Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Three rural pubs on foot

The Sunday before last was the perfect day for a walk out in the early spring Kent countryside. A group of us had been planning a hike for some time, and after agreeing a mutually acceptable date, we decided to attempt a quite ambitious itinerary with a walk which would take in three quite isolated country pubs, situated on high ground to the south and west of Penshurst.

After several weeks of dry weather, the going underfoot was guaranteed to be firm; ideal for walking in fact but, as is often the case at this time of year, there was a cold wind blowing. Undeterred three of us set off from Tonbridge, by train, travelling just the one stop to Leigh station, where we met up with the fourth member of our party who lives in the village.

Penshurst Place - rear view
Once out of the station, we walked along a thankfully short section of a rather narrow road, before, before turning off towards the back of the Penshurst Place estate. After a steady climb, we were rewarded by views across the Medway Valley, with the 14th Century pile that is Penshurst Place below us. This was the first time I have walked round the back of the house, as normally I would follow the cycle path which runs the other side of the big house, so I stopped a couple of times to take some photos.

Old mill-pond
After exiting via the churchyard, we found ourselves in Penshurst village virtually opposite the imposing Leicester Arms pub. We continued through this picturesque village, before taking a lane leading off to the right. This was the beginning of our climb out of the Medway Valley, and I have to say it was a pleasing walk through some very fine looking countryside. We made a slight detour to take a look at an old watermill, sited next to a stream which had been dammed, allowing the water to flow down a narrow channel in order to power a long vanished water-wheel. The former mill and the surrounding oast houses have all now been turned into some very desirable residences for those who can afford such places. In fact posh-looking rustic properties proved to be regular features throughout the duration of our walk.

Interior - Bottle House
Eventually we reached Smart’s Hill; an isolated and quite spread-out hamlet where we found ourselves at the Bottle House, which is the higher of the settlement’s two pubs. The Bottle House looks like it was once a row of cottages and this is indeed the case. The cottages date back to the late 16th Century, but were knocked through to form the present pub, quite a few years ago. Nowadays the Bottle House is very much a food-oriented establishment, but much to our delight it still caters for walkers.

Bottle House - Smart's Hill
We were met at the pub, by our friends Jon and Claire, who had driven over from Hadlow to meet up with us and to enjoy a meal there. Fortunately they had managed to grab a table, as not long after our arrival, the pub really began filling up, both with families out for a spot of Sunday lunch, and with groups of walkers like us. The latter had to make do with sitting outside, but we were nice and cosy and out of the wind, indoors.

Spotted Dog - Smart's Hill
The Bottle House had two cask beers on; Larkin’s Traditional and Westerham Spirit of Kent. Unfortunately the latter beer was not up to scratch so the two of us who had ordered it swapped it for Larkin’s Trad. We decided to just have the one beer there, before walking down the hill to the Spotted Dog; Smart’s Hill’s other pub. It was here that Claire departed; leaving husband Jon to don his walking boots and accompany us on the rest of the walk.

The Spotted Dog is a lovely old pub which I have written about several times before. It clings to the side of the hill over-looking the Medway Valley, in one of the most picturesque setting imaginable. It has been a pub for many years and has had its share of ups and downs. It is definitely on the up at present, and like on my previous visit, back in January was crowded with diners enjoying their Sunday lunch.

We knew we would have to sit outside, and for that reason decided we would only stay for the one pint, but the sight and, as it subsequently proved, the quality of the Harvey’s XXXX Old Ale, was sufficient to persuade us other wise. It is unusual to see this excellent dark ale on sale so late in the season, and as it is a favourite beer of many of us, we needed little persuading to stay for a second pint.

The terrace at the front of the pub where we deposited ourselves was fortunately sheltered form the wind, and as if to add to our sense of well-being the sun even broke through on a couple of occasions. We all thoroughly enjoyed the Old Ale, and although one member of our party wanted to stay for a third, we persuaded him otherwise, as the rest of us were keen to visit the Rock; the third pub on our itinerary, and one which has recently changed hands.

We re-traced our steps back up towards the Bottle House, turning into the lane which runs in front of the pub. We then skirted a very expensive looking property, complete with a swimming pool in the garden. At this stage we were right on top of a ridge, at probably one of the highest points of our journey. It therefore seemed a shame as the path began to descend, taking us across the road we had walked up earlier and down into a valley, flanked on one side by woodland.

Spring flowers
From then on it was a question of up hill and down dale, as we headed roughly northwards towards the hamlet of Chiddingstone Hoath and the Rock Inn. I must say that this leg of the journey took quite a lot longer than I had originally anticipated, but the attractive countryside, and the equally attractive properties we passed en route, made this extra walking all the more worthwhile.

It’s at least a couple of years since I last set foot inside the Rock; a real basic country pub, which started life as a drovers’ inn. My companions and I were aware that it had changed owners at the beginning of January, but as we knew that the new incumbents had previously run the highly successful Huntsman at Eridge, we knew the Rock would be in capable hands.

Rock - Chiddingstone Hoath
We didn’t really get the chance to find out, as when we found the pub absolutely rammed when we arrived. We soon discovered that a local resident had died recently, and the pub was holding a wake in his honour. We managed to squeeze our way through to the bar, avoiding stepping over the large number of dogs hanging around their owners feet.

To our delight, there were three Larkin’s beers available; Traditional, Pale and, rather surprisingly in view of the season, the brewery’s Green Hop Ale. Unfortunately the latter ran out shortly before I was served, although I am pleased to report that the Pale was excellent. Pale is a relatively new comer to the Larkin’s portfolio, and at 4.0% it is both stronger than the more common Traditional, and also more strongly hopped.

Welcome sign at the Rock
Given the crowded nature of the pub, we decided to take our drinks outside, despite the combined effect of the drop in temperature and the increase in the wind. It was here that we noticed the first of several alterations that the new owners had made, as some rustic, bench-style seating has been installed at the front of the pub, adjacent to the entrance. We also had a look around the back of the pub, where the formerly little-used garden is in the process of being transformed into an attractive and sheltered outdoor drinking area. A new patio has already been laid, and the centre area has been levelled off ready for new turf to be laid. I understand that improvements are being made to the kitchen as well.

We got chatting to a few of the locals, including Guy who works for Larkin’s, handling both their sales and office work. The consensus seems to be that the new owners have been a hit with the Rock’s regulars, and that apart from the aforementioned improvements, there a re no plans to alter the essential character of the pub in any way.

This is good news, as the Rock’s bare brick floor, its large wood-burning stove and the unusual “Ringing the Bull” game, are part and parcel of what gives this pub its unique character. The locals, of course, along with their dogs, also contribute much as well, and they are a real mix of proper country folk along with perhaps some of the more moneyed folk who live locally, but enjoy  letting their hair down.

Much as though we would have liked to stay for another pint (the Pale was exceptionally good), the trains back to Tonbridge only run hourly. The fact that it would take at least 40 minutes to walk back to the nearest station, at Chiddingstone Causeway, meant that some careful planning was required and decisions to be made.

We took the sensible option which was to drink up and head for the station, as to have waited for the next train would mean walking back in the dark; not a good idea when the final section of the journey would be across country. Fortunately the route was nearly all down hill and fortunate too that I work at Chiddingstone Causeway and know the surrounding countryside quite well, due to my regular lunchtime walks. Even so we only had five minutes to spare before the train arrived.

Back in Tonbridge I still had an uphill walk of just under a mile, from the station to my house. I had been tracking our walk by means of an App on my phone, and this combined with the walk down to the station and back, added up to a 10 mile hike. I was certainly glad to take my boots off when I arrived home, and was also glad of the rather tasty paella my wife had cooked for our tea.

So quite an ambitious walk through some exceptional countryside, and three excellent rural pubs visited. The two pubs at Smart’s Hill are obvious food destination pubs, so it was hardly surprising to find them both busy. Sunday lunchtime might not have been the ideal time for four casual drinkers to visit, but the day fitted in well with what other commitments we all might have had. The Rock is a law unto itself, as whilst it does serve food it really is a place to enjoy some excellent, locally-brewed beers in the company of some characterful locals. Ideally I would like to do the walk again, but during the middle of the week, when things are likely to be quieter, and there would be a better chance of experiencing the true character of these three rural gems.


Russtovich said...

Thanks for the virtual walkabout. I live in Canada but used to have relatives in Sevenoaks. Wish we had pubs similar to these over here where I live. :)

Paul Bailey said...

I am certainly lucky to live in this attractive corner of rural Kent, but even here pubs are under threat, and many have, out of necessity, been converted to establishments where food takes preference over beer.

Glad you enjoyed the “virtual walkabout” btw.