Tuesday 30 November 2021

The best laid plans, you win some, you lose some, or any port in a storm!

It’s the same every year that come the autumn, I start to develop a craving for Harvey’s Old Ale. This delectable dark brew has a moderate strength of 4.3% ABV but is packed full of lush flavours from the mixture of roasted malts and rich dark brewing sugars, used in the brew. For me the beer is the perfect accompaniment as the nights start drawing in, and the days become colder.

Finding Harvey’s Old is not as easy as it should be, as each year I get to November without coming across any, and a glance at 2021’s calendar informs me we are now only a few days away from December! The trouble is Old Ale only ever seems to feature in Harvey’s own tied pubs, even though I’m sure the beer is available to those free trade customers that want it.

To make matters worse, there aren’t any of the brewery's pubs close to where I live, although some are only a train or bus ride away. It was the bus that would be my saviour, when I discovered I could travel direct from Tonbridge to the rather upmarket village of Chipstead, just on the edge of Sevenoaks. Chipstead is home to two pubs, one of which is the Bricklayer’s Arms, a Harvey’s tied pub, and a look on the pub’s website confirmed that Old Ale is normally available.

The Arriva 401-bus service only operates on Sundays, which was ideal for me, so after earning a few brownie points repositioning the tarpaulin that is protecting our shed roof, and then enjoying a substantial brunch, I wandered down into Tonbridge to wait for the bus. It was rather chilly out and to make matters worse, the bus was running around 10 minutes late, but after I boarded, it became snarled up in traffic on Tonbridge’s industrial estate.

The reason behind this was the town’s annual festival for switching on the Christmas lights. The High Street was closed to virtually all traffic – hence the diversion through the industrial estate, so there was nothing to do but sit on the bus, and grin and bear it. I did make a mental note though to leave the bus at the top end of the High Street, on the return journey.

The bus eventually arrived in Chipstead, and despite having a list of the stops displayed on the Arriva route-map on my phone, I still managed to miss the one I was looking for. The sun was very low in the sky, which dazzled me, and by the time I’d realised the bus was heading out of the village.

It was no great deal, as it wasn’t far to walk back into Chipstead and find the pub. I asked the driver whether the delays in Tonbridge were likely to have a knock-on effect on the return journey. Unfortunately, "yes" was her reply as she was already half hour behind schedule. I made a note of this for the homeward journey.

I made my way towards the pub, which is known as the “Brick’s,” by the locals, but as I became nearer, the lack of lights in any of the windows, should have rung alarm bells. I stopped on the green, in front of the pub to take some exterior photos, but as I walked towards it, I realised it was closed. A notice outside informed passers-by that, “Due to unforeseen circumstances we have had to close the pub. We will be open again Thursday 2nd December, as usual.”

I’d checked the pub website, the night before, but hadn’t thought to consult their Facebook Page. Covid sprang to mind, and this was confirmed on Monday morning, by a work colleague who lives in Sevenoaks. I put plan B into action and walked up to the George & Dragon. I had already clocked it from the bus window, as the driver skilfully negotiated her way down the narrow hill, leading to the village centre.

It was only five minutes’ walk away. The downside was WhatPub described it as very much a "food-led” pub, so with this in mind, I entered the G&D, after first stopping to take a few photos. The interior was pleasant enough, despite being slightly on the chintzy side, but unfortunately the photos I took were out of focus – I’m not very good at taking pictures “on the hoof!”

The pub was reasonably full inside, but not packed to the gunwales, so the request I received for me to sit outside, after ordering my pint, was rather strange. This instruction came once the staff had ascertained that I was only there for a drink, rather than a meal, and was not at all customer friendly, in my book.

There was just the one beer on – Westerham Grasshopper, which was in good form, but expensive at £5.28 a pint. Even stranger than being shoved out in the garden, was what happened next. I went to pay for my beer and offered a £10 note. To my astonishment, the young barmaid replied that she couldn’t give me change, as it was “company policy.” I told her that at over £5 a pint the beer was already expensive enough, and she could think again if she expected me to pay a tenner for it!

Smiling sweetly, not that I could see much behind her face mask, she said they could set up a tab, if I wished - I didn't! Alternatively, I could pay by card! Card it was then, but in almost half a century of pub going, I have never come across a pub (or any other establishment for that matter), that was unable, or unwilling to give me change!

I bit the bullet and headed out into the well-laid out garden, at the rear of the pub. The rear patio was completely in the shade and hence freezing cold. I was properly dressed against the cold, with a warm, quilted winter coat, on top of a thick fleece. I was also wearing a hat. I wasn’t the only customer banished to the garden, as some of my fellow alfresco drinkers were in the same boat.

It turned out that one group was a party of diners who had arrived early. They’d been sent outside to wait for a table to become free. The saving graces were it wasn’t raining, and there were a number of strategically placed, infrared, space heaters – not particularly eco-friendly and not that effective either.

I switched mine on and moved my chair as close as possible to the meagre source of heat. At least I was warmer than the two young ladies who popped outside for their nicotine fix, clad in the flimsiest of floral, summer dresses, as if they were heading off to the local May Ball.

I checked the likely departure of my bus, using the Arriva App, and discovered the next one was running 20 minutes late. Unwilling to shell out for another pint, I decided to leave in plenty of time, the thinking being the uphill walk would warm me up. I popped back inside the pub first though, to make use of the facilities, before heading up to the bus stop.

It was a good job I left when I did, as the bus actually turned up at its stated time, so I’m not sure why the App was saying otherwise. I had a relaxing ride back to Tonbridge, alighting opposite Tonbridge School, as decided earlier, on the outward journey.

I waked along to Tonbridge Castle, pausing on top of the castle ramparts to observe the crowds in the High Street below. The market stalls in the castle grounds had already packed up, so not wishing to get caught up in the crowds, I cut through the park and headed for home.

Looking at my Smartwatch I’d clocked up just over 12,500 steps, which wasn’t a bad day’s walking, but with the Brick’s shut, no Harvey’s Old and one of the most surreal pub visits ever, I was glad to be home with the welcoming prospect of a nice roast pork dinner to look forward to.

Monday 29 November 2021

Keeping tabs on it all

I’ve been very quiet on the blogging front this past week, or at least I have on this site. On the other hand, I’ve been busy posting two, quite lengthy articles on my Paul’s Beer Travels website. There’s a third post that is nearly complete as well, and the topic behind them all is walking the North Downs Way.

I’d rather neglected the site, these past couple of months, so it was definitely time to make amends, and as there is very little in any of the articles about beer, the website was definitely the home for them. There isn’t that much about beer, or pubs in this short post either, but I’d better include some small morsel, if I don’t want to include the wrath of Greengrass!

Before doing so, there’s some boring domestic stuff to get through, although I’ll keep it as short as possible. First that old perennial – some necessary maintenance on my Skoda Octavia. The water pump and timing belt need replacing every five years, and after checking in the vehicle’s service book, I discovered that the work was last carried out in December 2016.

It’s an expensive job, but an essential one, so it was a case of just biting the bullet and booking the vehicle in to a local garage. There’s something about the motor trade that says when the garage tells you they will phone when the work is complete, in reality they almost never do. I ended up making two phone calls, before finally picking the car up shortly before the garage closed. That was essentially Thursday written off, because had I known the job was going to take that long, I would have told the garage to keep the car until the following day, thereby allowing me to go off on a jolly!

Friday was a wash out for a different reason, and was largely due to the weather, although it did allow me time to shop online for Christmas presents for Eileen, and a new pair of shoes for myself. With 40% off the latter, I’d have been a fool not to have taken advantage of the dreaded Black Friday sales, especially as some new footwear was definitely required.

Sunday was reserved for a pub-based adventure, but not before I spent an hour, perched up a ladder in the freezing cold, fixing in place a tarpaulin, that is protecting the shed roof. Storm Arwen had partially dislodged this temporary covering, but if that’s the worst the storm has done, we’ve escaped rather lightly compared to other areas of the country.

Mission accomplished, I set off following a substantial brunch, old gits bus pass in hand, to track down some Harvey’s Old Ale. You will have to wait for the next post to discover how I fared, but in the meantime, here’s a beery snippet to keep young Claude happy.

The other evening, I cracked open a bottle of Donker, a Belgian Quadrapel-style beer, with an 11% ABV. The beer is produced by Flemish brewers Kasteel Brouweij, of Vanhonsebrouck, who claim to possess the most modern brewery in Europe. I’m pretty certain there must be several other contenders for that title, but for the time being we’ll give the Belgians the benefit of the doubt and allow them their moment of glory.

So far as I can tell, this beer came to me back in the late spring, when I was a member of FUGSCLUB – a monthly subscription beer club launched by Fuggles Beer Café as a means of seeing them, and their customers through the last, and longest of the lock-downs. I had a feeling that I’d received another Kasteel beer the previous month, and a look at my sampling history on Untappd, showed this was indeed the case.

That beer was Kasteel Nitro Noir, a 5.7% ABV Baltic Porter. Brewed at half the strength of Donker, this Nitro-Stout was in a completely different beast. My notes at the time, and taken from Untappd, described it as, Smooth and creamy, but rather on the sweet side. Strong on chocolate flavours.”

High-octane Donker was a different beer altogether, as not only
was it rather strong for my liking, it was also sweet and quite cloying. At best it could be described as an interesting experience, but that’s about it. The bottle is showing a BBE date of January 2026, which isn’t surprising for this strong and dark coloured beer, but it does lead onto when is a beer too strong to be enjoyable, and when does strength cease to be an asset, and become more of a hindrance.

I’ve drunk other beers of similar strength, both in Belgium itself, and as imports, I’ve also, of course tried strong, mass-market, UK-brewed beers such as Carlsberg Special - "Spesh" and Gold Label Barley Wine. Neither were particularly enjoyable, and tasted more of alcohol than anything else, and the same can be said of Donker.

There are other strong beers though, that are much better balanced, with plenty of hops to counter both the sweetness of the malt, and the “spirit taste” of the alcohol. St Bernardus Abt 12° and Rochefort 10°, spring to mind, but I am sure there are others. The occasion and quite often the location as well, has to be right in order to fully appreciate these super-strength beers.

They are definitely beers for sipping slowly, rather than quaffing, so whilst the two monastery beers hit the spot, I’m not sure about the Donker, even if it is produced at the most modern brewery in Europe.” I would be interested to learn what others think of such beers, so please get in touch and share your thoughts.

Tuesday 23 November 2021

Doddington re-visited

Last Friday I met up for lunch with an old friend, who I hadn't seen for quite some time. John is someone I knew during the five years I lived in Maidstone, and whilst I initially knew him through CAMRA, he was part of a group that I used to socialise with. We also played badminton on a regular basis, although the game was really just an excuse to go for a drink afterwards.

We lost touch a bit when I moved to Tonbridge, in 1985, even though several years later I had a role in a World War II period video, that John and a group of fellow enthusiasts were shooting, under the guise of the "Barmy Army Film Club." The video was one of several produced by the club, that were basically spoofs on Dad’s Army.

After the film premiered John and I lost touch completely. I had just
started a family, whilst he ended up travelling extensively for work, both at home as well as abroad. We caught up again, two and a half years ago, on a trip to Bamberg, back in May 2018. The trip was organised by a mutual friend from Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA and provided a good opportunity to catch up over a few mugs of Bamberg’s excellent beer.

The following year we were both tied up dealing with our respective aging fathers - and then along came Covid. During lock-down John busied himself writing a short crime novel, which is how he got back in touch. I bought a copy, and enjoyed the story, which was well thought out and, like all good crime novels, had a twist in the plot.

I actually read most of the book on the return train journey to Stockport, last month, and passed on a positive review to John, a week or so later. He mentioned that in his haste to post me my copy, he had forgotten to sign it. We both agreed that getting together for a catch-up, over a few drinks, and a meal, would provide the perfect excuse to get my copy signed. 

 We decided to meet at a location roughly halfway between our respective houses. John lives near Lympne, in the east of Kent, while my adopted hometown of Tonbridge is in the west of the county.  I chose the Chequers at Doddington, a pub at the heart of a small and quite isolated village, tucked away in an idyllic valley, on top of the North Downs.

The reason for choosing the Chequers was we had driven past it last September, on our way back from a trip to Thanet. With traffic at a virtual standstill, I took the opportunity to turn off from the M2 and head south, towards the A20. The route took us through Doddington, and it was then that I caught sight of the Chequers, for probably the first time in three and a half decades.

With my friend living to the south of Canterbury, the pub seemed a good place for our planned rendezvous. I found my way to Doddington, by taking a left turn off the A20, opposite the turning into Lenham village. The road leads up across escarpment, and then to a maze of narrow roads, in an area sandwiched between the M2 and M20 motorways. One of these roads leads to Doddington.

The Chequers is right in heart of village, at bottom of a hollow, and as I pulled into the car park, my friend was standing there, waiting for me. After exchanging greetings, we both agreed that it had been ages since either of us visited the pub. Thinking back, we thought it must have been during the early 1980’s, when the owning brewery, Shepherd Neame had a “passport scheme,” a clever marketing idea, which encouraged people to visit their pubs, and getting their "passport" stamped in each one.

Neither of us could remember much about the pub, apart from its obvious antiquity and status as a former coaching inn. It is said to date from the 14th Century, and with its old oak timbers and inglenook fireplace, certainly has the credentials to support this. Possibly due to soil creep over the years, the Chequers is built at a slightly lower level than the surrounding forecourt, car park and garden. This means the unwary need to take care on entering, as just behind the front door are a couple of steps down into the entrance lobby.

There are two bars internally, which is quite a rarity these days, although I admit to not really noticing the public bar, which leads off straight ahead, as we entered the building. Instead, we turned immediate right into saloon area and restaurant. Dogs allowed in former, but not in the restaurant.

The latter is a long low room, which felt a little chilly when we first sat down, but not for long as a member of staff soon appeared and lit the woodburning stove. There was a group of quite jovial drinkers sat by entrance, and later on a rather noisy, but well-behaved family group arrived, and sat on the table just across from us.

Beer-wise there was Master Brew (a beer you don’t often see these days), Whitstable Bay, plus Rebel Flame, an offering from Shep’s small-scale, experimental brewery. John opted for the later, whilst I stuck with Whitstable Bay, which is definitely one of Shep’s better beers.

As for the food, being a dedicated  “pie man,” I went for “pie of the day,” which was chicken and mushroom served with mash, mixed vegetables, and gravy. It was good, although if I wanted to be really picky, the filling could have been slightly moister. This was compensated for by plenty of gravy. My friend had ham, eggs, and chips.

We had a brief chat, with the barmaid about trade and the pub in general, when she brought us the bill, and it was encouraging to learn that the Chequers is doing well and remains at the heart of village life. There is a large garden at the rear of the pub, and a full Post Office service is offered for a couple of hours, on Tuesday afternoons.

All in all, our visit represented a welcome return to a pub that must have been in the back of both our minds but, without a specific reason for going there, remained something of a mystery. We agreed to meet up again, in the not-too-distant future. John lives relatively close to the small town of Hythe, and is a regular drinker at the Potting Shed, a well-known micro-pub.

Given the travel opportunities offered by my recently acquired bus pass, I said I would be able to join him there for a few drinks. Sounds like a plan - as they say!


Saturday 20 November 2021

Managing safely away from the virtual world

It was a step back into the corporate world at the start of last week, with yours truly booked on a three-day, safety management course. It’s all part of my new role and followed a mutual decision by the company and I that a professional qualification in this important field would not just be a desirable asset, but an essential requirement in the litigious world we live in.

So, after looking around, I booked myself on an IOSH (Institution of Occupational Safety and Health) course, spread across three days, in order to achieve this aim. The other point was I was keen to participate in a physical, classroom course, rather than a remote “virtual” one, and following the lifting of most Covid restrictions discovered there were organisations out there who were equally keen to welcome students back into the real world.

There were still a few hiccups, with the date and course venue changing from central London to a hotel, next to the Brands Hatch race circuit, just off the A20 at West Kingsdown. Being only a 25-minute drive from home, there was no need for an overnight stay, which came as something of a relief, if the state of the conference rooms and toilets, was anything to go by.

I won’t bore you with the details, apart from saying there were 12 of us on the course, all blokes for some reason, but it did make for some good banter. The instructor, who was ex-military and really knew his stuff, was able to put the course content across in a manner that was both easy to follow, and also to understand. There was quite a lot to cram in though, and this included two “homework” assignments which we had to carry out on Monday and Tuesday evenings.

We all passed the course, and this included the work-related, risk assessments we were  asked to prepare the previous evening. The examination was much tougher than many of us envisaged, possibly due to some perceived ambiguity regarding some of the multiple-choice questions. But on the plus side, it was good to meet people from other organisations and backgrounds and compare the way in which safety issues can impact on different sectors.

The instructor also said how much more everyone gets from actual real-life courses rather than virtual ones. Just from his point of view having to try and switch focus between close-up faces, on a dozen different screens, to being able to survey the whole room with a few simple head movements, and then walking across and engaging with those individuals.

This backs up what I have been saying throughout the pandemic, that virtual meetings via “Zoom,” or any other digital platform, are a very poor substitute for the real thing, and those proclaiming such means of communication and conducting business, as the way forward, really aren’t living in the real world. Perhaps they have shares, or undeclared interests, in digital communication technology companies.

The same applies to those forecasting the end of overseas business trips. If they knew anything about the way business is conducted the world over, and the role played by the socialising that goes on, both before and after the deal being struck, they wouldn’t be so keen to encourage people to sit there, hiding behind a screen.

Finally, a few words about Brands Hatch, the legendary racing circuit, overlooked by the course venue - the Mercure Hotel. Older readers will remember that Brands, at one time, hosted the Formula One British Grand Prix, alternating this honour with Silverstone, every other year.

The last race at this level took place in 1986, but despite losing the rights to host this prestigious event, the circuit remains busy, staging race meetings for cars, bikes and occasionally trucks. We only had 30 minutes for lunch, but on the final day I took a walk down the course entrance, having heard the powerful roar of the cars earlier that morning.

From the lie of the land, it is possible to see that the circuit is set in a grassy hollow that forms a natural amphitheatre. Racing has been carried out at Brands since the late 1920’s, albeit on an intermittent and casual basis to begin with. There are now meetings both weekends, and if you are a petrol-head or someone who likes the roar of engines, then it is worth a visit.

These things have never had huge a appeal to me, so despite having lived almost half of my life just 15 miles away from Brands Hatch, last week’s course was the closest I have been to the course. As is often the case, we tend to miss or even dismiss what is happening on our own doorsteps, so perhaps next spring I will attend a race, just to see what it’s all about.


Sunday 14 November 2021

Larkin's Porter at last, but there's a slight sting in the tail

I’m feeling rather pleased with myself, because exactly a week after the release by Larkin’s Brewery, of their iconic Porter, I managed to track some down, and at the first attempt as well. Larkin’s Porter is a winter seasonal, classic, brewed to a respectable strength of 5.2%, and packed full of roasted coffee and chocolate flavours. It is a beer that is eagerly sought out by its many devotees, of which I am one, but to add a hint of rarity, and increase the sense of anticipation, brewery owner and Larkin’s founder Bob Dockerty, waits until Bonfire Night before releasing it to an appreciative audience.

So, for me to have stumbled across it, within a week, was something of a scoop, especially as I knew others had failed. I know this, because on my rail journey back from Oxted, the previous weekend, I had bumped into a group of CAMRA friends. They too had been out walking and had joined the train I was travelling on at Penshurst. They had hiked up to the Rock at Chiddingstone Hoath, ostensibly in search of some Larkin’s Porter, but after drawing a blank, headed down to the Castle, in Chiddingstone village. This was despite some rather good Green Hop Ale, also from Larkin’s being on sale at the Rock.

They were out of luck at the Castle as well, but such is the pull of Bob Dockerty’s porter, that I fancied a go at tracking it down myself. My friends and I were rather surprised by its non-appearance at the Castle, given the pub’s proximity to Larkin’s Brewery, and in previous years (2020 doesn’t count), the beer was regularly on sale there. Fortunately, an opportunity came up on Friday, for me to visit the Rock, so I decided to see if I would have better luck than my friends.

The opportunity involved calling in briefly to my workplace, to borrow a sack-barrow. We had an old washing machine, that had been gathering dust under one of the work-surfaces and wanted to get rid of it. The idea was to leave it on drive and wait for the local “travelers” to pick it up on their next scrap metal, scavenging run, but it was rather heavy to maneuver out on my own. This is where the sack-barrow came in.

Knowing that the Rock is open all day on Fridays, the thought struck that I could call in at the pub, on my way home, so after collecting the barrow and loading it into the back of the car, I drove up to the Rock. It never ceases to surprise me just how far away the pub is from Chiddingstone village. Heading in a roughly southerly direction, the road climbs steadily up into what is known as the High Weald. The journey is not a problem when traveling by car, but I recall several walks to the Rock, when the road seemed to go on forever. After cresting a hill, and thinking you were nearly there, a long straight stretch of road would open up, followed by yet another climb.

I arrived at the Rock, shortly after 3pm. There were several cars in the car park, but I managed to find room for my vehicle, without any problem. I was a little apprehensive, not so much by the thought that the porter might not be available, but by the news my friends had told me a few days before.

The unwelcome story is the Rock is operating on limited opening hours. These are, open all day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but the pub is then closed for the rest of the week (Monday-Thursday). I didn’t quite grasp the reason for this, but as my friends pointed out, and I couldn’t help noticing either, the landlady is heavily pregnant.

There was a rumour that she was looking for someone else to take on the pub, but in the meantime, understandably wanted to take things a little easier. A notice on the front door leaves little doubt as to the revised opening hours, but leaving the landlady’s situation aside, my friends and I are quite concerned over the Rock’s limited opening hours, as it always seemed to do a good trade at lunchtimes, no matter what day of the week.

Stepping inside, it was encouraging to see a couple of groups of people sat around the bar, there was a couple relaxing in front of the fire, and shortly after I arrived, two more ladies popped in. The good news of course, was Larkin’s Porter was on tap, and very good it was too. Priced at £4.60 a pint, it was, as I posted on Untappd, “Pure silk in a glass.”

Given its 5.2% ABV I could only have the one, but as it is a beer for careful and contemplative consumption, rather than swilling, this was not a problem. I was content to just sit there and take in the atmosphere of this lovely old, and most traditional of country inns, whilst banking on its current trading situation being only temporary.

With its floor of well-worn bricks, its various nooks, and crannies, plus the stove blazing away in the hearth, a visit to the Rock really is like stepping back in time, the only concession to modernity being the installation of a large and rather imposing wood burner, to take the place of the previous open fire.

Dogs, as well as people, have always been a feature of the Rock, and Friday’s visit proved no exception, with several large canines wandering off occasionally, from their owners sat at the bar. As I have said before, it is a pub used by country folk, many of whom spend all day working outdoors. I wonder what they will do, or where they will go during the four days in which it is closed?

Thursday 11 November 2021

Please don't spill the beans!

I received an email yesterday morning, from CAMRA HQ, which is a copy of the press release, planned for on 12th November. The communication celebrates the publication of the Good Beer Guide 2022, which hits the bookshops tomorrow - Friday. The release takes pain to point out that the news is under embargo until one minute after midnight on 12th November.

Hand on heart, I can categorically state I am not going to spill the beans about what the release contains, even though to my mind, it contains nothing particularly sensational or noteworthy. The release of what is now the 49th Good Beer Guide, is obviously an important moment for CAMRA, even though the major milestone won’t be until next year, when the GBG will celebrate its half-century.

I am not giving much away by saying that the guide contains some interesting statistics, which don’t detract from its main purpose, which is to direct users to the cream of the nation’s pubs, bars, tap-rooms, and clubs. There are 4,500 of these and the fact that any of them appear at all, is testament to the hard work put in by local CAMRA branches, across the country, in managing to collect, assess and collate the necessary information during a time of lockdowns and other Covid-related restrictions.

As to be expected, the message contained in the press release, is written with a forward-looking and optimistic tone. Again, it doesn’t shy away from the main purpose of the GBG, although if I’m honest, it does gloss over the enormous contribution that all CAMRA branches make towards the success of the Guide.

I know, from regular contact with members of my former branch, that an incredible amount of work goes into the production of the GBG, with surveying and then selecting those pubs worthy of entry.  The work doesn’t stop there as a considerable amount of checking and proof-reading, is necessary, before the Guide can go to press. This vital contribution, from members – who are all unpaid volunteers, is an aspect that the CAMRA bigwigs often overlook, and one that has long been one of my main beefs with the Campaign.

I received the press release, despite the fact I am no longer a CAMRA member, after resigning from the organisation exactly two years ago! The Campaign has obviously not updated its data base or mailing list, which doesn’t seem a very wise or responsible thing for any subscription-based organisation to do.

Although unlikely, there remains a possibility that a number of unscrupulous ex-members, people potentially with an axe to grind, might just be tempted to cause the odd bit of mischief by breaking the news embargo. Of course, one could argue that as the same email will have been sent out to most of CAMRA’s 180,000 members, the chances are that one or two of them might just spill the beans, intentionally or otherwise.

As with any event of this nature, timing is of the essence, and an element of surprise not only helps the story but adds a sense of excitement to the proceedings. I’m probably reading far more into this than is actually there, but it would be a shame if someone out of sheer spite, decided to take the wind out of the sails behind the Guide’s official launch, by raining on CAMRA’s parade.

There is one particular I can reveal, without doing any of the above, as it is one which I am sure comes as no surprise to seasoned CAMRA observers. That news item is, the Campaign seems as obsessed as ever with new breweries. Amazingly, their number has continued to rise, despite the hardships of lock-downs plus the trials and tribulations affecting the licensed trade.

This makes no sense given the many issues which affect the UK economy, ranging from supply issues to lack of staff. Whilst the UK government’s foolhardy and damaging hard Brexit, is responsible for many of these issues, well-meaning but ultimately naïve people seeking to flood an already over-crowded beer market, aren’t exactly helping things either.

CAMRA would, in my opinion, be better off concentrating its efforts elsewhere, but to all those looking forward to the new Guide, and to visiting some of the pubs it recommends, good reading, and happy hunting!

Footnote: I won’t be investing in a physical copy of the Guide, come release day, although there’s every chance I will purchase the updated app version. 


Tuesday 9 November 2021

(I was only) 34 miles from Farnham

As hinted at in my previous past, on Sunday I embarked on an attempt to knock off a further section of the North Downs Way (NDW). Regular readers will know I have been walking this long-distance footpath, piecemeal, since the summer of 2017, when I joined with a group who were walking alongside a mutual friend, who was in the closing stages of completing the trail.

Well life sort of got in the way, as it has a habit of doing, with Mrs PBT’s hospitalized at the start of 2018, and then the pandemic in 2020. Both these major, adverse events scuppered  plans laid down for completing the NDW, but having walked two or three sections with friends, I decided the best way of finishing the trail would be to fill in the gaps, and then start heading westward.

In May, and as a test for the new pair of boots I'd treated myself to at the phased end of the last lock-down, I completed the final gap, which was the section between Wye and Charing. This left me free to concentrate all my efforts into reaching Farnham, the town on the Surrey-Hampshire border which is the official start of the NDW.

Things still didn’t run smoothly though, as in July a knee injury forced me to abort my walk from Oxted to Dunton Green, at the eight-mile stage. I finished the final two miles of that leg, last month, walking with the aid of a knee brace, so feeling emboldened, I decided that a longer walk was in order.

I chose the eight mile stretch of the trail, running eastward from Merstham station to the large chalkpit to the north of Oxted. This was my starting point, for July’s partially completed walk, and whilst the distance wasn’t huge, I was still a little apprehensive, when I set off yesterday morning.

The village of Merstham is easily accessible, being just one stop north of Redhill, by train, and following an early start, I arrived there shortly before 9am. Exiting the station and following the guidebook towards the start of the trail in Quality Street. Unfortunately, there were no tins of mixed chocolates and toffees to be found, but a street of attractive and mixed-style houses, greeted me instead. There is a connection to the confectionery, which the following link will explain, although you will need to read right to the end.

Of rather more interest were the vintage cars I observed, passing through Merstham, as part of the annual London-Brighton run. There were quite a few people lining the streets, watching these carefully restored old vehicles chug by. I paused briefly to take a few photos, before making my way through the churchyard of St Katherine of Alexandria, and back across the A23.

A long and gentle climb then
followed, out of the village and past some very desirable looking properties, followed by a sharp turn to the right and a tunnel under the M23 motorway. A much stiffer ascent, through arable pasture then ensued, but once at the top, the view back towards Redhill was worth every step of the climb.

From there on, the route clung to the top of the escarpment, through some very attractive countryside, the only downside was reaching the Harrow at Chaldon, an hour and a quarter before opening time. This was doubly disappointing as not only is it the only pub on this stretch of the NDW, it also receives a good review and write-up on What Pub.

I continued on my way, as the open countryside slowly gave way to woodland, interspersed with the odd secluded property. This really was one of the most pleasant stretches of trail that I have walked so far, a feeling that was enhanced, in sheltered spots, by the surprisingly warm early November sunshine. It was still quite chilly in areas exposed to the stiff south-easterly breeze, so I was glad of quilted, winter coat worn on top of my fleece.

There are a couple of viewing points along the way, at breaks in the trees, giving vistas south towards Greensand Ridge and the High Weald of Ashdown Forest in the distance. I stopped at one of these, at Caterham Country Park, sitting on a bench to enjoy my sandwiches and take on some much-needed water. The views certainly were stunning, but all along this entire stretch of the NDW, one is never far away from the M25.

The motorway follows the line of the hills, approaching quite close at times, and whilst this doesn’t spoil view, there is no escaping the incessant traffic noise. The Caterham viewing point seemed very popular with dog walkers, cyclists, and families with their children, all enjoying the unexpected warm sunshine, but after departing, I passed through more areas of beech wood, as the route slowly descended towards the equally noisy A22 trunk road.

Crossing this busy thoroughfare by means of a footbridge, there was an equally long ascent back onto the ridge, at the top of the escarpment leading towards Oxted. Again, this was mainly through semi-open woodland, culminating at the summit of Gangers Hill which, at 780 ft, is the highest point along this section of the NDW.

Having gained all that height, it was rather galling to have to lose it a short distance further on. Here the trail descends towards the bottom of the escarpment by means of a long and steep flight of 111 steps. Fortunately, there was a handrail, which I made full use of, along with the extra support afforded by my walking stick. It was still hard on the knees, but once at the bottom it was just over a mile to Chalkpit Lane, and the end of this section of the trail.

I still had more walking to do as it is a mile and a quarter from NDW, down into Oxted and the station. Although there was time to spare before my train southwards, to Edenbridge Town, there wasn’t really time to look for a pub and sink a pint. A coffee though was in order, and following the ticket collector’s suggestion, I called in at the adjacent Spoons - Old Oxted Inn and grabbed a takeaway flat white.

Arriving at Edenbridge there was yet more walking. There are two stations in this small Wealden town, constructed by separate rail companies and following different routes. The one I’d arrived at is on the line that runs south from London to East Grinsted and Uckfield, whilst the other station is at top of town, on cross county line between Tonbridge and Redhill. With no buses running on a Sunday, the last thing I felt like was 20-minute hike up to top station. It wasn’t as if there was time for a pint.

On the plus side my knee held up, so the investment I made for elasticated knee support was worth every penny. I’d also knocked off another eight-mile section of the NDW. I have now followed the trail westwards from Dover and Canterbury, as far as A23-M23 corridor.

According to my guidebook there are just three more sections, and 34 miles remaining until I reach Farnham. Depending on public transport connections I might stretch that out to four, but whatever happens, after four quite turbulent and “interesting” years, the end is now almost in sight.