at the start of the busy tourist season.

The actual reasons for the closure are still unclear, but this week Nigel Lucas, who was the previous tenant of the Castle, broke his silence with a short piece which appeared in the local free newspaper, the Times of  Tunbridge Wells & Tonbridge.  Mr Lucas had run the pub for 47 years, having originally arrived there in April 1964. From what he writes, he obviously enjoyed his time at the Castle, even if the work was, at times, “exhausting.”

He did describe the National Trust as “never the most generous landlords”, but then went on to excuse this because of their charitable status and the requirement to make the best use of their funds. He stated that “It became increasingly difficult to negotiate reasonable rents for what is in reality a small village pub without a car park.”  

The final straw came when the Trust tried to increase the rent from £47,500 to £60,000, which he says, “For a small country pub was not feasible.” Eventually he ended up surrendering the remainder of his lease for far less than it was worth; a real slap in the face after nearly half a century of dedication and hard work.

Mr Lucas’s final words were, “Shame on you, National Trust, this is no way to treat one of your jewels. Everything has to come to an end, but it didn’t need to end like this.”

In reply Richard Henderson, the National Trust’s Assistant Director of Operations, who looks after Chiddingstone, commented: 

“We received Mr Lucas’s letter and I have since spoken with him. I am now working to address his concerns.”

“We want the pub to be a success in the village and have in recent years made changes to the tenancy at the Castle Inn to ensure its long-term place in Chiddingstone. We are now actively searching for a new tenant and are delighted to have had initial interest from several parties, which we will be following up.”

“As we’ve said before, we’re committed to finding the right conservation-minded tenant to care for this historic pub, which takes time. But we believe this care and attention is a vital part of our work to preserve its future in the village.”

Without knowing the full details of the case it is impossible to comment further, apart from saying that charities are obviously big business these days, and are always looking for the maximum return on their investment.

However, with an historic pub like the Castle there needs to be balanced approach between preserving the undoubted character of the establishment and meeting the demands of a modern business. A sense of realism should also be maintained, particularly with regard to the rent levied on a pub which is virtually inaccessible by public transport, and with no car parking facilities.

You can read the full article, which appeared in the Times of Tunbridge Wells & Tonbridge, here.

Monday 6 June 2016

Still not getting it!

I was flicking through the pages of “What’s Brewing” yesterday morning, and a couple of things caught my eye. For the uninitiated, “What’s Brewing” is the official newspaper of the Campaign for Real Ale. The paper can trace its origins back to the early 1970’s, not long after CAMRA was formed. This cleverly-named publication has seen several changes over the past 40 years, but it is still mailed out to members each month; just as it was in the very early days of the Campaign.

The main headline in this month’s edition, and the one which really attracted my attention, reads “Pubs key role in reduced figures for alcohol abuse”. According to the article, research by the Local Alcohol Profile for England, (whoever they might be), has revealed a significant fall in the number of hospital admissions related to harm caused by alcohol. The fall is across all age groups and applies to both sexes.

Good news, of course, but the article then goes on to link this fall with the findings from research group carried out by Oxford University. This different research concludes “Pub-goers are likely to drink less if those around then are behaving in a measured way and are, as a result, likely to be less tolerant of socially inappropriate behaviour”. 

Nothing new there, but this is where CAMRA’s chief executive Tim Paige, throws his hat into the ring by stating, “This is why it is especially important we continue to support pubs across the country, to ensure everyone has a local within easy distance of their home or workplace”.

So far, so good, but Tim then goes on to spoil things by stating “We at CAMRA believe there should be greater acknowledgement by government, of the distinction between those who drink in moderation in responsibly-managed social settings, and those who abuse alcohol – most often bought from supermarkets and drunk at home”.

I really thought CAMRA had moved beyond this, but it would appear not, and it is back to the same old rhetoric about supermarkets selling beer at a cheaper price than water, and unless you purchase your drink in a pub, and consume it there under the watchful eye of the licensee, you are abusing alcohol and are at serious risk of harm. Really???

I wrote about this very thing just over three weeks ago, pointing out that many of us drink at home for personal, family, financial reasons or just the plain fact that there isn’t a decent pub within walking distance. I don’t want to go over the whole article again, but speaking from personal experience I drink far less within the confines of my own home than I do when I’m in the pub.

Tim Page - CAMRA CEO
By trotting out the old chestnut that pubs provide a “safe and controlled drinking environment”, whilst implying that a person’s private residence does not, is not only disingenuous, but is also playing into the hands of the anti-alcohol lobby, who of course would like to see all drinking banned.

Now I had the pleasure of meeting Tim a few weeks ago, at the “Consultation Meeting” I attended in relation to CAMRA’s “Revitalisation Project”, and he came across as a pretty level-headed sort of chap. I am therefore more than a little surprised to see him coming out with such a statement; especially as it is fundamentally flawed. 

You are obviously not listening Tim; or if you are you are only hearing what you want to hear. If CAMRA continues down the road of alienating the large, and still growing, section of the population who, for whatever reason prefer to drink at home, it will be doing itself a grave disservice. Furthermore it will provide ammunition to those lobbying for minimum pricing for alcohol - an issue which had almost faded away, but which now seems to be rearing its ugly head once more.

Alcohol is alcohol, and to make out that pub bought booze is somehow more virtuous than a few bottles bought from a supermarket is akin to talking out of one’s rear end!