Sunday, 1 August 2021

Strange times, that could become even stranger

It’s the end of what has been a rather strange week, and  the end of a strange month as well, but when I say “strange,” I don’t mean that in a bad sort of way. Late yesterday afternoon, I received confirmation that my late father’s estate has finally been settled. All that remains now is for the solicitor to deduct his expenses, reimburse me for the costs that I have incurred along the way, and then distribute the financial assets equally, between me and my two sisters.

It’s been a long and drawn-out process, taking the best part of the past seven months. I realise that many estates take far longer to settle, but the time taken to wind-up of dad’s estate is long enough for me. It’s involved numerous emails, letter writing, phone calls and form filling, all of which have eaten into my spare time; time that I’d rather have spent out and about, sampling new beers and visiting pubs, old and new, but hey-ho!

Another piece of the jigsaw that represents the next chapter of my life, has also fallen into place, following confirmation of my new, part-time role within the company, my duties, responsibilities and, most important of all, my renumeration. The switch to part-time working won’t take place until the end of September, but in the meantime, I can gradually pass over many of my current responsibilities to my successor, and to our new Quality & Regulatory Affairs Manager.

Mrs PBT’s will also be winding down around the same time. She qualifies for her bus-pass and state pension in September, and whilst we’ll be able to wind down together, Eileen will continue the book-keeping and VAT Return work she does from home, for an array of different tradespeople.

So, with all these positive things going on in my life, why do I still feel a little apprehensive over what lies ahead, particularly in the immediate future? The short answer is, I don’t really know, but the longer answer concerns what many of us feel regarding what happens next with the pandemic? More importantly how will this continue to impact on our lives in the months to come?

I will leave these very real concerns for another time, but one thing witnessed today is something that is tangible, is happening now and is also largely self-inflicted. Mrs PBT’s and I did a physical shop today, as opposed to the “click & collect” order I picked up last week. Walking around the aisles of the large Sainsbury’s superstore, just to the north of Sevenoaks, we couldn’t fail to notice the large gaps on many of the shelves. Worse than that, there were some sections where the gaps were far more pronounced, bordering on an almost complete lack of certain commodities.

We’d been noticing shortages on the shelves for some time, but this morning’s shopping trip was a real eye-opener. I took a few photos to illustrate the extent of the missing stock. Particularly badly affected was the cleaning aisle, the tea and coffee section, cereals, the freezer section – where the majority of the cabinets were empty, plus, closer to the heart of this blog, the beer section.

The shortages in this area weren’t just confined to big, multinational lager brands “lout” for want of a better word, but there were substantial gaps in the ale section as well. Staff had used the old storekeeper’s trick of “facing up,” where stock is spread out thinly, in rows that are just one or two items deep.

At first glance, things don’t appear quite so bad, but look behind the façade and the true situation emerges, and that is the nation is facing a food shortage. I would say that the shortages have crept up beyond nuisance level and are currently hovering on irritating. How much longer will it be before they become substantial, severe, or even critical? 

The full-scale panic buying which characterised the first national lock-down, was largely centered on a small number of commodities, such as pasta, flour, tin tomatoes and, of course, toilet rolls. The latter is a perennial "panic buy" and is  somewhat ironic, given that Covid largely affects the respiratory, rather than the digestive system, but a sudden fall of snow often has the same effect.

This time around the shortages seem far more widespread, affecting a far greater range of commodities. Seeing the shelves in this condition, reminds me of my first visit to Prague, back in 1984. Czechoslovakia, as it then was, was ruled by a hard-line Marxist government whose inefficient, communist, “command economy” clearly wasn’t working.

With supermarket shelves, devoid of even the most basic commodities, it wasn’t delivering either, and the same applied to most of the other Eastern-bloc countries “liberated" by the Soviet Red Army towards the end of WWII, and then saddled, at Moscow’s behest, with communist administrations. The second half of the 1980’s, saw the collapse of the majority of these despotic regimes, their demise driven in part by people who’d had enough of food and commodity shortages and of authoritarian rule, but is there a parallel here with what is happening in Britain today?

According to the government and their supporters in the MSM, the problems affecting the UK’s supply chains, aren’t just confined to the food sector, but are spread across a wide variety of other sectors, including construction and manufacturing, are down to a nationwide shortage of HGV delivery drivers.

Johnson and his media backers are blaming this shortage on the pandemic, and in particular the so-called “pingdemic.”  This is where drivers and other “key” workers are being forced to self-isolate after being contacted (pinged), by the NHS Trace & Track App, and whilst this story might have rather more than a grain of truth in it, there is another underlying reason that the government and their friends in the right-wing press would rather not mention.

They think if they don’t say anything about it, the problem will go away, but the folly of their chosen “Hard Brexit” policy, is one of the prime reasons for the shortage of HGV drivers.  Last year, that vile little “poison dwarf” who calls herself Home Secretary, bragged about ending “free movement,” and went out of her way to make citizens from other European countries feel unwelcome in the UK, even though they might have lived here for decades.

Net result, an estimated 25,000 EU truckers have returned to their countries of origin, because of the xenophobia and outright hostility created by ministers such as Patel (nothing pretty about her smirking face), and right-wing, Brexit-backing papers, such as the Mail, Telegraph and Express.

The ludicrous decision to leave the Single Market (a British creation, btw) and the Customs Union, is another own-goal, by Johnson and his thuggish “chief negotiator” David Frost – a man my father would have described as “oafish,” and that's being polite! This was never part of the referendum question, and by doing so, the government have subjected the British people, and the businesses that serve and provide for them,  to extensive and additional Red Tape. This is rather ironic, given their pre-referendum boast of having a bonfire of “EU Red Tape.”

This brings me back to the shortages on our supermarket shelves, a situation that is unlikely to improve under a regime that is led by warped ideology, rather than plain economic facts. With food shortages a major factor in the collapse of those despotic, former Eastern Bloc regimes, Frost, Johnson, and his cabinet of sycophantic cronies had better watch out. "A city is only three meals away from anarchy, and nine meals away from revolution" – a quote sometimes apportioned to Lenin, although several others have also laid claim to it.

Disruption and civil strife are not situations any of us would wish to experience, or even contemplate but when, for purely ideological reasons, a government tears up trading arrangements that not only worked, but served the country well for decades, it really is asking for trouble. 

Personal statement. I make no apologies for veering into politics here, especially as I doubt whether even the most ardent Brexit supporters voted to make themselves, and the rest of us, poorer. The actions of both the May and Johnson administrations, have blown away Britain's reputation for level-headiness and fair play and have made this country one to be laughed at, or even pitied.  

The clumsy actions of "Lord" Frost, a man who wants to tear up the agreement he negotiated and signed in good-faith, now threaten to turn the United Kingdom into a "pariah state,"  willing to break international law, shows how low we have stooped over the past five years.

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Star shines out brightly

Over the course of almost five decades of pub going, it’s sometimes hard to remember whether or not you have been in a particular pub. Furthermore, if a previous visit occurred several decades ago, then it’s nigh on impossible to remember, especially if the pub in question wasn’t that memorable in the first place.

Whilst that final point does not apply to the Star at Matfield, was still racking my brains to try and recall
whether or not I’d set foot in the place. I must have driven past the pub dozens of times, these passed 30 years, and walked by quite a few times as well, but until Saturday’s visit settled the matter, I could not say for certain, one way or the other.

Matfield is a small and rather attractive village, approximately five miles southeast of Tunbridge Wells, and two miles south of Paddock Wood. The village grew up around its extensive green, which I’ve just learned is the largest in Kent. Today it still acts as the centre and focal point of this picturesque Wealden village.

There is a large pond, at the northern end of the green, and is overlooked by the grade I listed, Matfield House. 

The latter is an attractive Queen Anne style house, built in 1728 for a local yeoman farmer. The adjoining stable block is also grade II listed and is topped by an impressive looking clock turret.

The Star is situated on the northern edge of the green and is now the only pub that looks over it.  Until a few years ago, the Wheelwrights Arms performed the same role, from the opposite end, but in 2017, called “Last Orders” for the final time, and the property is now a private house. Local villagers launched a campaign to keep it open, but this was ultimately unsuccessful.

It is also worth mentioning Matfield’s
other pub – The Poet, which lies a bit further down the road towards Paddock Wood, opposite the turning to Brenchley. The Poet is perhaps more of a restaurant, than a pub, but it was once a traditional village local, known as Standing’s Cross.

As Matthew and I drove through the village, following our visit to the Star, we noticed somewhat ironically, that the Poet’s former name has been adopted by a new housing development. I suppose "Standing’s Cross" makes a change from the rustically inspired, but totally predictable titles, such as lark rise, orchard close etc., that developers normally come up with.

Now for the pub itself. The Star is a solid-looking, brick-built pub, creeper-hung, particularly at one corner, and with a portico entrance. When we arrived, there were a few sitting outside at tables, lined up in front of the building. There is a patio area to left, and a children’s play area to right, just in front of the car park.

A notice next to the entrance, advised that ordering at the bar was possible, providing masks were worn. Alternatively, patrons could sit outside, for table service, if they preferred to remain unmasked. Given the current high infection rates for Covid-19 this, in my view, was a sensible policy. In addition, there was to be no standing at bar, but the Star didn’t really seem the type of pub that encouraged barflies, anyway.

Matthew and I donned our masks, primarily to have a look inside, but also to see what beers were on. Upon entering, I realised that I had been in Star before, although probably only once, and quite a few years ago. I noted there are seating areas either side of bar, plus a dining room-restaurant, leading off to rear.

I was too busy chatting to the barmaid and paying for our drinks – Harvey’s Sussex Best for me, plus a pint of Amstel for Matthew, to take a photo of the bar itself, but a beer from Tonbridge Brewery, was the other cask offering. There were no customers inside though, as all were outdoors, taking advantage of improvement in weather.

We went back out and joined them, sitting at one of the tables in front of the pub. My pint of Harvey’s was well-conditioned, cool, and refreshing. I expect Matthew thought the same about his pint of Amstel! There were a few comings and goings, and the food we witnessed being brought out, looked very appetizing. The staff too were pleasant and attentive, making us feel really glad that we called in.

So why did we call in? and why
choose the Star? The answer is we had made a further trip to the Waste Transfer Station (WTS) and fancied a pint on the way home. I was going to suggest the Dovecote, at Capel, but according to WhatPub, it closes between 3pm and 6pm, even on Saturdays, so a bit of quick thinking led to the choice of the Star.

After our visit, we took a wander over to the village green, where a game of cricket was in full swing. There were also groups of children and their parents, attempting to catch tiddlers, from the pond with fishing nets. Along with the attractive houses, fronting onto the green, these scenes formed the perfect picture of an English summer’s day; a day made all the more perfect by a well-kept pint of traditional cask beer at an equally traditional village pub.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Seeking out the positives

Last Thursday’s part aborted walk wasn’t quite the disaster it could have been, as looking back there were plenty of pluses to counter the minus caused by a dodgy knee. Incidentally, I still haven’t got to the bottom of that, and whilst the longest walk I’ve done since then, is a 500-yard amble to post a letter, I’ve been on my feet for much of the past four days, doing all sorts of jobs in the garden.

The most annoying part of Thursday’s escapade is the need to go back at some stage and knock off the remaining two and a half miles. I haven’t yet worked out how to get to Knockholt Pound, using public transport, although there’s probably a bus, but in the meantime here’s an insight into the walk itself, along with the odd statistic which might just surprise you.

Using my Smartwatch, I clocked the walk at just over eight miles, but that’s just the time spent on the trail. It’s a mile from my house to the station, followed by me having to change stations at Edenbridge, and with a further mile between Edenbridge top station on the Tonbridge-Redhill line, and Edenbridge Town, on the Uckfield line, that’s two miles walked before I’d even set foot on the North Downs Way.

So, when I stepped onto the platform at Edenbridge Town, my Smart Watch was indicating that I’d already notched up over 6,000 steps. That was since getting out of bed that morning, but it’s still around the three-mile mark. On top of this it was another mile from Oxted station to the point at which I’d be joining the NDW – except it wasn’t.

Instead, I’d thought ahead and pre-booked a taxi to pick me up from the station, and drive me to the aforementioned spot, at the top of Chalkpit Lane. The way I looked at it, was this was an extra mile in my tank, for walking the trail, and however attractive the walk up through Oxted might have been (nothing out of the ordinary, as it happened), I wanted to save my legs, and my reserves of energy, for the main event, so to speak.

A few words about the train ride from Edenbridge Town to Oxted which, coincidentally was my first rail journey north, from the former, along what is known as the Uckfield line. The line is so named because it terminates at Uckfield, but it was once an important through route which ran from London to Brighton, via Lewes.

The reason the line now ends at Uckfield, is that the route it followed into Lewes stood in the way of a planned relief road for the county town, and rather than fight this decision, British Rail rather meekly gave in to East Sussex County Council and closed the line, to enable the road scheme to go ahead.

This closure took place in 1969 and, contrary to popular belief, was not the result of Dr Beeching’s infamous axe, but rather a short-sighted decision taken by two public bodies, who should have known better. For many years, the Uckfield line was a something of a “Cinderella route," starved of investment, and operated by antiquated rolling stock – the notorious diesel “thumpers.”

Two sections of the line south of Hever, were reduced to single track, as a means of cutting costs, but this exercise didn’t end well, as on 15th October 1994, two trains collided head-on, in heavy fog, just south of Cowden station, resulting in the deaths of both drivers, one of the guards and two passengers.

Since that tragic accident, enhance warning systems and other safety features have been installed, and there has also been investment in new rolling stock. The platforms at most stations along the line have extended to accommodate 10 car trains, and it was one of these sleek and modern, Turbostar diesel trains that I boarded that morning, at Edenbridge Town station. The train was quite full and was almost certainly the busiest service I have travelled on since before the pandemic.

I don’t intend to provide a blow-by-blow account of my walk, but it is worth noting it was the perfect English summer’s day, with hardly a cloud in the sky. I had to foresight to bring a hat with me, along with plenty of Factor 20 sunscreen, as I set off on my walk with hardly a care in the world. As I climbed gradually upward, I had a uninterrupted view of the nose to tail traffic, crawling along towards Gatwick, on the M25, far below me, as I continued in the opposite direction, as master of my own destiny.

It was a long and stiff climb after that, up along Pitchfork Lane, but fortunately most of this stony track was through woodland which shaded me from the heat and the glare of the sun. The summit here, at Botley Hill, is the highest point on the whole of the NDW, reaching a height of 853 feet (260 metres).

Slightly further on, I halted for a brief rest, plus a bite to eat, at a viewing point, just below Clarks Lane Farm. The view southward was far reaching and quite spectacular, with the hills of the Greensand Ridge in the mid-foreground and the darker-looking summit of Ashdown Forest, on the horizon. With the sun shining, the scene spread out before me was a perfect patchwork of fields and patches of woodland.

A short way on, the long shallow descent off from the ridge began, as I followed the shady, tree-lined road, known as Chestnut Avenue. With an exclusive looking golf course on the left-hand side, and some very exclusive and expensive looking properties on the right, this area of leafy Surrey had a real 1930’s feel to it. 

One house in particular, really caught my eye.  On the white painted end wall, are silhouettes of Ratty and Mole from the "Wind in the Willows." The house is appropriately known as “Mole End.”  I wish I’d taken a photo of it at the time, but fortunately I found the photo opposite, taken by Sean Davis, and available for public sharing, under a Creative Commons Licence.  

 As I wrote in the previous piece, the busy A233 road, at the end of the track, not only marked the approximate halfway point, but would also have been a suitable place to cut the walk short.

This brings me to the end of the walk, and salvation in the form of a welcoming pint of Harvey’s and the prospect of a taxi ride to the nearest station.  Despite following the map as assiduously as I could, I became disoriented in the large area of woodland to the rear of Chevening House. I eventually emerged on the road running between the settlements of Knockholt and Knockholt Pound; the latter being the home of the Three Horseshoes pub.

I was gagging for a drink, and also in dire need of a place to sit down, so I headed straight round to the spacious and well-laid out garden at the rear of the pub. Before finding a table, I poked my head through the rear entrance and enquired about checking in. I was told I could sit at any table and a member of staff would come and take my contact details, along with my drink order. I also asked about booking a taxi, but that’s covered in the previous article.

With a choice on the cask front between Fuller’s London Pride and Harvey’s Sussex Best, I opted for the latter and mighty fine it was too. I suppose the trials and tribulations of the last four miles, made the beer taste even better, but I acknowledge the fact it was a mighty fine pint.There weren’t many people in the garden, nor indeed in the pub, but from what I observed on arrival, and also from a comment made by the landlord, a funeral wake had been taking place there, earlier that afternoon.

I will need, at some stage, to make a return visit to the Three Horseshoes, as there are still the final two and a half miles of that particular section of the NDW, to complete. I’m not yet certain when this will be, as the knee problem I experienced a week ago has reoccurred from time to time. 

The more athletic of my work colleagues have suggested the issue could be tendonitis, and the best course of action, apart from resting my knee, would be to strap it up with an appropriate support brace. Choosing the correct type, will take a little research, both online and off, but if it allows me to pick up the trail, sooner rather than later, it will be well worth it.


Sunday, 18 July 2021

When things don't quite go to plan

It’s often said that the best laid plans go astray, and I found this out for myself on Thursday, when I was forced to abort a walk, I was undertaking, along another section of the North Downs Way. The strange thing is that looking back, I can’t really offer an explanation as to what happened.

To elaborate further, and set the scene, I taken three days annual leave this week, Wednesday-Friday which, with the weekend, makes for a nice long, and well-deserved break. My original intention had been to knock off two further sections of the NDW, involving an overnight stop on the way. There was a nagging doubt though, which led me to water down my original plan and, after what happened, I’m extremely glad that I did.

It might seem rather trivial, but for the last few months, I’ve been suffering with an ingrowing toenail. It’s affected the large toenail on my right foot, and if I catch it wrong it’s bad enough for me to wince with pain. It has been getting better, albeit slowly, so whilst I was tempted to push ahead with my two-day hike, discretion proved the better part of valour.

My scaled down plan was to walk from Oxted in Surrey, to Dunton Green – just to the north of Sevenoaks.  Dunton Green is virtually a suburb of the latter but like Oxted, it does have its own railway station; an important considerate when planning any long-distance walk of a linear nature. I could therefore take a train from Tonbridge to Oxted (even though it involved a change of stations), walk an 11-mile section of the NDW, and catch the train home from Dunton Green.

That at least was the theory, and things were going fine until roughly three miles into the walk, my left knee started to ache. I’d been more concerned about my ingrowing toenail on to pay much attention to what was occurring on the other limb, but what started as a stiff knee, soon got steadily worse.

I pressed on, buoyed up by the fact that after a session of walking through fields and then woodland, I was now on a lengthy metaled track that was not only easy going on the feet, but was heading slightly downhill. The stiffness persisted though, and I was now feeling a dull and rather unpleasant ache in my knee of a similar nature to what arthritis suffers have to put up with.

At the end of this shady, tree-lined road, with some very exclusive and expensive looking properties, known as Chestnut Avenue, I was faced with a choice – should I carry on, or should I abort the walk? I didn’t want to do the latter but there would have been an “escape route” so to speak, as having just crossed the busy A233 Bromley-Westerham road, I knew I could get a bus to either of these towns, using my “old-gits” bus pass. In fact, I’d just seen the Bromley bus tearing up the hill.

That would have been the sensible thing to do, but I was only four miles into a ten-and-a-half-mile walk, so it seemed crazy to abandon it at less than halfway. Foolishly, I decided to press on kidding myself that the discomfort and pain would go away. Unfortunately, they didn’t, and by the time I had climbed back onto the crest of the ridge, my knee was really hurting.

What made things worse was it hurt to lift my foot and lateral movement was also rather painful. It wasn’t too bad just dragging my left foot, until I reached a field where the grass had been left to grow and obscure the path in places. Dragging didn’t work then, as my boot kept getting snagged in the long grass, causing a sharp pain just below, and to the side of my knee joint.

It was then that I was overtaken by a fellow walker who, noticing my discomfort stopped to enquire if I was alright. I explained what the problem was and asked if he had any paracetamol or perhaps even some Neurofen in his bag? Unlike me he was carrying a First Aid kit, and whilst there was no anti-inflammatory medication therein, he did have a pack of paracetamol. I accepted these gratefully, even though they were a year out of date, and whilst it might have just been psychological, the discomfort to my knee did feel some easier after 15 minutes or so.

This "Good Samaritan" was a seasoned hiker. He was probably at least 10 years younger than me and considerably fitter. He was heading for Otford, with the aim of getting 30 km under his belt, but despite this, he offered to stay and accompany me to the nearest point where I could be “rescued” either by taxi, or by son Matthew.

I thanked him for his concern and kind offer of assistance but said I would be OK and that he should continue with his 30 km walk. My plan now would be to head for the nearest pub, grab a pint and phone for a taxi to take me to the nearest station, which would be Knockholt. The only trouble was the Tally Ho – the nearest pub, closed in 2019, prior to the pandemic, which meant a further couple of miles walking, to the large village of Knockholt Pound, where there are two pubs, quite close to each other.

In the meantime, I phoned home, just to let Mrs PBT’s know I would be late, and not to worry about my dinner. Answer, she wouldn’t worry, unlike Matthew who phoned me back with a message of concern mixed with slight anger. The latter seemed to be centered around what was a person of “my age” (I’m in my mid-60’s, for heaven’s sake, and not my 90’s), indulging in a dangerous activity, such as walking in the English countryside?

His concern didn’t extend to coming to pick me up; not that I expected him too, but he couldn’t understand why I needed to get to a pub. I tried to explain that it would be far easier for a taxi to pick me up there, than to come looking for me along an unclassified road. Not wishing to belittle your average minicab driver, but I suspect OS grid references are not their strong-point, and not easy to follow anyway, even with the aid of a satnav.

Furthermore, wasn’t he forgetting the time him, and I missed the last bus back from Roppelts Keller, in the heart of the Franconian countryside, and our attempt to walk to the nearest village, find a pub and then call a taxi? The fact we could probably have phoned for a cab from the Keller itself, is down to a combination of too much Kellerbier, and 30 degrees of heat. 

We ended up thumbing a lift that day, and whilst this thought did cross my mind, who would be likely to stop to pick up a complete stranger, in the middle of a plague pandemic?

Knockholt Pound it was then, and with a steady, but increasingly grim determination, onwards I trudged. It didn’t help me getting lost in woodland to the north of Chevening Park, where I encountered the only mud of the entire day, but I emerged on the road running between the settlements of Knockholt and Knockholt Pound. The latter is larger than the former and, as mentioned earlier, is home to two pubs. The nearest of these is the Three Horseshoes, and was the one I chose, but slightly further on is the Harrow – a Shepherd Neame tied house.

Fortuitously, for someone who isn’t a huge Shep’s fan, the Three Horseshoes is a free house and had London Pride and Harvey’s Sussex Best on tap. I opted for a pint of the latter and sat out in the extensive and well-laid out garden at the rear of the pub to enjoy my well-deserved pint. As a bonus the beer was on top form!

I’d already asked the girl who served me if she could recommend a local taxi firm, and she said the pub would call one for me. I suggested leaving it 30 minutes, in order for me to enjoy my beer, so was slightly taken aback when the landlady appeared and informed me that her husband would run me to the station.

A nice gesture thought I until he appeared and led me to a waiting mini-bus-cum-taxi. It then dawned on me that this was perhaps a sideline of the landlord, and the vehicle was used to transport guests to their desired destination(s), after a night out at the pub.

I clambered in, and off we went, with me keeping an eye on the meter which was ticking up the cost of the ride at a rate that seemed far in excess of what one would normally expect. I wondered whether he’s left it switched on the after midnight, double fare rate, as we pulled into Knockholt station with the fee showing nearly twice what I considered a fair rate.

Never mind, I was at a point where I could catch a train home, so after shoving my card into the conveniently sited, card-reader affixed to the interior and topping up the driver's pension, I thanked mine host and hobbled across to the ticket machine and then the stairs leading to the down platform. After changing trains at Sevenoaks, I arrived back in Tonbridge shortly before 7pm. Matthew collected me from the station, and Eileen had a freshly cooked pizza waiting for me, so all’s well that ends well.

I still don’t know what the problem with my knee was, as after my dinner and a refreshing shower, I swallowed a couple of Mrs PBT’s anti-inflammatory capsules, and the discomfort disappeared. I enjoyed a good night’s sleep and my knee felt OK the following morning. I took things a bit easy, but still spent most of the day pottering around outside.

I even got around to assembling the “oil-drum” style barbecue that I bought from Homebase, during the last hot spell, which had subsequently sat in its box, since then. All the sections, fittings and components were present, and for a once the instructions were easy to follow. We’re going to "fire it up" tomorrow, as the Australians would say.

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Lewes, on a wet Saturday afternoon

Last Saturday was something of a washout, so much so that the family barbecue we’d been invited to, by Mrs PBT’s’ niece, at her new home in Uckfield, had to be cancelled. Rather annoyingly, both Friday and Sunday were fine, it’s just that a rather slow-moving weather front put the kibosh on things.

Determined to do something, other than stay at home watching the rain, I suggested a drive down to Lewes.  I knew from the time I worked in the town that there is a large Tesco down by the river, and I also knew that it is only a short walk along the towpath, from Tesco’s car park to Harvey’s Brewery.

As well as wanting to stock up on some of Harvey’s rarer bottled beers - brews such as Tom Paine, Bonfire Boy, Star of Eastbourne and Prince of Denmark, I had a number of empty beer bottles to return. Harvey’s are one of the few breweries to use returnable bottles, and over the past 18 months I’d accumulated quite a few of them. A shopping expedition to Lewes would provide a good excuse to return these, whilst picking up a few new ones at the same time.

We set off shortly before midday, choosing the direct route along the A26, via Tunbridge Wells and Crowborough. This is a road I know well, having worked in Lewes for three and a half years, between 1992 and 1995. I was 30 years younger back then, so took the daily 50-mile round trip, in my stride, but these days it’s not a commute I would like to repeat on a regular basis.

It rained incessantly all the way, the rain perhaps helping to keep traffic levels down, but it did mean that moment, when the imposing bulk of the South Downs suddenly comes into view, didn’t happen. Rain, low cloud, call it what you will, meant we were driving into Lewes before the famous chalk hills could be seen, and then only because they rather dominate the town.

Some annoying, and quite major roadworks held up our entry into Lewes, so I made a mental note to select a different route for the drive home. We parked the car at Tesco’s and leaving Mrs PBT’s to do the grocery shopping (she much prefers shopping on her own, and that’s not something I'm going to argue with), Matthew and I descended the steps to the riverside towpath, and followed it towards Harvey’s magnificent looking, brewery.

Following the disastrous flooding of 2000, the company have constructed a large, but attractive, red-brick wall, right around the perimeter of the brewery – an expensive undertaking but worth every penny if it protects against future flooding. Our walk therefore took us round the back of the brewery, before emerging into the bustle of Cliffe High Street. From there, it is just a couple of hundred yard to the brewery shop.

What I’ve always liked about Lewes, and bear in mind I spent three and a half years working in the town, is the large number of independent shops. These range from book and record shops to hardware and clothing outlets, along with the obligatory antique/tat shops. There are also a few “alternative” and quite quirky shops, that don’t fit into the above categories. Pride of place, in my view though, is the Harvey’s Brewery Shop, fronting on to Cliffe High Street, at the corner of the pedestrian and small vehicle entrance to the brewery yard.

I was a regular visitor to the shop, during the time I worked in the town, walking from my employer’s factory, on the Cliffe Industrial Estate, along the River Ouse, and then following the old road (now bypassed by the Cuilfail Tunnel), making a couple of visits each week. My purpose was to fill up my Karry-Keg beer jug, primarily with Sussex Best, but also with whichever seasonal beer Harvey’s had available at the time. I enjoyed those walks, and the peace and quiet of the old road with its rows of cottages, leading to the top of Cliffe High Street. It was also good to get away from the workplace, and “escape” back into the real world, from time to time.

In keeping with the illustrious brewery buildings behind, the shop is an attraction in itself and is well-stocked and well laid out, with all sorts of Harvey’s related goodies. As well as the aforementioned cask ale and bottles to take away, the shop stocks a wide range of wines and spirits plus, for those who like to act as purveyors of some free advertising for the brewery, all sorts of Harvey’s sartorial merchandise.

Matthew and I were there for the beer and ended up filling our shopping basket with quite a range of “hard to obtain” seasonal brews, to take home with us.  We handed over the dozen or so empties, that I’d accumulated, and received a refund of 10p, covering the deposit due on each bottle.

We didn’t dally to take photos of the shop interior, as was there was a Covid restriction on numbers allowed into the shop at any one time. Pleased with our purchases, we retraced our footsteps back along the River Ouse, to Tesco, where Mrs PBT’s had more or less finished the shopping, picking up a sandwich each to eat in the car, for our lunch. Another bonus was the rain had finally stopped, making the drive home a lot more pleasant.

As hinted at earlier, I took a different route out of Lewes, that involved crossing the river and then heading up the rather steep, School Hill into the heart of the town, passing the Law Courts and the famous White Hart Inn, which face each other across the High Street. After passing the Black Horse Inn, now nicely restored and much improved from the time when friend Eric and I stayed there, whilst walking the South Downs Way, we headed out of town on the East Grinstead road.

We were quite high up, but I was told to keep my eyes on the road, rather than the view, as we began to descend from the Downs, and back into the Ouse valley. We passed through the villages of South and North Chailey, both of which are picturesque, and well laid out settlements. The Five Bells pub, overlooking the green, looked particularly inviting, and even more tempting!

The route home meant turning onto the A272, which took us through the much larger village of Newick. Again, there were a number of attractive looking properties and several pubs, all of which suggest that this corner of East Sussex warrants further exploration for dedicated pub-goers. Once I cut down on my hours at work, I will be taking a close look at some of the local bus routes, and planning out a few cross-border forays, taking full advantage of my bus pass.

It pains me to say, especially as someone who has live most of his life in Kent, that Sussex does have the edge on its northern neighbour, with some very pretty looking villages, surrounded by equally attractive countryside, but Kent’s proximity to London and the Thames Estuary, doesn’t help the northern part of the county.

As stated earlier, Lewes is also a town that is well worth a visit, and with the No. 29 bus running between Tunbridge Wells and Brighton, is another place easily accessible, using my "old-git’s" bus pass!

Saturday, 10 July 2021

A quiet Monday at the Nelson

When I mentioned in passing, to a couple of my work colleagues that I was meeting up with a friend for a few drinks, last Monday evening, the comment was, “Not on a school night, surely?” My answer was, "Why, not?” and why not indeed, as leaving aside the fact that Monday represents the first day back at work, for most working people, it is a day that is little different to most others. 

Granted, it’s not a day for really letting one’s hair down, but I can think of few days better for a few quiet drinks, a natter, and the chance to catch up with an old friend who, because of the pandemic, I hadn’t seen since the start of the new year.

One of my stipulations when arranging this meet up, was a football-free venue, or a night when no Euro 2020 matches would be taking place. So it was my friend who came up with the suggestion of the Nelson Arms, on a Monday. This excellent back-street, community pub has been showing the championship matches, but with none scheduled for that evening, it was the ideal choice and certainly got the thumbs up from me.

I would normally have walked down to the pub, but after it had started raining heavily, the offer of a lift down there, from son Matthew, was too good to turn down. I therefore arrived slightly ahead of my friend, and after giving my contact details (the pointless in an empty pub, as you will find out in a minute), I was sat down at a table, perusing the menu, in full view of the bar.

My friend arrived a couple of minutes after me. He is much more a regular at the Nelson than I am, so was on first name terms with the barmaid. She mentioned that the pub would probably be closing early – around 9.30pm was her guess. We both said that wouldn’t be a problem, particularly for me with work the following morning. My friend is retired, but he did say there he’d had quite a few pub sessions recently and would therefore welcome a relatively early night.

With the formalities out of the way, it was a question of what about the beer? Monday is a sort of “changeover day” at the Nelson, a day when the landlord will run down those beers that are coming to an end, before placing any new ones on sale. This eminently sensible practice not only cuts down on waste, but also ensures beers aren’t left hanging around in the cellar, for too long, so whilst the choice might not have been as extensive as it would have been at the weekend, there were still several excellent beers from us to choose from.

It’s a shame that more landlords don’t follow suit, because when trade is expected to be quiet, like at the beginning of the week, there is little point in having a vast array of beers on offer, especially when there is likely to be just a small number of customers in the pub.  It goes without saying that the clock starts ticking, with regard to shelf life, as soon as a fresh cask is broached, and if you know it is unlikely to sell within a three to four-day period, (due to there already being too many other beers to choose from), there is little point in putting yet another one on sale.

Fortunately, the number of beers on sale, last Monday, was probably just right, and the one I opted for was Cowcatcher, a 4.8% citrusy American Pale Ale from East London Brewing Company. This was followed by Spectra, another pale ale, this time from  Hull-based, Atom Brewery. I ended the evening with a half of Fire Saga, a strong, British-style brown ale from Wild Weather Brewery

During the course of the 90 minutes or so that we were in the pub, no other customers came in. We noticed that the barmaid had finished the re-stocking, facing up and all the other tasks she was engaged with, so we drank up, settled our bills, thanked her for her patience and left the pub. It was still raining, but only slightly – light enough for us to walk home without getting soaked.

We hadn’t gone far though, before the heavens opened, so I decided to take Matthew up on his earlier offer of a lift home. We cut through the back of the railway station, and then I called him from the shelter of the station entrance.  He arrived, like a knight in shining armour, picked us both up, and after dropping my friend off, we arrived home shortly before 10pm.

It was good to see my friend and to have caught up with what had been going on in our respective lives. He has been retired for as long as I have known him, so obviously has a lot more spare time than I do. Time to go out for long country walks, to visit pubs and to spend time away from home – although the pandemic has put paid to that over the past 14 months.

With my planned scale back in work commitments, due to take place in two and a half months’ time, I also will have more time on my hands, and look forward to enjoying similar activities to those currently experienced by my friend.

As for the Nelson, well it was a particularly quiet night, although I am certain it would have been buzzing for last Wednesday’s semi-final match between Denmark and England.  

Finally, two and a half pints was plenty enough for me, especially on a “school night,” and goes to show how the changes in my own drinking habits, brought on by the pandemic and enforced lock-downs, has inadvertently changed the way in which my body responds to alcohol.