Thursday, 31 August 2017

A perfect English summer's day

As I sit typing at my computer, whilst watching the rain lashing against the  window, it’s hard to believe that just a few days ago the country was basking in the heat of the warmest Bank Holiday weekend in 50 years.

Looking back on that all too brief glimpse of summer, it’s worth noting that there were plenty of beer-related activities taking place over the long weekend. With family visits taking priority on the Saturday, and playing catch-up on the domestic front on Bank Holiday Monday, Sunday was blissfully free of commitments, apart from joining some friends from my local CAMRA Branch on a walk to a rather lovely, but often over-looked country pub.

Four of us boarded a bus in Tonbridge to make the short journey to Hadlow;  a large village which I have written about before. Our plan was to walk to the tiny hamlet of Dunks Green, near Plaxtol, and to spend a couple of hours at the picturesque Kentish Rifleman pub, before returning to Hadlow. We would then have time for a drink at the Two Brewers; a Harvey’s pub, just a short hop from the main square, before catching the last bus back to Tonbridge.

The bus dropped us in Hadlow, at the far end of the village, from where we were able to take a footpath that leads slowly up towards the Greensand Ridge. We have walked this way on several previous occasions; the latest being exactly a year ago, but each time we notice something different. This time it was the walnut trees laden with still ripening nuts, on the slope leading up towards Oxen Hoath House. The latter is a Victorian mansion which now functions as a conference centre.

The former Artichoke Inn
A short while later we reached the sadly closed Artichoke pub at Hamptons, and couldn’t help reflecting on the loss of this fine old attractive inn. The pub is now a private dwelling, but in its time it was a really popular venue, despite its isolated location. I certainly have happy memories of the Artichoke, and remember enjoying a drink there with my wife, in the early days of our relationship; when we were still courting.

Crossing the lane in front of the pub, and skirting the grounds of a rather attractive property, we descended through woodland towards a ploughed field. At the bottom was a double row of very sad-looking poplars; their leaves prematurely brown and dry. Quite what disease had affected these magnificent trees was uncertain, but they were in a sorry state, and some had already been felled.

Before reaching the lane which leads up to Dunks Green, we came across a lady picking cobnuts. The area around Plaxtol was once the centre of Kentish nut-growing, and at one time there were some quite extensive plantations of Kent Cobnuts; a larger, and some would say tastier, variety of hazelnuts. The examples being picked were growing wild, but we noticed that this lady had gathered a decent amount.

This part of Kent was formerly a centre for paper-making, on a pre-industrial scale, and on the way to the pub we passed Roughway Mill; one of the former paper-mills. In nearby Plaxtol, the Papermaker’s Arms pub commemorates this once thriving industry.

We arrived at the Kentish Rifleman shortly after 1.15 pm. It wasn't a long walk, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was sufficient to work up a decent thirst. Waiting sat at one of the benches at the front of the pub, was our branch social secretary who, whilst unable to join us on the walk because of family commitments, had driven over to join us for a couple of beers.

The Kentish Rifleman is an attractive old building, which dates from the early16th Century. It has been well-restored following a serious fire back in 2007 which almost completely destroyed the roof, and caused extensive damage to the rest of the building. Apart from the photo’s hanging in the public bar, showing the fire at its height, you would never know that such a catastrophe had befallen the pub.

Stepping inside into the coolness of the public bar, we noticed the Rifleman had four cask beers on offer. These were the two regular beers - Harvey’s Sussex Best and Whitstable Native, plus Tonbridge Golden Rule and Westerham Endeavour Single Hop, as guests. Most of us opted for the Golden Rule, a well-hopped, pale golden beer with the relatively low strength of 3.5% ABV. It was cool and refreshing, and it well deserved a rating of  4.0 NBSS.

Later on I gave the Single-Hop beer from Westerham a go. This  slightly stronger, and slightly darker beer came in at 4.5% ABV, and scored 3.5 NBSS.  We had been at the  pub the best part of an hour, when we were joined by a member from Tunbridge Wells, who’d caught a later bus and had then walked over from Hadlow, following roughly the same route as us.

Spotted on the walk back
Two members of our party treated themselves to lunch. The rest of us resisted, having brought a few rolls with us for later on, but I have to confess the Rifleman’s roast dinner did look rather good, as did the dessert of Salcombe Ice Cream! Whilst we were sitting there, the landlord popped out for a brief chat. He knew we were from CAMRA and was pleased to see us. His beer certainly came out highly rated, if my scores are anything to go by. The pub had been quite quiet that day, but having said that there still seemed a steady stream of people coming and going.

We left just after 3pm, as we wanted to get back to Hadlow in time for a pint or two at the Two Brewers. We took a different, but still familiar route, following the course of the fast flowing River Bourne. The river provided a source of power for the mills which one populated this valley but nowadays, apart from the odd farm on the tops of the hills, the Bourne Valley is practically deserted.

We entered Hadlow from the west, finding our way through the maze of residential streets to the village centre. The Two Brewers was reasonably busy, although whether most of the punters had come for the live Premier League match being shown, is open to question. One rather tetchy woman, sat at the bar, moaned at my friend to get out of the way, as she couldn’t see the game; he was only trying to get a round of drinks in.

Fortunately the landlady was far more hospitable, and came over for a chat with us later. She even plonked a couple of bowls of roast potatoes, left over from Sunday lunch, on the table in front of us. She told us she was from Liverpool, but had spent a considerable amount of time living in South Africa. The Two Brewers  was her first pub, and by all accounts she is making a real success of this pub, which has had a something of a chequered history in the past.

The beer was in fine form and it was good to have a pint of Harvey’s XX Dark Mild in good condition; 3.0 NBSS. I ended up with a half of Lewes Castle Brown Ale, which was in reasonable condition, but a little warm; probably from having been lying in the pipes all day. Harvey’s Sussex Best and Hadlow Bitter were the other beers, for those wanting something a little more mainstream.

After drinking up, we wandered back along to the main square, in time for the last bus back. I can think of few better ways of spending such a fine English summer’s day, as a walk in the idyllic Kent countryside, followed by a few pints with friends at two equally idyllic pubs.


Russtovich said...

"I can think of few better ways of spending such a fine English summer’s day, as a walk in the idyllic Kent countryside, followed by a few pints with friends at two equally idyllic pubs."

Agreed. Nice writeup Paul.

And, while Martin may be prone to write about "quirky stuff and the details of towns and villages", some of your posts aren't too bad either. :)

Cheers, from across the sea.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Russ. You really sell Kent to me, even if my in-laws live there (am joking, honest). Great photos, and some top pubs either side of Tonbridge.

Stanley Blenkinsop said...

Paul - you're post brought back happy memories of an equally glorious summer's day walking a couple of years ago which also encompassed the Rifleman.It's a cracking pub and we sat on those same benches supping Harvey's and dodging wasps.
Kent on a hot summer day is quintessentially old England and our day was made when a vintage Spitfire flew overhead.
Thanks for the write-up.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great day. The Kentish Rifleman does a nice selection of beers and has a homely atmosphere. There are some nice views towards the Greensand Ridge and The Weald.
I hear that the Golding Hop is now a tea room since Eddie and Sonia retired.

Paul Bailey said...

Glad you all enjoyed the post, and thank-you for your kind comments. It’s especially good to hear from people half-way across the world, so cheers and much appreciated, Russ.

Martin and Stanley, we are lucky in this corner of the country (and I include our neighbouring counties of Surrey and Sussex here), to have some first class pubs, despite the encroachment of London and the associated effects caused by being regarded as prime commuter territory.

As my article about re-opened pubs demonstrated, the price of survival for some pubs has been gentrification and courting the restaurant trade; but none of the pubs I mentioned would turn walkers or the casual drinker away, and it is nice to know you can still get a decent drop of ale in these places. Also there are still “unspoilt” pubs, such as the Rifleman, where beer plays more of a role.

Sadly we lost the Golding Hop, just outside Plaxtol last year, following the retirement of long-serving licensees Eddie and Sylvia. The closure of this unspoilt, rustic gem, which was in one of the most picturesque setting imaginable, demonstrates the need to be vigilant to the threats facing our pubs, and serves as a timely reminder to “use them or lose them”.

The odd sighting of a Spitfire is not uncommon in this part of Kent, especially during the summer months (prime time for air shows?). A couple of weekends ago, I was nearly knocked off my bike after being startled by a low-level fly-past from the Red Arrows. As can be imagined, they made quite a noise!