Saturday 27 January 2018

Life and life only

Well if things had gone to plan I would be on the train home from Manchester now.  My introductory post  for 2018 described, in some detail, my beer-related itinerary for the first eight months of the year, and a long overdue visit to Manchester and Salford, including time for a visit to the Manchester Beer Festival, was the first item on the list.

Still as John Lennon famously said, Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans”, and Retired Martin reminded me that You can overdo planning, of course”, so yes,  life certainly ended up dealing us a particularly nasty surprise.

There are two lessons learnt here then; the second one being,  never take your health for granted. We all think we are indestructible, especially when we are just starting out in life, but even after the years have started creeping up on you, there’s a tendency to think we can continue to burn the candle at both ends, and just carry on living our extremely busy and often over-complicated lives.

So without resorting to the old clichés about waking up and smelling the coffee, the experience of the past three and a half weeks has definitely taught us to slow down, and take time out from our busy days.

There’s a major life-style choice ahead for Mrs PBT’s, involving giving up a particularly unhealthy vice. She knows this and I too have learnt not to be too blasé when it comes to turning a blind eye under the pretext of “live and let live”.

So no immediate travel plans for the time being, just time to spend getting our lives back on track, reflecting on the future and learning to take things a lot easier!

The George & Dragon - Wrotham

After renewing my acquaintance with the “revived” Rose Revived at Hadlow, last Saturday, I decided to cast the net slightly further afield. The plan was to visit the village of Wrotham the following day, and try out one, or possibly two of the pubs there.

As some of you have probably gathered by now, I am calling in at these places on my way home from visiting my wife whilst she’s in hospital over at Maidstone. There are lots of interesting places in between the county town and Tonbridge, and plenty of pubs whose acquaintance I wish to renew.

Anyway, the plan for Sunday was to make a slight diversion towards Wrotham; my interest in the village having been sparked by Retired Martin’s article which he posted just prior to Christmas. Martin described the area, which lies in the triangle bounded by the M25/M20/M26  motorways, as Weatherboarden”.

White-painted weatherboarding is quite common throughout Kent and can also be found in parts of neighbouring Sussex as well, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Wrotham seems cut off from the rest of the county, despite its proximity to several major centres of population. As I commented on Martin’s post at the time, “I’ve driven past the turning to Wrotham many times, on trips to Gravesend, but there never seems time to turn off and sample the delights of this “hidden” village. Must re-visit after reading your post.”.

Sunday however, did not turn out as planned. It was raining when I left for my journey to Maidstone, and whilst I’d spotted the odd snowflake on the windscreen,  I thought little of it until I reached Wateringbury, where it was snowing quite hard. By the time I reached the hospital it had got worse. Well there was no turning back, and as the snow seemed quite wet, and wasn’t settling, I wasn’t unduly concerned.

Eileen was looking better than she had for weeks, and we had a good chat. It wasn’t yet time to reflect, but experiences such as she’s just been through do tend to concentrate the mind and cause one to pause and reflect.  With state retirement age just over four years away, perhaps it is time to slow down and start taking things easier, and I know Eileen will be doing this.

When it was time for me to leave, I noticed the snow had thankfully turned back to rain. The sky was dull and grey and with a cold northerly wind blowing I decided it would be best to give Wrotham a miss on this occasion, and head straight home instead. I had some household chores to attend to, and a roast dinner to cook for son Matthew and I.

The following day was completely different though, and whilst it started with a visit to the dentist, the sun was already shining by the time I’d left the surgery. I’d taken the day off work, as I had some business to attend to at the hospital. I didn’t know this, but when a patient is admitted to intensive care, any jewellery they might be wearing is removed.

In order to retrieve these items it was necessary for me to call at the Cashier’s Office, which is only open Monday to Friday; hence the need for me to book a day off. This I duly did, and after completing this task and also having the chance to talk to one of the doctors treating Eileen, I left the hospital shortly after 1.30pm. Now was my chance to visit Wrotham, so after stopping for fuel, plus a few items of shopping, I pointed the car in a westerly direction and headed off along the A20 towards my destination. 

I always think of the A20 as the “old road”, as it was along this highway that I travelled on a regular basis, with my parents and my sister, on journeys to London, in order to visit my maternal grand-parents. Travelling along this road brought back some pleasant memories, including some more recent ones, such as the time my walking companion Eric and I stayed at the Pretty Maid guest house, whilst walking the Weald Way.

I left the A20 halfway up Wrotham Hill and turned down into the village. It must be 30 years or more since I last visited Wrotham, but it is not a particularly large place with a population of just under 2,000 souls. It lies at the foot of the North Downs and today is mercifully free of traffic since the A227 Gravesend-Tonbridge road was diverted around the village.

Attractions include the church of St George, which was constructed in the late 13th Century, replacing an earlier Saxon church. It is believed to be the oldest church in England dedicated to the country’s patron saint.

Of particular interest to the beer drinker is the concentration of  three pubs in the village centre, all within a hundred yards of each other. These are the Rose and Crown, the George and Dragon and the Bull Hotel. A fourth, the Three Postboys, ceased trading in 2009, and this is the establishment whose owners Retired Martin quite rightly castigated, due to the way they were advertising the place as “Not a Pub”.

The loss of this former Greene King pub left me with a choice of Shepherd Neame (Rose & Crown), or two free-houses (Bull or George & Dragon). I opted for the latter, purely because I knew I had visited the other two hostelries in a previous existence. I managed to park opposite, and after pausing to take a few photos, stepped up to the door and entered.

The first thing that struck me was the red-painted interior, quickly followed by the two leery old blokes sitting at a table to left of the door. I then clapped eyes on the centrally-located bar, complete with the landlord standing behind the counter, eating his lunch.

This was surely not the most auspicious of starts, and my question to the landlord as to which of the five cask ales he might recommend, was met by a less than helpful, “Depends on what you like”. With a beers ranging from Harvey’s Best to Exmoor Mild, with offerings from Marston’s, Otter and Sharp’s also available, I decided to opt for the latter in the form of  Sharp’s Coaster.

This 3.6% light-golden ale, proved to be a good choice, and I rated it at 3.0 NBSS. I left the landlord to finish his lunch, and plonked myself down at a table adjacent to the fireplace. Comparing my photos with those posted by Martin, we both must have sat in exactly the same seat!

I took the opportunity to flick through the latest edition of the Sevenoaks Chronicle; the sister paper to our own local rag, the Kent & Sussex Courier. Being Sevenoaks, the Chronicle seemed more up market, but that might just have been me being a bit picky.

There was a small group of middle-aged drinkers sitting a the bar, but apart from them and the two merry men by the door, the pub was more or less empty. Certainly the virtually separate dining area at the far left of the pub, was completely empty. I finished both my pint and the local paper at roughly the same time, pleased that I had visited the pub, but unlikely to make a return visit.

The local CAMRA branch (Gravesend & Darenth Valley), saw fit to include the G&D in this year’s Good Beer Guide, but the next time I divert to Wrotham, I am tempted to give the Bull a try instead.

Finally, for those not in the know, in true, and totally confusing Kentish fashion, Wrotham is pronounced "Rootam"; so now you know!

Sunday 21 January 2018

The Rose Revived - Hadlow

Yesterday, after visiting my wife who thankfully is now recovering well in Maidstone hospital, I stopped off for a pint on the way home. The other week I called in at the Swan-on-the-Green; an excellent rural brew-pub in the tiny village of West Peckham. I wrote about my visit here.

This time I stopped at a pub closer to home; one which I hadn't visited in ages, until I called in, a few weeks before Christmas, to collect my wife and a couple of her friends following a night out and a meal there.  The pub in question was the Rose Revived at Ashes Lane, a short distance from Hadlow, and just a few miles from the edge of Tonbridge.

On that occasion I didn't stop for a drink, as I was acting purely as a chauffeur, so having driven past the pub numerous times during the past 16 days, I thought it high time I popped in for a pint and gave the Rose proper look over.

Weather-wise I couldn't have picked a more foul day, so the photos of the pub exterior I took are both hurried and framed at such an angle to not include the cars parked in front of the building. The Rose was therefore not looking its best, which was a shame really as it is an attractive, white-painted old building which dates back to the 16th Century.

In recent years the pub has been considerably enlarged at the rear, and now incorporates a large reception-cum- dining room along with a conservatory. This is in keeping with its new title of "The Rose Revived Country Pub & Venue".

I say "new title", because in February of last year, the pub's name reverted to the Rose Revived, following a period as the Hadlow Bar & Grill. Prior to that it had even been an Indian restaurant for a short while. Local people had always known it as the Rose Revived, but what many of them don’t know is that at one time the pub was called the Rose & Crown.

The "Revived" part came about back in the 1970's when a previous owner acquired the freehold of what had been a rather run-down Charington's  pub and, after spending a lot of time and effort, had restored the building to something approaching its former glory. The name change may also have come about because there is another pub, right in the centre of Hadlow, called the Rose & Crown.

The fact that the London brewers Charrington's owned the pub relates to their acquisition of the tied estate of the former Kenward & Court Brewery, who were based just down the road in the centre of Hadlow. The brewery itself may have gone, but the impressive maltings buildings still stand, following their conversion to residential apartments.

I first became aware of the Rose Revived when my job took me to Tonbridge. I didn't live in the town back then, as I commuted daily from my home in Maidstone, but it wasn't that long before I started to explore the countryside around Tonbridge; particularly the stretch between the town and Maidstone.

In late 1984 I moved to Tonbridge after meeting the present Mrs Bailey, and it was on a subsequent visit to the Rose Revived that I first became aware of the eccentricities of the pub's then owner. I never knew the licensee's name but I soon learned of his reputation as a curmudgeonly individual. The rumour was he ran the pub like a private club, primarily for the benefit of himself and his friends (cronies). I don't know quite how true this was, but I do recall a work colleague falling foul of this individual, although I can't  remember what his alleged misdemeanour was.

I do however, remember attending a CAMRA social at the Rose Revived one evening. This would have been some time in the late 1980's, and it happened to be general election night (presumably the election which saw Margaret Thatcher win her third term in office).

A group of us were sitting around a table enjoying the excellent Harvey's. The landlord may have been a grumpy old bugger, but he knew how to keep beer, and the Harvey's in particular was always top notch. As I recall, what happened next was a couple of other CAMRA members turned up late, so not wishing to exclude them from the conversation, and the company in general, we moved a couple of stools over to the table we were sitting at.

This was the signal for mine host to come marching over and order us, in his best Basil Fawlty manner,  to move the chairs back to where we found them, or leave. We reluctantly did as instructed, but when it came to getting a final pint in, our curmudgeonly friend then refuse point blank to serve us.

Time had not been called and there was still a good 10 minutes before "last orders". When questioned why we were being denied another pint, we were told the pub was closing early. (There may have been some reference here to election night, but I can't be 100% certain). As we left, we noticed most of the regulars still had plenty of beer left in their glasses, and the feeling was that once we had gone, Mr Fawlty and his chums would shut the door and carry on with their own private drinking session.

That's probably more than enough about the past, although I do find it quite amusing to look back at that particular chapter in the pub's history. Instead I want to concentrate on the present, where one couldn't wish for a more pleasant and convivial atmosphere.  I felt this back in December when I had just popped in to collect Eileen and her friends, and yesterday I felt exactly the same.

As mentioned earlier, the weather outside was atrocious, so I was glad to notice a welcoming log fire blazing away in the grate of the inglenook fireplace. There was just one person sitting at the bar, but there were quite a few customers scattered around the various rooms which make up the pub.

As if on cue, Harvey's Best was available (the pub memory wouldn't have been the same without it!), alongside Blonde Ambition from Tonbridge Brewery. I of course opted for the former, and scored it at 3.5 NBSS; my only complaint being it was served a little too cold for my liking. The beer was competitively priced as well for an upmarket pub, at £3.85 a pint.

I found myself a seat at a small table close to the window, where I had a reasonable view of what was going on. There were people like me who were just there for a drink, but it's safe to say the majority of the customers were diners. I didn't look at the menu whilst there, but a look later confirmed that the prices were quite reasonable, considering both the venue and the area. There is talk of holding a CAMRA social at the Rose Revived, later in the year, and I will certainly be passing on my positive feedback to the branch. I don't think there will be any trouble regarding moving the furniture or private, late night drinking parties this time around!

I had a brief chat with one of the owners as I was leaving. He said he was pleasantly surprised by the number of people they had in, especially in view of the weather, but when it's chucking it down with rain outside and the temperatures are not far above freezing, I can think of few better places to be than in a cosy, old country pub, in front of a blazing log fire, with a decent pint of beer in my hand.

Thursday 18 January 2018

On the buses

Last autumn, news broke that Kent County Council (KCC), were planning to withdraw subsidies from a significant number of mainly rural bus routes. These included 23 routes in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells alone. In some cases the entire services to  several villages and other small rural communities were to be withdrawn in their entirety.

KCC planned to recuperate £2.25million a year by ending these subsidies, the withdrawal of which would have had disproportionate effect on both the elderly and younger people, as car usage amongst these groups is lower than in other sectors of the population.

Now, following a predicted and entirely understandable public outcry, leaders at County Hall have had a  last minute change of heart. This follows the news that central Government grant reductions were less than feared, and KCC needed to only budget for £450,000 rather than the predicted £2.25million. Council Leader Paul Carter (Conservative), ended up apologising for the "premature" release of routes potentially facing the axe.

Councillor Carter stated there is no longer a need for the subsidies to end, and announced on 16th January that a consultation into the proposals, that was due to start on the following day, will no longer take place. Instead, County Hall has budgeted £500,000 for "conversations" about the buses with parish councils and community groups.

“We believe there are smarter, more responsive ways to deliver these bus services,” said Cllr Carter. “We intend to arrange a whole series of big conversations with parish councils and communities on how this can be delivered.”

Many Kent residents have been left wondering why Paul Carter didn't  speak out about this before, and the fallout  from this debacle has seen Cllr Matthew Balfour, the Cabinet Member for Transport, lose his job last week to Cllr Mike Whiting. 

Martin Betts, Campaign Coordinator for Tunbridge Wells Labour Party, said: “The climb-down from making severe cuts to bus subsidies is to be welcomed. It is a direct response to thousands of people across the county who are saying that they have had enough of the austerity embraced by Conservatives at all levels of government. Instead of tinkering with budgets at county level we need proper Government funding to ensure that we get the decent public services we need”. 

Gillian Douglass, Chair of Tunbridge Wells Liberal Democrats , added: “The rural routes had already been cut down which effects chiefly the older people and younger people. It is great we are going to keep these services.” 

Greg Clark, MP for Tunbridge Wells, said: “I am delighted that Kent County Council has listened to our concerns about potential cuts to local bus services. Many people would have been affected so this news will be a great relief. It is vital that our local bus services keep running.”

"Weasel words", some might say, from these politicians, all of whom seem more interested in scoring points off one another rather than doing anything constructive, so let's put politics to one side and look at things from the perspective of bus users.

Now whilst I am one of those who signed the petition, protesting against the cuts, I have to confess the only times I use bus services are for CAMRA socials, in order to visit some of our more rural and outlying pubs. I have occasionally used these services, whilst out walking in order to reach either the start of my walk or as a means of returning me home, but by and large I am a committed car user.

Things might have been different of course, had the government not moved the goalposts and upped the age at which citizens qualify for a free bus pass from 60, to state retirement age (66 in my case). That though is a different story, and one outside the scope of this article.

Instead it does bring up the whole thorny issue of rural bus services and the mantra of “use it or lose it”. I say this because more often than not, my CAMRA companions and I have either been the only people travelling on some of these rural buses, or we have constituted by far the largest number of the passengers.

So whilst I am perfectly happy to see some of my hard-earned Council Tax being used to subside these rural services, I would definitely like to see more people using them. I’m sure there are others who will disagree though, and some will no doubt question the ethics of council-tax payers subsidising "pensioner’s trips to the pub".

To those people I would say, remember that one day, you too will be old. Health or financial constraints may mean you are no longer able to drive a car, or perhaps you will become unable to bear the cost of running your own vehicle. In such instances, that subsidised bus service may just prove the lifeline you are looking for.

Tuesday 16 January 2018

From the archives - Part One

As some of you will know, my wife has been rather poorly since the start of the New Year, after suffering a nasty chest infection which developed into full-blown pneumonia. She ended up in intensive care in Maidstone hospital, and spent eight days on a ventilator under sedation, with various lines and drips attached to her.

She is now fortunately,  conscious and was sitting up in a chair when  we visited  her earlier this evening. She is still weak and confused in equal measures, so despite protestations to the contrary, she will need to remain in hospital for some time. So what with daily visits plus all the cooking, washing and other household chores keeping me occupied, I haven’t had a lot of time for writing of late.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to come across an article which I'd written over 10 years ago, or possibly even longer, and whilst parts of it may seem a little dated, due to the many changes which have occurred within the brewing industry, it is still worth a read, even if it’s just for the historical value. The post is about Old Ales and Barley Wines and my early experiences of these beers.
Old Ales & Barley Wines

I always think that Old Ales and Barley Wines represent something to look forward to as winter approaches. Although their appearance usually heralds the start of colder weather, they help to brighten up what can otherwise be a depressing time of the year.

The majority of brewers produce either a draught Old Ale or Barley Wine these days; some even produce both. This is in addition to other dark beers such as Porters and Stouts. Sitting in a quiet country pub, in front of a roaring log fire, sipping a glass or two of Young’s Winter Warmer, Wadworth's Old Timer or Harvey’s Christmas Ale, is one of the finer pleasures in life. The rich, warming and potent nature of these beers not only helps to keep out the cold, but also helps satisfy the inner man.

My first introduction to such brews came in the form of Young’s Winter Warmer - a very aptly named beer if ever there was one. Unfortunately, I remember neither the time nor the place, but believe that it must have been somewhere in Wandsworth, where Young’s pubs are thick on the ground.

My second introduction to winter ales came during my student days, back in the mid 1970’s, and was in the form of Robinson’s Old Tom. The latter is a rich, dark, warming and rather potent barley wine, with an alcohol content of 8.5%. The location where I first sampled this beer was the Star Inn, a tiny Robinson’s outlet, tucked away down a side road called Back Hope Street, in a backwater area of Salford. This particular pub was a favourite haunt of students and was also my local for a time, even though it involved a walk of some twenty minutes or so from where I was living at the time.

One evening, whilst enjoying a few pints in the Star, a friend and I were informed by the landlady that, with winter fast approaching, the pub would be getting some Old Tom Ale in for customers to try. The prospect of sampling what we had hitherto regarded as a bottled beer only was an exciting one, but after a couple of fruitless visits, when we were told that the beer had either not arrived, or that it had arrived but wasn't quite ready to serve, we finally struck lucky. Perched up on the bar, was a small wooden cask, full of Old Tom.

We awaited our first taste with eager anticipation, as the landlady slowly filled our glasses, but to our surprise she insisted on serving us in half pint glasses. It appeared that pints were considered too much for this rather potent beer! The beer was black, sweet, extremely potent and nice and warming. My friend and I made several more visits to the Star for a glass or two of Old Tom before that particular cask ran out.

After that supplies seemed to become somewhat erratic, and on a subsequent occasion we were only alerted to the beer's availability by the bizarre behaviour of one of the students who shared a house with us. "Mild-mannered" Martin, a shy and somewhat retiring type, had to be physically restrained one night after running amok wielding a machete!

We later found out that he had spent the evening in the Star, and had managed to consume three pints of Old Tom! As he was someone who didn't normally drink, one can only describe him as being off his trolley. Certainly he had no recollection of his strange behaviour the following day, although he was suffering from a king-size hangover!

It must have been around this time that I first sampled Theakston's Old Peculier. I had tried the bottled version a year or two previously, but found the cask-conditioned version to be far superior. The place where I enjoyed this legendary drink was the Ram's Head, a wonderfully unspoilt and remote pub high up on the moors above Oldham. The Ram's Head, or "Owd Tupps" as it was commonly known as, is the subject of a previous post, so I won't elaborate any further here.

Later on, whilst still living in the Greater Manchester area, my friend and I were able to track down other barley wines and winter ales. Prominent amongst these were Boddington’s Strong Ale, now sadly discontinued and Hyde’s Anvil Strong Ale. When I moved to London, following the completion of my studies, I discovered that a number of Charrington’s pubs sold Highgate Old Ale, from the West Midlands based company of the same name, during the winter months.

Upon returning to Kent I renewed what had been a fleeting acquaintance with Shepherd Neame Stock Ale. I later discovered there was nothing particularly special about Stock Ale as it was just the company's Best Bitter with added caramel, which explains why I found it rather on the thin side. Much more full bodied and enjoyable were Harvey’s Old and King and Barnes Old. These two Sussex brewers seem to have cracked the art of producing a fine, mellow old ale, that is just the right balance between being smooth and warming, without being too strong in alcohol. Wethered’s Winter Royal was another fine winter beer that made a fleeting appearance in Kentish pubs during this time, as were the various incarnations of Greene King's Winter Ale.

I mentioned Shepherd Neame Stock earlier. Whilst this may have been on the weak side, the same could not be said of the company's Christmas Ale. This was a very strong, bottled pale ale, brewed specially for the festive season. Sadly it was discontinued some years ago, although I do have sitting on my shelf a couple of bottles of Shepherd Neame 1996 Vintage Christmas Ale 6.7% ABV. This is a limited edition bottled beer, packaged in an attractive box. According to the label, "This year's ale contains cinnamon spice and the best 1995 malted barley and Kentish hops".

Whilst on the subject of bottled barley wines and Christmas Ales, Gales Prize Old Ale is another fine beer that is well worth seeking out. It still comes packaged in corked bottles, and is a beer that has been specially aged in oak casks. With an ABV of 9.0 % it is a beer for sipping rather than supping, and should be accorded the sort of respect normally reserved for a drink like vintage port.

Courage Russian Imperial Stout is another bottled conditioned beer which is well worth mentioning. This legendary beer, only available in third of a pint nips, was originally brewed for trade with the Baltic, and was reputedly a favourite of the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great. It wasn’t originally a Courage beer, but instead was brewed by their south London neighbours, Barclay Perkins. With a reputed  strength  approaching 11% ABV. it was certainly a beer to be treated with respect, yet one night I remember a friend drinking twelve bottles (equivalent to four pints!) and still managing to walk home unaided. Sadly, Russian Imperial Stout was discontinued early in 1998. The excuse given by the brewery was “lack of demand”. (Lack of promotion, and poor availability would probably be nearer the truth!)

Whitbread Gold Label Barley Wine, originally brewed by Tennant Bros. of Sheffield, ended up supplanting many other barley wines. It even saw off Whitbread's own barley wine - Final Selection. Somewhat unusually, it is a pale beer, unlike the more usual dark colour of most barley wines. Bass No 1 Barley Wine also bit the dust some years back, although it has now been resurrected, in cask-conditioned form, by the small-scale brewery at the Bass Museum in Burton-on Trent. It is brewed during the summer and aged for six months in oak casks. Supplies though, are strictly limited and it is normally necessary to visit the museum itself in order to sample it.

Saturday 13 January 2018

End of an era?

Regular attendees of the Kent Beer Festival are in for an unpleasant shock, following the news that the event is having to look for a new home. The Kent Festival is the second oldest CAMRA organised event in the country, and this year would have seen Kent’s premier beer festival celebrating its 44th year.

For most of that 44 year period the festival has been held at Merton Farm, just outside Canterbury, but with just six months to go, the festival organisers have been stunned by the farm’s owners decision to pull the plug on the event.

No reason has been given for this, but in a statement, festival organiser Andy Mitchell said “I have been unable to set a date for the festival this year, as I have been advised today (finally) that Merton farm do not wish to facilitate us going forward”.

He went on to say, “I am in the process of seeking another venue. If possible it is hoped that the dates will still remain the same weekend as usual 19th-21st of July but I cannot confirm that at this time. I am already in contact with a potential new venue and full details will be available on here as and when details can be confirmed".

"Please be assured that it is my/our intention to still hold the festival this year and I will let you know as soon as I can”.

The first festival took place back in 1975, and was held in Canterbury’s Dane John Gardens. It continued to be held on this site until 1984, when it moved to the Kent County Cricket Ground for a two year spell.

In 1986 it moved again to Gravesend’s Woodville Halls; the only time it has been held outside of Canterbury. The venue didn’t prove to be a success, and the following year it moved again to its current site at Merton Farm, at Nackington, just outside Canterbury.

So a real disappointment for Kent Beer Festival aficionados, and definitely the end of an era for those of us who make a yearly pilgrimage to this annual event. To those who have never been to the festival, it was held in a massive cow-shed at Merton Farm, very close to the historic farmhouse at the heart of the complex.

There was  often a  distinct “farmyard” smell about the place, particularly during warm weather, and the setting itself was definitely a “Marmite” one. Some people detested the cow-shed, describing it as unhygienic and totally unsuitable for a beer festival whilst others loved its quirkiness and laid-back atmosphere.

My opinion lies somewhere in the middle, in so much that I really enjoy the rural setting of the festival, but am not quite so keen on the cow-shed itself. It can become stiflingly hot inside, although this can be countered by nipping outside from time to time. Do this too often though, and you risk losing your seat.

Speaking realistically for a moment, it probably is time for the festival to move on, and adopt a more polished and professional approach. People like me will always look back with affection at the easy going, laissez faire atmosphere of Merton Farm, but are today’s festival looking for something else; something more sophisticated and up to date?

Tuesday 9 January 2018

The Swan-on-the-Green, West Peckham

Brew-pubs have been with us in various guises, for centuries. In fact before the rise of commercial breweries, virtually all brewing would have been carried out either in the home, or at the local alehouse.

It was the Middle Ages which saw the first appearance of the “common brewer”; this being someone who brewed beer for any alehouse that did not brew its own beer, and whilst these continued to grow in both number and size, it was still common for most pubs to brew their own beer.

Even as late as the early part of the 19th Century, around half of the brewing in England was still carried out privately – that is to say by publicans or alehouse owners themselves. The success of the “common brewers” was practically guaranteed though, as the stability and economies of scale they brought to an industry which was very much hit-or-miss, and which lacked the benefits of scientific knowledge and process control,  ensured the drinking public would be getting an enjoyable and quality end product.

Much has been written about the rise of the great brewing companies during the 18th and 19th Centuries, but the success of these breweries, and their smaller more localised counterparts, slowly spelled the end for the publican brewer. During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the number of pubs which still brewed their own beer went into terminal decline, and by the time CAMRA first appeared on the scene, there were just four such brew-pubs remaining in Britain.

Since then, spurred on by the success of the “Real Ale movement” and the burgeoning interest in beer, the number of brewpubs has increased, but this growth has at times been quite sporadic and has often been in waves.

During the 1980’s, David Bruce and his chain of “Firkin” brew-pubs helped to swell the number of brew-pubs quite substantially, but once some of the bigger brewers muscled in on the act, many drinkers began to view pubs which brewed their own ale as something of a gimmick.

Since those heady days, numerous brew-pubs have come and gone, but the genre has seen a steady revival in recent years, largely as a result of the rise of  so-called “craft-beer”. It is therefore encouraging to know that there are still a few pubs who can trace their traditions back, perhaps not quite to those very early days, or indeed not even to the time of  David Bruce, but which nevertheless have been brewing their own beers for the best part of the last two decades. To have such a pub, almost on the doorstep,  is something to be cherished, and after visiting this pub last weekend, I am pleased to report the tradition of home-brewed ales still continues in a few isolated pockets of the country.

The pub in question is the Swan-on-the-Green, in the tiny village of West Peckham, which is roughly halfway between Tonbridge and Maidstone. West Peckham is literally on the “road to nowhere”, as it is reached by turning off along a "dead-end" lane, from the Mereworth to Plaxtol road, a short distance from the B2016 Seven Mile Lane.

Apart from a few houses overlooking the large and attractive village green, plus the rather lovely Saxon church of St. Dunstan's, there is little else in West Peckham, apart from the village pub, appropriately called the Swan-on-the-Green.

The pub was known as the Miller’s Arms, having first acquired a licence in 1685. This was when the establishment originally incorporated a bakery. Parts of the current building are said to date back to the 16th Century, but most of the pub is slightly newer. In 1852, under new ownership, it changed its name to the Swan. In 2000 the pub was altered again to incorporate "The Swan Micro-brewery" which brews its own range of cask conditioned beers.

I first visited the Swan during the early 1980’s, when I was a member of Maidstone CAMRA branch. Back then it was a pretty ordinary Courage house overlooking the village green. The pub slipped off my radar when I moved to Tonbridge in 1984, and it wasn’t until it started brewing its own beer, as mentioned above, that I took a renewed interest in the place.

Being well of the beaten track, the Swan doesn’t appear the easiest place to get to by public transport, but with a little forward planning, a visit there is perfectly feasible and relatively straight forward. The No.7 service bus, which runs daily between Tonbridge and Maidstone, calls at the nearby village of Mereworth.  Alighting at the stop nearest the village school, followed by a walk along country lanes of just under a mile and a half, brings one to West Peckham. From there, just head towards the church and the village green, and the Swan will be apparent on the left.

Several of my visits though have been whilst walking in this picturesque corner of the county. Both the Greensand Way and Weald Way long distance foot paths, pass close by, and it is whilst walking these routes that I have ended up at the Swan. On Sunday though, I arrived by car, on my way home from Maidstone, after visiting Mrs PBT’s who is in being treated in hospital there, to sort out a rather nasty chest infection.

I parked the car at the side of the pub, pausing briefly to look at the adjoining outbuilding at the rear, which houses the Swan’s  micro-brewery, and made my way inside. The pub is divided into two distinct areas either side of the bar. There is a larger area to the left, which is primarily given over to eating, and a smaller section to the right. This seems to be where the pub regulars and locals from the village hang out. They were certainly all there on Sunday, along with their dogs.

I sat at the bar, as there was plenty of space, and I was not blocking anyone’s access. There were four home-brewed ales on offer; ranging from the 3.6% Fuggles Pale to the 7.4% Christmas Ale. As  I was driving I opted for the former, a crisp, pleasant and very refreshing beer which slipped down well. I scored it at 3.5 NBSS. At just £3.20 a pint, the Fuggles Pale was excellent value for money, and just goes to prove the economies which can be achieved when the beer is brewed on the premises.

I stayed for around 30 minutes. Watching the comings and goings in the adjacent right-hand bar area. These seemed to mainly revolve around people and their dogs. It was all very pleasant, and all so very English and I was glad of the distraction from the spiral of events of the past few days.

I left just after 2.30pm, and was back in Tonbridge, and back to reality in under 15 minutes. I was pleased I’d called in though and will certainly be making further return visits to the Swan. I might also be tempted to treat myself to something of the menu, even though it looks a trifle on the dear side.

Saturday 6 January 2018

Keep the River-Lawn green

A remark by Canada-based commentator, Russ on my most recent post about the Nelson Arms, reminded me that sometimes us Brits aren’t prepared to be shoved around and see our much loved institutions, or local beauty spots taken away from us.

Russ’s comment was, "Good to see locals (in the UK) stepping up to preserve something they feel strongly about". To which I informed him that  the same group responsible for obtaining the ACV on the Nelson Arms, also ran a campaign to save the River-Lawn; an area of parkland in Tonbridge close, to the river, which the local authority wanted to sell off for development.

The land, which fronts the River Medway, was originally bought by the then Tonbridge Urban District Council in 1919. Out of work, servicemen, returning from the Great War, were employed to clear and then landscape the site, turning it into a pleasant green area, overlooking the river, for the townspeople to enjoy in perpetuity.

Fast forward to 2017, and the now greatly enlarged Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council, decided to sell off the River-Lawn to a developer, who wished to erect houses and offices on the site (madness on a floodplain and close to a river which is prone to bursting its banks). The local authority claimed they were strapped for cash, which is probably true, and the sale would generate some much needed cash; but to sell off an asset that has been enjoyed by local residents for the best part of a century, was foolhardy, and flying in the face of local opinion.

Various protest meeting were called, culminating in a march through the centre of Tonbridge on 23rd September, last year. Along with many other local people, I became involved, and joined the protest held by the group, as we marched through the centre of Tonbridge.

It was a great day, the sun was shining and we brought the town centre to a standstill. The march culminated in a rally, held at the River-Lawn, at which various speeches were made opposing the sell-off of this much loved green space with its magnificent, mature horse-chestnut trees.

The protest attracted masses of support from local residents, shoppers and trades-people, but despite the intense opposition of local people, the council still went ahead and sold the land. TMBC were able to do this because councillors from parts of the borough, many miles away from Tonbridge (the borough extends right along the Medway, almost as far as Rochester), voted in favour of the proposal, as it didn’t affect their “patch”.

I understand an appeal has been raised against the decision, but in the meantime, here are a few photos I took on the day, which demonstrate local people protesting against a measure they consider as both unjust and detrimental to their town.

ps. Thanks to Russ for reminding me of that sunny weekend, back in September last year.