Thursday 30 September 2021

Autumn almanac

Autumn has certainly arrived with a vengeance, with outside temperatures falling by at least 10 degrees since the weekend. Heavy rain has accompanied the drop in temperature, so from my point of view it’s a good job I finished the re-felting of my summerhouse roof.

I finished the most important part, which was the application and fixing of the new roofing felt, before we went off on our cruise, so last weekend’s work to affix new fascia boards was more a cosmetic exercise than anything, but at least the job is complete now.

The cold, north-westerly wind I felt, as soon as I stepped outside the house on Wednesday, served a reminder of things to come, but instead of nipping back indoors and picking up a fleece, I jumped straight into the car, and set of for work. It wasn’t until I had to carry out an outside task as part of my new role, that I began to regret my decision, and come lunchtime, when I set off on my usual walk, I felt in dire need of a warmer coat.

No such dilly-dallying this morning, as not only did I retrieve and don my thick winter coat, I also took the precaution of setting the heating to come on, 30 minutes before my usual rising time. In the smug zone, or what, but perhaps not so smart when the bill for increased energy charges hits my inbox.

Like many others, I’d been succoured into switching supplier, using those nice people at “Look After My Bills,” but after just a year of fixed price gas and electricity with the "People’s Energy Company," I received the news they had gone under, along with most of the other smaller players in the market. So much for competition, or perhaps it is just the illusion of competition?

Our wood-burning stove should provide useful background heat, especially during the daytime when we will both be at home for longer periods. My three-day working commences next week, and as Mrs PBT’s does the majority of her book-keeping and accountancy work from home, anyway, we should both benefit from this. I have several large stacks of well-seasoned wood, which should last through into next winter, but I do need to get the chimney swept first!

Autumn should also herald the appearance of beers such as Harvey’s XXXX Old Ale, and other seasonal ales, although Larkin’s Porter - my favourite winter beer doesn’t normally make its way into pubs until after Bonfire Night, but I have been reliably informed that Harvey’s Old is already on sale at the Brecknock Arms. The latter is a short hop from Frant station, which itself is just one stop away from Tunbridge Wells.

I’ve probably written something every year about old ales and dark beers, ever since I started thus blog, so I’m not going to add anything further, here. What I will say is I like autumn, when it’s not raining, that is. It’s actually one of my favourite times of the year, with the leaves slowly turning to shades of yellow and brown, the fruits in the hedgerows – not seen that many blackberries though, this year.

There will be sweet chestnuts to gather – there are plenty in the grounds of nearby Somerhill House, fallen leaves to rake up in the garden and outdoor furniture to be placed undercover, until next spring. Then there’s the aforementioned wood-burning stove to light, and finally walks in the country – preferably walks involving a halt at a country pub.

Finally, there’s a “Proper Day Out” in Stockport to look forward to, at the end of next week, which will provide the opportunity to catch up with friends and acquaintances, not seen since the previous day out, right before the start of the pandemic.


Sunday 26 September 2021

"The very poetry of beer"

On Saturday afternoon, I called in at a pub that I hadn’t been to in ages. In fact, I’d only called in there once since the easing of the last lock-down, and it was a brief visit at that. I’m pleased that I did though, as I was served with one of the finest pints I’ve had in a long time, and I’d go as far to say the beer was without doubt the best I’ve had since before the start of the pandemic.

The pub in question was the Beer Seller, a converted, former jeweler’s premises situated in Tonbridge High Street. It is owned by the same people that run the Halfway House at Brenchley and has more than a touch of the latter about it. By that, I mean the Beer Seller has the same internal “rustic” feel; something that is enhanced by the false ceiling constructed out of corrugated iron sheeting, and the seating booths sited down one side of the pub.

This "Kentish Barn" look surprisingly works, even though it is completely false and out of keeping with what is a 1930’s, art-deco, building. The bar is at the far end of the pub, with the six cask ales, (three regular and three changing), all sourced from SE England, served on gravity, from a temperature-controlled room behind a false wall.

I called in primarily as I had an hour to kill whilst Mrs PBT’s went for her extended appointment at the opticians. It was “extended” as apart from the regular eye examination and sight test, the fact that Eileen also wears contact lenses, meant additional tests/measurements.

This enforced wait gave me time to nip along to the “Organic Village Market” at the other end of the High Street, where I picked up a couple of bottles of Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen – Bamberg’s best known, and finest Rauchbier. The shop has become a regular stockist of this classic beer, and also carries a good selection of other beers, including bottles from Sam Smith’s and a range from Westerham Brewery. The latter are packaged in 440ml cans, which seems a radical departure from their normal bottles.

Leaving the latter for another time, I headed back along the High Street, with sufficient time to enjoy a pint at the Beer Seller. It was going to be just a single pint, as I would be driving as soon as Mrs PBT’s finished at the opticians.

Approaching the bar, my attention was grabbed by the blackboard listing the beers on sale. I did a quick scan, noticing offerings from Cellar Head, Burnt Oak, plus two from Goacher’s.  There may have been others, but with mild and Gold Star from the latter, my mind was made up – "a pint of Gold Star, please."

Poured through a tap, poking through the rear wall, the pale-coloured beer in my glass looked appealing even before I’d raised it to my lips, and when I did so, boy was it good. Perfectly chilled, perfectly conditioned, perfectly presented and a delight to drink. Hoppy, set against a strong malt background it was, as the late Richard Boston famously wrote, “The very poetry of beer.”

As I walked across from the bar I saw an old friend, and former local CAMRA branch chairman, sitting on a stool by the window, enjoying a pint. He beckoned me to join him, so I spent an enjoyable half hour or so, catching up on things.

Ian had just returned from the Spa Valley Railway HQ, at Tunbridge Wells, where he’d spent the day collating and organising the beers already delivered in advance of next weekend’s beer festival. Having already given my reasons for not volunteering or, indeed attending, Ian was fully aware of the thoughts behind my decision, but he was keen to advise me on the progress of things.

I don’t intend to elaborate as to why I will not be attending the festival, but if anyone asks me privately, I will gladly tell them. There are no hard feelings on either side though, so with that out of the way we both sat there chatting and enjoying the excellent beer.

I am not kidding when I say that beer was definitely the best pint I’ve enjoyed for a long, long time, but with Mrs PBT’s allotted appointment time, drawing to an end, plus the fact I was driving, I was unable to order myself another.

Shortly before I was due to leave Eric, another old friend, walked into the pub. Unfortunately, I could not stay long, as Mrs PBT’s is not a lady to be kept waiting, and I’d already received her text. It was a shame though, as despite having conversed from time to time, by text and by phone, the last time Eric and I had met up for a drink, was back in April. That was when pubs tentatively re-opened, for outdoor table-service only.

These type of conflicting situations do occur from time to time, and can be frustrating and annoying, but with hindsight, a prolonged session on the Gold Star might not have been so wise, given its relatively high strength. On the other hand, to come across a beer in such fine condition, is surely something worth celebrating!

Goacher’s were founded in 1981 and are the oldest survivor amongst the “new wave” of Kentish brewers, having been. Their excellent ales can increasingly be found locally, with Tonbridge’s Beer Seller and the Nelson Arms, being regular stockists.

Thursday 23 September 2021

Hopping along at the farm, to Sir Tom

Live music is well and truly back, as Retired Martin and Chris Dyson over at Real Ale, Real Music have been reminding us recently. Not to be outdone, Mrs PBT’s and I grabbed ourselves a slice of the action on Sunday evening, when we headed over to the Hop Farm, at Paddock Wood to see the legend that is Sir Tom Jones, perform live in concert.

Eileen purchased the tickets at the start of last year, for a tour that was supposed to mark Tom’s 80th birthday, but we all know what happened next. Sunday’s concert therefore was the rescheduled tour, with the “boy from the valleys” now celebrating his 81st year.

After a week of dry and often sunny weather, the forecast for Sunday wasn’t looking that good, with rain expected on and off from late afternoon and throughout the evening, but fortunately apart from some light precipitation before we set off, the evening remained dry, although overcast.

The Hop Farm Family Park is a 400-acre country park at Beltring, near East Peckham, which boasts the largest collection of oast houses in the world. Until the late 90’s, the complex was owned by brewers Whitbread, and was known as "The Whitbread Hop Farm."  Originally a working farm, the brewery opened it up to visitors, but as Whitbread looked to move out of the brewing trade, they began looking at selling the complex. In 1997 the hop farm was acquired by new owners, and whilst it has changed hands several times since, its future now seems assured.

We arrived shortly after 5.30pm, joining one of the expected lines of traffic queuing to get into the complex. I have to say the traffic management and car parking arrangements left much to be desired, but after what seemed like a tour of the whole site, we were directed to a field close to the main arena. From there, it was a relatively short walk to our pre-booked seats.

As with the car parking, the security arrangements weren’t particularly good either, with only a cursory glance at the tickets, that Mrs PBT’s had paid a small fortune for, nearly 18 months ago. So, no scanning of the barcodes, and no checking of the other built-in security features. We were both under the impression that any Tom, Dick, or Harriet would have been allowed in on the strength of a second-rate forgery.

That’s enough moaning for the moment, as we were there to see Tom Jones, enjoy his performance and generally have a good time. We were sat in the front row of Zone B and had a more or less uninterrupted view of the stage. Tom’s set didn’t start until 8.30pm, but prior to his performance several support acts kept the crowd entertained. Foremost amongst these was Megan McKenna, who apparently won The X Factor, and is also a "Reality TV star" – whatever that means?

Mrs PBT’s was pleased to see her, and I too enjoyed Megan’s performance, although her material seemed rather on the weak side. She’s young though and, if I can say this without sounding too patronising, I’m sure that in the fullness of time, she will blossom, discover her true self and learn how to establish a proper accord with her audience.

Sir Tom hit the stage and put on an amazing performance. He demonstrated that he still hasn’t lost it as, if anything, his voice is more powerful than ever, and his stage presence was unquestionable. He opened with a couple of numbers from the start of his career, What’s New Pussycat, It’s Not Unusual and Green, Green Grass of Home, before moving onto some newer material, such as Sex Bomb, She’s a Lady, plus a Leonard Cohen song, whose title escapes me and a Bob Dylan number, One More Cup of Coffee.

The climax of the performance for both Eileen and I was Sir Tom’s stunning rendition of Delilah. The band really pulled out all the stops as well for this number, and I have to say that they too, were amazing.  Tom had certainly gathered together some world class musicians, to act as his backing groups, and as if to compliment the virtuoso players, the sound quality was crisp and crystal clear.

It’s been a while since either of us have been to one of these big-ticket events, and the ability of the organisers to prise as much money as they can, from the palms of what is, in effect, a captive audience, has, if anything become worse. Concert goers were prohibited from bringing their own food and drink into the arena, and this was enforced by bag searches on the entry points.

With bags limited in size to just A4, you couldn’t have smuggled much in anyway, so we were more or less forced to buy bottles of water from one of the many drink stalls (tokens too, just to be really annoying), and with burgers costing £7.50, plus another £4.00 for chips, it could have ended up as a dear night. Cans of San Miguel and a cider, whose name escapes me, were the only “long drinks” available, but this didn’t seem to stop quite a few people from becoming rather the worse for wear!

These things unfortunately, seem to be par for the course for large scale events, so me complaining about them isn’t going to change anything, and leaving these issues aside, it was an excellent evening. We were fortunate to have been entertained by a first class, living legend of a performer, which is all the more remarkable, seeing that Sir Tom is 81 years old!

What's more, live music is well and truly back.



Saturday 18 September 2021

Please be seated if you want a drink

I broke one of my own unwritten rules yesterday, the rule being not to have drink at lunchtime. As I’ve explained before, there’s a good reason for me not having even a single pint, primarily because it makes me feel sleepy during the afternoon.

Yesterday was going to be different though, and in some ways it was as, although I didn’t nod off at my desk when I returned from my lunchtime pint, the pub visit itself was not the experience I’d been expecting.

The Greyhound at Charcott was a rather obvious choice, being just over 10 minutes’ walk away from my workplace. Its situation in a tiny rural hamlet, just a short distance off the beaten track, is a major attraction, and in addition there is normally a good selection of beers available.

So far, so good, and as I turned the corner into Charcott, I noticed there were several groups of people sitting out in the garden, which is to the left of the pub. There was also a lone cyclist sat on a bench, directly outside.

It’s a couple of months since I last set foot in the Greyhound, although if I want to be pedantic, it’s much longer than that, because on my previous visit in late June, the pub was operating table service only.  As I sat outside in the garden, I had no need to enter the pub, but this time was going to be different – or was it?

The front door was open, as is the case during a normal summer, so I stepped inside and approached the bar. There were four clips on the bank of hand-pumps, which caught my attention and whilst I was waiting for someone to come and serve me, I weighed up in my mind as to which beer to plump for.

Although fan of both Old Dairy and the ever reliable, and “must stock” Larkin’s Traditional, the 3.9% West Coast Pale from Three Acre Brewery caught my eye, so when the young man appeared behind the bar, I was all ready to order myself a pint. He asked, “Can I help you?” to which I replied that I only wanted a drink, and the Three Acre beer was the one I was after.

My face dropped when he informed me that I couldn’t stand at the bar, or even pay for my drink there, as the pub was operating on a table-service only basis. He would bring my drink over to me once I was seated. Somewhat taken aback, I said I would be out in the garden, and headed off outside, but not before telling him which beer I was after.

That instruction was primarily to save time, as I only get an hour for lunch and didn’t want to be hanging around outside waiting for someone to come and take my order. Several minutes later, the barman appeared, carrying a tray full of drinks – one of which was mine. As he placed the glass on the table, he enthused that this West Coast Pale was a good one. The beer had only just gone on sale, and my pint was the first one he’d pulled through.

That latter comment was sufficient to set alarm bells ringing, as without wanting to appear picky, or indeed obsessive, the beer in the glass certainly had that “just pulled through look” about it. The haziness seems missing from the photo, and the colour too was much more of a straw-coloured yellow, but more than anything it was the taste that was disappointing.

“Dry” would be the best description, and I didn’t really notice the citrus flavours that were listed as an attribute on Untappd. The beer was quite drinkable, and perhaps I am just being over-fussy, but as my first pint of cask since returning from holiday, it didn’t exactly inspire me.

What was more frustrating was the length of time it took me to make payment for my drink. The barman had said that he’d set me up a tab, even though I’d told him, whilst inside the pub, that I would only be staying for a quick drink. I explained that I was on my lunch-break and needed to be back at work by 2pm, but despite this, no one came out to collect my payment. It was shades of drinking in Germany all over again, and that frustrating experience when all the waiting staff disappear, just as you are wanting to drink up and go!

Eventually a young girl appeared to take orders from two groups of people who’d recently arrived. I collared her on her way back inside, pressing a five-pound note on her whilst explaining me need to leave shortly all over again, but after taking the cash, she failed to reappear with my change. Just as I was about to leave, the barman appeared with my change, although I was quite prepared to depart without it.

So, a frustrating, annoying, and totally unnecessary experience, as by refusing me service and payment at the bar, what should have been a speedy and perfectly normal transaction turned into a complete farce!  It also significantly reduces the chance of me making future lunchtime visits to the Greyhound, which is a shame really, as when I look back just a couple of years ago, it was the sort of pub where one could stand at the bar and engage the locals in conversation and the odd bit of banter.

I’m wondering where the “old boys” whom one could almost rely on encountering there, have gone to? I mentioned bumping into one such character, a month or so ago in the Rock, at Chiddingstone Hoath, but, being a 15-minute drive away from work, it's not ideal for a lunch-time drink. I could, I suppose, always call in on my way home, but it's not the same as arriving there on foot.

More to the point though, is why the Greyhound has continued sticking with table service when for casual visitors like me, plus the much missed local “old boys”, it obviously isn’t working? Having to pay waiting staff, just to deliver drinks to customers, can’t make economic sense, and whilst I can understand a reluctance to drop all restrictions immediately (I wrote about this in relation to the Star at Matfield, back in July), it is now a full two months since rules about standing and ordering from the bar were relaxed.

The pub seems to be majoring on food, and bills itself as a “Gastro-pub.” This is fine and may even be necessary in order to survive in an isolated rural situation, but to ignore the regulars who liked to congregate at the bar, whilst at the same time discouraging casual drinkers, isn’t perhaps the wisest of courses.

A good pub is one that caters for all sectors, and all types of visitors, so it is hard to see why a pub that prides itself on the range and the quality of the cask ales it serves, should choose to alienate the casual drinker and dedicated beer lover.

Footnote: I feel quite bad writing those last two paragraphs, especially as I have watched licensees Fran and Richard rescue the Greyhound from closure, re-open it following a complete revamp and makeover that enhanced its overall character, and then build it up into one of the best pubs in the locality.

The couple have put their hearts and souls into the pub, which is their home as well as their business, so why take notice of me, a casual and occasional visitor, rather than a dedicated regular. Isn’t it rather churlish of me to criticise, particularly as there might be perfectly valid reasons for staying with the table-service only approach?

In my defence, I am only reporting what I found and using it to illustrate what I see as the downside to table service. It works on the continent, and it worked as we started to come out of the pandemic, but I’m not convinced that it’s the future for the traditional English pub.

Thursday 16 September 2021

Relaxed, fully-rested and raring to go

Another quick post, but this time courtesy of my desktop PC, rather than my Smart Phone. We arrived home yesterday, from our cruise, feeling relaxed but also grateful. Our feelings of gratitude relate to us being able to enjoy our first holiday together since November 2019; a date which coincidentally happened to be that of our first ocean-going cruise.

Everything worked out well, from the hotel and its associated car-parking
and transfer arrangements, to and from the port to the room we chose onboard, and the relatively fine weather we experienced. The latter meant calm seas - unusual for the Irish Sea, and allowed us plenty of time, up on deck to spend either relaxing or, when the mood took us, a few circuits around the ship.

The food was excellent, being tasty, well-cooked, and well presented, and with serving staff placing it on one’s plate, rather than the usual free-for-all buffet experience, there was little in the way of waste and even less in the way of gluttony.

We met several interesting people, many of whom were, like us, just glad of the chance of getting away from it all, and pushing the events of the past 17 months, well and truly into the background. To be able to sit there, watching the waves gliding by, whilst observing, from a distance, passing landmarks such as the Scilly Isles, Land’s End, and the coast of North Wales, was pure, unadulterated relaxation of the kind which fills you with a deep-seated feeling of contentment. Just sitting there, up on deck feeling my cares and concerns slipping away with the tide, left me feeling like a new person. Mrs PBT's felt the same. 

This was just what was needed after a stressful time at work; a situation made worse by the pandemic and the aggravation my colleagues and I experienced in dealing with in the build up to a change of management at the very top. This was followed by a period of change ahead of my planned for change of working to a part-time role. 

Whilst I wasn't that involved in the actual recruitment process, I drafted
the job description for my successor, and when the new recruit finally started, I was kept busy conducting her initial training. I also spent time helping her become familiar with the company's procedures and working practices. I officially stepped down at the beginning of September, although there was still something of a transition before finally handing over the reins.

Yesterday I began my new role of Company Health & Safety Advisor. With no staff to manage, I’m my own boss within reason, able to take holiday when I want to, without having to fit in around other members of the department and, by switching to working three days a week, instead of five, I will gain even more leisure time. So yes, it really is good when you can finally let go of things and move forward, unencumbered.

Letting go of unwanted baggage is also be really empowering, especially when the stuff you are letting go of is something that is holding you back or restraining you in some way. A personal example is me no longer being a member of CAMRA. These days, when I enter a pub or bar, I no longer feel obliged to stick solely with the cask offerings.  Instead, I can order whatever takes my fancy, without feelings of guilt that I am, in some way, letting the side down.

If it’s a cask beer that really appeals, I will probably go for it, but if it’s a beer I don't really fancy, then I will opt for a craft, bottled or even keg beer. I found myself doing this on the cruise, although in that instance, there were no cask offerings for me to turn down, or otherwise turn my nose up at!

Returning, for a moment, to the subject of relaxation, Mrs PBT's felt the same way as I did after the cruise, and whilst she won't thank me for mentioning her age, she too now qualifies for her state pension. She is looking to cut down on her work, although she will continue with the book-keeping, and tax-related work
she does for her select group of builders and tradespeople. 

And on that note, I will draw this post to a close and say that we are already looking forward to another cruise, possibly a slightly longer voyage, on one of Cunard's other "Queen ships. We will pick a different  destination as well.

Tuesday 14 September 2021

A lazy Sunday, moored up in Liverpool

Despite the abundance of food on a cruise ship, it's still relatively easy to get something exercise and stay in trim. There are two decks on the Queen Elizabeth that enable you to walk right round the ship, and in the case of the lower one, you are largely undercover.

A notice informs passengers that three circuits of Deck 3, are equivalent to 0.9 mile. Yesterday I quite easily accomplished 10,000 steps, and Mrs PBT's wasn't too far behind me. We've slackened off a bit today, although I'm sure that come nightfall we'll be edging towards our 10k target.

We are on holiday though, so the fitness thing is really just an aside, and at the moment we're lounging on a couple of “steamers," those most traditional of cruising deckchairs. 

We're on the starboard side, looking out over the Mersey, across to Birkenhead, watching the odd vessel chug by. A brightly painted "party boat" called the Snowflake, has just passed by and we returned the waves of a boisterous, but good-humoured party on board.

Our ship is due to depart Liverpool, in around three hours’ time, so we'll be back up on deck to watch as our floating home slips its moorings, turns around and heads off towards the mouth of the Mersey estuary, and back into the open waters of the Irish Sea.

I mentioned in my previous post that it's Mrs PBT's birthday today, but we will leave the posh dinner until tomorrow, in order to experience
properly tonight's departure. In the meantime, there's a few more steps to clock up, and a beer or two to be had.

No more posting now until we reach Southampton, and then it will only be a quick one. It's nice though, just to relax and savour the moment, especially after the year we've just had and the manic period at work over the past six months.

So, for the time being, a fond farewell to Liverpool, even though we didn't see that much of it!