The contrast between last year’s Good Friday and the one just passed could not have been greater, and the same applies to the dates on which this Christian holy day is celebrated. As an illustration of this, Good Friday 2018 occurred at the end of March, whilst in 2019 the event took place at the end of the third week in April.
The other contrast, and the one which has the most bearing on this narrative, is that between the weather, as whilst this year we were blessed with temperatures in the lower twenties and wall-to-wall sunshine, the previous year saw heavy rainfall combined with strong winds.
It was small wonder then that after checking the weather forecast, I “wimped out” of last year’s annual Good Friday Ramble and instead joined my friends from West Kent CAMRA on their annual pilgrimage to Margate, for the Planet Thanet Beer Festival.
Now I didn’t really enjoy Planet Thanet, and that’s no reflection on my companions, who provided excellent company, but sitting in the faded grandeur of Margate’s Winter Gardens, sampling endless halves of boringly similar bitters and golden ales, did not float my boat and the best part of the day was when we left the festival, stopped for fish & chips – eaten in the shelter of a shop doorway, and then visited one of Margate's iconic micro pubs.
Given the appalling weather though, I made the right call and that correct decision was confirmed by friends from Maidstone CAMRA, on this year’s Good Friday Ramble. They informed me that not only were they soaked to the skin on the walk to the pub, but when they got there, the place was freezing cold with just one solitary heater for people to huddle around in a vain attempt to dry themselves off.
There were no such problems this year, as our party of 16 met up outside Paddock Wood station to walk to the Dovecote at Capel. This pub is well-known to West Kent CAMRA members for both its gravity-served cask ales and the quality of its food, and it is an establishment I have walked to on several previous occasions from Tonbridge.
It therefore made a pleasant change to take a different route, and the person in charge of the ramble had mapped out an interesting and varied one, which ensured the walk which was of reasonable length, but without being too taxing. It must be said that walk leader Peter, had at one point thought he might have to hand over the reins to someone else. This was due to a badly-broken ankle, sustained whilst on holiday in Malta, six months ago.
Fortunately following surgery both in Malta and in the UK he is back on his feet again, and I am pleased to report that he managed to finish the walk, which was just over five and a half miles in total. The route took us north of the main Ashford-Tonbridge railway at first, and then through some recently planted orchards.
A look at the structures supporting the new trees showed that the fields had once been hop gardens, as shown by the above photograph, but lovers of traditional beer need not feel left out, as our return journey took us through a series of newly-strung hop plantations.
After passing under the railway by means of a pedestrian tunnel, we came across a number of other hop-related structures, in the form of some hoppers’ huts, which appeared to have recently been restored. It also looked like some form of hoppers’ reunion was taking place, although as this appeared to be a private function, we didn’t stop to investigate.
We were getting close to Capel now, and after skirting the village of Five Oak Green, we passed Capel church, which stands in a field, isolated from the main settlement which, in effect, is little more than a hamlet. This stretch of the walk was the only real uphill section and as we headed up into a series of mature apple orchards, Peter let slip that he had included this loop partly to pad the walk out, but also to ensure those at the front of the party didn’t arrive at the pub until after opening time, rather than standing outside and rattling the door.
We arrived at the Dovecote in about four groups. The lead party had already grabbed some tables at the far end of the bar which was disappointing, as given the fine weather, I would have much preferred to have sat outside. I rather think that food, as well as drink was on their minds, but as we had all pre-ordered our food eating al fresco would not have been a problem.
Drink-wise we were all in for a treat, with beers such as Butcombe Bitter, Adnam’s Lighthouse, Harvey’s Sussex Best, Hop Back GFB and Gales HSB all available, direct from casks, racked in a chilled room behind the bar. I was immediately drawn to the GFB, as we rarely, if ever, see any beers from Hop Back in this part of the country, and boy was I glad I chose it. The beer was so good, and my thirst so great, that the first pint hardly touched the sides. It was a definite 4.0 NBSS, and perhaps deserved a score of 4.5.
The after-dinner conversation turned to brewery visits, particularly after I had made my Maidstone colleagues jealous by detailing West Kent CAMRA’s recent tour of Harvey’s, and the fact that the legendary Miles Jenner had acted as our guide. The pressure is now on for their branch social secretary to come up with a similar tour!
My final beer at the Dovecote was a pint of Gales HSB, which I rightlydescribed as a real, old-fashioned, strong-bitter. Ruby red in colour, and topped with a fluffy white head, this was almost exclusively a malt-driven beer, but none the worse for that. Some might describe it as too sweet, and whilst it was undoubtedly quite syrupy in nature, it was none the worse for that, as there was still a hint of balancing bitterness lurking in the background.
Like the Hop Back offering, this Fuller’s brewed version of the Horndean classic, was every bit as good as what I remember from my first taste of this legendary Gales Special Bitter.
After our two hours plus stop-over, it took a while to get going again, as we departed the Dovecote. We followed a slightly different route back, and one which took us through the aforementioned hop gardens and then right through the part of Five Oak Green which lies on the other side of the railway.
I clocked the route using the tracker on my phone, at 7.26 km on the outward walk and 5.17 km on the return leg – just under five and a half miles in total. It seemed like more, and my legs certainly ached a bit, but it’s worth noting that due to the lack of rain I recent weeks, an old pair of shoes sufficed, rather than my usual, heavier walking boots.
We went our separate ways back at Paddock Wood, with a promise to meet up again next year. Peter wasn’t giving much away as to the route, or indeed the pub for 2020, although he did say it would be somewhere along the rail line which runs out of Maidstone East station.