Saturday, 19 June 2021

Golding Hop, Plaxtol - a lost rural treasure

In the recent post I wrote about the White Horse at Sundridge, I mentioned the journey that took me past the pub, back in the early 90’s.  This bumper to tail, traffic nightmare was the result of my being seconded to another company, within the same group as the one I worked for in Tonbridge, in order to complete an important project.

The nature of the project is immaterial to this narrative, but I’m happy to say it was successful. Whether it was worth me spending three months of my life in Hounslow, is open to debate, but it did enable me to save quite a bit of money in the process. This was because, to save on travelling, the company put me up in a hotel for four nights a week, and this was on an all-expenses paid basis (within reason).

This was to compensate for me being away from my wife and home comforts, but I made up for this by getting to know a few of the local pubs. Most Friday evenings, on the journey home to Maidstone, where I was living at the time, I took the opportunity to call in at whatever pub, along the way, took my fancy. This way I got to know quite a few of the pubs between Westerham and Maidstone, and various point south of the A25.

One pub I remember with particular fondness was the Golding Hop, just north of the village of Plaxtol. I briefly mentioned this classic old inn, towards the end of the White Horse article, and just thinking about the place, prompted me to write this piece.

The Golding Hop was a true time-warp pub, and I say “was” because sadly, the Hop closed its doors for the last time, back in 2016, following the retirement of long serving licensees, Eddie and Sonia. The couple had looked after and run the pub for just over twenty-five years, before finally calling it a day.

Located in an unbelievably idyllic rural setting to the north of Plaxtol, the Golding Hop offered gravity dispensed beers and ciders, simple and good value for money food, in surroundings that have not changed for many a year. The pub itself is built into the side of a hill, overlooking a narrow lane, and is over 300 years old. There was a large garden opposite, with facilities such as swings, climbing frame etc. to keep families occupied; an important point to note, as whilst dogs were allowed in the pub, children were not.

As well as beers served by gravity, from casks stillaged in a room behind the bar, the Golding Hop was famed for its cider. Alongside well-known brands, such as Weston’s the pub produced its own "rough cider", from a recipe that had been handed down over the years from one licensee to the next.

I can still picture my first visit to the pub 40 or so years ago, one evening on my drive home from Hounslow. It was dark, so I don’t know quite how I managed to navigate to the pub, on my own, without puling over to look at the map. What I do know is I approached the Golding Hop from the north, turning off the A25 at Ightham, and then continuing along the A227, towards Tonbridge.

As the road descends steeply from the Greensand Ridge, towards the village of Shipbourne, there was a sign, directing thirsty travellers to the Golding Hop. I drove long that road the other day and I am pretty certain the sign is still there. I do remember it being a wild and windy night; something that added to the appeal and the atmosphere of the pub that time.

By following my nose, I arrived at the Golding Hop, more by accident than design, and after pulling up in the large car park opposite, made my way inside. After spotting a vacant table, I made my way to the bar and ordered myself a beer. It was probably a pint of Young’s Ordinary, but four decades on, I cannot be certain.

There were a few locals sat either close to or actually at the bar. The took precious little notice of me, and I of them. The wood-burning stove was lit, and this provided a warm, welcoming, and cosy feel to the pub. I ought perhaps to have appreciated this feeling more, as most subsequent visits took place during the summer months. These would have been post 1985, which was the year I moved house, from Maidstone to Tonbridge.

I recall one such visit where a group of us sat outside on the small terrace in front of the pub, enjoying the late spring sunshine. We had taken the bus to nearby Plaxtol, and then walked the last mile or so to the Golding Hop. On the way we enjoyed some spectacular views across the Bourne Valley, to our right.  Another visit saw us walking from Ightham Common, where we’d spent a couple of hours at the equally unspoilt Old House. The latter remains a timeless classic and has enjoyed something of a renaissance under its new owner.

It was a comparison of the beer quality between the two pubs that really opened my eyes to what, for a long time, had been the Achilles Heel of the Golding Hop. Both pubs use gravity dispense, and both pubs keep their beers in a room out the back, but the Old House uses a cooling system, and the effect of this was clearly evident in the temperature of the beer and its subsequent high quality.

Unfortunately, the Golding Hop had no such facility for keeping the beer cool, and this often had a negative effect on beer quality, particularly in summer. I’d go as far to say that, over the years, variable quality beer was a downside of the Golding Hop, in my experience at least. The pub had been voted West Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year back in 2004, and there were many CAMRA members who wouldn't hear any criticism of the pub's beer.

On that particular visit, those with their heads in the sand had to agree that the Adnams Best, and also the Gale’s Seafarer's, really weren't up to scratch. Beer quality aside, a visit to the Golding Hop was always something to look forward to, and the charms of its rural idyll in summer, and the cosiness, of the pub’s interior in winter, with its low beamed ceilings and wood-burning stove were equally appealing.

A small, limited menu offering basic pub-grub of the chips and baked beans with everything variety, was another attraction and was always good value. The beers too were always competitively priced, but it was the setting and atmosphere of the pub itself, that were the main attractions.

Landlord Eddie was another attraction, and quite a character to boot. You had to take him as you found him, and whilst some regarded him as cantankerous, I never had a problem with him. Eddie was definitely part and parcel of what made the Golding Hop tick but running the pub day in and day out for 25 years, must have been hard work. It came as no surprise then, when Eddie and Sonia finally decided to call it a day and take that well-earned retirement.

A look back at this blog, over the years will turn up several posts where the Golding Hop was either the sole pub visited or, the main one, so it was particularly galling to learn of its closure. I’m not really certain what happened when the couple finally left the pub, but the rumour was they only leased the place, rather than actually owning it.

An online search reveals that the Golding Hop closed on 22nd September 2016, and its alcohol licence was surrendered. The new owners submitted plans to open a coffee shop in its place, and this appears to be what happened.

The premises are now listed as the Golding Hop Tea House, and photos on TripAdvisor show it as a rather twee-looking establishment, with soft-furnishings, distressed wooden chairs, and patterned tablecloths. A far cry from what it was five years ago. The same site indicates that it has now permanently closed. Perhaps that was the plan all along, but why turn a popular and successful rural pub, in such a charming and idyllic setting, into a chintzy tea shop, in the middle of nowhere?

If anyone does know the true story behind the pub’s conversion, or indeed any news regarding Eddie and Sonia, perhaps they could let me know.


retiredmartin said...

There's been some great unspoilt pubs in that stretch just north of you, hasn't there, Paul ?
Rising Sun at Kemsing and the Ightham pub spring to mind. I guess it's hard to maintain a viable pub with infrequent visits from a dwindling number of basic pub/beer enthusiasts unless you're an old school landlord living on site with low costs.

Paul Bailey said...

There certainly has been a rich seam of unspoiled pubs in that area, Martin. A decade or so ago, you could have added other classics, such as the Vigo Inn and the Fox & Hounds a Romney Street to the list but unfortunately, both are now private dwellings.

The Rising Sun at Kemsing, also sadly closed at the end of January, last year. A group of us managed a visit, shortly before closure, and just a couple of months before the start of the pandemic.

According to WhatPub, the Old House at Ightham Common, re-opened in April, but the news regarding the equally unspoiled Queens Arms, at Cowden Pound, aka Elsie's, is not so good.

retiredmartin said...

I think it was the Romney Street I was thinking of, Paul, time plays tricks !

Anonymous said...

A sad day indeed when The Golding Hop closed. I've been trying to remember the landlords name before Eddie & Sonia. Perhaps you can, was it really 30 years ago?
When Eddie took over I enquired where this fella had gone & was told that he had died, a bit of a shock at the time. However some months after I went for a pint in The Prince Albert
( another pub now gone with our cricket pitch & superb pavilion, all done to make way for Sainsburys) & there was this fella behind the bar. Apparently Eddie was telling anyone who enquired about him that he was "no more".
This nameless gent swore the pub was haunted & told a story of being in the cellar on his own & having a spile passed to him in the gloom by something or someone he wasn't quite sure what.
I never found Eddie to be cantankerous but I do remember he was not very keen on CAMRA people.
Sonia I remember was quite formidable & would quickly see off walkers who used their car park.
For a good pint it was a choice between The Padwell, Golding Hop, The Artichoke or the Rorty Crankle, it was a question of knowing where to get the best pint on the day. ( I still stick to that rule) All of these pub are now sadly gone.

Greengrass said...

Sorry Paul, I hit the anonymous in error.

Paul Bailey said...

You are right Greengrass, Eddie was never particularly keen on CAMRA people, and being an ex-member, I can perhaps understand why. Asking to inspect a publican's cellar, in order to check for blanket pressure, or "cask breathers," was the height of arrogance, and like a red rag to a bull to many pub landlords.

Unfortunately I don't recall the name of the previous landlord of the Golding Hop, or indeed what he looked like, but he was probably behind the bar during my first visit, back in the early 1980's.

It's sad that we have lost all of those pubs you mention. I'm not sure why the Rorty Crankle closed, but I do know that the Artichoke and the Padwell were de-licensed because they were worth more as private dwellings, than they were as public houses.

Sad too, that Tonbridge should have lost the Prince Albert - demolished to make way for Sainsbury's petrol station. I moved to Tonbridge slightly too late to have known the Angel Cricket Ground, or indeed the Angel pub, but all have been swept away in the name of "progress."

Ben said...

Have some lovely memories of the Golding Hop, having lived up the road in Wrotham between 2011 and 2016 and made the cycle down there on several occasions. My dad, who lived in Borough Green, cut his drinking teeth there back in the early days of CAMRA in the early 70s and he recalls the previous landlord being equally disinterested in pleasantries!

Your blog sums the place up very well, with the variable beer quality being its achilleas heel. But it was always a lovely place to stop and drink in the surroundings as much as the beer. Popped past there recently and it was sad to see it no longer a pub. A loss to the west Kent drinking scene.

Paul Bailey said...

Hi Ben, thank-you for comments and reminiscences about the Golding Hop. It really was a magical place, despite the sometimes, variable beer quality.

I find it hard to believe that no-one wanted to take it on as a pub, given its popularity and picturesque location. It's no exaggeration to say that people would drive miles to visit the Golding Hop, so what were the new owners thinking when they turned it into a chintzy tearoom?

As my friend Greengrass points out above, there were several other pubs in the area, which were similar to the Golding Hop in both character and appeal. All alas, now closed, and just pleasant memories to those of us fortunate to have known them.

Greengrass said...

Ben, if you are in that area looking for a good pint, The Rifleman serves up an excellent pint of Harvey's (& something else best left alone).

Paul Bailey said...

I was forgetting the Kentish Rifleman, Greengrass. It's probably the last survivor amongst that group of "proper" country pubs, overlooking the Bourne Valley.

What about the Blue Anchor, at St Mary's Platt, on the other side of the valley? I've never been in, and it's Greene King too, but from the photos and the write-ups, it looks like a proper village local.

Paul Bailey said...

I also forgot the Plough, at Basted - on the same side of the River Bourne as the Blue Anchor. I thought it had long closed, so after an online search, I was delighted to find it is still trading.

I last visited the pub in 2012, following a visit to the Golding Hop, and wrote about it here.