Tuesday 30 October 2018

Romney Marsh - the bit in the middle

Last Saturday’s ride out, by vintage coach, to the flatlands of Romney Marsh and beyond was excellent. The sun shone all day, the four pubs we visited were all good, in their own right, and the company I shared the journey with was first class. The trip was organised by an old friend of mine, on behalf of Maidstone & Mid- Kent CAMRA.

As mentioned in my previous post, I used to be a member of that branch, and have kept in touch with various members over the years. The coach we travelled in was and no doubt was the height of luxury in its day, and still bore the legend, and paintwork, of its former owners, Camden Coaches of Sevenoaks. I managed to find a few photos of it on a bus enthusiast’s website, (yes all life is there somewhere on the net, if you know where to look for it), and it is an AEC  Reliance – if that means anything.

The coach picked me up, as planned and on time, from Headcorn station. There were 25 people on board, excluding me and the relief driver, and I couldn’t help noticing, as I made my was to a vacant seat, that some serious card playing was  taking place. I declined an offer  to join in, and instead settled down to enjoy the journey through Tenterden, Appledore and then down onto Romney Marsh itself.

We arrived at the Red Lion, Snargate 15 minutes before opening time, which gave people a chance to stretch their legs (the main contingent from Maidstone had been on the coach for nearly two hours), walk down the lane for a look at the 13th Century church of St Dunstan, take a few photos or make use of the outside Gentleman’s "facilities".

Now I bet you’re all itching to know what the Red Lion was like, had it changed at all since the passing of long-saving landlady, or just what beers it had on. Well, I’m afraid you will just have to wait, as the Red Lion is worthy of its own write up. The same applies to the Carpenter’s Arms at Coldred, which was the final pub visited that day.

So after an hour and 15 minutes at the Red Lion enjoying a selection of gravity-served beers, and some good conversation, it was back on the bus and off to the Bell at Ivychurch. This was the second pub of the day and our scheduled lunch-stop. The journey through the winding lanes of the Marsh took just over 10 minutes, and we could see the pub, right in front of the 14th Century parish church, as we approached the village.

Any pretensions I might have had about having visited the Bell before went out of the window, as I quickly realised that I had never set foot in the place until Saturday. The pub dates from the 16th Century, but has a modern, flat-roofed extension on the far right of the building.

The proximity of pub and church harks back to medieval times, and for many the two form the perfect combination, but for us thirsty explorers it was beer, and food, that we were after. The Bell is surprisingly large inside, with a long single bar area. The bar counter is opposite the entrance, whilst the area to the left is given over largely to diners. There is a games area, housed in the modern extension, at the far right of the building. Pool and darts may be played there.

The pub still remains very much a village local, and there certainly seemed to be a few characters congregating around the bar, as we entered. With just a few days until that most unwelcome of American imports, the Bell was decorated with a distinct Halloween theme, as evidenced by the ornately carved pumpkins near the entrance, and the fireplace which was decked out in a similar fashion. 

The pub was expecting us, as the tour organiser had not only checked first, but had also taken orders for everyone’s main course and emailed their preferences through to the licensees. I was impressed by the way the pub staff  managed our party of 28, getting us all sat down at a number of reserved tables, and then bringing the food out on a table by table basis. Unfortunately the table I sat at was the last to be served, but when the food eventually arrived it proved well worth the wait.

Being a dedicated pie-man, I’d opted for the steak and Cheddar pie; an unusual combination which actually worked well. The cheese was present in the inner layer of the pastry, and complemented the tender steak filling. What’s more it was a “proper pie”, as the photo demonstrates.

There were four beers on tap; Adnam’s Broadside, St Austell Trelawney, a beer from Navigation Brewery, whose name escapes me, plus the dreaded Doom Bar. I started off with the Trelawney, but despite it being served in excellent condition, it wasn’t the beer for me. There was something about it which I couldn’t put my finger on, although I suspect it was down to the Galaxy hops, imported from Australia.

These impart a rather peachy flavour to the beer, which was not to my liking. I subsequently switched to the Broadside, which was  on top form. We left after paying for our food, and finishing our beer. I think it was around half three when we departed, and I thought it a nice gesture when the landlord came over and thanked us individually for our custom, as we made our way out.

It was then back on the coach for the half hour journey to Hythe. For me, the route was pure nostalgia because, as children, my sister and I were regular visitors to Romney Marsh, in the company of our parents, on family trips to the seaside. So as the coach made its way into New Romney, and then along the coast to St Mary’s Bay and Dymchurch, the memories came flooding back. The road eventually leads into Hythe, after first skirting the extensive MOD firing ranges to the south-west of the town.

Hythe itself, is a pleasant little town, and was one of the original Cinque Ports. Looking at Hythe today, it’s difficult to believe that the town was once a bustling seaport, but over the years the harbour gradually silted up, depriving the townsfolk of their livelihood.  Traces of the original haven can still be seen at the northern end of the Royal Military Canal, at Seabrook, where it reaches the coast.

We were making for a tiny corner pub called the Three Mariners, close to the canal which was originally constructed during the Napoleonic Wars, as part of fortifications designed to repel a potential invasion. The pub is a pleasant back street local, with a roaring fire during winter (it was lit on Saturday), good beer, two distinct rooms, friendly staff and a good feel to it. It is also dog friendly.

While most of our party piled into the left hand bar, a small group of us opted for the other bar, where we even managed to grab a table. The beer offering was Adnam’s Lighthouse, Old Dairy Blue Top and Young’s Bitter. I went for the Blue Top, as I am a big fan of Old Dairy beers. I was also pacing myself at this stage of the proceedings, so just stuck with the one pint.

The sun was beginning to set as we left the pub for our final stop of the day. This was to be the Carpenter’s Arms, in the tiny village of Coldred, tucked away on the North Downs to the north-west of Dover. The first part of the journey was another nostalgia trip for me, as the coach headed out of Hythe, through Seabrook and towards Sandgate.

The sea looked as calm as a millpond, as we drove along the front, before heading up the hill into Folkestone. This route  through Hythe was always my father’s preferred option on trips to Folkestone; rather than the more direct A20. I used to wonder why as a child, but with the wisdom of maturity I can understand why he and my mother always opted for the scenic route, with its views of the sea.

We skirted through the back of Folkestone and picked up the M20 towards Dover, turning off before reaching the town, and into unknown territory. It was getting dark as our coach turned into Coldred, but for the moment, this is where the narrative ends because, as mentioned towards the beginning of this post, you will have to wait until next time to find out what this “time-warp” pub was actually like.

Friday 26 October 2018

All aboard for Romney Marsh

I'm banking on this weekend being rather more relaxing than the last one. That saw me joining around 700,000 of my fellow citizens on a march through central London, in support of a People’s Vote on any final Brexit deal.

The event ended up at Parliament Square and after listening to a number of rousing and passionate speeches, I jumped on a train to Tunbridge Wells, and spent the evening working a shift behind the bar at the very busy, and well-attended, Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival. Boy was I knackered the following day.

On Saturday, I’m meeting up with members of Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA, for a trip, by vintage bus, to Romney Marsh, before moving on to the charming little town of Hythe. MMK are the neighbouring branch to my own West Kent group, and I know quite a few of their members following joint socials over the years, along with the fact that I lived in the county town from 1978 - 1984. I’ve also been on several trips to foreign parts with a group of them; notably to the Czech Republic the Rhineland and Franconia.

I’ll be joining the bus at Headcorn, which is an easy train journey for me, but I’m not quite sure yet where I’ll be dropped off on the way home. (I’ll worry about that when the time comes!). First port of call is the unspoilt and National Inventory listed, Red Lion at Snargate, aka "Doris’s".

The pub's nickname comes from it former, legendary landlady, Doris Jemison, who sadly passed away in April 2016. The Red Lion is now run by Doris's daughter Kate, and her partner. The pub is believed to date back to 1540, but unlike many old inns of a similar age, the inside has not been modified and still has a series of inter-connecting rooms. It has been run by the Jemison family since 1911 and, except for the odd lick of paint, has not been redecorated since 1890.

It's ages since I last visited this time-warp pub, as it's not the sort of place to drive to, (for obvious reasons), but equally it is not somewhere which is readily served by public transport, because of its isolated situation. Saturday's bus trip should solve these transport problems and allow me to see what changes, if any, have been made to the Red Lion.

Our party will then move on to the Bell Inn at Ivychurch, another tucked-away village on Romney Marsh. I'm pretty certain that I have never set foot in this 16th Century inn, which lies in the shadow of the parish church. This is despite having grown up just outside the nearby town of Ashford. 

The Bell is a free house and was Ashford & Shepway CAMRA's pub of the year in 2016. It has a good reputation for food, which is just as well as we will be stopping there for a pre-booked lunch, as well as beer. The Bell is reputed to have been a smugglers' haunt, but then most pubs on Romney Marsh make similar claims.

The next stop takes us to the small town of Hythe and to the Three Mariners, which is situated close to the Royal Military Canal. A visit to this attractive, corner pub will be another first for me, as whilst I remember driving past the place with my parents when I was a child, I have never set foot in this traditional, side-street local.

With no food available Three Mariners relies on the quality and variety of its cask ales and ciders to attract customers.  The pub still has two bars where patrons can enjoy their drinks, and I have to say I am particularly looking forward to us stopping off there.

The final pub on the tour is way "off piste", as the bus will be taking us to the tiny village of Coldred, which lies to the north-west of Dover. This is real unknown territory for me, although looking at the map, I see that my friends and I passed quite close to the village last summer, when we walking a section of the North Downs Way.

We will be stopping at the Carpenter's Arms, an unspoilt, two room, 18th Century pub overlooking the village green and duckpond. This is another pub which features on CAMRA's Nastional Inventory of Heritage Pubs. The Carpenter's has  been in the same family for over 100 years, and its decor and furniture are said to have remained largely unchanged for the past 50 years.

It is described as a community pub plus a place for conversation and good fellowship. It sounds a pretty good pub to finish up at, and a full report, along with photos, will follow in due course.

Seeking solace in Salzburg

Following the rather lengthy, but quite necessary scene-setting of my last post, it’s straight off to the charming Austrian city of Salzburg for a quick round-up of what Mozart’s birthplace has to offer the beer-loving tourist.

My flight to Salzburg departed on Boxing Day afternoon, and with no trains running I had to  drive myself to the airport. This meant my Christmas Day alcohol intake was rather modest; certainly when compared against a normal Christmas, but I made up for it once I touched down in Austria.

I was disappointed not to see any snow on the ground when we landed; although I had noticed a covering on the tops of the mountains as the plane made its final approach. However, despite the lack of the white-stuff, the temperature was considerably colder than the damp and cloudy England I had left behind.

Salzburg airport is small, pleasant and compact, and it is also close to the city, so I jumped on a bus for the short ride to central Salzburg, alighting at the main railway station. From there it was a 15 minute walk to my hotel, although it did take me slightly longer to find my accommodation, after mis-reading my map.

I decided to stay close to the hotel for my first night, and the PitterKeller, just a block away from where I was staying, suited my purposes perfectly. As the name suggests, the Keller was sited slightly below street level, its beamed ceiling and part wood-panelled walls serving to reinforce the claim of Salzburg's oldest beer cellar.

Being Boxing Day evening, the Keller was fairly quiet, so I had no difficulty in finding a table. I ordered myself a mug of Helles, brewed by Privatbrauerei Wieninger, who are based just over the border with Bavaria, in Teisendorf. The beer was cool, refreshing and tasty, and I ordered a Schnitzel with parsley potatoes to go accompany it.

There was something about just being there, in the peaceful and relaxing surroundings of the Keller, miles away, both physically and mentally from the stresses which had built up over the course of the previous six months. As I finished my meal and ordered another beer, I felt felt a deep wave of contentment wash over me as the stresses, cares and concerns associated with the craziness of holding down two very different and demanding jobs, literally just melted away.

I slept really well that night, far better than I'd done for a long time. After waking refreshed and relaxed the following morning, I set out, on foot, to explore the city, but not before I had devoured a hearty breakfast. I made my way across the Salzach river,  to the impressive Festung Hohensalzburg; a massive and well-preserved former fortress perched on top of a large rocky outcrop that dominates the city and overlooks it from a height of 540 feet.

I could have taken the funicular railway which runs up to the fortress, but instead chose to walk up the steep slopes and climb the hundreds of steps which to the top. It seemed a good way to work off some of the excesses of Christmas over-indulgence. The climb was certainly well worth the effort, as the fortress at close quarters was even more more impressive than it had looked from city below.

The Festung Hohensalzburg is claimed to be the largest fully preserved castle in Central Europe, and doesn't disappoint in this respect. originally constructed by the Prince Bishops who once ruled over Salzburg, the fortress has been added to over several centuries. Inside there are state apartments and a banqueting hall, plus rooms given over to various exhibits. The display I saw related to the Alpine Front from the First World War, when troops from Austria were engaged in a series of campaigns against the Italians - their southern neighbours.

I walked back down into the Altstadt, looking for a place to eat, and also somewhere to warm up in. The Stiegl Keller I'd earmarked earlier was closed, so I crossed the bridge into the Neustadt and found a welcome refuge from the cold at Gablerbräu. The notes I made at the time record that I had sausages (Wurst) and chips, plus a couple of beers. Gablerbräu underwent a major revamp, in 2013 and now brews its own range of beers, but I'm not sure what I drank on that initial visit.

That evening I set off in the rapidly fading daylight and the increasingly cold air to find the what was the undoubted highlight of the trip. Augustinerbräu Kloster Mülln is a brewery and beer hall attached to a monastery, not far from the centre of Salzburg, and is legendary amongst lovers of good beer. It was a short walk from my hotel down to the river Salzach, which I crossed by means of a footbridge. It was then a case of following the road along the riverbank until the floodlit exterior of the monastery church, perched on the edge of the Monchsberg hill, came into view.

The entrance to the Bräustübl is through a large, anonymous-looking wooden door, where a flight of steep stone steps leads down into the heart of the building. This then opens into a long tiled passage where there are a number of kiosks selling a variety of hot or cold food to accompany the beer. Alternatively you can bring in your own picnic, as many of the locals do.

There are three large, cavernous beer halls, plus a number of smaller, more intimate rooms that are available for private hire. For the summer months there is a large, shaded beer garden to the rear. The main attraction is of course the beer which is served direct from large wooden casks. A full-bodied lager, known as Märzen  with an ABV of 4.6%  is brewed all year round, whilst from November through to Christmas a stronger Weinachtsbock (Christmas Bock) at 6.5% ABV is produced.

The entire stock of the festive beer had unfortunately sold out, so I had to make do with the Märzen. This was a well hopped, malty and satisfying beer, but unfortunately, as it is served in stoneware mugs, it is impossible to see what colour it is. On the plus side, being served straight from a wooden cask, there is no excess gas to bloat one’s stomach, and the beer slips down a treat. It was so good that I sank four half litre mugs over the course of the evening!

There is a bit of a ritual involved  in order to obtain a beer, and it means a visit to the serving area just round the corner from where the food kiosks are situated. You then help yourself to one of the stoneware mugs (litre or half litre) laid out on a series of wooden shelves. You then need to rinse the mug at a rather ornate marble fountain before queuing up and paying the person sitting behind a glass screen.

In exchange for your money you are given a ticket, which you  hand to the person dispensing the beer who will  fill your mug with beer before sliding it back to you across a perforated metal counter. You then have a choice of beer hall in which to sit and enjoy your beer. When you want a refill you simply take your mug back to the central kiosk, pausing perhaps to rinse it clean at the fountain, before repeating the process.

I tried all three different beer halls during the two visits I made to the Augustinerbräu Bräustübl on that trip, but preferred the non-smoking one to the left of the serving area. As it was still relatively early in the evening there were plenty of wooden tables to sit at. What I especially liked was that Augustinerbräu appeared popular with people from all walks of life and also from all age groups. Groups of young people were just as eagerly getting stuck into their mugs of beer as their older counterparts.

There was a  thick frost covering the ground, as I made my way back to the hotel, my way lit by the moon and the many stars shining through the crispness of the sub-zero night. The temperature was cold enough to make my eyes water and take my breath away, but with all that beer inside me, the rest of me felt quite warm!

After breakfast the following morning I walked back into town via the gardens of Schloss Mirabelle. These featured in the film version of the Sound of Music, forming the backdrop for Maria and the Von Trapp children to dance around whilst singing. The gardens though, are much smaller than they appear on the big screen.I then caught a bus to Bräuwelt - a brewery museum and beer "experience" housed in the former maltings attached to the Stiegl Brewery, on the edge of the city.

Stiegl are the largest and best known brewery in Salzburg, and whilst Bräuwelt is billed as Europe's largest "Beer Exhibition",  I have visited much better laid out, and more informative brewery museums elsewhere. It was pleasant enough though, and my admission ticket included a couple of glasses of beer, plus a hot pretzel. I enjoyed the brewery's Paracelus Naturtrüb - unfiltered beer, plus their Christmas Weinachtsbier, before catching the bus back into central Salzburg. 

After a spot of shopping for a present or two for the family, I crossed the river back into the old town and found a very nice place to eat, just off the Getreidegasse. I have been trying to find this restaurant on a map of Salzburg, so far without success but suffice to say I enjoyed a really good meal of roast potatoes with diced chicken, bacon and onions served up in a cast-iron pan. I ordered a mug of Kaiser Pils (brewery unknown), to go with my meal.

It goes without saying that I made my way back up to Augustinerbräu afterwards; my experience being much the same as the previous evening. According to the notes I made at the time, I only had three mugs that evening, but the beer was still as tasty as the night before.

This was my last evening in Salzburg as I had to fly back to England the following day to try and kick-start the stalled sale of our business.  I was glad to have chosen Salzburg as my bolt-hole as it is person-sized with a touch of class about it. The trip was everything I wanted it to be,  providing a place to escape to, where I could relax, unwind and re-emerge energised and ready to face the music.

I have made two subsequent visits to Salzburg, which I have written about previously, but if you are thinking of going, either for business or pleasure,  a visit to Augustinerbräu Kloster Mülln is a must. Not only is the Bräustübl tavern the largest in Austria, it is also one of the finest and most traditional of beer halls anywhere in the world!

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Moonlighting whilst contemplating a visit to Salzburg

Whilst having one of my regular sort-outs I found an old article I’d written, lying around at home. It’s about the lovely Austrian city of Salzburg; birthplace of  Mozart and the setting for a musical about how a singing nun became involved with a family of children. The article doesn’t mention these famous sons and daughters of the city; instead it mentions beer, so no surprises there, but before diving into the story, there’s a considerable amount of background to wade through, as to how and why I took the trip to Salzburg in the first place.

My visit took place at the tail end of 2006, and was my first proper visit to the city. Thirty years previously, whilst I was still student, a friend and I had passed through Salzburg by train, whilst undertaking a four week Inter-rail journey through western Europe. As we didn’t stop there on that occasion, it doesn’t really count as a visit, but I thought I’d mention it anyway, as what did matter is the trip in 2006 was just what I needed following a very stressful period of my life.

During the second half of that year, I was juggling two jobs, whilst at the same time struggling to sell a business. It was all getting too much; I was having trouble sleeping, finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate and feeling like I was at the end of my tether, so when Mrs PBT’s suggested I take a short break I jumped at the idea. The perfect window of opportunity opened up between Boxing Day and New Year, so my kind and caring wife booked the flights for me, whilst I found a suitable (cheap) hotel.

If any of you have read the biopic on the side of this blog, you may have noticed that,  in conjunction with my wife,  I once ran my own specialist beers, off-license.  We’d been trading around five years and whilst we weren’t exactly making a killing, the business was sufficient to pay me a wage so we could manage our bills and pay our way.

The downside was it involved being open long hours, seven days a week, with no time off for holidays or much time to ourselves.  We had only taken a six year lease, so we weren’t committed for too long, but even so, despite generally enjoying the work, I was wondering what  the future might bring, and what sort of retirement I could look forward to.

It came as something of a shock then when, out of the blue, I was offered a job back in industry, working in my old field of quality control. The offer came from a customer, who also happened to be a fellow CAMRA member, and came about whilst we were comparing careers and talking about mutual professional acquaintances at a CAMRA Christmas dinner. My companion asked me if I'd ever considered resuming my career in industry, as if I had, he reckonned his company could make good use of my skills and experince.

I mulled the offer over, but it didn’t take too long for me to decide. I concluded that whilst I would miss being my own boss, there were far more benefits to be had by accepting what was a very good offer. A regular monthly salary, considerably in excess of what I was drawing from the off-licence business, combined with paid annual leave, sickness and pension benefits far outweighed the relatively minor kudos which went with being the person in charge. What’s more the new position would be 8.30am – 5pm, Monday to Friday, so with no weekend or evening work my free time would be increased by several orders of magnitude.

After discussing the matter with my family, I took the job, but told my new employer that I would first need to dispose of the business, as it wouldn’t be a good idea running that alongside my new position. This proved easier said than done, as having put a considerable amount of effort into building the business up, I didn’t want to just walk away. If I did, not only would I be kissing goodbye to the profit and good will we’d accrued, but we also stood to lose a substantial amount of money.

This was because when you take out a lease on a commercial property, you are legally obliged to fulfil your all your obligations until the end of the agreement. Basically, if you decide to quit, you are still  obliged to continue paying rent on the property, along with any business rates. It therefore made scene to either re-assign the lease or, attempt to sell the business as a going concern.

The latter option made the most sense, certainly from a financial point of view, and with the business turning in a reasonable profit, I thought we’d have no trouble in selling it. Unfortunately  it was nowhere as easy as I’d thought, and with my new employer becoming increasingly eager for me to start, and more and more frustrated by me not providing a start date, I reluctantly decided I would somehow have to start in my new position, whilst continuing to run the off-licence during the evenings and weekends.

Whilst I could manage these extra hours, for a short period at least, I needed someone on the premises to take charge of deliveries and also place orders with our many suppliers. I managed to persuade a recently retired friend that he might like to supplement his pension, by acting as my manager, by looking after the shop over the relatively short lunchtime period from midday to 3pm.

So far so good, the only trouble was my friend wasn’t the most organised of people, so I ended up having to place the bulk of the orders. I made the necessary phone calls during my lunch hour, leaving my friend to look after the relatively quiet lunchtime trade, and get the stock priced-up and on the shelves.

I started in my new position mid-way through July 2006, and my first day was the Monday following the 2006 World Cup Final. I won’t go into much detail about my job as twelve years down the line, I’m still there. It wasn’t exactly plain-sailing to begin with, as I was thrown in at the deep end and had to start from scratch. What didn’t help was the fact that one particular, long-serving member of my new team thought that he should have been offered the position of departmental head, rather than it being handed to an upstart who just happened to be a friend of the General Manager.

As well as having to deal with this individual, I was also involved with trying to sell the off-licence business, so it was quite a stressful  period, all round. We employed a business sales agent, to market the shop to prospective buyers, and after a few false starts,  received and accepted a firm offer by the end of August.  Things seemed to be going well until the various solicitors involved, started throwing their weight around, and that’s where the fun and games started and the stress levels began to climb.

There were three sets of lawyers in total; ours, the buyers and finally the landlord’s, and it was the latter who proved the most obstructive. Leases should be relatively straight forward, but then so should house purchasing, but as we all know these  people have perfected the art of dragging things out, just to ensure the maximum return for themselves.  It was quite a complicated process, but eventually things started to slide into place, but with Christmas fast approaching, and the busiest time of the year upon us, we ran into trouble with the tenants in the flat above the shop.

I won’t go into detail, but I was concerned that the unreasonable behaviour of this young couple could end up scuppering the deal by putting off our buyers. Contracts had not been exchanged, largely due to our solicitor taking himself off to the ski-slopes for the whole of December (see why I hate the legal profession), and this was the reason for me wanting to take myself off somewhere during that lull between Christmas and New Year.

I’ll save the article about Salzburg for next time now, as I’ve dragged this introductory section out much further than I intended, but suffice to say we concluded the sale of the business during the first week of February 2007, and I was a free man at last.

My wife and I didn’t exactly come out as rich, but we didn’t lose out either; even after the solicitors and business sales agents had taken their cut. I’m not sure I’d run a business like that again, as whilst it allowed me to indulge in my passion for beer, it also robbed me of time which I could have spent with both family and friends.

Looking back it did teach me resilience, patience and determination, but most importantly it led me to my current and well-paid job. It also covered the expense of my trip to Salzburg – which was undertaken solely in the interests of “market research”.

Thursday 18 October 2018

Spa Valley Railway Beer & Cider Festival 2018

First no apologies for this unashamed publicity plug for my own CAMRA branch, whose beer festival, run in conjunction with local Heritage preservation group, the Spa Valley Railway, kicks off this Friday (19th October). The three day event runs until Sunday and will offer visitors a wide range of beers (both cask & Key-Keg) and ciders, at three separate locations along the seven mile length of preserved railway.

This is now the 8th festival, and the organisers claim it is bigger and better than previous events. You could argue that they would say that, but after last year’s festival there was a lot of soul-searching,  particularly in relation to issues of space, staffing and over-crowding, and a number of changes have been made.

I haven’t been involved with the organisation of this year’s event, but will no doubt find out whether the changes are working,  when I turn up to do my stint behind the bar on Saturday evening. The idea behind the festival is to encourage visitors to travel up and down the line where they can sample different beers at each of the three stations which constitute the Spa Valley Railway.

The main bulk of  the beers (and ciders), can be found in the Victorian Engine Shed, which acts as SVR’s headquarters. The shed was once part of the former Tunbridge Wells West station, but there will also be a range of beers at both Groombridge and Eridge stations.

The latter acts as an entry point for those travelling down to the festival by train, as Eridge station provides direct, cross-platform connections with Southern rail services from London Bridge, Croydon and Uckfield.

The organisers claim to have around 200  Real Ales, a figure which includes 25 Green Hop Ales. There will also be a craft beer bar featuring UK Keg & European Beers, plus over 30 Ciders. These bars are located in the engine shed, along with most of the real ales. I have just seen the beer list and have to say that it looks amazing.

The railway people will be operating a 50 minute interval service, with trains  running down to both Groombridge and Eridge Stations.

As mentioned previously, there will be beers on sale at those locations and on the trains themselves, but also included are:

• Trains to High Rocks, Groombridge & Eridge.
• Fullers Butcher BBQ.
• Thai Food Stand.
• Live Entertainment throughout the event at selected times.
• Ticket office, toilets and main departure point of train services.
• Station shop stocking a large variety of railway and children's products.
• Train travel from 17:30 is just £10, £5 for CAMRA and Spa Valley members on production of a valid membership card.

A potted history of the Spa Valley Line:

During the latter half of the 19th Century, Tunbridge Wells had two stations built by rival companies; Tunbridge Wells Central, opened in 1845 by the South Eastern Railway, which is now the sole mainline station, and Tunbridge Wells West, which was opened by the London Brighton & South Coast Railway in 1866. This former station is the headquarters of today’s Spa Valley Railway.

Around 1876, these two stations
were linked by a tunnel enabling connections between the London to Brighton and the London to Hastings lines. From Tunbridge Wells West there were direct services to the south coast at Brighton and Eastbourne and northbound  to London Victoria. Passing into the ownership of the Southern railway in 1923, the route became a very popular cross country link with over 100 trains passing a day.

During the latter half of the last century, as the popularity of the motor car as a means of travel increased, services started to be cut back, and many of the surrounding lines closed. For example Eridge to Hailsham branch (the Cuckoo Line) in 1965, East Grinstead to Groombridge in 1967, and then Uckfield to Lewes in 1969.

This left the remaining lines through Tunbridge Wells West both isolated and exposed. Finally, on 6th July 1985, the Tunbridge Wells to Eridge section closed. The depot at Tunbridge Wells West survived for another month and a few years later, the link to the mainline at Birchden Junction was finally removed.  A Sainsbury's superstore now occupies much of the site of the former West station, although the old  station building survives, and today houses a restaurant and hotel.

Shortly after closure, a preservation society was formed with the aim of restoring  train service on the railway, and after a herculean effort by local volunteers, the line was reopened through to Groombridge in August 1997.

Many improvements have been made since then including the introduction of new steam locomotives and rolling stock. In 2005, the railway marked the 20 years since the closure of the line by opening an extension just short of the former Birchden Junction, a further mile from Groombridge.

In mid 2007, after discussions with Network Rail,  work began on extending the line through to  Eridge.  Contractors were hired to restore the section of running line parallel to the mainline between Birchden Junction and Eridge, and after numerous delays and complications, the extension finally opened to the public in March 2011.

I appreciate this is rather short notice, but do try and come along if you can. Surely there can’t be many better ways of spending a fine autumn weekend than sampling a few of the excellent range of beers on offer at the festival, especially when there’s the added attraction of riding up and down this preserved line, through the glorious Kent and Sussex countryside which lies between Tunbridge Wells and Eridge.

Further details of the beers and ciders, opening times, train timetables and fares can be found by clicking here on the SVR website.