Friday 28 April 2017

Ely - the main event

As promised here is the write-up about last Friday evening, which I spent in the lovely little city of Ely with local blogger Retired Martin and Mrs RM acting as my two guides.

It’s always difficult arranging to meet people when you don’t know what they look like, so not having seen any photos of Retired Martin or his good lady wife, I was at a bit of a loss as the agreed hour of our rendezvous approached. I had taken refuge in the saloon bar of the Red  Lion at Stretham, as it was much quieter, and less crowded, than the adjoining main bar.

As luck would have it, it was Martin who recognised me – probably from a photo on my blog, so after a quick introduction I followed him through into the other bar, where Mrs RM had managed to find a table, and was also waiting to meet me. The Marstons Pedigree was on good form, but as the pub's of Ely beckoned we drank up fairly quickly before getting into the car and driving the short distance into Ely.

We parked in the large and free central municipal car park, and then walked the short distance to the heart of the town. Before going any further, I must say I am impressed with the free parking, which seems to be a feature of many East Anglian towns. Dereham, where my sister lives, offers the same facilities, and I just wish our cash-strapped councils in the south east would take note. Offering free parking not only attracts more visitors to a town, but also encourages them to stay longer. (End of rant!)

It was a pleasant evening; albeit a little chilly, but with the light still holding, it was ideal for a walk down through the park next to cathedral and down towards the River Ouse. Having admired the various narrow boats and other floating attractions, we headed back towards the city centre, walking back up the hill towards the High Street.

Here we stopped for first pint of the evening in the excellent Drayman’s Son. Converted from a former hardware store, the Drayman's is definitely one of best micro pubs I've been in. Reasonably spacious and bright and airy, the pub is on two levels; just take care on the steps back down from the serving area! The latter is situated at the rear of the pub, close to the temperature controlled room at the back, where the beer and ciders are kept. As I discovered, after ordering and paying at the bar, the beer is brought over to your table; how about that for service?

I have mixed feelings about micro's, and indeed share some of the concerns raised by the Pub Curmudgeon on his recent post, but rather than being packed full of middle-aged blokes, there was a good mix of clientele in the pub, which included a healthy number of young people and women. I, of course, am now starting to fall into the older male category, but I am still very young at heart.

There was a good range of beer, both cask and craft, on tap, along with ciders and wines. I also understand that the Drayman's stocks the local artisan Ely Gin. Mrs RM and I enjoyed a half of Hell Hound Brewery, Lil Devil IPA; described as "blonde and heavily hopped". At 5.9%, it certainly fitted the bill. I can't remember what Martin had, but it must have been something with a much lower gravity, as he was driving.

I really liked the Drayman's and it is definitely the sort of place I would like to return to, but there were other pubs to visit, so we took our leave and walked up the hill, passing both the marketplace and the cathedral, which was now on our left hand side. We were making for the Prince Albert, which is one of Ely's current GBG entries. It is a traditional town-centre pub,  with the  two areas at the front given over to drinking, and a more comfortable section, which includes a restaurant, at the rear.

The Prince Albert is owned by Greene King, but also offers a good range of guest beers; some of which were a little on the pricey side. Martin went for the XX Mild, which he said was excellent, whilst I opted for a beer from Milton Brewery. It may have been Sparta, but unfortunately I didn't make a note of it. What I do remember was the £4.00 a pint price tag. Milton are based in nearby Waterbeach, but according to Martin struggle to get their beers into local pubs, because they can't compete with the discounts offered by some of the bigger boys.

Our final stop of the evening was the Fountain; a solid  looking 19th Century, brick-built, corner  pub. The Fountain is close to the Porta Gatehouse, which we had walked through earlier, and I recall Martin saying something about a nearby college as well. Inside the pub is nicely laid out, with good beer, and with no noisy jukebox, offers good conversation plus a good atmosphere.

No longer in the Guide, the beer range at the Fountain was rather more limited, but the Adnam’s Southwold was in excellent form as I gather, so was the Ghost Ship. Poor Martin had switched to water by this time, so it seemed a little unfair to start enthusing about the beer. We noticed the pub's clientele was young and mainly female in nature, which might  have had something  to do with the nearby college.

The evening was drawing to a close, so we left the Fountain and headed back to the car, passing on the way the attractive half-timbered house which once belonged to the Lord Protector of England Oliver Cromwell. Martin and his wife then drove me back to Stretham and dropped me off at the Red Lion.

It had been an excellent evening and I really enjoyed their company. I can safely say we all got on well, which is always a bonus when people meet for the first time. We exchanged notes about our respective families, and it seems we have much in common with each other, but there was one thing I particularly wanted to ask Martin and it was how did he find the time to output such a prolific number of posts?

He told me that it was mainly by working late. I had visions of him carrying a laptop or tablet  on his travels, but it turns out that he takes notes on his phone, and then writes everything up when he gets home. As he said to me, tapping stuff out on a phone is far less conspicuous, and attracts far less attention than sitting there scribbling  away in a notebook. I certainly intend to follow his tip, especially as I have received some strange looks when I've been spotted taking notes in a pub.

It was really good to meet up with Martin and his wife, and we have arranged a return match in Tonbridge, for when Fuggles opens in the town. This should be sometime in June, and I am pleased to report that work is continuing apace to transform the former flooring shop at the north end  of the High Street, into a much needed decent watering hole for the town.

The following morning I drove back into Ely, parked up and took a more leisurely look round the city. I also  managed to photograph the Prince Albert and the Fountain in daylight. I visited the excellent market selling all sorts of goodies, and saw that the artisan gin shop, which was closed the previous evening, was now open. I didn’t peak inside, but I did take a quick peak in the cathedral.
Afterwards it was time to hit the road and head off towards Dereham, stopping briefly en route at Beers of Europe to pick up some bottles for my "smoke beer" fix.

Thursday 27 April 2017

To Ely at last

I had wanted to visit Ely for a long time, ever since I first caught a glimpse of the city’s magnificent cathedral through a train window. This would have been twenty or so years ago, back in the day when my wife and I, along with our five-year old son, journeyed up to Norfolk to visit my parents.

Mum and dad had recently moved to the county, from Kent, following my father’s retirement. Money was a little tight back then, and it made sense for us to take advantage of a deal which was available at the time on the old British Rail Network South East. I can’t remember the exact mechanics of the package, but it worked out quite a bit cheaper letting the train take the strain, rather than driving up to Norfolk and back.
Owing to some quirk in the way the rail network had been divided up in pre-privatisation days, Kings Lynn was part of Network South East, whereas Norwich wasn’t. The deal therefore applied to the former destination, but not to the latter. My parents lived roughly halfway between the two places, so dad was quite happy to drive over to Kings Lynn and meet us off the train, and it was from one of these trains, on the journey up to Lynn that I had my first glimpse of Ely. The view across the river, towards the cathedral, with its majestic looking "lantern", was particularly enthralling, and  I decided there and then that I should one day like to visit Ely.

Little did I realise that it would be twenty plus years before that desire was achieved, but the seeds of an idea to stop off in the city, were first sown towards the end of last year. My son and I had spent the weekend in Norwich, a stay which of course included a visit to see my father. I had decided to travel back by a different route, because I wanted to call in at the Beers of Europe warehouse, to the south of Kings Lynn, in order to stock up on some beers for Christmas.

Mission accomplished, we headed south on the A10, through the flat, but fertile Fenlands, in the direction of home. There, looming up on the horizon, was the unmistakable sight of Ely cathedral, and before long, we found ourselves approaching the city. The sat-nav didn’t take us right into the centre; steering us in the direction of Newmarket and the M11, but we saw enough to rekindle my long and almost forgotten desire to visit Ely.

I decided to put my plan into action on my most recent trip, especially as this time I would be travelling alone. Ely, or the immediate environs, would be a convenient stopping off place on a journey up to Norfolk, as it is roughly two thirds of the way there. By staying there for the night, I could then continue my journey the following day, and would have more time to spend with my family (my youngest sister also lives in Norfolk). All I needed to do was to find a suitable place to lay my head for the night.

Finding a bed and breakfast place which offers parking in a town or city, can sometimes be problematic, so instead I opted for a room at the Red Lion pub in the village of Stretham; just over four miles from Ely. All I needed now were some recommended pubs to visit.

A request for  suitable recommendations on local blogger, retiredmartin’s site yielded an even better response than I was looking for, as it turned out Martin would be at home that weekend, and suggested meeting up. I was lucky to catch Martin on home turf, as he is a prolific traveller and writer. Since retiring, he has set himself the task of visiting all the new entries in the current CAMRA Good Beer Guide. I think he may have done this last year as well, but I forgot to ask him.

As might be imagined, the new entries to the Guide occur all over the country, so Martin, and sometimes his wife as well, is often away from home visiting far-flung and obscure corners of the British Isles, as well as towns which some people might not even know existed. The write-ups on his travels and pub findings which Martin posts on his excellent retiredmartin blog, come thick and fast, but are essential reading for anyone with an appreciation of pub life in 21st Century Britain. What makes Martin’s posts even more appealing is the inclusion of the odd off-beat or indeed out and out quirky fact about the towns and villages he visits.

I was  therefore doubly pleased to receive an email from Martin a few days before my trip, stating that he and his wife would pick me up from the Red Lion and then drive us to Ely, where we would be able to enjoy a few of the city’s choicest pubs. So that Friday evening the three of us met up, as arranged, and set off to enjoy Ely, but for details of how we got on, and for information on the pubs we visited, I'm afraid you will have to wait for the next post.

Tuesday 25 April 2017

The Blue Ball Inn - Grantchester

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I’m a fairly frequent visitor to Norfolk. I have been making the journey to this northernmost part of East Anglia primarily for family reasons; in fact ever since my parents first retired to the county 23 years ago.

The frequency of visits has increased over the years, and although they have been scaled back somewhat in more recent times, I’ve completely lost count of the number of occasions I’ve driven up and down the M11 and the A11. I feel that I know every inch of both roads, and whilst on a good run, I can accomplish the journey in just over two and a half hours, it is still a tiring and rather monotonous trip.

One way to break up the journey is to stop off at a decent country pub, and I have started doing this as and when my schedule allows. Wherever possible I have selected pubs which feature on CAMRA’s Pub Heritage Website of Historic Pub Interiors, and finding my way to some of these historic gems has been made easier by the purchase of a sat-nav for the car.

I have to admit I was dead against these devices at first, having always prided myself on my map-reading abilities, but when driving alone I found it increasingly difficult  to keep one eye on the map and both eyes on the road! I succumbed a couple of birthdays ago, and can now safely navigate to the most remote and tucked away places, without risking life and limb.

On last weekend’s trip to East Anglia, I selected a pub called the Blue Ball Inn, from the Heritage Pub website for a lunchtime stop. The pub is situated in the village of Grantchester, just outside Cambridge, and is just a short hop from the M11.

I won’t dwell on the village’s connections with the well-known poem, “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester”, by Rupert Brooke, (“Stands the Church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?”), but I will make special mention of the latter day writer, and musician Roger Waters, who wrote and performed the song “Grantchester Meadows” which appears on the classic Pink Floyd album, Ummagumma.

From its location on the edge of the village, the Blue Ball looks out across Grantchester Meadows; although last Friday lunchtime, the meadows were looking a trifle bleak! According to CAMRA’s WhatPub, there are four pubs in Grantchester, but the Blue Ball is the only one to feature on the Heritage Pub list, by virtue of it having a historic pub interior of regional importance. The pub retains its original two-bar layout along with many old fittings; and with no TV or  gaming machines,  good beer and good conversation are very much the order of the day.

The current owner is a former regular, who purchased it from a Pub Company, and then carried out some essential repairs and sympathetic redecoration which manages to retain the pub's charm. Bed and breakfast accommodation and new toilets, have been added, along with a modest expansion of the bar area, achieved by opening up a room behind the serving area. The garden has also been extended, but I didn’t venture outside, owing to the unseasonably cold weather.  

I arrived at the Blue Ball shortly after 3pm; my journey having been delayed by at least half an hour due to slow moving traffic on the approach to the Dartford Crossing. I managed to pull in and park on the road directly outside the pub; there being no separate car-park as such. Apart from the landlord who was tapping away on his laptop in the smaller right-hand bar, I was the only customer.  There was a choice of either Adnam’s Southwold or Woodforde’s Wherry. I opted for the former, and it was in superb condition, rating a score of 4 on the NBSS. Looking back, I possibly underscored it, as with hindsight it deserved a 4.5!

I knew I would be eating that evening, so I ordered a ham-salad roll, complete with homemade piccalilli. There was a very pleasant and chatty young girl behind the bar, who told me of her existence as an almost perpetual traveller. She was home visiting her parents, who live nearby, but was cursing the fact she had cancelled a trip to Singapore, due to the weather being so warm in England.

That was a couple of weeks ago, and on Friday it was anything but warm. The landlord remarked that he was tempted to light the fire, but as the pub’s stock of logs had been exhausted, he would have to use coal. I must admit to feeling quite envious of the barmaid’s ability to hop on a plane and jet off somewhere exotic, with hardly a moment’s notice, and with just a couple of years left on the mortgage, I trust it won’t be too long before I am following her example.

But back to reality, I had a journey to complete and whilst it was tempting to stay for another swift half, I decided to press on, but not before mine host had told me to watch out for the Blue Ball on a forthcoming episode of the T.V. show, “Grantchester”. I had to look the latter up online, when I go to my overnight destination, but I now know it is an amateur detective series, set in the 1950’s.

I was sorry to be departing from such a fine old pub, and I’m sure that if I lived locally, I would almost certainly be a regular there. A pub doesn’t need to offer a vast  range of beers to make it a place I would wish to drink in; neither does it need to offer something totally obscure. The choice of the two, well-kept, locally brewed beers, would be enough to encourage my custom; as would the pleasant décor and unspoilt surroundings of a traditional village boozer, such as this.

I learned from the barmaid that I had arrived during a traditionally quiet period, and that come five o’clock, the pub would soon be filling up. If you find yourself heading in the direction of Cambridge or, like me, you are just passing through, then I can thoroughly recommend calling in at the Blue Ball, as I promise you will not be disappointed.

Sunday 23 April 2017

East Anglia and back

I’ve been on a bit of a whistle-stop tour of East Anglia this weekend. My busy itinerary included a spot of  sight-seeing, a visit to a Heritage pub, a stop to pick up a few bottles of Rauchbier – to satisfy my “smoke beer” cravings, and finally, the highlight of the weekend, meeting up with prolific blogger and Good Beer Guide enthusiast, retired Martin, along with Mrs retired Martin.

The main purpose of my trip east, of course, was to visit my father. I wanted to see a little more of him this time around, so I decided to leave off work at 12.30pm on Friday afternoon and travel straight up. It perhaps wasn’t the wisest of moves, as I hit queuing traffic a couple of junctions before the Dartford Crossing. This added at least half hour to my journey time. I also hit heavy traffic to the north of Cambridge.

After numerous journeys around the M25 and then up and the M11/A11, I decided to take a slightly different route, and to stop off somewhere en route. The city of Ely caught my fancy, as it is a place I have journeyed through by train on several past occasions and yet it is somewhere I have never stopped at.

An evening there, followed by some further exploration the following day, would still mean me arriving at dad’s care-home shortly after lunch. I could then spend some time with dad, before meeting up with my sister later in the day. I could then stay somewhere local on Saturday evening, before calling in on dad on Sunday morning. I also wanted to visit the Woodland Burial Ground, at Colney on the outskirts of Norwich, where my mother’s ashes have been laid to rest. I then planned to stop off at another CAMRA Heritage pub on the drive home.

So all in all a busy weekend and one where I achieved all my objectives except the last one. That was scuppered by road works and traffic delays, which I heard about on traffic bulletins on my journey south. Not wishing to get caught up in queuing traffic again, I postponed that particular pub visit for another time, and continued straight on down the M11, and then the M25 back into Kent.

To put a little more flesh on the bones, I stopped off  on my drive up to Cambridgeshire, at the lovely and unspoilt Blue Ball Inn at Grantchester. Looking out across the famous meadows, immortalised by Pink Floyd on their 1968 album, Ummagumma, this was a pub I would have liked to spend more time at.

Instead I continued northwards, skirting the east of Cambridge, before arriving at the Red Lion at Stretham; a village about five miles south of Ely, and my stopping place for the night. It was from here that Martin and his wife picked me up and drove us into Ely for a spot of pub exploration. We had a most enjoyable evening, and visited three excellent and slightly contrasting pubs, but most of all it was great to do this in the company of Mr & Mrs retired Martin. (There will be much more about Friday evening in Ely in a separate post).

After breakfast the following morning, I checked out of the Red Lion and drove the short distance into Ely. I parked up and had a wander around this charming little cathedral city, taking the time for a more detailed look at  Ely’s massive cathedral. The city’s market was also well worth a wander round.
After a couple of hours, I left the delights of Ely behind and continued north along the course of the A10 trunk road. I crossed both the Great and the Little Ouse rivers, along with the Great Ouse relief channel, as I headed up towards Kings Lynn. Eventually the open and very exposed flatlands of the Fens gave way to more wooded and slightly hillier country, and  before long I was turning down the small road which leads to the Beers of Europe warehouse, close to the village of Setchey.

As mentioned earlier, by prime objective was to indulge my “smoke beer” fetish,  and I did this in the form some bottles of Bamberg’s finest - Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier. I also picked up a few other beers which caught my fancy, including Augustiner Maximator – the best brewery in Munich's strong, dark 7.5% ABV Doppelbock, brewed specially for the Starkbier Saison.

I arrived at dad’s care home shortly after 1pm. He was looking OK but not making a lot of sense. As the effects of the Alzheimer’s he is suffering from become more debilitating, I suppose this is only to be expected, but it is still very sad when I remember how intelligent and quick witted he was, even up until just a few years ago.

I met up with my sister for a late lunch afterwards. We chose the Romany Rye, which is the Wetherspoon’s outlet in Dereham. My sister lives in the town, so the pub was the obvious choice really. I had a pint of Exe Valley Bitter to go with my panini, and we spent a pleasant hour or so catching up. Phillippa is the “baby” of the family, being 14 years younger than me, but as she reminded me she will be turning 50 in a couple of years time!

After going our separate ways, I headed off in the car to the town of Watton, where I had booked accommodation for the night. Over the course of the past seven or eight years, I have stayed in numerous hotels or bed & breakfast establishments in the Dereham area. Availability, and cost, have dictated my choice of overnight accommodation, but this was the first time I have stayed in this mid-Norfolk town.
 The unusually named Hare & Barrel Hotel, was my base for the night, and very pleasant it was too. My room was in one of the converted stables behind the main building, and it was both quiet and comfortable. Old Speckled Hen was the sole cask offering, but the keg East Coast IPA (also from brewed by Greene King), was very palatable. It was also the perfect accompaniment to the rather hot Thai chicken curry I ordered.

I returned to my room after the meal, and had every intention of going out exploring afterwards, as there was a pub a the other end of Watton which had caught my interest. I flicked the tele on and started watching a programme about the restoration of Britain’s canals. Part way through this programme I fell asleep; the combination of a heavy meal on top of a busy day, having caught up with me. When I eventually woke up, it was too late to be walking a mile or more to the other end of town, so I decide to have an early night instead.

Dad was a lot more with it the following day, even though he kept nodding off. After taking my leave, I drove along the A47 towards Norwich, and made my way to the Woodland Burial Ground. I managed to find mum’s plot, which is in  small clearing about five minutes walk into the woods. It’s a lovely peaceful spot to end up in, and at this time of year the trees are all coming into leaf and the primroses have just about finished flowering. When the time comes, dad will be interned beside his lifetime partner, but that’s for the future.

The Heritage pub I was aiming for was the Walnut Tree at Great Waltham, to the north-west of Chelmsford, but with the aforementioned roadwork, which basically involved the complete closure of the A12, in both directions to the south of Colchester, I decided this pub could be visited on my way back from a future trip to Norfolk.

I arrived home, just before 3.15pm. My wife was surprised to see me so early. I’d like to think it was a pleasant surprise, but who knows!  After unpacking I managed a couple of hours in the garden, which was both a bonus and a good way to end what was an excellent weekend.

Thursday 20 April 2017

Up the creek on Good Friday

In my last post I wrote about the north Kent town of Faversham, and the time my son and I spent in the town, in the company of a group of friends from Maidstone and Mid-Kent CAMRA. I also described how easy it was for us to get there, by train, from Tonbridge;  the town where we live in the west of the county.

The main  purpose of our visit to Faversham was to take part in MMK’s  Good Friday Ramble; an annual event which is now in its 41st year.  Keen rambler, Dick Wilkinson, has organised and led all but one of these walks, helped by his wife Pam; and whilst they are perhaps now shorter and gentler than they were a few decades ago, they are still very enjoyable.

The ramble provides an opportunity to catch up with old friends; some of whom we only see once a year. On meeting up, the usual remark is that none of us are getting any younger; or as one wag so eloquently put it, “It’s always interesting to see how many of us have survived another winter!” Somewhat worryingly, this particular gentleman was absent this year, although I understand this was due to a minor illness, rather than something more serious.

There is no getting away from the fact that age is creeping up on many of us, and with our children now grown up, and some even with children of their own, the walks are gentler and less arduous than they were 40 years ago. They are shorter in length; typically between six and eight miles, and with less hills and other natural obstacles, but we all still enjoy these walks, which have been held in various locations, all over the county.

We invariably start from a convenient station, and then walk three or four miles to an accommodating country pub, where we stop for a pub-lunch plus a few pints! After the lunchtime halt, we return to the meeting point, via a different, but similar length, route.

Faversham station was the meeting and starting point for this year’s Good Friday event; our destination being the Shipwrights Arms at Hollow Shore. This isolated pub stands at the confluence of Faversham and Oare Creeks, on the edge of the Ham Marshes, to the north of Faversham. It’s a place I last visited 30 years or more ago, and I remember this old weather-boarded pub being both timeless and atmospheric. 

I didn’t do an accurate headcount of the assembled party, but I was told there 22 of us. We set off in two groups, and I made sure that son Matthew and I were in the first group. The reasoning behind this was to get to the pub in time to place our food order; especially as the landlord was reported as only expecting around 15 of us. This proved to be a wise move, as I will recount later.

Heading out of town
We walked towards Faversham town centre, passing on our  right the impressive bulk of the buildings which were once the brewery of George Beer & Rigden and latterly Fremlins. One of the three buildings has now been converted to a Tesco supermarket, and I understand the retail giant has also made the other two structures safe, so they too can be converted for other purposes.

We turned into Court Street and passed the attractive offices of Shepherd Neame; Britain’s oldest brewery and a major employer in Faversham. We skirted the brewery site and headed towards Faversham Creek, crossing it by means of a bridge. We then continued on the opposite bank, in the direction of the sea. The tide was out, and with just a small trickle running in between the mud banks, at the bottom of the channel, the creek was not looking its prettiest.

Saxon Shore Way
Before long, we had left the houses and boatyards of the town behind us. We continued along the raised bank which here, forms part of the Saxon Shore Way, coastal path. There is not a lot to say about this stretch of countryside, apart from it being flat and featureless.  I imagine it being cold and desolate during the winter months, but despite the weather being dry, there was a cold off-shore wind blowing, so I was glad I had come suitably attired.

We basically followed the course of Faversham Creek, as it first headed northwards, before turning off in a westerly direction. To our left we could see back towards Faversham, with the North Downs rising gently behind the town. To our right we could see the Isle of Sheppey, with its low hills standing out against the sky.

Eventually we arrived at our destination, and found our way inside; glad to get out of the wind. We had also worked up quite a thirst, so were eager to order our first pint of the day. The beers at the Shipwright's are all on gravity, and are dispensed from a row of casks stillaged beneath the window, behind the bar.

Beers from Goacher’s of Maidstone (Kent’s second oldest brewery after Sheps), feature prominently, and include a 3.8% “house beer”, called “Shipwrecked”, brewed especially for the pub by Goacher’s, alongside the company’s Dark Mild.  Just to keep everything Kentish, there were also beers from both Kent Brewery and Gadd’s. During our stay in the pub, I enjoyed the two aforementioned Goacher’s beers, plus the excellent  No. 3 from Gadd's.

We ordered our food as soon as possible; steak and ale pie with mash and vegetables for me, and the same for Matt, although he went for chips instead of mash. As the photo illustrates, the pies were “proper”, meaning the meat and gravy filling were completely encased in pastry. We weren’t tempted to move outside, despite a brief appearance from the sun; instead we were happy to stay where we were, and to soak up the atmosphere of this timeless old inn.

The Shipwright’s prides itself on its old-fashioned approach, and with no TV, fruit machines, piped muzak or Wi-Fi, conversation was very much the order of the day. The only fly in the ointment was there was no food left for the stragglers, as it appears the pub had taken Dick’s estimate of 15 souls, strictly on face value.

We left the pub shortly after 2.30pm, but as we again left in two parties, there wasn’t the usual obligatory team photo taken outside the pub. Before leaving, I climbed the embankment for a final look at the creek. The tide had come in whilst we had been in the pub, giving a completely different outlook to the view towards Sheppey. We walked back into Faversham via a slightly shorter, and certainly less exposed route, which basically followed the track and the road from Hollow Shore.

Most of us found our way to Faversham’s micro-pub, Furlong’s Alehouse, before visiting the recently opened Corner Tap, which is owned by Whitstable Brewery. I wrote about these two excellent establishments in my previous post, so I won’t repeat myself here.

As with all these annual rambles it had been a great day out, combining healthy exercise out in the fresh air, with good company, good ale and good food. There was a slight tinge of sadness though, as Dick announced this would be the last such walk he would be leading. After 40 years though, few could blame him for wanting to step down and let someone else take up the reins.

Fortunately I think there is someone waiting in the wings, but I’ll state categorically, here and now that it isn’t me!

Sunday 16 April 2017


Faversham is a charming market town situated on the north Kent coast. It is situated 48 miles from London and 10 miles from Canterbury, and lies just south of the Swale; the strip of sea which separates mainland Kent from the Isle of Sheppey. It is a town of just over 19,000 souls, and has good communication links with both the capital and the coast, lying as it does on the old Roman road of Watling Street (now the A2). Back in medieval times it was also a seaport with a tradition of shipbuilding, although the silting up of Faversham Creek has restricted its connection to the sea.

The town was  formerly a centre of the explosives industry, and was renowned for the manufacture of gunpowder. Brewing gradually became more dominant, and until quite recent times there were two major breweries facing each other  across Court Street; just of the town centre. Shepherd Neame, of course, are still operational and are one of Faversham’s major employers, but the substantial and sprawling brick-built group of buildings, on the other side of the street, were formerly the premises of Messrs George Beer & Rigden.

For most of my lifetime the brewery was part of the Whitbread group and operated under the name of Fremlins. The latter were originally based in Maidstone, and in their time were the largest brewery in Kent. Fremlins acquired Beer & Rigden back in 1949, but kept the Faversham plant in production. When Fremlins were purchased by Whitbread in 1967, production was centred on Faversham, with the Maidstone brewery ceasing production in 1972.

Eighteen years later, Whitbread closed the Court Street premises, and the buildings stood empty for some time. In 1996, after much reconstruction and renovation, one of the former brewery buildings opened as a Tesco supermarket, but I have been unable to discover the fate of the other two structures. I was fortunate to have had a trip round the brewery, back in the early 1980’s, when it was still flourishing, and I have course, enjoyed several guided tours around Shepherd Neame, just across the road.

My son and I found ourselves in Faversham on Good Friday. We had travelled there with a party of CAMRA members from Maidstone to take part in the annual ramble, which MMK Branch always undertakes on that day. Our destination was the atmospheric Shipwright’s Arms; an isolated pub overlooking the Creek, on the edge of the Ham Marshes, to the north of Faversham.

I will be writing about the ramble in a separate post, so for now I want to concentrate on Faversham itself. The first thing to report is that, given a little planning, the town is easily accessible by rail, from my home in Tonbridge. There is an hourly direct service from Tonbridge to Strood, and whilst this meant an early start, we were rewarded by some very pleasant views as the train travelled along the line up the Medway Valley.

We were joined by several MMK members at Maidstone Barracks and by another two who joined the train at Snodland. The rail line continues to follow the course of the river, but the landscape along this tidal section of the river is not so pleasant as much of it is a post-industrial wasteland.  It was encouraging though, to see some of the former cement works and paper mills being demolished, and the land being cleared for new housing.

Our train terminated at Strood, where there are connections either onwards to Gravesend, or in an easterly direction towards Canterbury and Dover. The National Rail Enquiries Site shows a 3 minute “non-connection” onto a direct service to Faversham. The “non-connection” description is due to having to descend to the subway, in order to access the appropriate platform, but we managed this with relative ease and were able to board one of the high-speed “Javelin” trains which was heading towards Ramsgate.

The train was surprisingly busy, but we all managed to find seats and settled down to enjoy the view from the window as we first crossed the Medway at Rochester, and then traversed the rest of the Medway Towns via a series of  cuttings and tunnels. Eventually we reached the flat open countryside which slopes gently down towards the Swale and the Thames Estuary. This is fruit growing country, and the orchards we passed by were a mass of blossom-covered trees, ready to bear fruit in the months to come.

We waited at Faversham station for the rest of the party to arrive; the sun by this time having put in a welcome appearance. We then set off, through the town, in the direction of Faversham Creek, passing on the way the two breweries described above. We were walking at quite a pace, which was a pity, as I would have liked to have taken some photos en route,  but before long we had crossed the Creek and were passing out of the town, towards the rather bleak and windswept looking marshes, as we followed the line of the Saxon Shore Way coastal path.

It is here that we must adjourn the  description of the walk to Hollow Shore and the Shipwright’s Arms, and return to Faversham itself. We arrived back in the town, in dribs and drabs, at around 3.15pm,  following our walk back from our lunchtime refreshment stop.

We had entered the town from the opposite direction to which we had departed, earlier in the day, and it was whilst walking through the quiet streets leading towards the centre, that I realised what a pleasant and historic town Faversham is.  We were aiming for Furlongs Ale House,  Faversham’s first micro-pub, which opened in December 2014, and despite us arriving not long after opening time, it was standing room only.

Furlong’s was formerly a wet fish shop, and unusually for a micro-pub, has its own cellar.  The beers are therefore drawn up by hand pump to the small bar area at the rear of the pub. I tried two of the beers on sale; Southern Cross 3.6% ABV from G2 Brewery and the 4.4% ABV Smoked Oatmeal Stout from Boutilliers. Both were good, but for someone who loves genuine Rauchbier from Bamberg, the latter could have done with a lot more “smoke”!

We then moved on to one of Faversham’s latest openings; the Corner Tap, which is just a short walk from the station.  Owned by the Whitstable Brewery, the Tap obviously concentrates on the brewery’s own beers; both cask and keg, but does have a fair selection of other beers from both home and abroad. Matthew was particularly pleased to see  Hacker-Pschorr Helles, from Munich on tap; I was glad of the chance to try the draught 5.4% Gamma Ray from Beavertown, as I had only previously tried the canned version.

The friendly barman told me the bar had only opened at the beginning of last December, but the place had proved popular with townsfolk, right from the start. Our little group sat in the comfortable raised room at the rear of the bar. Much of the talk centred on our forthcoming trip to Düsseldorf, which is scheduled for next month. There was also talk about a trip planned for 2018 to Bamberg.

We left the Corner Tap in time to catch the 17.26 Javelin train back to Strood. This time we only had to cross the platform for the Medway Valley line train, so the 3 minute, National Rail Enquiries “non-connection”, was even more absurd. We had an uneventful journey back, and shortly before 7pm, Matthew and I were alighting at Tonbridge.

It had been an excellent day out, during which we not only experienced the many contrasts which Kent has to offer in terms of scenery, but we also experienced a charming market town, with a wide variety of independent shops, and above all we did this in the company of friends whose friendships go back many years.

Footnote: prolific blogger and Good Beer Guide enthusiast, retiredmartin, wrote his own piece on Faversham, following his visit to the town at the beginning of last month. Like me, Martin visited Furlong’s, and also called into the local Spoons. He also managed to take some decent photos of the town centre; something I was unable to do for want of keeping up with my fast-paced walking companions!

Wednesday 12 April 2017

Open at last - the Castle at Chiddingstone

Castle Inn - reopened after nearly a year
Several days ago I reported on the good news that the Greyhound in Charcott, which closed its doors back in January, has new owners, and will be reopening at the end of next month. I am now pleased to announce that the Castle Inn, in the nearby, picture post-card village of Chiddingstone, reopened just under a week ago.

Unlike the Greyhound, which has only been closed for around three months, the Castle had been shut for almost a year, after the previous tenant handed back the keys, claiming the high rent he was being charged, made the pub unviable.

Chiddingstone - street view
As the months dragged on, and with no signs of anything happening, rumours started circulating that perhaps the National Trust, who own the pub, as well as much of the village, were considering turning the place into a tea room. A former tenant was also asked for his views by one of the local papers, and he said the same thing about the unrealistic rent the Trust had been asking for.

The other rumours which came to light, during the months of closure, revolved around the state of the six-hundred year old inn. It was said that significant repairs were necessary in order to bring the building up to 21st Century standards, and that some of these repairs involved structural work.

Public Bar
Fast forward to last November, when the National Trust announced that after a lengthy selection and negotiation process, they had secured a new tenant for the Castle in the person of Nick Naismith.  I reported at the time that Mr Naismith had a good track record with regard to turning round ailing pubs, as a few years ago he rescued the Wheatsheaf  in nearby Bough Beech. I also mentioned that he is a director of Westerham Brewery; news which might not be particularly welcomed to local brewers Larkin’s Brewery, who are based just half a mile down the road from the Castle.

Larkin’s were known to have supplied around 80 per cent of the pub’s cask beer, prior to its closure, but as I hinted at in my article it ended up with a  the good old British compromise, with both Larkin’s and Westerham beers adorning the bar.

Looking through into the other bar
I discovered this when I popped in for a swift pint and a look around on Tuesday lunchtime. The Castle had opened five days previously, but I thought it prudent to postpone my visit for a few days to allow things to settle down and any opening “first night nerves” to dissipate.

After pausing outside to take some photos, I entered the Public Bar. I was pleased to note that apart from a pastel colour wash to the woodwork, little had changed. The red and black chequered, quarry-tiled floor was still there, as was the wood-burning stove in the fireplace. The original bank of three hand-pumps was also still in place on the bar, and as mentioned above there was a Larkin’s beer (Traditional), plus a Westerham ale (Spirit of Kent), on sale. In addition, the ubiquitous, must-stock beer, Harvey’s Sussex Best was on the third pump. For those who enjoy a nice cool mug of traditional Czech lager, there is a Pilsner Urquell fount on the bar.

There were a couple of middle-aged bikers sitting by the window, plus a friendly chap sitting at the bar. I ordered myself a pint of Traditional, and was pleasantly surprised to find it priced at a perfectly reasonable £3.60. It was in good form as well; NBSS 3.5. 

The staff behind the bar were friendly and welcoming, and although the barmaid admitted she was still a novice, she still managed to pull me a decent pint. “Chatty man”, sitting at the bar, was a little too ready to try and engage me in politics, but I managed to fend of most of his questions and allowed him to do the talking. I wheedled it out of him that he wasn’t a local, so it will be safe to return for quiet pint another time!

I took some photos of the interior as well, including a couple of the dining room, just across the corridor from the bar. I had never seen this room open before, although I have a suspicion it was once used as an office.

I only stayed for the one pint, as not only was I driving, I also had to get back to work. I was pleased with what I saw of the revamped Castle, and even more pleased that it has at last reopened, after such a lengthy period of closure. I will definitely be returning, and I can strongly recommend a visit if you are ever in the area.