Monday, 27 November 2017

Lewes - Part Two; return by bus, train and mini-bus

Whilst it’s still fresh in my mind, I might as well launch straight into part two of my Lewes article. Not only that, but I am out tomorrow evening, attending a business meeting of the my local CAMRA branch.

We had just left the Swan Inn, when I left off last time, and were heading back towards the centre of town. We were on flat ground, at the bottom of the defensive outcrop of the Downs, on which Lewes is constructed,  passing the town’s football ground and the station on our way. The history buffs amongst you might be interested to learn that we also passed Anne of Cleve’s House, shortly after leaving the Swan.

Anne of Cleve’s, of course, was Henry VIII’s  fourth wife; the one he infamously described as looking like a “Flanders’s mare”. The marriage was never consummated and Henry granted Anne an annulment. The house in Lewes formed part of the settlement, although Anne never visited the property, let alone lived there.

I mentioned in the first part of this narrative that we had a choice of two pubs; the King’s Head or the Lansdown Arms. The former was ruled out, following a hint earlier from Jo,  that the beers were on the pricey side, so we continued on to the Lansdown. I had been in the King’s Head before, when my companion and I spent the night in Lewes, whilst walking the South Downs Way. I remember it as a very pleasant pub serving good food and, from what I could see as we walked past, little had changed. However, given the time constraints I was happy to give it a miss and try the Lansdown instead.
The Lansdown Arms is an attractive pub, sited on a prominent corner location, close to Lewes station. The large sign out side describes it as “An atmospheric drinking den to whet your palate and tend to your needs”. It then goes on to say, in bigger and bolder letters, “The heart of an incredible community”.

I certainly got the feeling the Lansdown was a proper community pub, with its quirky interior, and multi-level drinking areas. There were two beers from Long Man on tap, along with Harvey’s Old. I opted for the Long Man American Pale Ale. This generously hopped, pale ale, weighs in at 4.8% ABV, and is packed with rich citrus and other fruit flavours. It is well worth seeking out, and was in good form (3.5 NBSS), on Saturday afternoon, .

I had been tempted to have a pint of Harvey’s Old instead, but I knew I'd be able the drink that at the pub we were planning on stopping at on the way home. Little did I know! We commandeered a couple of the long, scrubbed wooden tables next to the window; close enough for those who wanted to watch Scotland thrashing the Aussies at rugby (well worth seeing I must say!), but not so close that conversation was stifled.

I could probably have squeezed another half in, but with a half hour bus journey ahead, and no opportunity to expel excess fluid, I wisely decided to just have the one. We departed in plenty of time to catch the 4.36 pm bus, as previously planned, but when we reached the stop, we saw a message flashing up on the digital information board, telling would-be passengers that there was currently no service to either Crowborough or Tunbridge Wells, as the A26 was closed following a serious accident.
Talk about the best-laid plans, but we  nevertheless waited for the bus and asked the driver what the score was. He advised us to board, and stay on as far as Uckfield. He would then radio in to control to find out what was happening. This suited Matt and I as we knew that if it came to it, we could get a train home from Uckfield, even though it would mean a 25 minute walk in order to change stations at Edenbridge.

This was not much help for our Maidstone companions, but we boarded as suggested and waited for further information once we arrived in Uckfield. After speaking to his controller, the driver advised us to board the London bound train and alight at Crowborough. Our tickets would be valid and there would be buses running back to Tunbridge Wells.

Matt and I decided to stick with our friends, but when we left the warmth of the train at Crowborough, there was no sign of any buses, and a phone call to the bus company also drew a blank.  Fortunately, the person nominally in charge of the trip managed to contact a local taxi company who sent an eight-seat mini-bus to take us back to Tunbridge Wells.

Working out at just £3.00 a head, this was an absolute bargain, and 20 minutes later we were dropped off in Tunbridge Wells, as the station. The Maidstone contingent had a bus due in around 10 minutes, and although Matt and I had just missed a train, there was another due in 30 minutes plus a nice warm waiting room to take refuge in beforehand.

So what about our intended pub-stop on the way back? This was supposed to be the Pig & Butcher; an imposing Victorian pub owned by Harvey’s Brewery in the village of Five Ash Down, a few miles to the north of Uckfield. I was particularly looking forward to stopping there, as I had missed out seven years ago, at the end of a lengthy walk along the Wealdway long-distance footpath.

After hiking across Ashdown Forest on a baking hot June day, my friend Eric and I found ourselves at Five Ash Down. We knew we could get a bus back to Tunbridge Wells from there, but the sight of the Pig & Butcher, opposite the bus stop was also rather tempting. We were just about to cross the road, when we saw a double-deck bus approaching in the distance.

With no timetable, and no Smart-Phone with internet connection back then, we made a split second decision to flag the bus down. We were both foot sore and weary after walking for four days, from the River Thames at Gravesend, and the prospect of not knowing when the next bus might be due, plus the dangers of dallying too long in the pub, unfortunately meant giving the Pig & Butcher a miss.

We made the right decision, but ever since I’d wanted to call in and give the pub a try, and missing out again was both frustrating and annoying. The bulk of the trip had been fine though, and proved a most enjoyable way to spend a cold November Saturday. It was especially good to visit a few of Lewes’s lesser-known pubs, rather than the usual suspects of the Brewer’s Arms, the Lewes Arms and the Gardener’s.

I do plan a return visit to the town in the not too distant future; one which will include a stopover at the Pig and Butcher.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Lewes by bus - Part One

Lewes is surprisingly easy for me to reach by public transport, so I’m rather baffled that I don’t travel there more often. The number 29 service bus, operated by Brighton & Hove Buses runs at half-hourly service between Brighton and Tunbridge Wells, and whilst I still need to get to the latter, I can do this easily by either bus or train.

The fare is also remarkably cheap at £6.50 for a day return or, as my son and I found out just £5.00 each for a family day pass. We travelled down to Lewes with a select group of six members from Maidstone CAMRA, who we met up with in Tunbridge Wells.

Sitting on the upper floor of the comfortable double-deckers which B&H Buses use for this service, gives some splendid views of the surrounding countryside, and on a day like yesterday with not a cloud in the sky, allowed us to see right across to the bulk of the South Downs, looming way ahead in the distance. The return journey was not so good though, but I’ll cover that later.

We arrived in East Sussex’s county-town shortly after 1pm, but chose not to get off at the bus station. Instead we stayed on the bus as it journeyed up School Hill, into the heart of this ancient town, and finally alighted close to the Black Horse pub; our first port of call.

Now I’ve not got particularly fond memories of this pub, having used it as over-night accommodation whilst walking the South Downs Way, nine years ago. Back then it was a rather rough and ready, former Beard’s pub (an old Lewes brewery, which hung onto its pubs long after it ceased brewing), which had ended up in the hands of Greene King, after they bought the Beard’s estate.

The decision of my companion and I to stay at the Black Horse was due to our walk coinciding with an event at nearby Glyndebourne. This had left accommodation in short supply, so let’s just say it provided a bed for the night, plus breakfast the following morning, and leave it that.

Much can happen in nine years, and I’m pleased to report that today the Black Horse is an excellent and thriving free-house offering a good range of cask ales, from several different brewers. With two log fires on the go, it offered just the warm and comforting welcome we’d been looking forward to after our journey.

There was quite a range of ales on sale, probably too much for some, but the Burning Sky Plateau which Matt and I had was in excellent condition (3.5 NBSS). We found a couple of tables at the far end of the right hand area of the bar. I suspect this was once a separate bar, back in the day, but with a nice log fire roaring away in the grate I felt nicely at home and fully expecting to be staying a while.

At this stage I should point out we were joined by a lady called Jo, and her dog. Jo was known to my Maidstone friends as she had once run a pub in the town. It was here I think that the confusion started, as Jo was aware of our visit and had let the pub know. They were obviously expecting us to eat, and I must admit so was I. One of the barmaids said as much, because the tables had been reserved for us.

It was slightly embarrassing then when my companions decided there was nothing on the menu which took their fancy. It looked fine to me; plain and simple pub grub, and reasonably priced at that, but the majority decision was to eat at the next pub, and that nearly turned out to be a mistake.

A couple of my friends tried another beer – Crème Brule from Dark Star, but I thought it best to pace myself especially as people were donning coats, ready to leave. I felt a slight embarrassment as we left, not that the decision to eat elsewhere was mine. I would still have like to have stayed for another beer though, and something to eat.

Our newly-joined companion, plus hound, guided us to the next pub; the Swan Inn situated in the Southover district of Lewes. For those not familiar with the town, it is built on a hill, over-looking the River Ouse. A partially ruined castle is sited at the highest point of the town and, when time allows, it is well worth buying a ticket and climbing to the top of the keep in order to appreciate the spectacular view over the town and across to the South Downs on the other side of the valley.

Time wasn’t on our side though, so we followed our guide through a maze of back alleys and pathways, known locally as "twittens", past the modernist, and totally out of place, bulk of County Hall, down the side of the hill to the quiet streets of Southover. There we said goodbye to Jo, who was due to do her regular stint behind the bar at Lewes Football Ground, a short distance away.

We found our way to the Swan, a delightful, old-fashioned two-bar local, owned by Harvey’s of Lewes. On entering I began to question my companion’s wisdom in not eating at the Black Horse, as this rather cramped Victorian gem was packed. We queued at the bar to order our drinks, and with four Harvey’s beers on offer, were spoilt for choice.

The fact that the Swan had the dark and delicious XXXX Old Ale on tap, made the decision a no-brainer for me, and what’s more the beer was in fine form, coming out again at 3.5 NBSS. It was also my first drop of Old this season.

We made our way through to the other bar, which was slightly more basic and must once have been the Public Bar. Fortunately a party of people were just leaving, so we were able to claim their vacated table. The menu was written on a board in the other bar, but fortunately I’d captured it on my phone. It looked remarkably similar to the one at the Black Horse, but slightly pricier, so was there karma at work here?

The lad and I opted for that old pub favourite, scampi, chips and peas. Others went for the ham, eggs and chips. The food arrived quick; it was nice and hot and the portions were plentiful, so all in all things worked out right in the end. I had time to grab myself a quick half of Bonfire Boy; Harvey’s strong (5.9% ABV), darkish seasonal special for the month of November. It was full bodied, warming and packed full of flavour; just the ting in fact for a cold winter afternoon. I scored it at 3.0 NBSS.

I highly recommend the Swan; it attracts a good crowd with a food and drink offering of a high standard. The landlord has a record deck behind the bar, and was playing a selection of  old acoustic blues numbers; not quite my cup of tea, especially as they were a bit mournful, but a welcome change from the usual piped “muzak”.  That over-worked term “atmospheric” best describes the Swan, and  as with the previous pub, I was reluctant to leave.

We then had two pubs to choose from, prior to our planned 4.36 pm departure. As there is still a fair bit of narrative to come, including a section on the trouble we had getting back to Tunbridge Wells, I will take a break here and continue in a subsequent post.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

A presentation and some Larkin's Porter

I was dragged up the pub this lunchtime, well I wasn’t exactly kicking and screaming, but it was still an unexpected visit. The pub in question was the Greyhound at Charcott, just 15 minutes walk away from my workplace, and it was a work colleague who “dragged” me up there.

Now Dave is a friend, as well as a colleague, and like me he is also a CAMRA member. Unlike me he still plays an active role in the running of the branch, and occupies the position of Publicity Officer for West Kent CAMRA. Earlier this morning, I had popped into the office he shares with a couple of other members of our management team, to drop off some documents, when he asked me if I would be going to the Greyhound at lunchtime, for the presentation of their “Highly Commended CAMRA award” certificate.

Apparently I should have received an email telling me about the event, but I receive so many emails that I concentrate on opening work-related ones first, leaving personal emails until morning tea-break, or even lunchtime. As it happened the email had come through, but that’s by the by. It was a bright and sunny day outside, and the prospect of a quick lunchtime pint at the Greyhound seemed very appealing, so of course I said yes.

We each made our own way to the pub come lunchtime. Dave walks much quicker than I do, and although he’s taken the longer route, we still ended up arriving together. Cellar Head Amber Ale was on tap alongside Larkin’s Traditional and Porter. Despite it being lunchtime I opted for the latter; it was a no brainer really, as I’d not yet had a pint this year of this dark and delicious winter brew. The porter was everything I’d thought it would be; dark and warming, with chocolate and coffee notes balanced by an earthy hoppiness. At 5.2% ABV it’s definitely not a lunchtime drink, but what the hell!

One of our CAMRA colleagues was already in the pub, but as he’s retired he’s able to please himself. He’d already grabbed a table, and we’d not been sitting down for long when we were joined by our branch chairman, Craig and branch secretary, Carole. After a brief informal discussion it was  time to make the presentation. The clock was ticking and Dave and I both had to be back at work by 2pm, so Craig managed to attract landlady Fran’s attention and called her over to explain what the award was all about.

Every quarter, West Kent CAMRA branch makes an award for the season’s "Most highly commended pub”. This is a new award, which recognises the work and enthusiasm put in by licensees in order to improve the pubs in their charge, and the Greyhound is only the second recipient of it. Fran was thrilled and insisted on calling partner Richard away from his duties in the kitchen. The pub has only recently started doing food and it was good to see it so busy on a weekday lunchtime.

Craig made a short speech and then it was time for a few photos. Unfortunately I had to dash off straight afterwards, which was a shame as it would have been nice to have stayed on for a chat; but not for another pint of porter. Nice though this beer is, it is definitely an evening, rather than a lunchtime drink.

I made it back in time for the scheduled afternoon meeting, and managed to stay awake the whole time. I prefer my pub visits to be more leisurely affairs, but this one worked out fine. It was good to catch up with a few friends, however brief our time together, and it was really good to see the pub so busy, just nine months after it was abandoned and left standing empty and forlorn. It was also good to indulge in a pint of Larkin’s Porter as well; especially as it was my first pint of the season.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Real Ale Guide to the Waterways

I was tidying up at the weekend and sorting through some of the books on my shelves, when I came across this publication from the mid-1970’s. Nicholson’s Real Ale Guide to the Waterways, was a joint venture between CAMRA and Robert Nicholson Publications. It set out to publicise pubs within easy walking distance of Britain’s Inland Waterway Network; basically the country's navigable rivers and canals.

The publishers claimed that the history of pubs and waterways were interlinked, and in the heyday of our navigable waterway network, pubs were the centre of a boatman’s social life, providing  places of refreshment and entertainment, but also somewhere where business could be conducted and goods exchanged.

The waterway’s guides were first produced, in the 1970s, by Robert Nicholson Publications, and were published by British Waterways, with the first edition retailing at just 75 pence.  The guides took the form of a tall thin book which had the canal running from top to bottom of each page, with the location of north at the top of the page and adjusted to suit this format. Sometimes pages had the canal "straightened" mid-page, in which case the location of north changed at the split point.

I’m not really sure what prompted CAMRA to embark on their joint venture with Nicholson Publications; especially as the Campaign was then in its infancy, but  I imagine a small group of real ale-loving canal enthusiasts were responsible. The resulting book runs to 160 pages, and as well as the diagrammatic representations of each canal, were illustrated with black and white photos, plus old bottle labels and other forms of brewery advertising.

A total of 28 separate navigable rivers and canals are listed, along with numerous pubs along the way. These were either directly on the waterway in question or, more often, a short distance away. The write-ups for each entry vary, but would normally include directions, plus the real ales available. The fact that a pub served food would also be mentioned, but back in those days of standardised licensing hours, pub opening times would not be listed.

A look back through the pages of this 40 year old guide makes fascinating reading, and reveals that whilst the number of pubs serving real ale was increasing; primarily as a result of CAMRA’s growing influence and campaigning, the choice and variety of beer sold in most of the featured pubs was often pretty dire.

Big brewery beers from the likes of Allied, Bass, Courage and Whitbread, were often the order of the day; although there were obvious exceptions. Places like the Black Country, where the wares of brewers such as Bathams, Holden and Simpkiss shone out, as did towns such as Nottingham (Hardy & Hanson, Home Ales and Shipstones) and Manchester (Boddingtons, Holts, Hydes, Robinsons). 

The River Thames is also worthy of special mention, as not only were the beers of London brewers, Fullers and Young’s available close to the capital, but towns like Oxford and Abingdon offered brews from Morrells and Morlands, respectively.

The Lancaster Canal, which is isolated from the main waterways network, gave boaters the chance to enjoy beers from Mitchell’s plus Yates & Jackson; both now sadly long-departed. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture. It is worth bearing in mind though, that in the main beers from  the likes of Ansells, Bass Worthington, Ind Coope, Mitchells & Butler and Greenall Whitley, dominated large swathes of the country, and were often the only choice along many stretches of canal.

Nicholson’s Guides are still going strong today, although nowadays the firm is an imprint of Harper Collins. The current guides are much better illustrated than their 1970’s counterpart, with full colour maps and photographs, plus much more detail about the canals featured, and points of interest along the way. They also list suitable pubs, but they do not go into detail about the real ales available.

CAMRA on the other hand, never ventured onto the waterways again. I’ve a feeling the joint guide was not a commercial success, as it hung around in CAMRA’s warehouse for quite a few years afterwards. For me though, it provides a fascinating look back at the pubs of England and Wales (Scotland was not featured in the guide), at a time  when the “real ale revolution” was just starting to take off.

Finally, what persuaded me to buy a copy? Well, I did partake in a canal boat holiday with a group of friends, back in the mid-1980’s. A few years earlier, the previous Mrs Bailey and I also hitched a ride for a few days, on a boat chartered by her brother and some of his friends. This took us right through Manchester, where we were living at the time and up into the foothills of the Pennines.

Providing I can remember some of the details of these two nautical jaunts, I will write short piece about them, but three decades is quite along time ago, and I will really have to rack my brains in order to come up with something.

Footnote: The “small group of real-ale loving, canal enthusiasts”, are actually revealed at the front of the book; as I discovered after I’d hit the “publish” button. “Written and researched by Alan Hill, who would like to thank the many CAMRA members who assisted, particularly Sue Prior, Eric Spraggett and Susan Hill.” So now you know!

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Night of the long knives

It’s been cull-time on the blog this evening; a long overdue removal of moribund blogs from my blog-list, and the addition of a number of blogs which have caught my interest of late. It’s been some time since I last carried out this exercise, and I noticed there were several blogs where nothing has been posted for over a year.

Like others before me I’m wondering what happened to cause the authors of these moribund blogs, to cease writing. Did they just get bored, or run out of things to say? Or are there deeper reasons? I know that when I had a mental health issue six years ago, I didn’t post anything for the best part of nine months, but I did find writing very therapeutic once I started to feel better in myself.

Of course there may be other reasons apart from health, such as change of job or starting a family; definitely a life-changer that one! Whatever the reason, I am dropping nine blogs from my list, and adding six in their place. If by some chance, any of the dropped blogs spark back into life, I can always add them back in, but we’ll just have to wait and see on that one.

I am not going to name any of the blogs I’ve dropped, and neither will I point out those I have added. The latter is just in case the new additions also start to wither on the vine. However,  I’m sure I’ve missed out the odd gem when deciding which new blogs to add, so if there are other beer-related blogs which people feel are worthy of a mention, please let me know.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

“November comes and November goes, with the last red berries and the first white snows".

November is probably my least favourite month of the year. With autumn well and truly over, and weather ranging from mist and fog to dull, overcast and drizzling, there’s something about November which makes people want to curl up in front of a nice warm fire and hibernate. 

Some would say as November is the herald of Christmas, it gives people something to look forward to, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s much too early for all that. Instead we have to suffer the over-blown wave of commercialism which accompanies the festering season.

Some friends of mine embarked on a country walk this morning. I was unable to join them, but last night in the pub they were saying the forecast wasn’t looking good, which was in complete contrast to the wall to wall sunshine we enjoyed yesterday. They were right about the weather, and as we drove over to Tunbridge Wells retail park this morning, through the type of persistent rain which quickly soaks you to the skin, I was especially glad not to be out in it, traipsing along the North Downs Way.

The pub they were making for doesn’t do food, so the plan was meet at one of Tonbridge’s “greasy-spoon” establishments, and fill up on a hearty breakfast – see my previous article for endorsement of this.  I also understand the beer range is rather limited; something I’m sure retiredmartin will approve of.

There is one thing about this time of year which does make life a little more pleasant, and that is the welcome appearance of seasonal dark ales, such as Old Ale and Porter. Tonbridge Fuggles had two on last night, in the form of Dark Star Bock and Westerham Family Stout. I tried the former, which at 5.4% was a little too sweet for my liking, and had planned to tackle the Westerham Stout next.

That was scuppered by a suggested move to Spoon’s, brought about by Fuggles being rather too full for comfort, and certainly too noisy for us to conduct our impromptu CAMRA meeting. It’s obviously good to see that Tonbridge has really taken Fuggles to its heart, but Friday and Saturday evenings are probably not the best times for a cosy chat over a few pints.

Spoon’s was a little less busy, and we were able to find a table towards the rear of the barn-like pub. This was good as several of wanted to eat, and seeing as Friday is Fish & Chips night at Wetherspoon’s, cod, chips and mushy peas was the obvious choice. At just £7.40, which included a pint of Long Man Old Man Ale, this was the bargain of the evening. The Old Man was a complete contrast to the Dark Star offering, with notes of coffee and chocolate, which compliment the pleasant light hoppiness. This was truly a rich and full tasting Old Ale, and a fine example of the style.

So what about some other dark ales? Well although October is well out of the way, I still haven’t tracked down any Harvey’s Old Ale this season. That should be rectified next weekend, as I am going on a bus trip to Lewes, with a group of CAMRA members from Maidstone. Strangely enough, Harvey’s only have three pubs in the town, but their beers should be available in most of  Lewes’s free-houses.

Larkin’s Porter has also been rather elusive this season, although to be fair, it appears a little later in the year as, by tradition, the brewery doesn’t release the beer until Bonfire Night. However, they did agree to provide a cask for the Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival last month. It was the first cask to sell out, and unfortunately was gone before I’d had a chance to try a drop.

No doubt there will be other seasonal dark ales cropping up over the course of  the winter, and I look forward to trying those I come across.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

A good start to the day?

Full Irish

Well the past few posts have been about Wetherspoon’s, travel and hotel bookings, so why not widen this slightly to include a piece on breakfast; every traveller’s favourite meal of the day - especially after a good night’s sleep!

Not withstanding time spent away, when a decent breakfast is expected as part of the accommodation package, it’s something of a tradition amongst the male members of the Bailey family ie. father and son, to go out for breakfast, especially on a Sunday morning. This only applies when the son isn’t working and the father isn’t off out on some CAMRA jaunt or walk in the country, with friends.

Pre-flight breakfast in the pale light of dawn
It should also be stated that this is not a male only activity and that no attempt has been made to exclude,  deliberately or otherwise, the lady of the house. It just so happens that Mrs PBT’s likes to treat the Sabbath as an excuse to catch up on “refurbishing” herself and not have to get “made up”; something her feminine pride normally insists on before venturing outdoors.

She also works from home, and finds she can get a lot more done when husband and son are away, stuffing their faces with all sorts of greasy and unhealthy food which, she rightly claims she doesn’t need. Personally I think it’s just an excuse to put her feet up and slob out in front of "Escape to the Country" or “Homes under the Hammer”!

I digress, and to return to though topic in hand there are the vexed questions of where to go, and what to eat? Leaving aside the first for a while a decent, full-English, cooked breakfast has to be the default option, although nowadays items such as hash browns, bubble and squeak and black pudding seems to have crept onto the menu, to join the traditional mix of bacon, sausage, egg, tomato and fried bread.

Could we have kippers for breakfast??????
In a recent post I wrote about kippers; a choice which is both tasty and also healthier than the traditional “fry-up”.  The humble smoked herring, like most oily fish, is rich in Omega-3 and other fatty acids and should be a feature of  all decent breakfast menus. Unfortunately, it is something of a rarity these days, possibly because of the lingering smell, or the fact that decent fresh kippers, as opposed to the boil-in-the-bag variety, are quite hard to come by. They featured recently on the menu of the George in Dereham, and they were also an option in happier days, at the Hill House Hotel in the same town.

I struck lucky with my choice of guesthouse a few years back, when I visited the Isle of Man, for the 2010 CAMRA Members Weekend & National AGM. Kippers, and Manx ones at that, featured prominently on the breakfast menu, so not surprisingly I indulged myself with this tasty and healthy start to the day on three out of the four morning I was on the island. Talk about kipper heaven!

Closer to home, Spoon’s have been the easy choice for the lad and I over the years. You know exactly what will be served on those willow-pattern plates, and generally it is filling, tasty and excellent value for money. We have breakfasted in all three of our local JDW outlets (Sevenoaks, Tonbridge & Tunbridge Wells), and by and large both the food and the service have been pretty good.

Another good option has to be your local “greasy spoon” type of café.  Most towns can boast at least one such establishment, and I’m sure most of us have a favourite in our home town or city.  Seeing as a decent, full-English, cooked breakfast is one of the easiest meals to prepare, it’s hardly surprising that most places get it right, and whilst some are obviously better than others,  I have rarely been disappointed in my quest for a decent breakfast.

Causeway Hall
Another place where the lad and I have kick-started the day, has been the village hall at Chiddingstone Causeway; the village where my employer is based. Earlier this year, I wrote about the opening of the brand new hall which replaced the former, ramshackle “tin-shack”, which had served the local community for the best part of a century.

Offering a decent, cooked Sunday-breakfast, once a fortnight, was just one of the many ways adopted by the hall committee in order to raise funds for the modern, bright and airy new hall, and Matthew and I are pleased to have played a small part in helping to literally get the new building off the ground. We pop over when we can, as funds are still needed for  the day to day running of the hall, and for improvements in the form of stage and sound equipment.

We found a new place for Sunday breakfast last weekend; or rather I did. Matt and his mate had been breakfasting there, on and off, for some time, so when he suggested we give the Hilden Manor a go, I was all for it. The Hilden Manor is a large, rambling Beefeater establishment, situated on the northern edge of Tonbridge as it merges into neighbouring Hildenborough.  It is an attractive, tile-hung building and is reported to be one of the oldest in Hildenborough, with parts dating back to the 17th Century.

Thirteen years ago the pub was destroyed by a disastrous fire, believed to have been caused by an electrical fault. It was re-built, and re-opened in 2006, along with a Premier Inn which was constructed alongside. The company I work for sometimes use it when we have visitors from over-seas, given its proximity to both Tonbridge and our factory at Chiddingstone Causeway.

Hilden Manor
Last Sunday though was the first time I’d stepped inside the place since its re-opening after the fire, and it was not quite what I was expecting, or how I remembered the pub. Before, it was quite open-plan in nature, but now it is broken up into a several linked areas, which helps create a much more intimate atmosphere.

Unlike Spoon’s where you just grab a table, we had to wait to be shown to one. The menu is pretty similar to JDW, but you can mix and match your selection. I opted for scrambled egg, bacon, sausage, has-browns, tomato and mushrooms, whilst Matthew doubled up on the sausage and fried egg. The price is around £3 dearer than Spoons, but you get unlimited teas or coffee, along with toast or crumpets. All in all it was a very pleasant experience, much less hectic than Wetherspoon’s and none of the off-putting 9am Stella drinkers either.

Continental - Barcelona
Well that concludes my little round-up of the delights of a weekend breakfast; certainly on the home front, but before I finish I must mention that the English, or perhaps American-style cooked version seems to be catching on in Europe. Once upon a time, those in search of something solid to start the day were limited to rolls and croissants, and whilst this might still be the case in many continental hotels, I have noticed items like scrambled egg, bacon (thin, crisp – almost fried to a frazzle US style bacon), creeping onto the breakfast menu, alongside thin Nürnberg style sausages and the odd boiled egg. This is especially true in Germany, where these items seem much more prevalent as part of a hotel breakfast buffet, than they did 10 or 12 years ago when I first started visiting the country on a regular basis.

Matthew takes the Mickey when I tell him that breakfast is a good start to the day, but when on holiday a substantial meal, first thing in the morning, is usually enough to see me through to the evening, although occasionally I will have a filled roll or something light, midday, especially if I’m going to be drinking.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

A success story from further afield

I am sure we are all familiar with the stories of rural pubs closing by the score, and how these closures have decimated villages up and down the country. Deprived of a place to meet up with friends and neighbours in a jovial and convivial atmosphere, it’s small wonder that many rural communities are suffering.

Worse still the closure of the last pub in the village can mean the local cricket, football or darts teams are left homeless, or with nowhere to go for that all important convivial post-match drink, then it can often mean the end of these teams as well.

The BBC’s Countryfile highlighted this issue last weekend, and  also homed in on a rural success story, where the local community clubbed together and bought their pub, in order to save it from closure.

Now these success stories, where pubs have been rescued and brought back to life by people-power, have been quite common in recent years, but I hadn’t realised that pubs in other countries have also been under the same types of threat as here in the UK.

One story which caught my eye was that of Altenau; a small community in Upper Bavaria, where the inhabitants brought their closed pub back to life in 2014, after it had stood empty for more than 10 years.

When the building was put up for sale in the summer of 2012,  the people of Altenau took action. They formed a co-operative, invested the necessary capital, and put in a massive 22,000 hours of voluntary work, over a two-year period, in order to restore the building.

Now, especially on Saturday evenings, the villagers come together for a few beers or glasses of wine, at the Altenauer Dorfwirt to enjoy the cooking of chef  and landlord Florian Spiegelberger, helped by his wife Izabella, and the pub’s handful of employees. The menu is short but of a very high quality, with ingredients sourced from the local region wherever possible.

The re-opened pub has given Altenau a new lease of life. It can seat 70 but there are often over 100 people attending the monthly musical “Stammtisch". There is a beer garden outside, where guests can sit in the cooling shade of the old horse chestnut trees, whilst enjoying a beer and a chat, and visitors soon feel welcome.
It is no surprise then that lots of city dwellers keep coming back to Altenau, as life certainly seems good there! It is also good to read of a success story somewhere else in the world, where local people have rescued and lovingly restored their pub so that it once again forms a central part of their community.

I came across the story of the Altenauer Dorfwirt  after following a link to the Bayern Tourismus website. Intrigued  I decided  to take a closer look and discovered that the pub was much larger than the impression given  by the article.

For example there are four double  and two single rooms, all with en-suite facilities; so if you fancy  an over-night stay in this picturesque corner of southern Bavaria, you could do a lot worse than put up at the Altenauer Dorfwirt. Rooms can even be reserved through

If you don’t fancy driving, there is an hourly train service from Munich, changing at Murnau.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Room at the inn

It was around 25 years ago that my parents moved up to Norfolk, following my father’s retirement from the Royal Mail. The Post Office, as it was then known, had been his only employer since completing his National Service, so he was able to retire at 60, on an index-linked pension, which had also been non-contributory.

Nice work if you can get it, but I don’t begrudge my parents this opportunity; let’s just say it was a different time and a different era. My wife and I were fairly infrequent visitors during the first years of my parents’ retirement. We had only recently started a family of our own, and things were a little tight financially. When we did visit though, it gave us the chance of getting to know Norfolk a little better.

Strangely enough, we had spent a couple of holidays in the county, before the arrival of our son, staying one time just outside the town of Diss, whilst for the other holiday we rented a house overlooking one of the Broads, a short distance from the village of Horning.

Much later on, after we had started our off-licence business, visits to my parents largely dried up, due to the difficulties of getting someone to cover for us, and also finding the cash to pay them. We sold the business 10 years ago, after I had started work back in the healthcare industry. Visits continued pretty much on a two to three times a year basis, initially staying with mum and dad at their bungalow in Swanton Morley, but later on we either rented a cottage or put up at a hotel.

It is the subject of hotels and bed & breakfast places that I want to write about now, so apologies for the rather lengthy preamble, but I wanted to set the scene. It’s a well known-fact of life that wives do not always get on with their mother-in-laws, and the relationship between Eileen and my mother fell into this category. In defence, mum didn’t get on well with her mother-in-law either, which illustrates just how true this oft-quoted fact of life is.

The upshot was that in later years, it was normally me who visited mum and dad; although our son Matthew quite often accompanied me on these visits. Grandmothers’ love seeing their grandchildren, particularly when they’re the first-born, and mum was no exception. The first place we stayed at was the rather nice Hill House Hotel, right in the centre of Dereham. The hotel was privately owned and run by a proprietor who really cared about his business and his guests; in short, nothing was too much trouble – you could even have kippers for breakfast, if you wished – a big bonus from my point of view.

The business must have been doing well because extra, ground floor rooms were added at the rear. I think they must have been the stables, at one time, but they provided extra capacity to Hill House. Both Matthew and I stayed there on several occasions, and thoroughly enjoyed it – especially as the hotel was right in the centre of Dereham, with all its numerous pubs. Imagine our disappointment when my mother informed me that Hill House had changed hands.

Undeterred, I booked a three night stay back in 2011, as I had travelled up to Norfolk to help celebrate my father’s 80th birthday. I discovered the property was now owned by a group called MJB. Payment was in advance and, as there was now no manned reception, guests were sent a PIN code in order to access their room. That was the theory, but in practice I had to phone the company several times prior to my arrival, as no code had been sent through.

The long and the short of it, was I didn’t have a good stay; in fact, I decided to cut my losses and spend the next two nights at my parents, sleeping on the sofa. I won’t go into details as to why I didn’t stay longer at Hill House, but if you want to know more  about the MJB Group, just take a look at the comments on Trip Advisor.

It was obviously time to find another place to put up at, and this came in the guise of Bartles Lodge; a privately owned B&B complex next to a couple of fishing lakes. The lodge is situated in the tiny village of Elsing, which is just a few miles down the road from Swanton Morley. With the Mermaid pub virtually next door, serving good food and equally good beer, Bartles Lodge was ideal.

I stayed there several times, and would quite happily return, were it not for the fact that, on account of its fishing lakes, the place is terribly popular, and each time I have gone online to book, there are no vacancies for my chosen dates which, admittedly are usually at the weekend. However, if you do manage to book a place there, then I’m sure you will have a lovely peaceful stay, followed by an excellent breakfast the following morning.

For subsequent trips I resorted to that old favourite, selecting properties based on their distance from Swanton Morley, the room-rate, the proximity of a decent pub or even staying at a decent pub, plus, of course availability. Consequently I have stayed in a wide variety of establishments, most within a 20 mile radius of Swanton Morley/Dereham.

I won’t list them all, but special mention should go to Meadow Farm Cottage at Mulbarton, to the south of Norwich and Moorsticks, on the other side of the city, close to the airport. Both are excellent bed & breakfast establishments. The Swan Inn at Hilborough, to the south of Swaffham and the Ugly Bug Inn at Colton, roughly halfway between Norwich and Dereham, were both excellent pubs offering overnight accommodation.

Finally, for those who appreciate the slightly faded, 1980’s utility look, the Best Western Brook at Bowthorpe on the outskirts of Norwich, sometimes offers rooms at bargain rates. Matt and I have stayed here a couple of times, and with  regular buses into the city centre, this sprawling, single-storey hotel provides a good base for those wanting to explore Norwich.

For our most recent trip, which was last weekend, we stayed at the George in the centre of Dereham, but that was the first time in several years of making these trips, that the hotel had rooms available.

As I wrote in my post about that last visit, the fact that my sister is shortly moving out of the area, means that I will no longer need to base myself quite so close to Dereham. As long as I can find a location within easy travelling distance of dad’s care-home at Gressenhall, then there are opportunities of getting to know other parts of  Norfolk, such as the coastal region to the north, or the area looking out towards the Wash.

Finally, this isn’t a plug or anything and I am not on commission, but I have used for the past 12 years as a means of finding and securing accommodation in locations at home and abroad. The places I have stayed in have ranged from four star, city-centre hotels, to rather more basic penzions, self-catering apartments and simple bed and breakfast establishments.

The site provides an insight into where you might be thinking of staying, with reviews from guests,  backed up with photos and location maps. The site takes the hassle out of booking with in most cases, no payment upfront. Many of the places listed, offer free cancellation as well,  allowing for last minute changes of plans or finding a better offer.