Wednesday 28 June 2017

Brauerei Schumacher - Düsseldorf

We return for a brief while to the Rhineland, for a post about one of the oldest breweries in Düsseldorf, which we visited on the last morning of our trip to the city. Brauerei Schumacher were established in 1838, and apart from an enforced break due to bomb damage, at the end of WWII,  have been brewing in the heart of Düsseldorf ever since. The brewery is situated in Oststraße; an area of mixed residential properties and retail units, not far from the city centre.

We arrived for our tour just before
11am, and there were already people in the large pub-cum-restaurant in front of the brewery. Once we had checked in we were led through the courtyard adjacent, to the brew-house, and were introduced to our young and knowledgeable guide.

We started off in the racking area where the finished beer was being racked off into a mixture of plastic-coated metal casks, and some impressive-looking wooden ones. Schumacher, of course, are primarily an Alt Bier brewery, and as well as their everyday 4.6% Alt, they produce  a  stronger 5.5% Latzenbier, three times a year (the third Thursday in March, September and November).

They also brew a spring beer (Frühlingsbier), normally to a different recipe each year. In 2013 Schumacher produced an Anniversary Ale to celebrate their 175th anniversary. It is appropriately named 1838er, and is described as a hybrid pale/alt which, somewhat unusually, it bittered using Australian hops. These impart the sort of citrus-like flavours normally associated with American Pale Ales.

After a talk about the company, its history and it products, we climbed the stairs towards the top of the brewery, where the lauter tun and brew-kettle are situated.  The brewery adhere strictly to the  German Purity Law of  1516, known as the Reinheitsgebot. A double- decoction mash is used, with some caramelisation taking place in the lauter tun. This helps give the beer its distinctive copper colour, but also contributes flavour as well.

After lautering the sweet wort is transferred to the brew-kettle where whole hops, sourced primarily from the famous Hallertau region of southern Germany, are added. The resultant wort is boiled for an hours, in a traditional copper kettle, before being pumped upstairs to a large, shallow open cooler known as a “cool-ship” in English and a “Kühlschiff” in German. These types of coolers were once common place in breweries throughout Europe and the UK. I have seen examples at Elgoods Brewery in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire and also at De Halve Maan in Bruges.

Once the wort has cooled to 65º C, it is pumped through a modern counter-flow plate cooler, before being transferred to the fermenting vessels. Schumacher still use open fermenters for the initial fermentation and this allows the rather lively top-fermenting yeast to be skimmed off. We were shown into a room housing these vessels, and the CO2 being given off by the fermenting beer was so pungent that it literally took your breath away. I couldn’t work out at  first why I was so short of breath after climbing just a short flight of steps, until I realised the cause; but the CO2 levels were so high that a couple of our party had to leave the room because they were having difficulty breathing!

After two days the “green” beer is transferred to closed fermenters where it undergoes 3-4 weeks of additional fermentation, followed by maturation and conditioning (carbonation). It also partially clears during this period, but to ensure a crystal-clear end product, the beer is filtered prior or casking or bottling. We were led into the bottling area to see this, after first passing through a “forest” of maturation vessels, held at a constant temperature of just 3 °C.  Draught beer is filled into casks ranging in size from 5 to 70 litres, whilst the bottled beer is filled into large one litre, swing-top bottles which are unique to Schumacher.

Once the tour had ended, we thanked our friendly and informative guide, and were then shown into the brewery-tap, known as the Stammhaus, which fronts onto Oststraße. There we were given a glass or two of Schumacher Alt  to sample, although we went on to try the 1838er as well.

We could have eaten at Schumacher, but it was still quite early, and our intrepid guide had a brew-pub lined up fro us to try, across the other side of town. There was still plenty of time for Matt and I to tag along on this, before we would have to leave for the airport.

"Have you tried it yet?"
For the record though, it was good to have visited one of the oldest breweries in Düsseldorf, and good to see that it is still adhering to traditional methods of production.

Tuesday 27 June 2017

Wye - revisited

I wrote briefly about the village of Wye in my last post, primarily because it was the starting point for the walk I undertook along a section of the North Downs Way last week. I also mentioned that I spent most of my teenage years living in the neighbouring village of Brook, and having been a member of both a youth group in Wye, and the local scout troop, I have fond memories of the place.

The memories include my first time getting intoxicated – drinking cider, aged just 14, at a party hosted by a girl from the aforementioned youth group, getting stood up for the first (but not the last) time by a girlfriend (not a fond memory, but an essential life lesson) and most important of all, my first glass of beer! The latter experience took place at a Country Fayre which was held on the Recreation Ground behind the village hall and scout hut (the latter now sadly demolished, as I discovered the other day). A couple of bottles of Whitbread Light Ale enjoyed at the Fayre and bought for me by one of the patrol leaders – and yes we were all in scout uniform, and no, Baden-Powell would not have approved!

A much younger (and slimmer me) outside the New Flying Horse, Wye
Over the course of  the next four years I lived nearby, I had several girlfriends who lived in Wye - not including the one who stood me up; although I did meet her at a party there! My sister had a job working in the kitchen of the Kings Head – still trading, although now very much an upmarket “gastro pub”, and the first time around, my other sister held her wedding reception at the Wife of Bath restaurant in the village.

So good times, and some of these memories came flooding back when my companions and I stepped off the train at Wye station last Friday evening, following our rather lengthy (for me anyway), walk along the North Downs Way. We turned left and crossed the River Stour by means of the now re-built stone bridge, passing the aptly-named Tickled Trout pub on the opposite bank.

Tickled Trout
Back in the day the pub was called the Victoria, but I remember it being extended and getting a makeover along with a new name. With the shallow, crystal clear waters of the River Stour flowing past the grounds, it was just the sort of place to imagine trout in abundance. The garden looked busy when we walked by, but with the possibility of a beer festival, we weren’t tempted to call in.

The beer festival was something of a mystery. Two of my companions had seen it advertised, on a previous visit to Wye, in the window of the Barber’s Arms; a micro-pub which opened in 2013. The idea of visiting the festival as a “reward” following an arduous walk along the NDW appealed to them, which is where I came in. The only trouble was I could find no reference of the event on-line and neither could the fourth member of our party.

Barber's Arms  micro-pub
The festival was supposed to be taking place on “The Green”, so thinking we knew where “The Green” was, we traipsed up the hill, fully expecting to see the event laid out before us on the large stretch of green space just down from the parish church. Perhaps the lack of signposts pointing to the event, or indeed posters advertising it, should have acted as a warning, but when we reached the said area, it was completely devoid of anything remotely connected with a beer festival.

Disappointed, but not undeterred, we decided to head for the Barber’s Arms micro-pub instead, but as we walked along Church Street, towards the Kings Head, I noticed a street sign attached to a building on the opposite side of the road. The sign said “The Green”. Two of our party were too far ahead to be within hailing distance, and the friend who I was walking with was, like me, too tired to turn down this unassuming side street for a closer look. It was only when we neared the end of Church Street that we met the other two walking back, accompanied by a stranger dressed in a hi-vis jacket.

Apparently they had found the Barbers Arms closed, with a notice in the window saying the proprietor was at the Wye Beer Festival. The stranger, who just happened to be passing, had offered to show them where it was, and lo and behold, it was down the very same side-street we had walked past, called “The Green”.

Now I don’t ever recall venturing down that street during my previous acquaintance with Wye, so I was pleasantly surprised with what we found, for tucked away round the corner was a “green”, area enclosed, enclosed on two sides by a low stone wall, and bordered on the other side by a variety of buildings. There was a large marquee at the far end which, as we soon discovered, was the beer tent, with two smaller marquees on either side. The one on the left was for the live music acts, whilst the other acted as the food stall.

Strategically scattered straw bales provided the
majority of the seating, but we were quick to grab one of the few benches. Already aching from our walk, the last thing we needed was to be perched on these makeshift seats; instead we wanted proper back support. Ensuring there was always a member of our group “guarding” the bench, we took it in turns to investigate the beer tent.

We discovered it was necessary to buy a wristband, which acted as admission and also went towards the live entertainment. Costing £3.50, the wristband covered all three days of the festival, but as we were just “passing through”, we managed to negotiate a pro-rata reduction to just a pound each, which we were quite happy with.

Beer was paid for by tokens, and priced at £3.50 a pint, or £1.75 a half. The beer was served in disposable plastic glasses which whilst not particularly environmentally friendly, were quick and convenient. There were around 35 beers available, all served on gravity, and sourced from a wide variety of decent and well-respected breweries. I have reproduced both sides of  the beer list above, and you will see names like Arbour Ales, Blue Monkey, Kelham Island and Thornbridge featured.

I sampled Arbor Ales – Blue Sky Drinking 4.4%,  Bespoke – Going Off Half Cocked 4.6% and Tickety Brew – Jasmine Green Tea Pale 3.8%, and all were good. I also enjoyed a Thai Red Curry, although nit-picking a bit here, I would have preferred a little less rice, plus a little more curry!

The Green - Wye
The event wasn’t packed by any stretch of the imagination, as evidenced in the photos, but it was still quite early in the evening. The band had only just finished tuning up by the time we left. We came to the conclusion that by holding the event in a tucked away location, the organisers had deliberately kept it very low key. With no direction signs and no publicity, either in the locality, or online, perhaps they wanted to keep  the festival strictly local and not encourage attendance from CAMRA or the dreaded “ticking fraternity”.

We enjoyed our visit, and felt slightly privileged to have found and attended the festival, and for me it was a particularly good way of re-acquainting myself with a village which holds particularly fond memories and a special place in my heart.

Sunday 25 June 2017

North Downs Way - Wye to Chartham

Pilgrims on their way to Canterbury
Last Friday I joined three friends for a 12 mile hike along part of the North Downs Way.  One of the friends has completed much of the 156 mile long-distance trail, which starts at Farnham in Hampshire, and runs all the way to the White Cliffs at Dover. He could actually claim to have finished the trail, were it not for the fact that whilst the main route follows the line of the downs escarpment, there is a loop which runs north to Canterbury, before heading back towards Dover. It is this section that my friend is keen to finish.

My other two companions have accompanied the first friend on some of the Kentish sections, and knowing that they were planning part of the Canterbury section on Friday, I booked the day off in order to accompany them.

Fortunately, following the heat wave at the beginning of the week, the temperatures had dropped by around 10°, but with scarcely a cloud in the sky, some form of protection was needed against the intensity of the mid-June sun. So after smothering myself with sun-block and donning a hat for good measure, I wandered down to Tonbridge station to meet my friends for our journey down to the village of Wye, which is just to the north of Ashford. (I should also add that we all took plenty of water with us, along with a packed lunch).

Wye is a location I know well, having spent much of my teenage years living in the nearby village of Brook. I was a member of a youth group there, as well as belonging to the local scout troop, so it was interesting to be back there; even if we soon departed after picking up the NDW to the west of the village. However, we would be returning later in the day for a mini-beer festival, (more about that later).

Wye lies on the River Stour, and the route we would be following runs along high ground, over-looking the Stour valley. We walked out of the village, passing the site of the long-closed Wye Racecourse, before heading due west, across fields, towards the downs which were rising in front of us.

Mountain Street
There was a slow, steady rise at first which gradually became steeper after we passed Boughton Aluph church. There were a couple of large marquees erected in the adjacent field, advertising an art exhibition which was due to take place at the weekend, and it was shortly after here that the path began to climb steeply. Fortunately most of this section was through woodland, so we were shaded from the ferocity of the midday sun.

We paused at the top for a short break, to take on some water and a quick bite to eat, before continuing on our way. The route through woodland skirted Godmersham Park; a stately pile which was once owned by the brother of the novelist, Jane Austen. We couldn’t help noticing the high wire fence running along the estate perimeter, designed to keep out the herds of deer which inhabit Challock Forest. It is also worth mentioning that this area of woodland is extensively managed; the predominantly sweet chestnut trees being coppiced at appropriate intervals, and the resultant timber  used for items such as fencing poles.

Route into Chilham
Eventually, we passed out of the wood, but not before descending via a steep and rocky path, made worse by the dozens of loose stones underfoot. This stretch was quite painful on the feet, so I was particularly glad I’d worn proper hiking boots. We then travelled along a made-up road known as Mountain Street, which skirts the edge of Chilham Castle grounds. Through the railings, by the side of the road, we could see the castle up on the hill over-looking an ornamental lake. This was a welcome sign as it indicated we were close to Chilham itself and the chance to rest up for a while and to enjoy a welcome lunchtime pint.

Chilham Castle
It was a bit of a climb up into the village, with its picturesque square, flanked by some lovely old buildings, and presiding over it all is the impressive bulk of Chilham Castle. Were it not for the cars parked in the square it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine one had been transported back to medieval times. It is worth mentioning that the building known as Chilham Castle is an attractive, brick-built Jacobean house, which dates back to 1607. It replaces a much earlier castle which had medieval origins. Both the “castle”, and the village have been used as settings for a number of historical dramas, including an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, and an episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

Directly opposite Chilham Castle is the 15th Century church of St Mary, and to the left of the churchyard is the 16th Century White Horse pub. After having walked approximately seven miles, it was the latter establishment which caught our eye, and we entered the welcoming coolness of the interior with eager anticipation.

The serving area occupies the middle section of the pub, and although linked, there is a choice of areas to sit in. As the pumps were in the right hand section, we made a beeline there, but ended up sitting in the left hand area, where there was more space and a table adjacent to the impressive stone fireplace.

The beer choice was Otter Ale or Sharp’s Atlantic. I went for the latter, whilst two of my companions opted for the Otter. The third member of our party chose an intentionally cloudy cider. The beer was excellent; cool and refreshing and we scored both at 3.5 NBSS. It was tempting to stay for another, but with another five miles to cover we thought it best to press on.

In addition, all four of us have sufficient experience of long-distant walking to know that stopping for too long midway, especially if the halt involves several pints of beer, makes it much harder to get going again, so somewhat reluctantly we said farewell to the White Horse and made our way out of Chilham.

We had picked up a leaflet in the pub which gave details of the various local attractions and we had noticed that our route took us past Badger’s Hill Farm & Cidery. We thought it would be churlish not to divert for a look, and sure enough there was a well-stocked barn selling local produce, plus cider made on the farm.

Two of my companions bought a pint each of the Medium Cider to take away. I had a taste, but wasn’t quite so keen, although to be fair, if the cider had been chilled it may have been a lot more to my taste. We then continued on our way, up the appropriately named “Long Hill”, into the village of Old Wives Lees. As we entered the village, we were joined for part of the route by a sprightly local resident, who told us that since the closure of the Star a few years ago, Old Wives Lees is now a “dry” village.

We could see the sadly closed pub down a side-turning, as we continued through the village, but with several miles still ahead of us had no time to stop for a closer look. Our route took us through fruit-growing country, with apple orchards laid out on either side of us. Again the terrain was undulating and quite challenging in places.

After cresting one hill and getting ready to descend another, we could see laid out below us a large  encampment of static caravans and other semi-permanent buildings. This is the farm complex of one of the largest fruit growers in the south east, and the static caravans are used to house seasonal workers who arrive each year to help with the harvest. It seemed a substantial operation, with a fleet of mini-buses parked up, no doubt waiting to bus in workers from other locations.

Fruit pickers' encampment
After making our way through the farmyard, and skirting a number of rather nice looking houses, we parted company with the North Downs Way. Instead our route led us downhill towards Chartham village and the railway station, where we would be able to catch a train back to Wye.

Unfortunately we miscalculated slightly on the times, and whilst two of our party made it onto the platform, I was dead on my feet and unable to sprint up the steps and over the footbridge. We missed the train by less than 30 seconds, and with another not due for an hour, there was only one thing to do and that was to find another pub.

Just over 10 minutes walk away, passed the playing fields and across the River Stour, is the Artichoke; an attractive looking 15th Century half-timbered former hall house, which has been carefully restored by the owning brewery - Shepherd Neame. Now I know what regular followers of this blog will be thinking, but any port in a storm, and the chance to rest my weary limbs along with a nice cool pint of beer, was not one to miss.

The Artichoke turned out to be very pleasant inside, and the Whitstable Bay Pale Ale was also in fine form – NBSS 3.0. Somewhat unusually for a Shepherd Neame pub, the majority of the customers clustered around the bar were drinking cask, with Spitfire Gold appearing to be a particular favourite.

We made it back to Chartham station in plenty of time for the next train, journeying just two stops to Wye, where our plan was to spend the first part of the evening at the rather low-key Wye Beer Festival. This event is worthy of a post in its own right, so I will draw things to a close here and continue next time.

Tuesday 20 June 2017

Robertsbridge - a reopening railway and a closed pub

I promised in the last post to provide an update on the Kent & East Sussex Railway’s plans for their heritage railway, and also on the situation regarding the Seven Stars; the Harvey’s pub in Robertsbridge High Street, which has now been closed for over a year.

First the railway. Rother District District Council have approved Kent & East Sussex Railway’s plans for a new station building, platform, water tower, carriage shed and locomotive shed, adjacent to the mainline station and virtually opposite the Ostrich Hotel.

They have also given the go-ahead for the restoration of the Northbridge Street to Junction Road section of the Robertsbridge to Bodiam Reconnection Project. If and when this stretch of line is re-laid, and the restoration project completed, it will be possible to travel by a heritage train from Robertsbridge via Bodiam to the eastern end of the line at Tenterden.

The current end of the line
On our recent visit to the village we saw clear signs of the work being carried out in order to get the new station into place. We also saw the track which has been laid to allow locomotives and rolling stock to transfer onto the heritage railway from the main London - Hastings line. As we walked out  towards Salehurst, we noticed where the newly laid track currently terminates at Northbridge Street.

So far, so good, but there are still a number of obstacles in the way,  not least of which are the reports in the local press, back in April, which show that two local landowners (both farmers), are holding out against selling their section of lands to the railway. The K&ESR may be able to compulsory purchase the necessary sections of land, but they are on record as saying they would much rather reach an amicable agreement with the farmers concerned.

In addition, parliamentary approval has to be obtained before track laying can commence, and in the current uncertain political climate, there is no indication as to when, or indeed if, there will be time to pass the necessary legislation.

Tenterden station
There is also the small matter of three level crossings which need to be put in place. For both safety and operational reasons, modern railway operation does not favour level crossings; preferring instead to separate rail and road traffic completely, by means of bridges, or tunnels. Given the topography and nature of the line, such solutions are both expensive and impractical, but a safe, practical and economic way of taking the preserved railway across the busy A21 trunk road has to be found.

Local MP Greg Clarke, has expressed concerns over this particular crossing, but he is only looking at the situation from the road traffic point of view, and is ignoring the obvious economic benefit which a restored, heritage railway would bring to the area. So whilst the longer term outlook for restoring this section of line is looking good, there are still a number of significant hurdles to overcome before trains can run all the way up to Tenterden again.
Now for the Seven Stars. As mentioned earlier, this fine old 14th Century inn remains firmly closed. The pub is owned by Harvey’s, who are reported as having difficulty in finding suitable tenants for the pub. Some have argued that this may be due to the high rent which the brewery are asking; reported to be £50,000 pa, and with business rates of £15,000 on top, it is perhaps not surprising that no tenants have come forward.

This is not the first pub Harvey’s have had difficulties with in recent years; as the Two Brewers  at Hadlow, in our own branch area, has seen a succession of tenants come and go. It may just be hearsay, but it appears Harvey’s may have joined the Pub Co’s in charging “market-led” rents; rather than something more realistic, which would work for both the brewery and any prospective tenants.

It may be that there is insufficient trade in a village the size of Robertsbridge,  to support three pubs; but on the other hand are the brewery just being greedy? I am surprised that Harvey’s have not installed an interim manager at the Seven Stars, as that way they could continue to draw revenue from the place, whilst re-building the trade. This would obviously be to the advantage of any incoming tenants, and ultimately to the brewery as well, so this type of arrangement would surely benefit both parties.

Perhaps this is a little too obvious, or perhaps the brewery wish to demonstrate that the pub is no longer viable. If so, this is a sorry state of affairs, and one which is not befitting of a fine old independent family brewery like Harvey’s.

So these are the updates of what is happening in Robertsbridge at present. Will the heritage rail link be restored, and will it be possible to travel up top Tenterden in a vintage carriage, hauled by a steam locomotive? Equally, will I get the chance to enjoy a few pints at the Seven Stars? I’ve never set foot inside, and it would be nice to do so, but are economics no longer in the pub’s favour?

Despite all these “ifs and buts”, Robertsbridge is still a place well worth visiting and, if time allows, so is the surrounding countryside.

Sunday 18 June 2017

Robertsbridge revisited

After a break of over a year, I caught up with my old walking companion Eric yesterday. We carried on where we had left off, back in February 2016, by once again taking the train down to Robertsbridge in East Sussex.

On this occasion we decided to cast our net slightly further afield and walk out to the tiny settlement of Salehurst for a drink at the quaintly named Salehurst Halt pub. I say quaintly named, but in reality there really was a “halt” nearby, back in the days when the original Kent and East Sussex Railway ran along the valley of the river Rother, from Robertsbridge in Sussex, north  to Headcorn in the Kentish Weald.
We had both heard of the Salehurst Halt, and on our previous excursion to Robertsbridge it was recommended that we should visit the pub, by one of the locals we met in the Ostrich (the pub nearest the station). This character assured us that the walk to Salehurst was just under 30 minutes, but because it was dark, and we were quite comfortable in the Ostrich, we decided to stay put and leave this walk for another day.

We had also both seen the Salehurst Halt featured on an episode of “Country File”, when singer and actor David Essex paid the pub a visit, because it reminded him of childhood holidays, hop-picking with his East-London family. With the weather set fair, and the summer solstice fast approaching, a Saturday evening in mid-June seemed the ideal to make our own way to this isolated little pub. We consequently caught the 15:59 train from Tonbridge, and 35 minutes later were alighting at Robertsbridge.

Before walking up into the village, we decided to call in at the Ostrich for a “quick one”.  The mercury was still in the upper twenties, so a cool, refreshing pint of beer seemed a good idea. We would also be able to check out the food option at the Ostrich, for later on. The Harvey’s was indeed good, but we stuck to our intention of just having the one, and then headed off on our quest to visit Salehurst.

We headed off up Station Street, passing the site which is being developed to form the western terminus of the Kent & East Sussex Railway, (more about that later). We then turned left at the “T”-junction and made our way along the High Street with its attractive old buildings, and down  the hill, passing the still sadly closed Seven Stars pub, (more about this too, later on). We crossed the River Rother, along with its various channels, passing the cricket ground on our left, before reaching the junction with the busy A21 trunk road. Fortunately there is a light-controlled pedestrian crossing, and before long the houses started to peter out, and we found ourselves in open countryside.  

We continued  in an easterly direction, along Church Lane, and with the imposing church tower acting as our guide, we reached the tiny village of Salehurst, and our destination the Salehurst Halt. The pub is an unassuming brick-built, part tile-hung Victorian building, just down from the church, and with the doors left open to allow as much cooling air as possible to blow through, we stepped inside.

It took our eyes a short while to adjust to the cool dark interior, but what we found was an open plan area, grouped around the bar. There was a choice of three cask ales waiting for us; Harvey’s (of course), plus Dark Star American Pale and Old Dairy Summer Top. I opted for the latter to start with, switching later to the Dark Star. Eric stuck with the Dark Star.

Both beers were nicely chilled, and we know that the pub has a cellar, because we saw the landlord disappear down the hatch to change a cask. There was a 50th Birthday Party planned for one of the regulars later on, and whilst we were sitting at the bar the band arrived and began setting up.

We decided to take a look outside with our second pint, as there is an attractive terraced garden behind the pub, with views out across the Rother Valley. Given the people arriving for the party, we noticed that the few unoccupied tables had “reserved” signs on them, so we found ourselves a space at the front of the pub, and sat there enjoying our drinks and watching the world go by.

Salehurst seems a very pleasant little village, although my friend, rather unfairly described it as “full of yuppies”. I pointed out that in the 21st Century, did he really expect it to be full of rustic farm labourers and sons of the soil, tired from a day’s toiling out in the fields? He came back down to reality, and agreed that were it not for people with a bit of spare money in their pockets, pubs like the Salehurst Halt would have closed long ago.

It is fair to say that the Salehurst Halt is very much a pub used and enjoyed, not just by the whole villager, but also other from further afield. In recognition of this it, received the Community Pub of the Year 2016 and Consistency of Excellence awards from the local CAMRA branch. We obviously called in at a busy time, so it would be nice to visit when it is less busy. I imagine the pub would be equally good, after a brisk walk  on a cold January day.

After finishing our second pint, we re-traced our steps back to Robertsbridge, and to the Ostrich Hotel where we had decided to dine. The pub was quite quiet when we arrived, so there was no problem over food. I opted for the steak, mushroom and ale pie which, as the picture below shows, was definitely a “proper pie”. Served with new potatoes, seasonal vegetables and a jug of gravy, it was an absolute bargain  £8.50. Eric chose a three-egg omelette, with the aforementioned seasonal veg.

We had a couple of pints of Harvey’s each before catching the 22.14 train back to Tonbridge. Our return visit to Robertsbridge had been an obvious success, as not only did we renew our acquaintance with the excellent Ostrich Hotel, but we also finally made it to the equally good Salehurst Halt. On that subject though, we both agreed that walking out there on a dark February evening would not have been such a good idea; despite what the customer in the Ostrich had told us. (Incidentally, he was there yesterday).

Footnote: I mentioned above that I would expand further on both the Kent & East Sussex Railway and the Seven Stars, but I appear to have run out of both space and time. I will therefore save these updates for the next post.

Friday 16 June 2017

Chiddingstone Causeway Arts & Social Centre

There’s still a couple of posts to come about last month’s trip to Düsseldorf, but before we look at how the area’s two local, but very different beers styles are brewed, I want to step back to England for a short while, and somewhere much closer to home, as I want to let people know about an inspiring example of a local community at its best.

For the past 11 years I have worked for a company which is based in the village of Chiddingstone Causeway; a small settlement about 6 miles west of Tonbridge. The village is relatively modern, having  sprung up around Penshurst station, on the Tonbridge to Redhill line. One of the quirks of the Victorian railway era was that many stations were often several miles from the places they were named after, and Penshurst is no exception.

Penshurst village is about two miles away, but it is worth noting that the station was originally built to provide rail access to Penshurst Place; ancestral home of the Sidney family, and one of the most complete surviving examples of 14th-century domestic architecture in England.

The settlement which grew up next to the station became known as Chiddingstone Causeway. The “Causeway” part of the name is thought to refer to the route across boggy ground towards Sevenoaks, whilst the first part comes from the nearby village of Chiddingstone; a much older settlement which dates back at least to Anglo-Saxon times, and possibly before.

Nowadays the village consists mostly of housing, plus a few local businesses, of which my company is by far the largest. Chiddingstone Causeway also has  a shop-cum-post office,  a church, a pub and also a village hall.

I wrote, quite extensively about the village, back in February last year, so today I want to talk about the village hall. The latter was once the village church; a “tin tabernacle”, which was built in the 1880s. Today, the old corrugated iron church has been replaced by an attractive, stone building, which stands towards the crest of the hill, on the edge of the village. It is dedicated to St Luke, and opened for worship in 1898.

Former St Saviour's Church, Chiddingstone Causeway.

St Luke’s Church was the gift of a local benefactor, and came into being because of the growth in population and the need to provide a place where  the increasingly larger congregation could worship. When the new church opened the old “tin tabernacle” was moved to the centre of the village, where it became the village hall.

An attractive brick section,  complete with a clock and a first floor observation window, was constructed as a frontage to the hall, some time in the 1930’s; and for the next three-quarter of a century provided a convenient place for villagers to meet for secular activities. The old hall was a bit draughty at times and by the first  decade of the current century, after over 100 years of service, the structure had seen better days, and was in urgent need of repair or even replacement.

For most of the time I have worked in Chiddingstone Causeway, the local community has been trying to raise funds to rebuild their village hall. Several people who live in the village work for our company and have been involved in fund-raising activities. These have ranged from raffles, Sunday afternoon teas, dances, bric-a-brac sales, amateur dramatics plus breakfasts.

The latter, took place on alternate Sundays, and were popular with both villagers and visitors alike. For just a fiver a head you could have a full English breakfast, with accompanying tea or coffee. My son and I were regular attendees, secure in the knowledge that as well as enjoying a satisfying cooked breakfast, we were doing our bit to help raise funds for a new hall. I also bought raffle tickets from colleagues at work.

The old village hall - front view
The original plan was to demolish and rebuild the tin hut section of the building, but to keep and refurbish the brick built front part. This proved somewhat of a headache, and it was decided that it would be better to demolish the whole building and start from scratch. The style of the old façade would be reproduced, as far as possible, and incorporated into the new look hall.

Before the rebuild could go ahead, planning permission had to be obtained, and there was the small matter of costs. The hall committee successfully applied for a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but this was conditional on them raising a matching amount themselves.

This requirement was achieved, and eventually the target of £700,000 was reached, planning permission was obtained and the architect’s design passed building regulations. The old hall closed in February last year, but not before one final breakfast, with kippers on the menu, as well as full English. Matt and I adore kippers, but rarely have them at home, as my wife is not keen on the “aroma” they leave behind.

Once the hall had been cleared out, and equipment had been put into storage, the contractors moved in. It didn’t take long to demolish the old building and clear the site, and once the ground-works were in place, it didn’t take long for the steel framework of the new hall to be erected.

My regular lunchtime walk takes me past the site most days, so I was able to watch the new hall taking shape. The design of the rebuild followed as much of the original footprint as possible, and the same applied to the appearance of the new hall, although modern standards and regulations obviously had to be adhered to. A firm of builders based in Crowborough were responsible for building and fitting out the hall, and having now seen the inside, as well as the exterior, I can vouch for the excellent job they have done.

On Saturday 3rd June, the Causeway Hall was officially opened by local Olympic legend, Dame Kelly Holmes. The following day, Matt and I joined several dozen others for the first Sunday breakfast; and we also returned last Sunday as well.

Like all present,  we were really impressed with the new hall, and its bright and airy feel. As well as the main hall, there is a meeting room, kitchen and dressing room; the latter for use when plays are performed. There is still quite a bit of kitting-out to be done, with a proper stage, plus a decent sound-system top of the list.

Fund raising therefore continues, not just to meet the costs of the above items, but to cover the day to day running costs of the building. I was talking to one of the volunteers on Sunday, who said that the hall needs to pay for itself, so the committee are doing their utmost to publicise it existence and promote its use. The building which is now known as Chiddingstone Causeway Arts & Social Centre,  is available for hire to interested parties. The Causeway Hall website can be accessed here.

I want to end by saying that the whole project has been an excellent example of a whole community coming together, to achieve something of real value for the common good. It also serves as an example for others to follow. Albeit in a very modest way, I am pleased to have lent my support to this shared ideal.