Saturday, 30 November 2019

15 years in the Good Beer Guide

Three Saturdays ago, I joined members from my local CAMRA branch to present an award to a well-known local pub. The recipient of the award was the Halfway House at Brenchley, or rather the back road between Brenchley and Horsmonden. The award took the form of a certificate presented to landlord Richard Allen, in order to mark 15 continuous years in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide. Since taking over in 2003, Richard has transformed what had been a rather ordinary country pub formerly owned by  Whitbread, into a thriving and bustling "destination pub" which majors on cask ale.

Richard completely re-modelled the interior of the Halfway House, removing the bar counter and serving area and relocating them to a separate area to the right of the pub. From the outside this looks like an extension, and it may well have a been a barn of some description. When I first knew the pub, before Richard changed it around, this section was a separate restaurant, known as the "Hayloft." Today it forms not only the serving area but the main bar and beating heart of the pub, where customers gather for a chat, or to congregate in front of the open fire, and it is behind here where the casks are kept.

Richard was also responsible for the  installation of an ingenious system for serving cask-beer by gravity. He originally devised this, whilst at his former pub, the Dovecote at Capel. The casks are kept in a temperature-controlled room, immediately behind the bar. Extra-long cask taps then protrude through the dividing wall, and out via false barrel ends, made out of wood, set into the wall. The result - beer kept at just the right temperature, and served in the most natural way possible – straight from the cask.

Despite being out in the sticks, the Halfway House can be reached quite easily on foot, by walking from Paddock Wood railway station. A pleasant uphill walk across an old golf course, and then through some apple orchards, brings you into Brenchley, and there is then a pathway down to the pub which avoids the busy road which runs along to the neighbouring village of Horsmonden.

I have done this walk numerous times, particularly on the occasions of the pub’s two annual Bank Holiday Beer Festivals (late spring & August).  It’s a lovely walk in summer, and in spring and autumn too, but in early November it’s nowhere near as enjoyable, not unless you like walking in the pitch black. With darkness falling shortly after 4pm, the return walk really needs to be embarked on by 2.30pm, at the latest, which is obviously not much use when contemplating an afternoon’s drinking.  

Fortunately there is a reasonably regular bus, which provides a link between the pub and Tunbridge Wells; but not on a Sunday. The bus continues right through to Tenterden, a charming Wealden town, which was almost missed by the coming of the railways, and therefore developed and expanded at a much slower pace than some of its more prominent neighbours.

Two branch stalwarts caught an earlier bus, and alighted at Cranbrook, a smaller but equally charming Wealden town. This enabled them to visit Larkins Alehouse; a recently opened micro-pub. They had time there for a couple of pints before taking the bus back toward Tunbridge Wells, getting off outside the Halfway House.

I had a number of things to do first thing that Saturday, not least of which was doing the weekly shop with Mrs PBT’s. The majority of the CAMRA contingent caught the 12.16 bus, or at least those who didn’t go to Cranbrook did. The next bus ran two hours later, which gave me plenty of time for domestic duties, before jumping on a train over to Tunbridge Wells.

I arrived early, so after a look at the skating rink, as in previous years set up in Calverley Gardens, plus a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich at the greasy spoon, outside the station, I boarded the 2.16  No. 297 bus, operated by Hams Travel, in the direction of Brenchley. The journey was frustratingly slow, due to a combination of  heavy traffic and the inevitable roadwork’s in Tunbridge Wells, but once we’d left the town behind, our chatty driver made good time. It was still 10 minutes behind schedule when it dropped me off, as requested, dead opposite the Halfway House.

My CAMRA colleagues were already there, and several of them had enjoyed a pub lunch. One eagle-eyed friend had spotted the bus pulling up outside, and met me at the bar, recommending East Kent Green Hop Collaboration Beer, brewed by Canterbury Brewers, Gadds, Goody Ales, Wantsum Brewery and Canterbury Ales. Pale golden in colour, it was crisp and refreshing and slipped down rather well in spite of its 5.0 % abv.

I joined the rest of the group, in the former bar area, which was much quieter than “upstairs,” and just the place to make the presentation.  Accepting the award on behalf of the pub, were Richard and his son Sam. Sam helps run the Beer Seller, the Halfway House’s "sister pub" in Tonbridge High Street. With its rustic feel, and slightly quirky interior, the Beer Seller offers gravity-served cask ales, using the same system as the Halfway House.

Richard was obviously pleased with his award, and Sam will be keeping his fingers crossed for a place in next year’s GBG, although as I’m not a branch committee member, or someone involved with the Guide selection process, I couldn’t possibly comment.

What I do know is, that in Richard's case, the award is well deserved, as it is no mean feat to have been at the helm of the Halfway House and have kept it in the Good Beer Guide for  decade and a half.

I shifted down a gear and moved onto the Goacher’s Fine Light, for my next pint, finishing with a further swift half of EKH Collaboration, before it was time for us to leave. We caught the penultimate bus back, alighting in Pembury "village"in order to check out the King William IV pub.

It was excellent, and packed out as well, so much so that it’s worthy of a short post in its own right. When that appears on the blog, depends on when I’ve caught up with the other outstanding posts, but do keep an eye out for it.


retiredmartin said...

Good read, and a reminder to do the Beer Seller when I visit.

Only been to Halfway House once and was driving but Mrs RM and I rate it very highly.

Paul Bailey said...

The Halfway House is definitely worth a return visit, Martin.

Let me know when you're planning to do the Beer Seller. I'm not around this coming Friday, as it's my firm's Christmas bash.