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!).


RedNev said...

At first when I read Black Cat, I thought you meant Black Cat brewed by Moorhouses of Burnley, which would definitely been a long way from home. It's a mild, but they don't use the word 'mild' any more as it's uncool. Instead it's referred to as a dark beer. It's very popular in my local.

As for prices, I'm struck by the North-South divide. You regarded £3.60 as reasonable in your area, whereas last week I was in a pub with friends and we were commenting how dear the beer was at £3.30. Didn't stop us buying it though!

Paul Bailey said...

Definitely the case of a north-south divide, Nev; something unfortunately demonstrated only too well in the recent referendum debacle!