Monday 30 January 2017

Do small rural pubs have a future?

The lack of a car park doesn't help

At the risk of sounding boring and focused solely on a single topic, I want to mention the Greyhound again. I am doing this partly because I promised to reveal more about some issues which might prevent the pub from ever reopening, but also because some of these points could equally apply to other threatened rural pubs. I walked passed the now sadly closed pub this lunchtime. It hasn’t been boarded up yet, but I suspect it will only be a matter of time before this happens.

So what future, if any, is there for the Greyhound? Well, as mentioned in a previous article, a group of concerned local residents have applied to have the pub listed as an ACV (Asset of Community Value). The result of this application should be known by the third week of February, but having ACV listing provides no firm guarantees that the building will continue as a pub; it just makes it a little harder for a potential purchaser to succeed in obtaining permission for “change of use”.

A garden definitely helps
There are a couple of factors which I know have already persuaded two potential investors, to not go through with buying the pub as a going concern. The first is that, somewhat unusually for a rural pub, the Greyhound does not have a garden. 

There is a strip of land to the left of the pub, which is used as a beer garden, but it actually belongs to the property behind, and is currently leased to the pub. Whether this arrangement would continue, if the pub was to acquire new owners, is uncertain, and there are no guarantees that it will.

The second and rather more serious concern is the pub has no car-park. It is possible to park on the road, either side of the pub, and even opposite, whilst still leaving room for cars to pass, but the number of spaces is limited, and too many cars parking along the lane could lead to complaints from local residents. This is a serious handicap for a country pub which relies on people arriving by car, for the bulk of its trade.

Of course, both factors could also weigh against conversion to a private dwelling, as most people who move to the country, desire a garden of some sorts; and most would also want off-road parking. The alternative would be to convert the pub into two separate dwellings, but even then both a garden and off-road parking are desirable features; if not essential.

Whatever the effect of the lack of these amenities, there is no future for the pub as a “wet-sales” only establishment. I know roughly what Larkin’s were taking each week, and I suspect that it barely covered the rent. It is therefore essential that a re-opened Greyhound offers food. The pub was doing this before it closed last summer, and often when I walked by on my lunchtime constitutional, I could see people inside getting tucked to a meal. I can’t, of course, advise as to how busy the pub was in the evening, but I think it must have been ticking over ok.

At the moment then, it remains very much a case of “wait and see”, but the fact that Larkin’s had been asked to terminate their temporary lease, does indicate that someone has made a firm offer for the Greyhound.

So does a good beer range - providing the turnover is there!
The thing which emerges from all this is that rural pubs, of the type I remember drinking in whilst coming of age, have virtually disappeared. Larkin’s valiant attempt to prove otherwise, during their brief tenancy of the Greyhound, unfortunately failed. More than ever, country pubs need to offer food, and good food at that; food which people are prepared to travel for, in order to enjoy. 

Some rural pubs also manage to stock a good range of local, and sometimes hard to get beers, on top of their food offer. Such places become “destination pubs”; places which discerning drinkers (and diners) are prepared to seek out and make the effort to travel to. The Windmill, at Sevenoaks Weald is one such pub which springs to mind, but there are quite a few others, not just in this region, but all over the county. 

Local beer enthusiasts soon get to know these places, and actively seek them out, so the future is definitely not all bad for rural pubs. Some of them just need to up their game a bit.

Friday 27 January 2017

Apricity and last orders at the Greyhound

In a previous post I mentioned the sad closure of the Greyhound at Charcott. At the moment we don’t know whether this is a temporary situation, or a permanent one. I will be examining the options regarding the pub’s future in a later post, but for now I want to focus on the Greyhound’s last day and the part played in it by my local CAMRA branch.

The Greyhound’s farewell party took place last Saturday evening. As there would be a lot of clearing up to do, not just after the party but because Larkin’s were due to surrender their short-term lease on the pub, James the landlord agreed to host one final session at lunchtime, the following day. This was primarily to allow local CAMRA to say farewell to the pub, but also to give those local drinkers who were unable to attend the night before, the chance for a few final drinks.

A nice country retreat
James told us the pub would be open from midday to around 4pm, which fitted in nicely with people’s travel plans. An hourly train service on the Tonbridge – Redhill line would allow members to alight at Penshurst, and then take a 15-20 minute walk to Charcott, by means of a tarmac path which crosses the old (WWII) Penshurst Airfield. The more active amongst us decided to walk from Leigh, a village which is one stop back along the line in the direction of Tonbridge.

So on a freezing cold day, made bearable by some very welcome and pleasing hazy sunshine, three of us caught the 11.36 train over from Tonbridge in readiness for our walk. We met up with the fourth member of the walking party, who happens to live in Leigh, and then headed up towards the parish church, and then through the church-yard.
The mysterious "shoe tree"
I pass through Leigh twice a day, on my drive to and from work, but in over 10 years of doing so, this was the first time I’d visited the church-yard. The church stands on higher ground than the rest of the village, and I’m certain there are reasons why the original builders chose this location. Leigh is what is known as an “estate village”, in so much that the village centre was re-modelled by the family of landed gentry who owned much of it. The latter lived at Hall Place, a stately pile which we would be circumventing on our route to Charcott. Hall Place was rebuilt, to its current design in 1872, and many of the handsome looking, Victorian properties in the village date from the same period.

The sun was shining, and there was not a cloud in the sky as we passed out from the church-yard, and took the footpath in front of one of the ornate gatehouses which forms the boundary to the Hall Place estate. We passed several groups of walkers heading in the opposite direction; mainly people out with their dogs.

Hale Place itself was largely invisible; hidden behind a row of trees, but also partly obscured by the hazy sunshine, and the footpath we were following also took us around the edge of a wood, but eventually we passed out into open countryside, pausing en route for a look at Leigh Park Farm, with its associated oast houses and waterside setting.

Entrance to a Cold War nuclear bunker
The final section of the walk was along a road, but fortunately one which doesn’t receive that much traffic. Before reaching the pub, we decide to make a brief detour for a look at the mysterious “shoe tree”; a tree with a number of pairs of shoes and boots hanging from its branches. No-one seems to know the purpose or significance (benign or sinister) of this; not even the locals.

We also bumped into a person carrying out some restoration work on a former nuclear bunker, close to the junction. It turned out he was a volunteer, belonging to a preservation group which had bought the bunker, when they were all sold off by the M.O.D. at the end of the Cold War. I took a few photos, including one looking down the quite deep entrance shaft. I’m not sure that I fancied climbing down there, but fortunately we weren’t offered the opportunity; besides the pub was now close by and we were wasting valuable drinking time.

When we arrived at the Greyhound, we found the rest of the CAMRA party standing outside waiting for us. Apparently there had been a problem with the smoke alarm which kept going off, so it was lucky that it was warm enough to sit outside (still with coats on, of course). This was “Apricity”!  The pub had been drunk dry the night before, so James had been along to Larkin’s to pick up a polypin of Traditional Ale. Many of us had brought a packed lunch, so we sat outside eating our lunch, whilst enjoying both the beer and the sunshine in equal quantities.

Lunch anyone?
There were about a dozen of us from CAMRA, and probably half that number who were either locals or casual visitors. The restoration enthusiast from the bunker also came along.  By this time James had sorted out the smoke alarm, so as the sun slowly began to sink in the sky, we moved indoors. The fire had also been lit, and this gave a nice welcoming touch. 

It wasn’t too long before the polypin ran out, so James drove the short distance to the brewery to pick up another. The beer in the second one was icy cold, which rather slowed down the rate of drinking, but I still managed to sink four pints.  As Larkin’s Trad has an ABV of just 3.4%, the four pints had very little effect on me. As a few other people remarked, it would have been nice to have found either Larkin’s Best or their Porter on sale, but under the circumstances we were probably fortunate with what we had.

Last Orders
We left around 3.40pm and walked back across the old airfield in order to catch the train back from Penshurst station. Before leaving we said goodbye to James, and wished him well for the future. The new polypin looked as though it was close to running out as we departed, but whilst it had been a good day, we left with a distinct feeling of sadness. Would we ever enjoy a glass of beer in the Greyhound again? Or was this the last farewell?  Who knows, but in the words of Fairport Convention “Time will show the wiser.”

Apricity : the warmth of the sun in winter.

Thursday 26 January 2017

Interrail 1975 Part Three - Croatia & Italy

The previous instalment of this narrative about my 1975 trip round Europe trip, by rail, saw me and my travelling companion Nick, reunited on the platform, at Stuttgart railway station. We then continued our journey south, into warmer climes and fresh vistas. 

Our rail journey from Stuttgart, took us through Munich and Salzburg and then up across the Alps. Unfortunately dusk was approaching as our train climbed up into the mountains and so we missed some of the most of the spectacular scenery of the whole trip. I remember us having to change trains at a junction, high up in the mountains above the small town of Bad Gastein, and spending time chatting to a local Austrian family whilst waiting for our train to arrive.

Ljubljana, now the capital of an independent Slovenia, but then part of Yugoslavia, was our next stop, followed by a halt in the Croatian capital Zagreb. We then took a train heading south towards the Dalmatian Coast, passing through the mountains which form a barrier between the inland plains and the sea. The mountains consisted largely of bare limestone, with the occasional scrub and small trees, and the journey seemed to take an age. It was also very hot in the train, especially when it kept stopping to allow a train travelling in the opposite direction to pass.

Diocletian's Palace 1975 - Split, Croatia
Our destination was the Croatian city of Split; "not a hippy phrase for departing", as Nick kept pointing out! This was to be our base for the next few days, and was also our first chance to try out the tent. 

During the initial planning of our trip, our aim had been to visit Dubrovnik; that pearl of the Adriatic which was then only just being re-discovered by western tourists, but with no trains running to the city, and with no idea of local bus services, we opted for Split instead. Split, with its setting on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, was a delight on the eyes, and we soon discovered there was a campsite on the edge of the old town, on a semi-wooded hilltop, over-looking the sea. With our tent pitched for the first time on the trip, this was now the perfect opportunity for a spot of serious relaxing.

There was a regular bus service into town, but even better was a coastal path along the rocky shoreline, which ran from just below the campsite. The waters were crystal clear and perfect for snorkelling. Nick had brought some snorkelling equipment with him, which he allowed me to share on occasion.

The main tourist attraction in Split was the ruined palace of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian. This was right in the heart of the old town, and I remember it also housed a farmer’s market, where we could buy to fresh produce. From memory, there was also a café-cum-bar nearby, which sold a very acceptable drop of locally-brewed beer. I have no idea of the name of the beer, and can’t remember whether it was bottled or draught (probably the former). Nick and I just knew it as "Pivo"; the only  Serbo-Croat word we managed to learn!

We spent a couple of days in Split, but then, purely on a whim, we decided to take a ferry across to the island of Hvar; one of several large islands which lie off this stretch of coast. After landing at Hvar Town, we then took a rather hair-raising bus journey across the island, to the port of Stari Grad. We again found a camp site, although I’m pretty certain we only stayed one night.

Stari Grad claims to be one of the oldest towns in Croatia, and has its own attractive, natural harbour. I remember us walking along the shaded road, on the opposite side to the quay, and finding some rocks to sunbathe on, and also to launch ourselves into the crystal clear water for a spot of snorkelling. During the evening, we visited a café, overlooking the harbour, where some kind of special occasion was being celebrated. So far as we could make out, it was the Marshall Tito’s birthday; although we weren’t 100% certain of this. Again, the local Pivo was good and incredibly cheap; so it was a good evening.

Arriving back on the mainland, we spent one last night in Split, but as it was just for a single night, we didn’t bother pitching the tent. This was the first, and still the only time I have ever slept out under the stars, and I have to say it was a strange experience. It seems crazy that without the “protection” afforded by just a few millimetres of canvas, I felt somewhat vulnerable and exposed, but once I got use to it, the cool night air, with the scent of the pine trees and the clicking of the cicadas, was enough to lull me into a deep and restful sleep.

After “chilling out” in Yugoslavia, it was time to get back on the rails and undertake some serious train travelling. Our journey took us in a roughly easterly direction towards Italy, crossing the border close to Trieste; a city which had several rulers during the 20th Century, including Austria-Hungary, Italy, Yugoslavia and finally Italy again.

Out itinerary didn’t allow for a stopover, as we continued our journey into northern Italy and around the coast to Venice. We had a day earmarked for sight-seeing there, and our anticipation grew as the train rumbled across the lagoon via the causeway which links the city with the mainland. As we alighted from the train we soon realised the high temperatures were not conducive to traipsing the city streets, but we did our best. The photo of me below, taken in St Mark’s Square, gives some idea of just how hot it was, but we trudged on passed the Doge’s Palace and then across the Rialto Bridge, slowly making our way back towards the station.

Yours truly, in that hat again!- Piazza Marco, Venice
Venice in a day is not to be recommended but, however briefly, I’m glad we experienced the city when we did, as I gather it is now seriously overrun with tourists. Our overall impression was that the city was slowly crumbling away, and sinking into its many canals; but I suspect Venice has given that impression for decades, if not centuries. We boarded an early evening train, heading across Italy to Milan, relaxing in the splendour of our ornate, wood-panelled compartment. It must have been around midnight that we changed trains in Milan, taking one which was heading into France and along the French Riviera to Marseille.

We awoke to a view of the Mediterranean out of the left-hand window, but soon realised this was the direction the sun was coming from. I’m not sure what time we arrived in the bustling port of Marseille, but I’m pretty certain our time was limited. For this reason, Nick left me guarding the luggage, whilst he rushed off in search of provisions and more bottled water.

I stood on the steps of the station, fascinated by the comings and goings in this most cosmopolitan of all French cities. When my companion returned, we boarded another train, again heading west; this time in the direction of the French-Spanish border. 

So Croatia apart, there was not much opportunity for beer on this leg of our trip. Spain proved a little different as I will recall in the fourth and final instalment of my travelogue.

Monday 23 January 2017

Greyhound closes

Regular readers will be aware that I have been keeping a close eye on a pub which has been under threat of closure since last summer. The Greyhound, a tucked away pub in the tiny hamlet of Charcott, is just a 10 minute walk from my workplace, and is a very pleasant late-Victorian country pub.

The Greyhound had been up for sale for the past two years, and the people responsible are our old friends Enterprise Inns. Last summer the landlord and his wife moved onto pastures new after struggling, and failing, to sell on the lease, but fortunately local brewers Larkin’s, stepped into the breach, and took on the lease; albeit on a temporary basis.

Since that time, I have posted a number of regular updates of how the pub’s been doing, but sadly, I now have to report, the Greyhound closed at the weekend; possibly for good. The reason for the closure is Enterprise Inns, have found a buyer for the pub. Details are pretty sketchy at present, but the obvious concern is that the pub will be converted to residential use, thus depriving local residents of their only pub.

The closure was officially marked by a party, held on Saturday night, but given the Greyhound’s isolated position, Larkin’s, in conjunction with James the outgoing temporary landlord, agreed to open the pub, on  Sunday lunchtime, specially for local CAMRA members and friends. This really was people’s last chance to enjoy a few pints at this attractive rural pub; certainly under its present custodians, and possibly for ever. 

A full report will follow in due course; including a description of the interesting and scenic walk to the pub, made by a group of us. In the meantime, I just wanted to let people know the Greyhound is currently closed; its fate unknown, but local residents, in conjunction with CAMRA, submitted an application for ACV listing to the local council, prior to Christmas, and the outcome of this will be made public next month.

Please rinse and return

I was given a case of bottled beers from Harvey’s, as a Christmas present by a couple of work colleagues. There are four different Harvey beers in the selection, and three of each. Tom Paine – a strong Pale Ale and 1859 Porter, make up half the case, with Blue Label Pale and Old Ale constituting the other half.

The latter two beers have always puzzled me, as the Blue Label is supposedly based on Sussex Best, whilst the latter is surely the bottled version of Harvey’s highly regarded winter seasonal. But all is not what it seems. Blue Label comes in with an abv of 3.6%; the same as the Old Ale, and yet the draught equivalents of both beers are 4.0% and 4.3% respectively.

This goes against the grain as the bottled beers of most breweries are normally stronger than their draught/cask equivalents; where such things exist. However, these strange anomalies are not the subject of this post; instead I want to draw people’s attention to a practice of Harvey’s which, whilst commonplace in the British brewing industry, is now probably unique.

Whilst rinsing one of the bottles, after use, I noticed an instruction on the back label which said “We will wash and refill this bottle. Please Return.” Now whilst I remember this instruction applying to Harvey’s 275ml (half pint) bottles, I hadn’t realised until I saw this notice that the brewery were also geared up for the re-use of their increasingly popular 500 ml bottles, an I have to say, good on them!

Back in the day when virtually all UK breweries had their own tied estates, it was standard practice for empty bottles to be collected up and returned to the brewery to be cleaned, rinsed and re-filled. Sales of bottled beers declined sharply during the late 80’s and early 90’s; helped in part by the increase popularity in cask(“real”) ale, and also by the switch, particularly in the off-trade, to cans.

This, coupled with the effect of the government’s “Beer Orders” which forced the larger breweries to sell off much of their tied estates, was probably when many breweries gave up on bottled beer. Many smaller breweries ripped out their bottling lines; many of which were both antiquated and labour-intensive, and whilst a handful of the remaining large breweries stepped in to fill the vacuum, their heart wasn’t exactly in it either.

Ironically it was the supermarkets that were responsible for the revival and indeed the renaissance of bottled beer in the UK, with the introduction of the so-called "Premium Bottled Ale" (PBA). These beers were, at least to start with, more or less exclusively bottles versions of well know “real ales”, with brands such as Fuller’s London Pride, Greene King Abbot, Courage Directors and Wells Bombardier well to the fore. Attractively packaged in 500 ml bottles which, by nature of the way in which supermarkets operate, were non-returnable and single-trip, sales of PBA’s really took off, and soon lesser known, but often more distinct brands joined the fray. Certain breweries (Charles Wells and Hall & Woodhouse spring to mind, but I’m sure there must have been others), invested heavily in state-of-the-art bottling lines, allowing smaller breweries, who could not afford such investment, to join the party.

State of the art bottling line (not Harvey's)
All of a sudden bottled beers were back in fashion; although the market had switched from the on to the off-trade. A handful of the smaller breweries had stuck with their old-fashioned half-pint bottling lines, and Harvey’s were prominent amongst them I suspect that whilst they have since upgraded their filing line, Harvey’s took the conscious decision to stick with returnable and refillable bottles.

Whilst, with the exception of Harvey’s and possibly one or two others, the practice of returning bottles for refilling has died out in the UK, I have noticed from my travels that it is still commonplace on the continent; especially in Germany. In that country, it is much cheaper to drink at home; far more so than it is in the UK.

Many people will pick up a crate of bottles from their local brewery (there are enough of them, particularly in Bavaria), and then return the crate of empties when they go to collect a fresh crate. Supermarkets too are geared up for the sale of beer by the crate, and will offer customers a refund on both the empty bottles and crate, when they are returned. This situation is light years removed from what we have in the UK, but then the Germans have always been big on recycling and other eco-friendly practices.

Given the way in which the UK beer market has evolved over the years, I do not envisage a return to returnable and refillable bottles, but before finishing I want to pose the question, “Just how environmentally friendly is the practice?”

At first sight, re-using bottles could be said to win hands down, especially when compared to sorting, collecting, crushing and re-melting single-trip ones. There are also the associated costs of manufacturing and distributing new bottles, so cost-wise non-returnable bottles probably aren’t particularly attractive.

With returnable bottles there are cleaning costs, including the removal of labels, and this is where the environmental impact starts to show its face. Harsh caustic solutions are often used in the cleaning and label removal processes, alongside the use of detergents and copious quantities of hot water. The cleaned bottles then have to be dried, so more energy costs are involved here.

The question which arises from this, is the re-use of returned bottles as “green” as it appears? Also the same arguments could be put forward in relation to the cleaning and refilling of casks and traditional kegs, as opposed to the use of “one-trip” containers for bulk beer, such as “Key-kegs”. I would therefore be interested to hear what others have to say on this subject.

Saturday 21 January 2017

The Castle remains closed

At the tail end of October, last year, I announced that the historic Castle Inn in the picturesque village of Chiddingstone, was set to reopen the following month, after a lengthy period of closure.

Unfortunately, it seems my announcement was rather premature, as three months down the line, this National Trust-owned pub remains firmly shut; as I witnessed the other Sunday when I drove passed for a look.

Yesterday lunchtime I was in the Greyhound at Charcott, chatting to the landlord, a fellow customer plus Mick, who has been Larkin’s drayman for more years than I care to remember. I asked about the Castle, and was told that the pub is now unlikely to open until March at the earliest. This means the pub will have been closed for almost a year, and both the National Trust and surrounding businesses, will have suffered a significant loss in income.

Last October I mentioned Nick Naismith as the man who will be taking over the tenancy. Mr Naismith is a director of Westerham Brewery, and has a good track record with regard to turning round ailing pubs. A few years ago he rescued the Wheatsheaf  in nearby Bough Beech, so if anyone can save this lovely old inn, he can.

However, despite his obvious credentials, it seems that negotiations with the National Trust are taking far longer than originally envisaged. Now I obviously don’t know the ins and outs of this, but the sticking point appears to concern some much needed repairs to this lovely old 15th Century inn.

I posed the question in my original post from April last year, that perhaps the repairs are quite extensive (structural even?), and the that National Trust were left with little choice but to close it until the work is complete. Now unless the works were pretty major, I’d have thought nine months ample time to have completed them, so the news that there’s been little sign of any work taking place at the pub does not give grounds for optimism.

There are also other issues associated with the Castle, including the lack of car-parking facilities, and these combined with the National Trust’s track record of aiming for as high a rent as possible, are almost certainly not helping.

So yet again it’s a question of “Watch this space”, but with spring not that far off and the lucrative summer tourist season following close behind, the National Trust will be extremely foolish, as well as financially irresponsible with its members’ money,  if it allows the Castle to remain closed for a further extended period.

Thursday 19 January 2017

Interrail 1975 Part Two - Northern Europe

The first instalment of this narrative covered the concept and planning of a round Europe rail trip a student friend and I made, back in the summer of 1975, making use of the Interrail Pass. Having caught the ferry across from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, my companion and I made the short train journey to Amsterdam, which is where the story continues.

Your's truly - 41 years ago!
Amsterdam:  The Dutch capital, at the time, was dominated by Heineken and its subsidiary, Amstel. To a certain extent it still is, although as my recent visit proved, the beer scene has dramatically improved out of all recognition over the past 40 years.

We stayed at the Youth Hostel in central Amsterdam. Unlike similar hostels in Britain, and very unlike the Youth Hostel we stayed at in Hamburg (see below), our stopover in the Dutch capital was a very civilised affair, with the doors not locked until 1am and soft classical music played over the tannoy system in the morning, in order to awaken the residents. My only gripe was the triple-rise bunks in the dormitories, which required the ability to climb like a mountain goat, plus a head for heights; and guess who got lumbered with the top bunk!

Heineken’s city centre brewery was still operational at the time of our visit, so we did the obvious thing and booked a tour – one Dutch Guilder if my memory serves me right. The tour of course, included a number of free beers, which were gratefully received at the time.

We visited several Amsterdam bars during our three day stay in the capital. This was my first introduction to Europe’s “café culture”, and I felt I could really get used to sitting outside one of the traditional Dutch Brown Cafés, enjoying a few beers whilst watching the world go by.  

Two things we found slightly less appealing were the small 33cl glasses and the peculiar Dutch habit of scraping the head off the top of the beer with a wooden spatula.  We didn’t go overboard on the beer front though, as of necessity, we were on a tight budget and had to think about matters such as food. Here, a paper cone full of chips, smothered in mayonnaise, came into its own, acting as a cheap and tasty stomach-filler.

Copenhagen:  The Danish capital was our next stop, and being Denmark we found it rather expensive. It’s worth briefly mentioning that our rail journey to Copenhagen involved our train being shunted onto a ferry, as we journeyed from the mainland of the Jutland Peninsula to the large island where the Danish capital is situated.

Elephant Gate - Carlsberg Brewery
We again based ourselves in a Youth Hostel, where fortunately I managed to grab the bottom bunk this time. Our stay in Copenhagen was limited to a couple of days, but we still managed to see most of the sights (Royal Palace, Little Mermaid and Tivoli Gardens) during that time.  As in Amsterdam, we booked a tour round the city’s main brewery,  Carlsberg; a short ride by public transport out from the city centre. I have to say that the original, and no longer operational, Carlsberg Brewery is an undisputed place of beauty; starting with the ornate “Elephant Gate” which forms the entrance to the brewery, but which  carries on through into the brew-house and the fermentation hall.

There was also a generous sampling of beer after the tour; something which didn’t sit too well on an empty stomach. The unseasonably cold and damp July weather also put a bit of a dampener on things as well, so much so that we abandoned the afternoon’s visit to Tuborg; Copenhagen’s other major brewery. This was probably a wise move at the time, but looking back was something of lost opportunity; especially as the plant is now closed.

Hamburg: There’s nothing to report on the beer front here, and little on any other front. The Youth Hostel is worth mentioning, if only because its strict regime required residents to be back before 10pm, when the doors were locked and used a loud and annoying bell to jolt sleepers out of their slumbers at 6am!  So no chance of a wild evening in St Pauli and the Reeperbahn then!

River Rhine - Cologne
The sprawling north German seaport acted as little more than an overnight staging post for the next stage of our journey, and was also the place where Nick and I parted company for a few days.
The plan was for my companion to head south to Stuttgart, where he would be spending a few days with a former girl-friend, who was living and working in the city, as part of her foreign languages course. I would also be travelling south but only as far as the great Rhineland city of Cologne.  I would be staying there with a school friend who was doing a similar language-based course to Nick’s girlfriend. 

The arrangement was that a few days later I would board a pre-selected Munich-bound train, which passed through Stuttgart, and my travelling companion would be waiting on the platform to board the same train. There was no contingency plan, and no real way of getting in touch with each other should something happen to spoil the arrangement, but fortunately, thanks in no small part to the strict punctuality of Deutsche Bahn, things ran like clockwork, and true to form Nick was waiting on the platform at Stuttgart station, ready to be waved off by his girlfriend.

Cologne's impressive cathedral
Cologne: I don’t know what Nick got up to in Stuttgart, although getting back together with his girlfriend obviously featured highly on the list. For my part, I had a great time in Cologne. My school friend was lodging with a widow in the city suburbs, and this lady had very kindly offered to put me up for a few days. What followed were a couple of very beery days, which came as something of a shock to the system after 10 days or so of very moderate consumption.

I was met off the train at Cologne Hauptbahnhof by my school chum, who quickly whisked me off to his workplace, where a “leaving do” of some description was taking place. The reason for his haste was an attractive and highly polished wooden barrel of beer perched up on a table. What was even better was his boss’s instruction to “Make sure Mick’s friend has plenty to drink, and that his glass remains full!” Consequently, by the time the party was drawing to an end, I was viewing the world from a totally different perspective. I don’t know what the beer was, or whether it may have been the local speciality - Kölsch, but it was very nice. After the party ended, we went on to a restaurant with Mick’s boss, where there was yet more beer, plus some welcome and much needed food. 

Brauerei Päffgen
The following day was spent sight-seeing in Cologne; the highlight of which was a visit to the city’s imposing cathedral. We climbed the stairs to the top of one of the spires, from where we had a spectacular view over central Cologne and across the River Rhine. After that it was time for lunch, and knowing my penchant for a decent pint, Mick took me to one of the city’s oldest brew-pubs. Brauerei Päffgen was a bit of a walk from the city centre, but it was well worth it. My friend explained about Cologne’s famous style of local beer – Kölsch, and told me that at Päffgen, the beer was actually brewed on the premises.

Beer from the wood
Apart from being impressed by the fact that the beer was dispensed from large wooden casks, I don’t remember much about my visit to Päffgen, but three and a half decades later I returned to this famous establishment when I was in Cologne for a trade show. That evening, three colleagues and I made our way to Brauerei Päffgen, and enjoyed an excellent evening sampling the equally excellent beer. The photos shown here are from that 2009 return visit, rather than the one back in 1975.

It’s worth mentioning briefly the rail journey from Cologne down to Stuttgart, as the 185 kilometre stretch south to Mainz, is one of the most scenic routes imaginable. The rail line follows the course of the River Rhine, almost hugging the west bank of the river at times, as it negotiates the narrow Rhine Gorge.  High on the hills, overlooking the gorge, are a number of strategically-placed old castles, now mostly ruined, but coupled with the extensive vineyards covering many of the valley slopes, they give a real romantic feel to the region .

We will leave the narrative here for now, as the next time we stepped off a train, apart from when changing on to another, we had traversed the Alps and were in Croatia. That is definitely southern Europe, so I will continue with this "less beery" part of the continent in the next instalment.

Tuesday 17 January 2017

Interrail 1975 Part One - Concept & Planning

As this blog is as much about travel as it is about beer, here’s a post which outlines one of my earliest experiences of travelling beyond these shores; back in the days long before the advent of the internet and on-line booking, and harking back to a time when items such as basic mobile phones, let alone “Smart-phones”, were nothing more than figments in the minds of science fiction writers.

Back in the mid-1970’s; I think it was the summer of 1975, although it could have been a year later, a student friend and I embarked on a month’s travelling around Western Europe, by rail, taking advantage of the Interrail pass. This was, and still is – although it has been modified and expanded over the years, a ticket which allowed the holder unlimited travel across the rail networks of all those countries which had signed up to the scheme.

Basically, this meant all of western Europe, plus former Yugoslavia. Eastern-bloc countries (those behind the “Iron Curtain”), were not participants in the scheme, but the prospect of being able to travel from Scandinavia in the north, right down to the Iberian Peninsula in the south, and from France in the west, across to Greece and Yugoslavia in the east, still afforded ample scope for some quite extensive journeys, with plenty of countries to visit along the way.

I travelled with my friend Nick, who I had known since my first day at Salford University. We’d met, whilst standing in the queue waiting to register. We lived close to one another and would regularly meet up for a drink, which fitted in well with our love of beer, and also membership of CAMRA. Nick had tested out the Interrail experience the previous year, although after becoming separated from his travelling companion quite early on in the trip (due to the latter individual losing his passport), had ended up completing most of the itinerary on his own. This time around he was looking for someone more reliable and more responsible; which was where I fitted in.

We settled on the long summer break for our trip, and duly set out to map out our itinerary. Armed with little more than a map of Europe taken from a school geography book, we decided on a circular route, travelling clockwise around the western half of the continent taking in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Italy, France, Spain and then finally back  to England, via France.

With a rough idea of our direction of travel, along with the countries we would be passing through, we moved on to the next stage which was to look at rail routes and train times, and or this we enlisted the help of the Thomas Cook International Train Timetable; a weighty tome which gave details, and train times, of virtually all the main European rail-routes, along with many of the minor ones as well.

This was a job requiring both concentration and attention to detail, so in true student tradition we spent several evenings in the pub, pouring over the timetable, whilst taking notes and jotting down details. (You didn’t think we’d do this in the library did you?) Our chosen location was the public bar of the Honest Miller at Brook where, over copious pints of locally-brewed bitter, served in dimple mug glasses, we poured over map and timetable, fine-tuning our itinerary.

Brook was the village where I spent my teenage years, and where my parents and sister still lived at the time. It is a small village, nestling in the shadow of the North Downs, a few miles outside Ashford in Kent. The Honest Miller was (still is), Brook’s only pub, and at the time was a real unspoilt village local, with two bars; one of which was a traditional public bar with a quarry-tiled floor, an open fire (in winter), and a serving hatch in place of a bar. Even better than this was the gravity-served Whitbread Trophy Bitter, brewed locally in Faversham and based on the old recipe for Fremlin’s 3 Star Bitter.

Thirsty work -all this planning!
During the Easter vacation, Nick had come to stay for a few days (he only lived in London). I think my parents, or my mother at least, were relieved to meet the person their only son would be disappearing off round Europe with, for a month – and literally disappearing as with no modern communication devices, apart from the occasional public call box and the odd postcard home, I would be totally incommunicado. 

During these evenings in the put, we sketched fleshed out the bones of our rough itinerary; deciding on train times, locations we wanted to visit and places to stay. We agreed that in Northern Europe, these would be Youth Hostels, whilst in the warmer south, we would camp. Consequently we would need to carry a small, two-man tent; a burden we agreed to take turns at carrying. We would also, wherever possible, travel using over-night train services, as that way we could sleep on the train (or at least try to), thereby saving on accommodation costs.

 We also listed out what we would need to take in terms of clothing, sleeping bags and camping gear, and what we could get away with by leaving behind. I invested in a decent framed-rucksack, and we both joined the Youth Hostel Association. In addition, whilst staying with Nick’s father, in London, we did the rounds of the various national tourist information offices to pick up maps, brochures, local guides etc; in short anything we thought would be useful for the places we were intending to visit. We also each purchased the all important Interrail pass. I can’t remember exactly where we picked these up, but I’ve a feeling it may have been one of the main London termini; possibly Victoria.

Eventually the day of departure dawned, and we set off from Liverpool Street station and caught the train to Harwich. From there we took the ferry across the North Sea to the Hook of Holland; a rather tedious six-hour crossing. Fortunately the sea was calm, and after passing through customs at the Hook, and being asked a few pertinent questions by the Dutch immigration officials (hardly surprising in view of our appearance – long hair and the rucksacks we were carrying), we were boarded a train heading to Amsterdam.

Now I don’t intend giving a blow by blow account of our trip, so I will confine the narrative to beer-related matters, plus the occasional point of interest, and you will be able to read about this in the next installment.