Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Constellation find the right alignment

As promised, I made a visit to Tonbridge’s latest brewery, Constellation and, despite the unseasonably cold start to May managed to enjoyed a couple of the company’s beers, out on the newly installed outdoor decking area, at the front of the brewery.

I left my visit until late Monday afternoon, having taken advantage of the late appearance of the threatened Bank Holiday rain. Despite the rain staying away, there was a cold north-westerly wind blowing, but I managed to more or less finish what I’d set out to achieve in the garden, before heading out for a few well-earned pints.

The physical activities of digging, raking, and mowing kept me reasonably warm, but I knew that once I stopped moving, and sat down I would start to feel the cold. Mrs PBT’s called me a wuss for adding an additional layer of clothes – not that she’d set foot outside all day, but I was certainly glad that I did.

It’s quite a boring walk down to the industrial area where Constellation have set up shop, and the access road sandwiched in between one of the area’s largest haulage contractors and the town’s sewage works, is not particularly inviting, but according to my Smart Watch, it was less than a couple of miles – and that included a small detour to pick up some milk, from a local convenience store.

The access road opens out into the Orchard Business Park (why do developers insist on such inappropriate rustic sounding names for their developments? ), and it didn’t take me long to locate Constellation’s unit. Although there seemed to be quite a party taking place on the outside decking area, there were still several tables free.

As I made my way passed the brewery entrance, a chap came out to greet me and to hand me a beer menu. He turned out to be head brewer Rob, and he apologized for the rather noisy, but good spirited group, who were members of his extended family.

There were two cask and four keg beers on offer, so to start with at least, I opted for one of the cask beers. Indus IPA – Session Ale, pale in colour, well-conditioned and with nice refreshing, hoppy “bite” to it, turned out to be a good opening choice. It was very reasonably priced too, at just £3.40 a pint.

After bringing my pint over, Rob stopped for a brief chat, asking if I’d come far and how I’d found out about Constellation. Once I’d answered his questions, he told me a bit about his background along with that of his business partner, Barry.  Rob has 10 years’ experience working at another Kent brewery.  I won’t give the game away by naming it, but it isn’t in the immediate vicinity, and it isn’t one you might expect.

Barry’s background is in technical services and refrigeration, especially in relation to cellar services for pubs, bars, and restaurants. He will also be learning more about the brewing side, combining this with his cellar experience, to ensure that the final product will be poured to perfection. 

Specialist companies, that take care of a pub or bars’ cellar requirements, are starting to emerge in both the UK and the Irish Republic.  My brother-in-law and I had a discussion on the need for such a service, as we sat in an Ohio bar one afternoon, wondering how it managed to stock such a large range of beers, and keep them all in good condition. 

He wasn’t sure how this is handled in the states, and I wasn’t over sure about the situation here in Britain, but having the right cooling and dispense equipment, along with keeping the beer lines scrupulously clean, is of vital importance and can make or break a bar’s reputation.  I imagine this is the sort of service Rob’s business partner, Barry provides. Doing this, could also provide a convenient shoe-in, for Constellation beers.

I opted for something different for my second beer, choosing the brewery’s 4.7% Hydra Lager. Priced at £4.00, it was a thirst-quenching, full-bodied beer, constructed around a firm malt base. I mentioned to Rob that it reminded me a Czech Pilsner, and he replied that such a beer was exactly what he’d been aiming for.

So, what are Constellation’s plans for the future? Pretty big, by all accounts, as they have opted for a 30-barrel plant, capable of producing up to 8,500 pints per brew. Starting off large negates the need to upgrade – a disruptive process as many breweries have found to their cost.

At the moment, the brewery is still testing the market, and finding its way. There are six core beers, and these will be complemented by seasonal and other more adventurous brews, as things progress.  They are certainly a welcome addition to the local beer scene, and this especially applies to their taproom.

I wish them well!

Monday, 3 May 2021

Tapping a new demand - brewery taprooms

At the beginning of the year, I mentioned the opening of a new brewery in my adopted hometown of Tonbridge. Constellation Brewing occupy, small unit in a relatively new development of such facilities, on the edge of the town’s sprawling industrial estate. I mentioned at the time that several friends had sampled Constellation’s wares beer. The brewery was selling 5 litre mini kegs of their beers for people to click and collect.

As well as debating as to whether West Kent needed another brewery, and the impact its appearance would have on the performance of other local breweries, I also advised that Constellation had plans to open a taproom at the brewery. This was planned to coincide with the easing of pandemic restrictions, even though at the time, the PM’s “roadmap out of lock-down” hadn’t yet been formulated, let alone published.

Constellation’s taproom finally opened to the public on Saturday.  I was altered to this by a message on social media, that flashed up on my phone, and had every intention of paying the place a visit. Unfortunately, Mrs PBT’s had other ideas that included a shopping expedition to Sevenoaks. To cut a long story short, by the time son Matthew arrived home from work, and we’d had our evening meal, there was insufficient time for a visit.

I do intend to call in before the long Bank Holiday Weekend is over, but in the meantime, I want to take a closer look at the idea of brewery taprooms and reflect on a few of the ones I have visited, both here and abroad. They are certainly a relatively new concept, particularly on this side of the Atlantic, but one which seems to be catching on in various parts of the world.

I’m not exactly sure where the idea of a brewery taproom first came from, because when talking about such a space, I’m not referring to what us older drinkers would think of as a “brewery tap.”  This, by definition, should be the nearest pub to the brewery, and examples which spring to mind include the Ram Inn, in Wandsworth, the George & Devonshire in Chiswick and the John Harvey Tavern in Lewes.

The latter two pubs serve as brewery taps for Fuller’s and Harvey’s breweries respectively, whereas the Ram is now devoid of the brewery it once served, following the sad closure of the adjacent Ram Brewery of Young & Co Ltd.

Given their proximity to the parent brewery, all three pubs acted as convenient meeting places for brewery tours, plus the opportunity of a generous sampling of the brewery’s products, at the end of the visit. I certainly have fond memories of enjoying a few, pre-brewery tour beers, in all three pubs.

Other pubs have fulfilled this function in an unofficial way, one prime example being the excellent Cooper’s Tavern, in Burton-on-Trent. I visited this iconic little back street pub with members of the Beer & Pubs Forum, at the beginning of March last year, and enjoyed what turned out to be some of my last, pre-pandemic pints.

A completely different concept is that of the brewery taprooms, and these are the prime focus of this article. The main difference is they normally form part of the brewery itself, rather than being a stand-alone building, such as a pub, and with the bulk of the new wave of micro-breweries housed in industrial units, this makes perfect sense.

Many so-called taprooms will have started out as little more than a few tables and chairs, or even some bench seating, housed in a convenient part of the brewery, where the brewery’s beers (keg as well as cask), can be sampled and enjoyed. Nowhere is this layout more evident than on the legendary Bermondsey Beer Mile in South London. Son Matthew and I undertook this crawl in June 2014, when it consisted of only a half dozen breweries the majority housed in railway arches. Today’s participants will need a lot more saying power, as there are now fifteen of them!

The general layout was as described above, but as all the venues on the crawl were working breweries, and only open to the public on Saturdays, the facilities on offer were basic at best, and rudimentary at worst (especially the toilets). They did however, set the scene and provided a glimpse of what was to come in subsequent years.

The first “proper” brewery taproom I experienced was that of By the Horns Brewery, which I visited three years later. The brewery is situated on
an industrial park, in the Summerstown area of South-West London, and was founded in 2011. The brewery has since expanded into adjoining units on either side of the original. Sharing the site with the brewery, is a tap-bar, and a bottle shop. This is good news for local beer lovers and the brewery has now become a much-valued part of the local community.

By The Horns set the bar for brewery taprooms as far as I was concerned, but whilst I’d visited a couple of other breweries in between, it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I experienced another proper one.

Cellar Head Brewing Company was founded by Chris and Julia McKenzie in 2017. They were joined by Dave Berry, whose previous brewing experience included stints at both Old Dairy Brewery and Tonbridge Brewery. Cellar Head's cask beers are un-fined, which means they carry a natural haze and are also vegan-friendly. In addition, they do not filter or pasteurise their bottled beers and neither do they artificially carbonate them.

Cellar Head beers were well-received locally, and just two years later they opened a new brewery and taproom, just off the A21 at Flimwell, between Tunbridge Wells and Robertsbridge. To celebrate the opening of their flash new premises, the brewery held a birthday party, which I attended along with a group from West Kent CAMRA. We arrived by coach, already suitably lubricated, on our way home from a visit to Harvey’s Brewery in Lewes, earlier in the day.

Cellar Head’s premises are housed in a small industrial-type unit, situated down a rather narrow lane, and with all the parked cars belonging to other visitors, our driver found it rather difficult to squeeze the coach past and find a suitable parking place, but all credit due, he managed it without any scrapes.

The party was in full swing when we arrived, with everyone having a good time. There were plenty of thirsty punters, plus quite a few families, sat at picnic-benches both inside and out. There were three beers on hand-pump, plus a couple of keg ones. There was also a food truck parked outside.

The whole brewery-taproom set-up, along with the al fresco drinking, reminded me of the Vanish Farmwoods Brewery in Leesburg, Virginia, which I visited whilst attending the Beer Bloggers & Writer’s Conference in the United States, the previous August.  With its stunning rural setting with views over the local countryside – this time across to Bewl Water, and the families there with their children, enjoying a few beers, I could have been back in rural Virginia. There was even a duo blasting out country and western music in the bar!

That evening excursion to Vanish Farmwoods Brewery, involved a coach ride deep into the heart of rural Virginia, with the brewery acting as our hosts for the evening. The event showcased not just their own craft beers, but also brews from some of the other Virginia based breweries. Vanish had also laid on an amazing barbeque for us, which included some of the most delicious and tender roast beef it has been my pleasure to have experienced.

What I liked about the place was it was very family oriented, with a large outdoor play area for the kids, plus a large off-sales section where visitors could load up with bottles and cans to take away, as well as filling up their "growlers" with freshly brewed craft beer.

This particular taproom was one of several I visited during my time at the Beer Bloggers & Writer’s Conference. Others included Lost Rhino Brewing, Stone Brewing and Triple Cross Brewing, and all were good, in their own way.

You probably get the picture by now, so I will end here, and report on Tonbridge’s effort once I have made that promised visit to Constellation Brewing.



Thursday, 29 April 2021

Have vaccine - will travel

It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that the concept of Covid-Passports has been very much in the news, during recent months. The idea has been mooted, as we come out of lock-down, as a possible way of opening up society quicker, whilst at the same time remaining safe and stopping the virus from spreading once again.

The multi-billion-pound travel, tourism, and hospitality sectors in particular, are crying out for a return to some semblance of normality, and Covid-Passports of some shape of form, could prove the way out of the current mess.

The idea behind such a document is it would certify that the holder has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, and despite obvious concerns regarding civil liberties and discrimination, plans for such a scheme seem to be gaining traction.  It’s still largely theoretical at present, at least in the UK, but countries such as Denmark and Israel that have emerged from the pandemic relatively unscathed, are already piloting such documents.

The European Union is also working on its own scheme, although given the discrepancies between some of the member states in terms of Covid resilience and widely varying infection rates, the roll-out of such a document could still be some way off.  Britain too, seems to be testing the water, but without committing itself to anything definite at the moment.

This leads on nicely to two items of news which, whilst not intentionally related, are turning out to be very closely connected. I’ll deal with the imminent story first, before moving on to the second item which not only takes place in four and a half months’ time but is also an event which requires a lot more explanation.

News item number one: this afternoon (Thursday), Mrs PBT’s and I will be having our second shot of the Covid vaccination, so two to three weeks after that, we should expect maximum protection against this particular Coronavirus.

News item number two: the pair of us have booked a holiday for mid-September. So, what you might say, lots of people are looking ahead and booking themselves some much needed time away. But what if I told you the holiday, we’ve booked is a cruise?

You’d probably be thinking that we’re mad. After all, remember all those passengers trapped on board cruise ships, just over a year ago, when the Corona-virus pandemic was really starting to take hold. Confined to their cabins for days on end, passengers aboard these vessels quickly found their luxury accommodation had turned into floating prisons.

There is a subtle difference though between these traditional cruises and the one we have just moved, because our voyage aboard the Cunard Queen Elizabeth will not only be confined to British territorial waters, but passengers will be restricted to UK citizens and residents.

Given the uncertainty regarding the ending of all lock down restrictions and the present restrictions on foreign travel, this kind of makes sense, and our four night stay aboard the vessel, will see us cruising from Southampton to Liverpool and back, via the Irish Sea. We have a day ashore in Liverpool, and whilst I have made several visits to the city Mrs PBT’s has never been there.

In addition, the cruise hasn’t cost us a penny, as we had credit left from last year’s cancelled cruise to Hamburg; in fact, after booking this current cruise, we’ve still got sufficient credit left to pay the deposit on another one!

Another advantage of the cruise is not only is our accommodation paid for, but so are all our meals. We can even, if we wish – and Mrs PBT’s certainly will be wishing, opt for room service and have breakfast delivered to our cabin. Drink admittedly is extra, but with a fridge in the room, I will be bringing along a selection of tinnies so I can enjoy a cool beer whilst we’re sitting out on our balcony enjoying the sea air and as we sail along the Welsh coastline.

The accommodation aspect is important, as without wishing to appear smug, overnight stays anywhere in the UK are going to be at a premium, given the uncertainty surrounding foreign travel at the moment, and the fact that holidays on home soil will probably be the norm for 2021.

Several of my work colleagues are already bemoaning the exorbitant costs that many hotels are charging (double pre-pandemic prices in many instances), whist finding a cottage or apartment to rent, is as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth.

There is, however, a sting in the tail, but one which, if I’m brutally honest, I was half expecting. I’m sure though, that many would just regard it as a sensible precaution, given what the world has just been through and what we are still experiencing.

You see, hidden away in the small print of the T&Cs of our booking confirmation, is a requirement for all passengers to have had both doses of their Covid vaccinations. This is because the voyage is for Covid-19 vaccinated UK residents only. The definition of vaccinated is a minimum of seven days from the second dose of the currently approved Covid-19 vaccine being administered.

Proof of vaccination, and dates given, will be required (approved forms of evidence to be confirmed prior to departure), and will need to be shown at the terminal, prior to boarding. In other words, a Covid-19 passport is required.

Finally, as our cruise will be one of Cunard’s first voyages, following the pause in their operations, the ship will have a significantly reduced number of guests on board, to “better enable a smooth return to sailing.” The wording is, “approved forms of evidence to be confirmed.” In other words, whatever HMG come up with. 

That’s fine with me, as there was never any way that either of us were not going to have the vaccine and, irrespective of cruising requirements, we will be fully vaccinated some considerable time ahead of scheduled departure, but for how long these types of Covid Passport will be necessary, in order to travel, remains to be seen.

So, if you’ve got more than a passing interest in this topic, then watch this space!

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Still feeling the need to experiment

I came in for a spot of criticism from a correspondent, over my recent blog post about the reopening of the Nelson Arms, in Tonbridge. I mentioned how good the Harvey’s was but then, because I moved on to a few of the other beers the pub had on sale, I was questioned as to why I didn’t stay with Lewes’s finest, for the rest of the session. He went on to say, Why at your age do you still feel the need to experiment & having a Ruby with it, words fail me.”

The comment came from a character, who goes by the name of “Greengrass.” He occasionally posts comment on my blog, normally about local pubs of character and what the beer is like, and if he is the person, I think he is, then I know him, at least by sight. He is someone who used to come into my off-license, from time to time and I do know he is someone who knows and enjoys his beer.

Mildly chastised, and ignoring the remark about the curry I enjoyed, I replied that I was caught up in the moment, rather like "a kid in a sweet shop" and, as I admit to being a fan of dark beers, I wanted to try a couple that were on offer that afternoon. I said I was sure there would be plenty of other opportunities for a session on the Harvey’s.

His comment did get me thinking though, as to why we sometimes do opt for a range of beers, when there are good, honest, and reliable beers, such as Harvey’s on offer, and especially when that “safe” beer happens to be in tip-top condition? Could it be the fear here, of missing out on something amazing, or is it the kids in a sweet shop syndrome of being totally overwhelmed by what is on offer?

Variety is said to be the spice of life and I like to try different beers –
broaden my horizons, so to speak, but sometimes I come unstuck and choose one that turns out to be not to my liking. Admittedly this doesn’t happen often, as I can usually tell from the description on the pump clip, or from previous knowledge. There are also certain breweries whose beers I tend to avoid, again based on past experience. This doesn’t mean they are necessarily bad, it’s just that they do not appeal to me personally.

Sometimes though I have to be in a particular mood, for a particular style. For example, I might want a beer that is light and refreshing, at the start of a session, before finishing up with one that is dark, rich, and heavy. Alternatively, it’s the wrong time of year, as who really wants to be drinking heavy stouts and porters during a heat wave?

I have read about people attending a beer festival and then sticking with a single beer. I’ve even known people to do this themselves; although to be fair this usually happens after they’ve sampled a few that were not to their liking. I can understand when they do find one, they like, they then stick with it.

I recall a tale, from CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival, about a group of drinkers who attended each year, and met up at the Shepherd Neame bar, which used to be housed in a distinctly decorated, double-decker bus. They would then spend the whole day there drinking nothing but Shepherd Neame beer. Each to their own, but it does seem rather obtuse behaviour given that sheer variety of beers available at this event.

This situation is not unique, of course, and more to the point it is British Beer Festivals, and their North American imitators that are different from most other parts of the world. Take Germany, for example, there festivals are more about enjoying beer in a social and convivial atmosphere, rather than attempting to “tick” as many new/different beers as possible.

Beer at Munich’s world-famous Oktoberfest is limited to the products of the city’s six large breweries, and even then, it is a special “Festbier” brewed to a stronger strength than the everyday “quaffing” beers. At the far less well-known Annafest, held each July in woods above the small Franconian town of Forchheim, the town’s four small breweries supply the bulk of the beer, although several of the Kellers (drinking areas), do stock beers brewed in some of the surrounding villages.

Again, having a good time (there is normally live music and other attractions, such as fairground rides, at these events), is the order of the day, and whilst the beer is nothing short of top notch, once ensconced in a particular tent (Oktoberfest) or Keller (Annafest), it does play second fiddle to the partying and good time feeling that characterises these festivals.

Quite a lengthy response then, to Greengrass’s probing question about me “still feeling the need to experiment,” but if you have read this far, you will understand now that there is no straight answer – at least not from me!  The truth is I can live with either the “let’s try several different beers,” approach or “I’m going to stick with just the one brew,” as they are both very dependent on my mood at the time and the situation, I find myself in.

Given the above, I can enjoy both, so my question to those of you reading this is, in situations when you come across a beer that is at the top of its game, or one that just happens to be your personal favourite, do you stick with it all evening, or do you still do a bit of mixing and matching?

And Greengrass, if after reading this, you happen to spot me in a pub, and I don't seem to recognise you, come over and say hello, and I'll buy you a pint - Harvey's or whatever takes your fancy!



Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Long time coming

“It’s been a long time coming,” as Crosby, Stills & Nash sang at the end of the sixties. I know, as I remember the song, but as the famous quote says, If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren't really there!”

I was there though on 14th of April 2021, there being the labyrinth-like garden/outdoor drinking area of the Nelson Arms, and the occasion was a reunion drink with friends to celebrate the return of pubs. Not quite the full return, as for the time being, patrons have to consume and enjoy their beer in the great outdoors of a pub garden.

It actually doesn’t have to be a garden, as any suitable outdoor space will do, even a car-park, as long as the social interaction that goes with the enjoyment of beer, other alcoholic drinks, or food, doesn’t take place in an indoor environment. Something about the virus potentially spreading much in the confinement of an indoor setting.

Now that spring is finally here, I really don’t mind being outside, as long as I can enjoy a beer in the company of friends and company. I’d even go further and say that is some settings I prefer being out in the fresh air. This is why Bavarian Biergartens have such appeal to me.

I digress, but the long-awaited meet-up of members of the WhatsApp Beer Socials Group – an offshoot of West Kent CAMRA was arranged some considerable time ago. In fact, the booking had been made by a friend, almost as soon as Prime Minister Johnson’s much vaunted “Roadmap out of Lockdown” plans were announced. Then, as word got around via the group, it became necessary to increase the booking to two tables.

I walked down to the Nelson with one of my near neighbours. He’d been tending his front garden when I walked back from the bus stop that morning, following my journey over to Tunbridge Wells. We hadn’t seen each other for quite some time, so got chatting, as you do. It turned out he’d been invited to the meet-up as well by a mutual friend, so I agreed to call round for him on my way down to the pub. Such was his eagerness that he was waiting for me when I stepped onto his drive.

We arrived shortly after the 3pm opening time and, after checking in, found several members of the group
already there. One of our allotted tables was already full, so we sat at the adjacent one, and it wasn’t long before that too, began filling up. The Nelson’s well-trained staff were able to set up individual tabs for each of us, meaning we could drink at our own pace, and in some cases eat as well, before settling up at the end of the session.

Beer was what we were there for, and cask beer at that! The pub had printed off a number of handy Beer Menus, complete with handy tasting notes. Eight beers were listed, but two of them had already finished. My first choice was a no-brainer, as it was the cask ale, I have missed the most during the long months of lock-down. It was Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter – one of the finest, traditional bitters available, and was a beer to both savour and enjoy.

Good as the Harvey’s was, I wanted to try a few of the other beers on the menu, whilst at the same time remaining mindful that I had work in the morning and a report to present at our monthly management meeting. Pacing myself was the obvious answer, and the next beer I chose was a dark one, in the form of a 4.3% Old Ale from Iron Pier Brewery. I have enjoyed other beers in the past from this Gravesend-based brewery, and this smooth, dark, and malty ale, with its chocolate and coffee undertones, didn’t disappoint.

Before going any further, it’s worth describing the lengths that the Nelson's landlord Matt and his team have gone to in order to provide a sheltered and secluded outdoor area that meets government guidelines, whilst at the same time providing a convivial and safe drinking environment. The section nearest the pub is more covered in, whereas the part where we were seated is more open, with just some rather flimsy looking gazebos for shelter. Matt apparently had to sacrifice his much-prized, off-road parking area which, given the scarcity of parking spaces in the immediate vicinity, must have come hard.

Although we had two tables, several other friends and acquaintances also tuned up, but fortunately there was another vacant table available close by. It was really good seeing familiar faces and just catching up with people again, especially as most of us hadn’t seen one another for the best part of five months.

I think to a man, and a woman (branch secretary Carole was there as well), we have all had our first Covid vaccinations, but even so we had the courtesy to mask up when walking over for a chat with occupants of the other tables.

As the afternoon stretched on towards evening, temperatures inevitably began to drop. Fortunately, I’d packed an additional fleece plus a wooly hat in my small rucksack, and after the sun went down and dusk started to gather, I was mighty glad that I did.

I switched back to a paler beer for my third pint, a 5% house beer called NIPA (Nelson IPA), produced for the pub by Rother Valley Brewery.  Me drinking it might come across as rather hypocritical, given my recent article about “house beers,” but it was getting a favourable reception from those who had tried it, and Rother Valley do brew some good beers.

My final beer of the evening was Brickfield Brown from Five Points Brewing. It is the brewery’s take on traditional brown ale and weighs in at 5.4%. It was on the sweet side, and somewhat stronger than a typical brown ale, but did grow on me after a while.

Before starting on that last beer, I treated myself to a bite to eat. The Nelson’s Ruby Murray chicken curry, which came in an enameled bowl, minus the rice, but with plenty of naan bread was both warming and satisfying, and the perfect way to end the day’s drinking and also soak up some of the beer.

By the time I left the pub, the temperature has dropped to something close on freezing, so the brisk walk home provided a chance to warm up a little. A few hardened drinkers remained, but I felt I’d had just the right amount, without feeling worse for wear the following morning.

So all in all, a good way to welcome back the return of pubs, and to catch up with old friends..

Sunday, 18 April 2021

New boots - new beginning?

I splashed out and treated myself on Wednesday to that long promised new pair of walking boots. I’d waited patiently before replacing the trusty pair of Trespass boots, I’d purchased from their shop in London’s Covent Garden, eleven years ago, but despite a valiant attempt to re-affix the Vibram rubber soles that had parted company with the leather uppers, (the repair lasted for just two days walking along the NDW), it was definitely time for a new pair.

The patience part came into play because I wanted to ensure that any new boots I acquired would fit snugly and correctly, which is why I booked an appointment at Cotswold Outdoor’s Tunbridge Wells store as soon as "non-essential retail" was allowed to reopen.

The morning of Wednesday 14th April was the day of appointment, which suited me fine as it fitted into my plans to attend a pre-booked, afternoon session in the garden of the Nelson Arms, in Tonbridge. This booking had been made by a friend, almost as soon as Johnson’s much vaunted “Roadmap out of Lockdown” plans were announced, and as word got around via the WhatsApp Beer Socials Group that many of us belong to, it became necessary to increase the booking to two tables.

There will be more about the boozy afternoon that followed, in a separate article, so continuing with this one, I decided to make full use of my recently acquired Concessionary Travel Pass and take the bus over to Tunbridge Wells for my 10.30am “Outdoor Footwear” appointment.

It’s true to say that I’d been waiting for this travel pass for some years, as originally, they were handed out when one reached 60 years of age. A few years before I reached this milestone, the government moved the goalpost and recipients must now reach state retirement age in order to qualify. 

I did have a slight concern that our penny-pinching government would abolish this well-earned “privilege” altogether, but fortunately they did not, and I now have pass that is valid until the end of March 2026. It entitles me to concessionary (free) travel on local bus services throughout England, between 9.30am and 11pm Monday to Friday, and at all times at weekends and on public holidays.

So, on Wednesday morning, I timed my walk down into Tonbridge, in order to arrive at the bus stop shortly after 9.30am.  I must have just missed the Tunbridge Wells bus, as I had a wait of around 20 minutes. A wise man would have checked the times online, prior to leaving the house, but frustrated at the wait, and eager to partake of my first free bus ride, I used my phone to check whilst standing at the bus stop.

Service bus 77 duly arrived, having battled its way through the road works that seem to be blighting many local roads at the moment. I boarded the bus, mask in place of course, and offered my pass card up to the card reader, close to the driver. Naturally, I made my way upstairs, in order to enjoy the ride and, more importantly, the view.

There was a reasonable number of passengers on the bus, but still plenty of room for people to spread out. The journey and the scenery were both enjoyable, although it was sad to see that the row of trees, along the ridge that looks towards North Farm, has been cut down. It might improve the view, but I’m not sure about the motive behind the removal of these trees; some of which were quite substantial. (They were affected by ash die-back disease, apparently).

I arrived in plenty of time for my appointment, the bus having dropped me off about five minutes’ walk away. Cotswold Outdoor in Mount Pleasant, is housed in the town's former Congregational Church, built out of local stone. For a while, the building was home to the local branch of Habitat – whatever happened to them? But for quite some time now it is the place to go for all things outdoors.

I had booked my appointment online, so after heading upstairs to the footwear section and announcing myself to one of the assistants, I was escorted to the fitting area at the rear of the store. Following considerable research I’d already decided that Meindl was the brand I was after, and that leather, rather than fabric, would be my material of choice.

The company’s Bhutan design was the one that I’d more or less decided on, but before trying a few pairs on, I had to have my feet measured. The last time anyone measured my feet was when I was a child, as buying a new pair of shoes wasn’t just a case of trying a few pairs on, it was the Full Monty as far as my parents were concerned. 

This meant my feet had to be measured, as apparently, I had rather wide feet. Mum and dad were also rather choosy when it came to brand of shoe, and for them, that make had to be Clarks. At a time when money was tight, they were both content to splash out on an upmarket brand of shoe, with a good reputation. As Mrs PBT’s would say – you get what you pay for!

The assistant duly measured my feet, and after removing the footbed from one of the boots was able to assess the most appropriate size. In the end I tried on a couple of sizes as Meindl, in common with other reputable boot manufacturers, offer half sizes within their range.

I walked around the store several times, and also had a ramp to climb and descend, in order to establish how the boots, feel on sloping surfaces. Once both parties were satisfied as to the fit and comfort, I decided I would purchase the boots – after all I had been waiting a long time for this moment.

I also knew that whilst I might have been able to purchase that particular brand and style slightly cheaper, elsewhere, I’d tried this pair on, they fitted and were comfortable. I am now the proud owner of a brand-new pair of Meindl Bhutan boots, and I am itching to try them out in the field – literally!

Pleased with my purchase, and double pleased that I’d taken the effort to be measured and have my boots properly fitted, I walked along to the bus stop and waited for the bus back to Tonbridge. There was an afternoon in the pub beer garden, and after all, that was something else to look forward to, .