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.

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