Saturday 28 November 2020

So what can a poor boy do?

There’s been more than enough written already about Doris’s ill-conceived and half-cocked Tier system, which supposedly a way out of lockdown, whilst being stricter than the main event itself. I’m not going to add to my contributions to the pile, apart from saying I wasn’t at all surprised to see the Garden of England being dumped into the highest level, at Tier 3.

It goes without saying that local pub, bar and restaurant owners have my deepest sympathy. I feel their pain, but unfortunately there’s precious little I can do about it. CAMRA is encouraging people to express their disquiet by writing to their local MP; but most of them have already made their feelings of dis-satisfaction  known to the government.

Despite their obvious concerns about the damaging effect on local businesses, Doris has made it quite clear he’s not listening, and certainly not budging. For better or worse, he’s thrown his weight behind those po-faced, doom and gloom merchants, Profs Whitty and Vallance. Whitty looks as though he's about to burst into tears at any moment, and as for the so-called SAGE group, why are politicians so obsessed with acronyms? Perhaps it's a hangover from WWII, the conflict that Brexit-backing, Tory politicians in particular, are fixated on?

So, with nowhere to go and nothing much to do, what can a poor boy going do to while away the time? Mick Jagger had the “same old rock n’ roll band” in mind when he asked that question, but I’ve got the joys of writing and updating this blog to keep me amused and out of mischief. I’ve also got more than enough work, in a professional capacity, to last me until well into next year, and potentially beyond.

Hibernation might not be too bad an idea at the moment – sleeping all through the cold dark winter months, and then waking up when spring and the much-awaited vaccine arrive, but as winter is not all bad, why sleep away more of your life than you need to?

There are still walks in the countryside to be had, even though those of us stuck in Tier 3 won’t have a nice rural pub to stop off at, en route. On that score,  and unless the weather is particularly bad, I've been sticking with my regular lunchtime walks, notching up between 6,500 & 7,000 steps most days. Not quite the recommended 10,000, but far better than nothing at all.

I’ve also got plenty of jobs I need to do out in the garden; boring jobs admittedly, such as pruning and raking up the remaining fallen leaves, but they are still tasks performed out in a healthy, outdoor fresh air environment. So, put it this way; I am unlikely to get bored, even though I am missing the company of friends and even strangers. 

The work environment has been good for company and conversation; something that does make me feel for those faced with the isolation that comes from having to work from home. What might have seemed like a good idea at the start of the pandemic, has turned into something of a nightmare 10 months on.

The enforced closure of pubs, has meant that the bonhomie that goes with “a pint amongst friends,"  is something denied to us at the moment, so one of the best ways we can support and help local pubs stay afloat, is to give our business to those outlets offering takeout’s – beer, or food, it all helps. The same applies to breweries, and this is an area I’ve contributed to several times since the start of this nonsense.

Larkin’s Brewery are now one of the oldest of Kent’s established small breweries; having celebrated 35 years in the business. Their Larkin’s Farm home is a short hop from where I work, so Thursday morning, I gave them a call and ordered a 5-litre mini keg of their excellent Porter.

I drove over at lunchtime to collect it, and at the time of writing it’s sitting in my summerhouse dropping bright and gaining in condition. I’ve had a few of these mini kegs before, and apart from perhaps polypins, feel they represent one of the best ways of keeping draught ale, fresh and in tip-top condition. I had one of porter, last Christmas and got stuck into an equally enjoyable keg of the brewery’s Best Bitter, a month of so into lockdown.

Larkin’s have a reputation for well-conditioned beers, which are just as they should be presented and just how I like them, so I am looking forward to pouring myself an attractive and foaming pint of porter shortly.

So, as we wait for this nonsense to be over, why not check out which of your local pubs or breweries are offering takeout’s and give them your support. That way you can help ensure their presence when this whole wretched business has come to an end.


Thursday 26 November 2020

Beer in the news

As promised in my last post, here’s a roundup of three beer-related stories that have caught my eye over the course of the week. We’ll start with the bad one, and get that out of the way, before reviewing the two good news stories, so that we finish on a positive note.

The bad news story is not totally unexpected. The current pandemic has obviously played a part in it, but many would argue that all the virus has done is precipitate a long-overdue reset within the niche it relates to.

The story, which features in Beer Insider, concerns a forecasted fall in the number of breweries in London. Even prior to the pandemic, there were serious concerns expressed about serious over-capacity within the capital’s brewing industry. Now, following a survey of members of the London Brewers’ Alliance (LBA), only 60% of the group’s 105 members are confident of remaining in business, once the crisis is over.

If correct, this would take membership numbers back to 65, a figure last seen in 2014. Such a fall in numbers indicates a serious correction in brewery numbers; a situation that many industry observers had been predicting for some time.  The pre-pandemic view was that such overcapacity had been unsustainable for some time, so Covid-19 has merely brought the situation to a head.

Whilst this is obviously bad news for the businesses concerned, and to some extent consumers, such a cull could benefit the surviving breweries, by removing some of the pressure caused by overcapacity within the industry. Given the enormous choice of beers available, many drinkers are unlikely to notice the non-availability of certain brands; unless that particular beer was a personal favourite, or they had some emotional connection to it. This story is well worth keeping an eye on, but for the full picture, along with some interesting statistics about the rise, and expected fall in breweries operating in London, head over to Beer Insider by clicking the link.

The second story is a much more positive one and concerns an injection of capital into the revived Hofmeister lager brand. I’ve covered the successful re-vamp of Hofmeister before, reporting on how two British drinks entrepreneurs, bought the brand from Heineken, who were Hofmeister’s last owners before the beer was withdrawn from the market in 2004.

The pair, Spencer Chambers and Richard Longhurst, took the beer back to its supposed Bavarian roots, by approaching a small traditional brewer, based in that region of Germany to produce a premium lager that they could be proud of. Fourth generation Bavarian brewery, Schweiger, came up with a 5% Helles bier, brewed in keeping with the German Reinheitsgebot, beer-purity law, that has been received with universal acclaim.

I won’t cover the whole story, but it’s worth considering that whilst the original Hofmeister was the fourth biggest beer brand in Britain, for a period in the late 1980’s – early 1990’s, it was a high-volume, low abv, mainstream lager, produce in the UK. Its success was down to some quite clever, but gimmicky advertising centred around the “George the Bear,” character who it was claimed, came from the forests of Bavaria.

Although the revamped beer has picked up a stack of awards, sales growth has been slow, restricted by the limited investment capability of the entrepreneurs responsible for the relaunch. This is where the two new investors, both with backgrounds within the brewing industry, come in. Kim Francis was recently managing director of pub group EI, whilst Euan Venters was managing director of Greene King’s brewing and brands until 2013.

The pair plan to grow the brand over the next four years, starting in London and the South East. Their aim is for Hofmeister to be on sale in around 1,300 of the top specialist retail and on-trade outlets, with sales of around £10 million. This is good news for drinkers such as me, who really enjoy the revamped Hofmeister, but struggle finding outlets that stock it. You can read more about the investor’s plans, along with the history behind the Hofmeister brand, here.

The final story is another positive one and is the news that the Roscoe Head pub in Liverpool has been bought by its long-serving licensee; a move that will secure its future. Pub connoisseurs will be aware that the Roscoe Head is one of only five pubs to have appeared in every edition of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide, and the only one in the north of England.

This unspoilt, multi-room pub offers good beer, good conversation and a warm welcome, but despite these obvious attributes, the Roscoe Head has been under threat of alteration, or even closure, by the pub company that owned it. Now, in a surprise move, they have agreed to sell the freehold to licensee, Carol Ross, who has been at the helm since 1997, after taking over the reins from her mother.

Photo - courtesy of WhatPub
Carol has spent the past 10 years fighting to secure the pub’s future, and now her hard work and determination have finally paid off. I haven’t been to the Roscoe Head, despite several visits to Liverpool, but I plan to rectify this situation, once the pandemic is out of the way.

In the meantime, you can read more about the Roscoe Head, and Carol’s struggle with the big company, by clicking on the link to local blogger, Neville Grundy’s excellent ReARM site, here.



Tuesday 24 November 2020

Looking to the heavens for inspiration

I’ve been suffering a real bout of “writer’s block” these past few days after my last post about the second lockdown, and while I accept, I got a little carried away moaning about the powers that be, I meant what I said about the current situation being all work and no play.

Normally there are things to look forward, such as meeting up with friends for a few drinks, a day out spent wandering around an interesting town, a walk to an unspoilt country pub or a short break away, at home or abroad. These are all off the menu, at the moment, although the second option is still possible but even then, I don’t know what restrictions have been placed on travel within one’s own country.

With pubs, restaurants and even cafés closed, opportunities for food and drink are minimal, placing further restrictions on what should be an enjoyable day out. It’s as if HMG and their tame “scientific advisors” have sucked the fun and all the joy out of life! Small wonder that I’ve taken solace in work.

It seems as if I’m not the only one suffering a bout of “lockdown blues” as I’ve noticed a drop off in the output from several other bloggers. There are always exceptions of course, and prolific blogger, Retired Martin continues to entertain us with his tales of pubs up and down the country, interspersed with observations about pub life and the many towns he visits, but few of us possess the same stamina as him.

I was heartened to see a post appear yesterday from Catalan writer and beer enthusiast, Joan Villar-i-Martí.  I first met Joan, who writes his Birraire-Beer Blog under the name of Joan Birraire, at the 2014 Beer Blogger & Writer’s Conference in Dublin. We met up briefly in Brussels the following year, for the same event, when Joan invited me to attend the 2016 Barcelona Beer Festival.

Joan is one of the festival's principal organisers, and I have to say the Barcelona event was one of the best and most laid-back beer festivals I have attended, and as well as enjoying the festival, I had plenty of time to explore the Catalan capital itself. The weather was kind, even in mid-March, and although many of the locals were wrapped up in jackets and scarfs, for a visitor from England, the climate was positively balmy.

The undoubted highlight of my sightseeing in Barcelona, was a pre-booked visit to the Sagrada Familia, the unfinished masterpiece of  renowned Catalan Modernist architect, Antoni Gaudi. Although not a religious person, I couldn’t help feeling both awed and inspired by this magnificent, but still unfinished basilica. Building work is continuing apace, with the aim of completing the structure in 2026; the centenary of Gaudi’s death.

As 2026 will mark 10 years since my visit to the church, I made a vow that I would return that year, to see the completed Sagrada Familia for myself. I will take Mrs PBT’s with me, even though she is not a huge fan of architecture, as her only view of Gaudi’s church was from the upper deck of an open top, sight-seeing bus, some 15 months previously.

Returning to Joan’s blog for a moment, like many of us he was feeling the effects of a sustained lockdown, that was considerably harsher in Spain, than here in the UK. The good news is that Joan is feeling inspired once more and will be throwing himself into a number of literary projects he has been holding back on for years.

So, taking my cue from my Catalan friend, I too am going to crack on with various writing projects of my own. I’ll be kicking off, back on the blog with an article I wrote last year, but never posted. I’ve also come across a couple of interesting beer related stories that I’d like to share with you.

Thanks Joan, but first I need to catch up on my beauty sleep. Until tomorrow………………………

Saturday 21 November 2020

The frustration of lockdown No. 2 - all work and no play

Just after 5pm yesterday evening (Friday), I said goodnight to a colleague, who was the sole worker remaining in the upstairs offices. A few members of production planning were still beavering away downstairs, but the bulk of the workforce had finished for the week.

I wished my colleague a pleasant weekend, and he reciprocated, asking whether I had anything planned? My reply was the same as the previous week, that with pubs and restaurants closed, and travel prohibited, there was very little that one can plan for.

He nodded in agreement, but then replied that despite these restrictions it doesn’t seem much of a lockdown; unlike back in April and May. He was of course right. Business is booming at our company at the moment, with an order book that is full to overflowing, and a production department that is struggling to keep up with demand.

We discussed this briefly, both agreeing that the roads are busier and more crowded than ever. The same applies to supermarkets and other stores that have been allowed to remain open; the only difference being the vast majority of shoppers and shopworkers are wearing masks.

The traffic situation has been exasperated by schools and colleges remaining open; the morning school run being a major source of congestion on already over-crowded roads. (The same probably applies to the afternoon school pick-up, but I am at work when this occurs).

For those bothered about such things, schools are without doubt a major hotspot for spreading Corona virus, unlike pubs, restaurants and hotels (the latter being closed to all but essential travellers during Johnson’s latest round of government-sponsored gesture politics), but once again it is the hospitality sector that has been singled out for an extra helping of misery by the nanny state.

I said to my colleague that whilst we our sector is largely unaffected by lockdown-two, for those individuals working in, or running businesses associated with hospitality, this current round of restrictions is only too real. Despite handouts from the taxpayer, businesses and livelihoods are being ruined, and for what purpose?

With no end in sight, despite a promised review of the situation before the restrictions lapse under law, on 2nd December, the entire hospitality sector remains fearful of its future. Ministers have been dropping hints that the restrictions might have to be extended, and the Prime Numpty himself seems focussed more on what he might graciously allow the population to do over the Christmas period. This is very big of him, because what right have any government ever had to tell people what they can or can’t do in their own homes; especially
in respect of meeting up with family and friends?

Regrettably, the smart money seems to be on extending the lockdown in respect of pubs, restaurants and hotels, in exchange for “allowing” families to meet up with their loved ones over Christmas. How on earth have we come to a situation where we accept such draconian measures? Unfortunately, a narcissistic egotist like Johnson, who craves attention and is desperate to be loved, is not going to go down as some modern-day Ebeneezer Scrooge, and definitely not as the "Grinch who stole Christmas,"  which means he will strike a bargain with the scientists (even though their data will again be flawed and out of date), and sacrifice the pubs in order to "save" Christmas.

So those of us expecting a return to some sort of  normality in December, are likely to be severely disappointed, and to a sector that makes the large share of its profits over the festive season, the prospect of yet more redundancies,  bankruptcies and business failures, all due to a misguided and discredited policy that even the World Health Organisation has dismissed as doomed to failure.

This brings me back to the conversation with my colleague. We both agreed that it is all work and no play at present, and possibly for some time to come if Johnson and his po-faced scientific advisors have their way. People need to relax and enjoy themselves – let off steam even, especially after working hard. If you can't enjoy your hard-earned cash, then what can you do with it? There's only so much you can save for a rainy day, and remember you can't take it with you, when you depart this mortal coil. 

All work and no play in the end, makes people frustrated, resentful and even angry. Johnson and his bunch of clowns, along with all the other “do-gooders” bleating like sheep for lockdown restrictions to be increased rather than relaxed, would do well to remember this. You can only push people so far, and with anti-lockdown protests increasing across the globe, Doris had better bank on getting that vaccine rolled out pretty quick, before things start turning very ugly indeed.

Finally, I haven’t mentioned the other clusterf*uck heading our way on 1st January, when we foolishly leave the EU single market and customs union. Time-consuming border checks will now be imposed on all goods coming in and out of the country and Kent will end up as a giant lorry park!

That’s for another day, but I would be rather worried if I was Doris Johnson. The moral here is be very careful of what you wish for, especially if those dreams include becoming Prime Minister.


Tuesday 17 November 2020

A different aproach to the pandemic?

I’m sure I can’t be the only beer-writer at the moment, sat in front of a computer, with a mind that’s totally devoid of ideas of what to write about; and this is after only 12 days of Doris’s second lockdown. But with pubs, bars and restaurants closed until at least 3rd December, there’s nowhere to go, even for a quiet drink, and certainly no chance of meeting up with friends or even other family members.

There’s also no guarantee that the current round of restrictions will have the effect the statisticians, or epidemiologists or number-crunching mathematical modellers predict, or the end game that "expert" advisors like Valance, Witty or Johnson’s latest pet scientist "Jay-Vee-Tee" are seeking. It could all have been so very different. 

The normal thing to stop a contagious disease from spreading, is to remove sick people from the population, by confining them, either in a hospital, or at home. Quarantine the unhealthy in order to protect the healthy would be the normal and sensible thing to do and is what has happened during past pandemics.

Unfortunately, with this particular plague, governments the world over have turned normal practice on its head by restricting the freedoms and movement of healthy people by incarcerating them, in their own homes. This seems a perverse and totally illogical way of preventing a disease from spreading, particularly when it’s an illness which, in the vast majority of cases, produces only mild symptoms or even none at all.

No-one appears to be questioning this irrational approach, and people in general seem only too happy to comply with government edicts which extend to telling them who they can and who they can’t have in their own homes. So how have governments manage to exercise such control over their populations?

Fear, backed up by disproportionate punishment, are the main weapons in their arsenal. Frighten the population out of their wits with tales of a creeping and insidious “deadly” pandemic that takes no prisoners, and if that doesn’t work levy savage and draconian fines, that are out of all proportion to the “crime” allegedly committed.

As an example, the police have been granted powers to issue “on the spot fines” of up to £10,000; an absurd financial penalty, that is way in excess of what a magistrate could impose, and equivalent to fines that could only be handed down in a crown court, in front of a judge and jury. These are measures that the world’s most despotic rulers and dictators must have only dreamed about, until Covid-19 appeared on the street of their towns and cities. Talk about using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut!

It would have made far more sense to shield the vulnerable, whilst at the same time temporarily removing the sick by quarantining them, allowing the healthy to go about their daily lives unfettered and unhindered by petty rules and regulations. It would also have prevented the damaging and destructive shutdown of large sectors of the global economy. 

I appreciate that I might be over-simplifying matters, given that people can be totally asymptomatic, but still capable of infecting others with Coronavirus, but that is why it makes sense to shield the vulnerable, rather than locking up the entire population. We should also be aware that this IS a pandemic and unfortunately pandemics kill people; sometimes in large numbers. Of course we should do all we can to mitigate the effects of this particular one, but given the relatively low mortality rate of Covid-19, shutting down the entire global economy is not the way to do this.

An approach based on common sense, doesn’t suit the government control freaks and their allies, who hide behind the guise of public health, whilst asking us to sacrifice our rights and our liberties for the "Common good.” Where have we heard those type of slogans before?  Stalin’s “Five Year Plan,” Mao’s “Great Leap Forward, or Pol Pot's genocidal "Year Zero" policy?

None of this bodes well for a post-Covid world, and having taken our freedoms, rights and liberties from us, in such a rushed and shameful fashion, governments are unlikely to want to return them in a hurry.  Regulations preventing people from meeting up with members of their own family are unheard of, even in wartime, as is the closing of pubs and restaurants.

The shifty-eyed bunch of tricksters, spivs and charlatans running the country are in their element, and in no rush to relax the unprecedented grip they hold over our daily lives. Meanwhile the economy continues to suffer along with people’s mental health and the general well-being of society as a whole.

There must surely come a time when people turn around and say, “enough is enough.” I’m not advocating breaking the law over these restrictions; although I am saying we all need to continue questioning government policy and ask are these measures really in our interest? 

Furthermore,  are they just a question of governments the world over, flexing their muscles under the guise of public health, when all they are really doing is cracking down on the rights, freedoms and liberties that we in the western world have enjoyed for generations. 

Since writing the article I've noticed a news clip stating that police forces are to suspend the £10k fines. This sounds like a small, welcome and long overdue outbreak of common sense!

Friday 13 November 2020

Coping with life during lockdown No. 2

We’re now a week into the second national lockdown, at least for those of us who live in England, but unless you’re a stakeholder or worker in the hospitality trade, an ardent pub-goer, someone who enjoys eating out, a person connected with the entertainment business (performer of venue owner), or someone living on their own who is missing the company and support of friends and family, the current shutdown doesn’t seem to be affecting anywhere near the number of people that the first self-incarceration did.

Before going any further, sincere apologies to any individuals or groups I have missed in this assessment, as whilst it’s sometimes easy to generalise, that is not the intention of this post. Perhaps it’s a stoic acceptance of what’s going on at the moment, or perhaps I’m just fortunate in my choice of work and the position I have reached in life, but luckily, I have been relatively unaffected this time around.

My workplace has remained open, and after the disastrous slump in orders at the start of the pandemic, things are looking much healthier. The welcome increase in sales has allowed us to un-furlough our entire workforce, and whilst those office-based staff who can work from home are continuing to do so, the bulk of our team are back on site.  The comprehensive, Covid-19 risk assessment we have carried out, and the measures we have put in place, allows staff to work separated from one another as much as possible, and this combined with enhanced levels of cleaning, means we can operate in a safe and secure environment.

From my point of view, being able to carry on working, virtually right from the start, has been a godsend, and more than anything else has helped to keep me sane. Just having different people to talk to, share a joke or a piece of news with, makes all the difference and makes one realise the importance of being around other people and just what social animals us humans are.

Even the really mundane stuff seems to have much more of a purpose, than it did prior to the pandemic and helps bring home the importance of the workplace, the value of camaraderie between colleagues and the importance of our relationship, not just with each other, but with our customers and suppliers. The fact that we’re all in this together is important, and whilst I don’t want to come over all Churchillian, I’m equally certain that many others will be feeling the same way.

Of course, not everyone is quite as fortunate, and even closer to home there are family members, including Mrs PBT’s, who are longing for a return to some form of normality, so they can just go out, socialise again and start enjoying life once more. 


The hardware chain where son Matthew works, has remained opened this time around, and he’s been doing a spot of commuting over the past couple of days. This is a result of being seconded to the group’s Bexleyheath store. So, there’s been a journey by train into London Bridge in the mornings, and then a train back out to the aforementioned town. He reported that whilst the trains weren’t exactly empty on the journey into London, there was still enough room to maintain an adequate distance from fellow travellers. Passengers certainly weren’t crammed in like sardines, as was often the case pre-pandemic.

Following on from that, here are a few more general observations regarding the second lockdown. Traffic levels remain high, especially during the morning peak period. This is hardly surprising, given that schools and colleges remain open. During the day though, the roads appear much quieter; something I have noticed during my daily lunchtime walks. I put this down to pubs and other local attractions (stately homes), being forced to close, and with nowhere for the well-heeled, retiree to visit, the "posh pub lunch" brigade is, of necessity, staying at home.

Work on local construction projects, continues apace, seemingly unaffected by any closedown, but footfall in towns does seem to have diminished. The same applies to supermarkets; either that, or I have been lucky with the times I’ve chosen to shop.

Despite these mixed messages, the impact on pubs and restaurants must be severe, and after seeing trade pick up over the summer and early autumn, being forced to shut must be particularly galling, especially when you consider all the measures they put in place in order to make their premises as safe and risk free as possible.

It’s too early yet to know whether the lockdown has had an effect on reducing transmission rates, but one thing is for certain there's been some real exaggerations, and bending of the truth coming from scientists and government advisors, who should have known better. It was bad enough for Valance to have turned up with a bunch of out of date graphs at Johnson’s bizarre, Halloween press-conference, but for officials to now admit that their grim forecasts of 4,000 Covid-related deaths a day, were grossly exaggerated.

They have now settled on a figure of 600 per day, and this is still a worse case scenario. Unfortunately, the 4,000 a day figure was what forced the government to introduce the second lockdown, and spooked (an appropriate term for Halloween), Johnson into holding his hastily convened, and twice postponed press-conference.

You couldn’t make it up, could you?


Sunday 8 November 2020

Pulling a pint, or pouring a pint?

The humble hand-pull, adorning many a bar counter, in pubs up and down the land is viewed, universally as a guarantee that the pub will be serving a traditional, cask-conditioned beer of some description – "real ale" if you prefer. The tall, pillar-like handles work by pulling on a piston-like arrangement, normally hidden below the counter, to pull, or draw beer up from the cellar and into to the customer’s glass.

The hidden pump is known as a "beer engine;" a device which first came into being at the start of the 18th Century and was then developed and refined further as 1700’s drew to a close. The man best associated with the beer engine, was Joseph Bramah, a locksmith (Bramah Locks are still manufactured), and hydraulic engineer.

Beer engines were manually operated by means of the hand-pull on the bar, with the beer being drawn up from the cellar through a flexible tube, to a spout, just below the bar, under which the glass is placed. Traditionally hand pumps were mounted on the bar, although some modern versions clamp onto the edge of the counter. You can see examples of both types in the photos used to illustrate this post.

Prior to the development of these labour-saving devices, beer had to be brought up from the cellar, by hand, usually by a group of labourers referred to as “pot boys.” It made sense storing beer underground, where the temperature was likely to be several degrees cooler than in the pub itself, and as well as providing a cool and refreshing drink - even then, no-one wanted a “warm one,” the beer also kept better and lasted longer.

Despite the almost universal acceptance of beer engines, gravity dispense, where the beer is dispensed direct from the cask, clung on particularly in smaller and more rural pubs. Sometimes the ground wasn’t suitable forth construction of cellar or, more usually, the expense of digging out an underground cellar just wasn’t worth it, especially in instances where the pub had started life as a simple house.

I can remember several pubs like this, including the Honest Miller at Brook – the Kent village where I spent my teenage years. The beer (Fremlin's Bitter), was stillaged on waist high racks, behind the bar, ready for dispense to the thirsty punters. The Black Bull at Newchurch, plus the Three Chimneys near Biddenden, are other examples of Kent pubs that kept and served their beer in this fashion.

The Three Chimneys has been enlarged over the years, and is no longer the simple country alehouse I knew in my early twenties, but it still maintains the tradition of gravity served beer.  The Old House at Ightham Common, does the same, but I’m hard pushed to think of any others locally.

What do seem to have vanished are those pubs where the licensee had to trudge down to the cellar to pour each pint of beer and then fetch it back up, by hand, to the waiting customer. The Woodman at Hassel Street, high on the North Downs and quite close to my home village, has long been closed, as has the Mounted Rifleman at Luddenham, near Faversham.

I’m digressing somewhat as this post is supposed to be about hand-pulls and beer engines, and as I was saying earlier, the sight of a hand-pull or even s set of hand-pulls on the bar, is practically a guarantee a guarantee of a pint of real ale. But there was a period during the late 1960s – early 1970’s when this wasn’t always the case.

The advent of keg beer during the 1960’s had, in many cases made hand pulls superfluous, and even in outlets where cask beer was still available, many brewers (particularly the larger ones), had switched over to “top pressure” dispense. The latter system used carbon-dioxide pressure as the means of bringing the beer up from the cellar.

In this case the beer wasn’t so much “drawn” from the cask, as “pushed” by the CO2 was applied to the spile hole, in the top of the cask, and then used to force the contents out from the tap and then all the way up to the bar. This took a considerable pressure of applied carbon-dioxide, so no wonder the beer was often gassy.

The same flexible pipes, although plastic by now, rather than metal and rubber, bring the beer up from below, but with virtually all keg beers, and many “top pressure” variants, dispense was by means of a small box and tap arrangement mounted on the serving side of the bar. The boxes were often illuminated in order to advertise the beer on sale – Courage Tavern Keg, Watney’s Red, Keg Worthington E, Whitbread Tankard etc, but this means of dispense rendered the humble hand-pull, and its associated beer engine, redundant.

Many licensees were reluctant to remove their hand pulls altogether, as this would have left holes on the top of the bar.  Some did, and covered the hole(s) with a circular brass plate, but the majority left the pump handles in situ, because they helped maintain the traditional feel of the pub.

I remember walking into many a strange pub during the mid-1970’s and falling foul of this.  Fully expecting a properly pulled pint of cask, I was instead presented with a gassy pint of fizz, poured from a tap just under the counter. Greene King, who were just a regional brewer back then, even used miniature ceramic hand-pulls to operate the “top-pressure” system, that predominated in most of their pubs. However, once seen in action, it was easy not to be caught out by such trickery!

Worse though, were pubs where the hand-pulls appeared still in use, but once pulled back, a valve was operated which dispensed keg beer into the glass of the unsuspecting customer. Fortunately, such pubs were few and far between and word soon got around, particularly amongst CAMRA members, that these were places to avoid.

The highlighting by CAMRA of such sharp practices, helped to establish the hand-pull as the dominant symbol of real ale, but it had an unfortunate side-effect. Away from the southern half of the country, in areas such as the Midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire, many pubs served perfectly acceptable cask-conditioned ale by means of electric pumps.

These were virtually unknown in the south, and I remember being fascinated as a sixth-former, coming across my first electrically pumped beer when the coach taking a group of us to North Wales for a geology field trip, stopped for a break somewhere on the Staffordshire-Shropshire border. A group of us piled into the pub on the opposite side of the road, where we were served foaming pints of Bank’s Bitter from electrically operated pumps, with a metered glass cylinder mounted horizontally on the bar.

I watched fascinated as the piston moved back and forth within the cylinder, dispensing an exact half pint, each time. We came across further examples in Bangor, our destination and base for the field course. Most of us weren’t old enough to legally drink in pubs, but that didn’t stop us, and most evenings, apart from Sunday – when the sale of alcohol was prohibited, we hit the towns local hostelries, most of which belonged to Greenall Whitley.

Metered electric pumps of the type witnessed on the outward journey, were the order of the day, and just over six months later, when I went up as a student, to Salford University, this type of dispense was a common sight in local pubs. Most Boddington’s, Greenall’s, Hyde’s Robinson’s and Tetley’s pubs used metered electric pumps, as did quite a few Wilson’s (Watney’s northern subsidiary) outlets.

To confuse the issue some pubs used what were known as “free-flow” electric pumps. These were un-metered and were operated in the same way as a keg tap. To muddy the waters even further, many of these pumps had the same bar mountings for both cask and keg. As CAMRA said at the time, in one of its guides, "The only way to tell the difference is to taste the stuff in the glass!" Free flow electric pumps were prevalent in most Bass Charrington pubs, and quite a few Wilson’s outlets.

As the “real ale movement" gathered momentum electric pumps began disappearing. Slowly at first, and they were still quite prevalent in the Manchester area when I headed off, back down south. Ten year later, they had virtually disappeared.

It’s perhaps unfair to blame CAMRA for this, as all the group wanted was to remove the confusion surrounding hand-pulls, whilst establishing them as THE symbol of real ale. Nowadays electric pumps, metered or otherwise, are nowhere to be seen – not even on Google Images. It’s almost as if, they never existed in the first place!



Saturday 7 November 2020

An autumnal walk along the North Downs Way - Part Two

The second, and final day of my North Downs Way walk was, if anything, harder than the first. This was despite it being just over half the distance, in terms of actual miles walked. Two steep ascents, and the same number of equally precipitous descents didn’t help (what goes up, must come down), but neither did the fact that for much of the journey, I was walking through woodland.

Being in what is effectively an enclosed environment, means it becomes difficult to judge distance travelled or, indeed, how much further there is to go. Basically, one loses one’s sense of perspective! Getting lost a couple of times on the initial part of the journey, didn’t help much either, but all in all it was still an enjoyable day’s walking; even if it was rather different from the previous day. That, of course, is the beauty of the NDW, as the scenery and, quite often the terrain, are so varied.

I set off in high spirits, after a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast following my overnight stop at the Black Horse, Thurnham.  Straight away, I was forced to gain height, in order to access the NDW, following the steeply climbing road up from the pub towards the remains of Thurnham Castle, high on the ridge overlooking the surrounding countryside.

The trail skirts the mound on which the castle is constructed, but according to my guidebook, there is precious little left of this 13th Century fortification.  I should, of course have been paying attention to the guidebook – even though it is written for those travelling in an easterly direction, because after skirting the top of the hill that is home to the White Horse Country Park, I found myself trapped behind a barbed wire fence at the apex of a field.

I could see where I wanted to be but was reluctant to retrace my footsteps in order to regain the path. Fortunately, I manage to squeeze through a gap between the top of the fence and the string of barbed wire, although I had to remove both my rucksack and my coat in order to do so. This was a similar occurrence to what I’d experienced the day before, the common factor being the ownership of this area of the North Downs, by the Hucking Estate, and its management by the Woodland Trust.

A lack of signage on this section of the NDW, seems to be a common complaint, if the reports on TripAdvisor are anything to go by; the most appropriate one being “Be prepared to get very lost!” Shortly after my undignified scramble through the fence, I again found myself looking for the correct path. I was aiming for the village of Detling, and whilst I could see it below, and to my right, how to access the correct track seemed a complete mystery.

I sought advice from two women, out walking their dog, but they confessed they weren’t the best people to ask, as they too were lost. Fortunately, a knight in shining armour, in the form of another walker, came to our rescue. He put the two dog walkers on the right path, and then directed me to the steeply descending track that would take me down into Detling.  He also warned of an even steeper ascent as the NDW makes its way out of the village, on the other side of the busy A249 dual carriageway.

My route into Detling was from the east, and as I approached the heart of the village, I could see the Cock Horse pub directly in front of me. I was too early for opening time and it was too early for a beer as well, so after skirting the pub I headed for the crossing that would take me over the A249.

The footbridge known as "Jade’s Crossing," is named after eight-year-old Jade Hobbs who, along with her grandmother, was killed in 2000 whilst attempting to cross the A249. Despite this tragedy, and two earlier deaths, Kent County Council continued to resist calls for a protected crossing, until shamed into doing so by a fundraising campaign, led by local people. Walking across this footbridge with four lanes of traffic thundering underneath, it is difficult to imagine how the authorities could have been so callously short-sighted!

The guide I’d spoken to earlier was right about the steep climb back up to the escarpment, as the track through the trees Hermitage Lane, seemed to go on forever, passing a substantial, but now disused chalk quarry. I had a slight chuckle over the spoof entry that appeared in a local CAMRA pub guide 40 years ago, in response to plans to reopen the former Detling Lime Works, which was sited in this very chalk pit.

I was one of several people who went looking for the “Quarryman’s Arms,” an old pub that had “reopened, after standing empty for many years.” Local opposition to the quarry’s reopening must have been running strong, so I take my hat off to the two lads (both CAMRA members), who managed to hoodwink the editor by getting this fictitious entry, a place in the guide!

The NDW takes a sharp turn to the left at the top of this lane, and then follows the edge of a beech-wood for several miles. Boxley Wood merges into Westfield Wood, and whilst this section was on level ground, until the very end, quite frankly it was boring. Okay, it was nice to be out of the wind, and good to be on the flat, but with very little in the way of landmarks to act as guidance, it was difficult to know exactly where one was.

At times, the trail veered off deeper into the woods, whilst at others it left the shelter of the trees for the edge of a muddy field. I took no photos, as there was very little to capture on camera, but whilst the walk was boring, there were times when it felt a little creepy – almost as if I was being followed!

I wasn’t of course, although I was very nearly bowled over by a powerful female jogger who came bounding towards me, but returning to the subject of woodland walks, there is something slightly spooky, a sort of primeval fear that goes with walking alone, through a wood which never seems to end.

The wood did eventually end, but not before a lengthy, and at times quite steep descent through some dense and quite gloomy areas of woodland. In several sections there were steps cut into the slope, to make one’s descent easier, but even so I was mightily relieved to have brought my trusty walking stick along. Not only did it steady me during this tricky descent, it also stopped me tripping up over numerous, half-buried tree roots. A stick also gives added impetus on upward sections and helps one maintain a steady and rhythmic pace on level ground.

I emerged from the trees just past the White Horse Stone; a Neolithic megalith of some historic significance. I was feeling rather weary and footsore by this time and had already passed this large and unevenly shaped lump of stone, before I realised what it was. I certainly wasn’t persuaded to deviate the short distance from the trail for a closer inspection.

Instead I passed out of the woods and followed a path which led over the high-speed rail line, just before it disappears into a lengthy tunnel, beneath the mass of the looming Blue Bell Hill. After crossing the railway and then disappearing into the rather gloomy subway under the busy A229, there was just a short, half mile section of NDW left to walk, until I arrived at the place I’d started from on my walk to Cuxton, the previous month.

I now had to find a suitable public transport link that would get me home. There was the possibility of a bus, but that meant a mile or so of walking to the top of Blue Bell Hill. The alternative was a route march down into Aylesford. The latter was nearly twice as long as the former, but at least was downhill all the way, although the lack of a pavement made walking quite hazardous at times.

A more sensible option would have been to have walked up to the Lower Bell pub, ordered myself a well-earned pint and then phoned for a taxi! I wasn’t sensible, and unfortunately Rochester Road proved busier than anticipated, but there were verges for most of the way, plus a very welcome section where a bridleway, hidden behind a hedge, ran parallel with the road. Mrs PBT’s would have called me foolhardy, or worse, but keeping my wits about me, I arrived in Aylesford village in one piece and without too many close shaves!

As I walked past the Bush pub and caught a glimpse of the cheery and welcoming interior, I was very tempted to call in for a pint. The London Pride hand pump on the bar looked extra inviting and had it not been for the notice on the door, asking customers, not unreasonably, to remove muddy boots before entering, I would have popped inside. 

As it was, if I had removed my footwear, it’s doubtful I’d have got
them back on, so I carried on into the centre of Aylesford, before finding a most welcome bench, where I sat and ate the cheese roll that was left over from the previous day. The station was much further from the village than I remembered, but I still reached it in plenty of time for the train back to Tonbridge.

That two days of walking means there is now just a seven-mile gap between Wye and Charing before I complete the bulk of the Kentish section, and head west into Surrey along the final 50 miles of the  North Downs Way and the end of the trail in the town of Farnham.