Sunday 30 January 2022

Some of what I've been up to recently

I realised I haven’t posted anything since last weekend, although that’s not strictly true, as I’ve been working on an article for my website. "Regensburg – pearl of the Danube," was part of the slightly cheesy title, even though this UNESCO World Heritage site is anything but cheesy.

If you are looking for somewhere for your next holiday – once travel gets back to normal, that is off the beaten track, that combines a beautiful and well-preserved medieval city, in a stunning location with some first-class beer, then click the link. Otherwise, please read on.

Since last Friday week, I’ve visited six different pubs, in six separate locations, and whilst this tally is probably all in a day’s work for seasoned pub people and serious GBG tickers, it’s quite an achievement for me, coming as it does as the country begins to shake of the shackles of Covid-19 restrictions.

To break these visits down, there was a pub the week before last, in Willesborough, plus a brewery tap room and restaurant in nearby Ashford. Thursday evening saw me nipping in for a swift pint, at a well-known cask outlet in Tonbridge High Street, after a late-night haircut. Friday saw me making full use of my bus pass, visiting two Wealden pubs, both sharing the same name as well as the same suffix in their location. The final pub was an unscheduled stop, necessitated by a rather full bladder – the perils of bus travel on top of a few pints!

There are stories attached to both  the Willesborough and Ashford outlets, so I will save those posts until I’ve got a bit more time, but Friday’s bus trip involved a ride out on the 297 service, which runs throughout the day between Tunbridge Wells and Tenterden. I boarded the 10.45 departure from outside the town’s railway station and headed off to Rolvenden. This attractive village is only five miles or so from the terminus at Tenterden.

 My destination in Rolvenden was the Bull Inn, one of two pubs in the village, the other being the Star. I hadn’t been in either, so the bus allowed the perfect opportunity to rectify one of those omissions. This time around it had to be just one, as the bus timings only allowed 30 minutes pub time, before the return service that would drop me at another Bull, where I had planned a longer session. (More of that in a minute).

So, the Bull Inn it was, and as the bus had, rather conveniently, dropped me right outside the pub, it would have been churlish not to have ventured inside. The first thing I noticed was there were two bars. I could tell this from the outside, due to the large, plain glass windows, fronting the pub on either side of the door, and for no particular reason I chose the left hand one. 

As I walked in, there was a customer sitting in the window seat, nurturing his pint whilst, at the far end of the bar, and at a slightly lower level, I noticed a couple sitting around the rather cosy-looking log burner. They’d gone, by the time I took the photo, but sidling up to the bar, and ignoring the two “T”- bars dispensing both faux and genuine craft, lager, and ciders, I ordered myself a pint of Harvey’s Sussex Best – the only cask offering available.

The barmaid had some difficulty in pulling my pint, as the pump was making that splurging sort of noise that is a sure sign the cask is on the verge of running out. I made a remark to that effect, and she agreed, so when the chap who’d been siting in the window came up and requested another pint of Harvey’s, she mentioned about popping down to the cellar, to check things out. I took my pint across to an empty table, in front of the side window, and started drinking it – conscious that I only had half an hour to do so. It seemed OK at first, but after a couple more mouthfuls, I realised it was definitely off.

By this time the girl had enlisted the help of a young lad, and between them they were pulling the fresh pint through. I didn’t have to say anything, and my “end of the cask” pint was replaced without question. Full marks to the bar staff here, and I sat back down to enjoy my pint. A family that had booked for lunch, entered via the rear car park, and were shown through to the other bar, which is obviously the one for posh nosh/fine dining.

I just had time to finish my pint, thank the girl behind the bar, and cross the road to the bus stop opposite. I was able to get some good photos of the pub exterior, before the bus turned up – the same double-decked vehicle I’d arrived on earlier. I boarded, and with only one stop to go, sat downstairs. I must say, sitting on the upper deck on the outward journey, had seemed a little hair raising at times, as the driver put his foot down, trying to make up for the earlier hold-up we’d encountered in Pembury, caused by a narrow road and a bin-lorry doing the weekly collections. I do wonder who routes buses that are more suitable to urban environments, through residential areas where the roads are clogged with inappropriately parked cars.

There wasn’t far to go, as we approached the larger village of Benenden, where on the edge of the green, the second Bull Inn of the day stands, ready to welcome customers. I’d already clocked the pub as we passed through on the outward-bound journey, and it was only a short hop from the bus stop to the pub, but before I’d left the bus, I recognised the person coming down from the upper deck.

Before I’d had the chance to acknowledge me, he was off the bus like a shot, and making his way towards the pub entrance. I hung back a while, primarily to take a few photos of the exterior, but after I’d entered the Bull and made my way into the left-hand bar, I could see no sign of this individual.

He soon appeared, having first visited the Gents and laid claim to a table. He was no less than Jeff Tucker, former chairman of MMK CAMRA, tour-guide extraordinaire and an old friend who I have known for many years. He was as surprised to see me standing at the bar, as I was to see him disappearing off the bus – or perhaps not, because Jeff is both a former bus driver and something of a public transport guru.

His reason for visiting the Bull at Benenden was to carry out a survey for the Good Beer Guide and yes, I am talking about the 2023 edition! So, despite being just a month into the new year, CAMRA branches are already pontificating over next year’s guide, proving that by the time the GBG hit’s the bookshops in time for the all-important Christmas trade, much of the information will already be six months out of date.

The survey didn’t take long, as Jeff had printed off a list of questions, all of which the bar staff were able to answer. Between us we “tested” three of the beers – Dark Star Hophead, Larkin’s Traditional, and Cellar Head Flapjack Oatmeal Stout, and all passed muster! The pub was starting to fill up quite quickly, so it was fortunate that Jeff had managed to secure a table, tucked away on the other side of the bar.

We spent the time catching up on things, some CAMRA related, like the annual Good Friday Ramble, others less so, although I did have to explain why I was unable to make Jeff’s trip to Pilsen, this coming May. The trip had originally been scheduled for May 2020, but due to the pandemic had been scheduled and then postponed  on a further two occasions.  Unfortunately, the trip now clashes with the Baltic cruise that Mrs PBT’s and I have booked for late April-early May.

I was feeling hungry by this point and fancied something to eat. I like to have something solid, when I am drinking at lunchtime, such as a roll or a sandwich, but the Bull’s menu only offered “Light Bites & Starters” or mains. Soup would have been ideal, but with the day’s choice being tomato, I opted instead for a prawn cocktail starter, with brown bread and butter. No ideal, but it filled a hole, as they say. Jeff stayed with his “liquid lunch,” and said he would be catching the same 14.14 bus as me, and then alighting at Cranbrook in order to visit Larkin’s Alehouse – a micro pub, which despite its name, has no connection with Larkin’s Brewery.

He asked if I’d care to join him, but I had to decline due to an errand I’d promised to fulfill for Mrs PBT’s. This involved picking up a fluorescent light tube, in Tonbridge, to replace the failed one in the kitchen. Failing to do this would mean her cooking under reduced light that evening, so being the dutiful husband, I thought it wise to comply.

Before leaving the Bull, I remarked to the barmaid as to how busy the pub was. She said they weren’t expecting such a crowd but were obviously surprised and pleased with the numbers. Perhaps this is the start of the long-awaited recovery in hospitality?  

Jeff and I then boarded the bus, and before he got off at Cranbrook, he pointed out Larkin’s Alehouse to me. He chuckled and asked would my bladder last all the way back to Tunbridge Wells? I said it would, but by the time the bus reached Goudhurst, I was beginning to have my doubts. I decided I’d have to get off in Matfield, visit the strangely named Poet, next to the bus stop, and make use of their facilities.

I would obviously have a beer as well,

 and Matfield was a good place to break my journey, as the No.6 bus passes through, much more frequently than the 297. This meant I could travel back to Tunbridge Wells, or journey in the opposite direction to Paddock Wood, and the train back to Tonbridge. The Gents at the Poet was on the small side, with just one urinal and one closet. Fortunately, neither were occupied, so feeling much relived I approached the bar and ordered a swift half.

Despite the choice of Harvey’s or Cellar Head, I opted for a cool, refreshing and palate-cleansing glass of Pilsner Urquell – my favourite lager and a beer that’s rarely seen on draft in this neck of the woods. It was in good form, which was proof of good turnover, because even keg lagers can become stale, if kept for too long.

I took an instant liking to the Poet, not having been in there before – certainly

not under its present guise. I’ve a feeling I might have been in several decades ago, when this ex-Watney’s pub was known as Standing’s Cross, but there was nothing I could relate to from that time. The Poet at Matfield, to give the pub its proper name, offers an "informal yet refined dining experience," and whilst the menu prices seemed mouth-wateringly high, it still seemed a pleasant enough place to stop by and have a drink. The welcome I received from the staff was sufficient to encourage my return, and that, gentle readers, is the mark of a good pub.


Monday 24 January 2022

Ashford revisited

They say that you should never go back and whilst that is something I have not always adhered to; I feel there is more of a grain of truth in this adage. This post, and the pub-related ones that follow, is an account of last Friday’s return visit to Ashford, made in the company of son Matthew who was perhaps, rather less enthused than I was, at re-visiting the town I grew up in.

I spent my formative years in or around the Kentish town of Ashford. My parents had moved to the town in 1959. I was 3½ years old at the time, whilst my sister was around 18 months. We had moved from London, in search of a better life, trading the cramped rooms the family shared with my paternal grandparents, as well as dad’s brother and his family, for the joys of life in an expanding Kentish town, and the luxury of a new-build, three-bedroomed, semi-detached house.

The fact they were able to make the move, was due to my father working for the Royal Mail, or the GPO as it was in those days. Dad had been able to get a transfer from the London office he was based at (I never did find out which one), to the Crown Post Office in Ashford. Our spacious new abode was a new-build Taylor Woodrow property, on an estate on the edge of the rapidly expanding village of Willesborough.

It wasn’t that far to walk into Ashford, from where we lived, although to shorten the journey time, dad preferred to cycle to and from work. He also had a motorbike and sidecar combination, for transporting the family around.Moving from the familiar surroundings of northwest London to a provincial town, must have been a real culture shock to both my parents, more so for my mother who was not only missing the support of her parents, but was left in the house all day, whilst my father was at work.

I also gather that with a mortgage to pay, money was tight, certainly to begin with. It’s hard to comprehend now, especially as the sum borrowed was a mere £2,000, but everything is relative. We didn’t really go without though, and living just a short drive to the coast, meant trips to the seaside were plentiful. Also, as dad’s position within the Royal Mail advanced, he was able to install central heating, erect a garage and buy a car – a converted Austin A35 van.

Despite there being three years difference in our ages, my sister and I attended the same primary school, starting off at the newly built infants’ school, before transferring at the age of seven, to the junior school, about half a mile away. At the age of 11, I secured a place at the nearby Ashford Boys Grammar School, where I remained for the next seven years.


When I was 14 and my sister 11, the family moved again, this time swapping our three-bed semi, for a detached bungalow, with a large rear garden, in the nearby village of Brook. The latter is a small linear settlement which lies at the foot of the North Downs, close to the much larger village of Wye. It’s main claim to fame is its largely intact Norman church, complete with some original medieval wall-paintings. The village also possessed a rather good pub, the Honest Miller, closed, and boarded up, at the time of writing, although I hear there are plans afoot to restore it to its former glory.

Leaving Brook for another day, it was the our old house at Willesborough, the schools I attended and the town in general, that prompted the return visit to Ashford, 48 years after flying the nest to attend university and make a life for myself. Ashford is a bit of a pain to get to by road, and with the Brexit-related, traffic issues, affecting the M20 motorway, best avoided at the moment. Instead South East Trains will transport you in speed and comfort, to Ashford, following the most direct route possible, from Tonbridge, along what is claimed to be the longest straight stretch of track in the UK.

So, with a journey time of just 40 minutes, letting the train take the strain, was a "no-brainer," particularly to someone with an “Old Git’s” Railcard. I met Matthew outside the station, as I’d had some financial business to attend to in Tonbridge, first thing. There is a half-hourly service to Ashford, and the 10.52 train that we boarded, allowed sufficient time to look around, before we even thought about pubs, beer, and something to eat.

The station calls itself Ashford International, even though very few Eurostar trains stop there anymore. Having cross-channel passenger trains calling there, was always something of a white elephant, and whilst I have made three return Eurostar journeys from Ashford, the opening of another international station at Ebbsfleet, rendered Ashford more or less redundant.  Ebbsfleet itself was another white elephant and, with its so-called “Thames Gateway” connection, something of a vanity project as well.

Somewhat ironically, Ashford station underwent at least two re-builds, prior to the arrival of Eurostar, and I can remember from childhood, the old wooden station buildings, painted in their old Southern Railway colours of cream and green, being pulled down in favour of something more functional and “modern.” We walked up into the town centre, via Station Road, now a busy dual-carriageway, almost devoid of buildings. The shops at the top of the road, along with Tiffany’s café – the scene of many mis-spent teenage afternoons, have all vanished, along with the Duke of Marlborough pub, with its attractive corner turret and clock.

We crossed over and walked up through the town’s War Memorial Gardens, and then through the Vicarage Lane car park, at the back of the Odeon. The latter was another place where I spent much of my youth, and whilst the Odeon is still standing, it has been closed for years and under threat of redevelopment. With its almost intact, art-deco interior, there is a long-running campaign to save it but given the track record of Ashford Borough Council (ABC), I don’t see much chance of its success.

And so, following the alleyway at the side of the cinema, we arrived in Ashford High Street, a wide, attractive, and once bustling thoroughfare, befitting of a busy and successful, market town. Now it is just another pedestrianised precinct, with a few sad-looking shops, and equally sad-looking inhabitants.

A quick word then about ABC, a body that  surpassed even the Luftwaffe in its appetite for the mass-destruction of any buildings of character, but with a peculiar desire for the elimination of the majority of Ashford’s stock of once thriving public houses. The local authority worshiped the motor car and it worshiped modernism, as not content with the bypass taking the A20 around the town, the council decided that Ashford needed a ring road as well. Then, on top of the ring road, the High Street shops needed a service road behind them, so that deliveries wouldn’t conflict with their plans for pedestrianisation.

The ring road involved the widening of existing roads and enhancing the junctions, and as pubs are often sited on street corners, Ashford’s stock of licensed premises took a severe hit. A substantial number of the surviving pubs disappeared following the construction of a modern shopping centre – what our American friends would call a Mall. This involved the demolition of a swathe of Victorian properties, including shops and public houses, the centre of town. To say that the County Square shopping mall tore the heart of Ashford, would be an understatement, but the council hadn’t finished yet.

Mining consortium Charter Consolidated were allowed to construct a massive 9-storey office block in the centre of Ashford. What made things worse was the building was “Y” shaped, so there was no getting away from this ghastly monstrosity, as it as visible from all directions. Even worse was the destruction of one of Ashford’s best surviving pubs, to make way for a service road for the building. So, not only was the multi-room, Lord Roberts one of the town’s best and most characterful public houses, it was also my favourite place for enjoying a beer – a view shared by many of my friends.

Fortunately, one of the only parts of Ashford to escape the wreckers’ bulldozers, were the houses surrounding the churchyard of St Mary’s Parish Church. This oasis of tranquility and antiquity is Ashford’s showcase in the heritage stakes, with almost a dozen listed building, including one housing the town museum.  This tiny area illustrates what might have been, or what could have been, if a more sympathetic and sensitive council had been in charge during the 60’s and 70’s.

Time was getting on and Matthew and I were getting thirsty and hungry.  My plan was to take a bus, alight outside my old school, and then walk along to have a look at what was the family’s first house. We jumped on service bus C, which runs at regular intervals, from the town centre, out to the area’s main hospital – the William Harvey. After getting off, we passed the Fox, the pub that my grandfather liked to visit, when him and my nan came to stay. Apart from a paint job, and the acquisition of the prefix “New,” it didn’t look much different. My old school, on the other hand, had been renamed, after its founder, and had also increased in size.

We continued towards our goal, but what seemed like a lengthy walk at the age of eleven, turned out to be nothing more than a stroll, and it wasn’t long before we reached the estate where the house is located. The property didn’t look a lot different, as apart from a set of replacement UPVC windows, and a new garage, not much had changed.

This is the bit at the beginning of the article which advises, not to go back, although if I’m honest, apart from satisfying my curiosity, I didn’t feel much in the way of emotion. It was good to see that from the outside, the house had been well cared for, but houses were well-built, back in the 1950’s so there wasn’t much that could have gone wrong. 

I wasn’t temped to knock on the door, explain who I was and request a look around, as that would have been far too embarrassing for all concerned. Matthew would never have forgiven me either, so we continued on our way, climbing up the aptly named Windmill Close, towards the local landmark that is Willesborough Mill. The path I had planned to take though, was blocked off, so we headed in the opposite direction to Hythe Road.

Stephen Nunney / Willesborough Windmill / CC BY-SA 2.0
There wasn’t long to go now, before we reached the pub that I’d earmarked for our lunchtime stop, and in my hurry to get there, I forgot to double back for a proper look at the windmill. That will have to wait for another time, but the fully restored smock mill, constructed in 1869 is well worth a look. I often walked past it, as a young boy, on my way home from school.

School was Willesborough County Primary School, and its mainly Victorian stone buildings are still standing at the top of Silver Hill. The school itself, has moved to a new site complete, with all modern facilities, and the original buildings converted to domestic use. We carried on by them, passing under the M20 motorway which has absorbed the former bypass.

Our lunchtime stop was just a few hundred yards away now, but I’m afraid you will have to wait for the next post to find out what it was called, and what it was like.


Saturday 22 January 2022

"Howdy partner!"

I’m not sure that northern, or indeed midland-based readers of this blog, will be aware of  Smith & Western, a company, which is often confused with American armaments manufacturer, Smith & Wesson. The former is a small chain of just seven restaurants, specialising in American-style food, located exclusively, in a small area of the southeast – Surrey, West Sussex and Kent. All Smith & Western outlets have a wild-west theme, with bare floorboards, imitation gas-light illuminations and in the case of the local outlet, a mock-up of an old Pony Express mailroom.

A trifle Kitsch, perhaps, but the company has been trading since 1995, and is well-known in this small corner of the southeast. The Tunbridge Wells outlet is housed in the town’s former West Station, which was one of two railway stations that once served the town. Constructed by the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway, the station opened in 1866, and was much larger that the rival Tunbridge Wells Central.

The latter was opened in 1868, by the South Eastern Railway, and today acts as the town’s main, and indeed, only railway station. Tunbridge Wells West, on the other hand, suffered death by a thousand cuts, as over the years. Some of these cuts were a result of the infamous Beeching Report, whilst  others were "economies"  made by a cash-strapped British Rail,  but lines were closed, and services to places such as East Grinstead, Lewes, Eastbourne and indeed, London were withdrawn. The station remained in use until July 1985, primarily because of a single-track link between the two Tunbridge Wells stations, via Grove Tunnel.

 The closure was a short-sighted decision taken by the notoriously anti-rail Thatcher government, that quite possibly was influenced by the large amount of railway land available at the West Station. The derelict goods and marshalling yard was eventually acquired by Sainsbury’s who constructed a large supermarket and car park on the site.

The attractive old station building, with its imposing, three-storey clock tower, was converted into a Beefeater restaurant, before eventually passing into the hands of Smith & Western. Until the middle of last week, I had never set foot inside the place despite visits to the adjacent Sainsbury superstore and also several spells of working at the nearby Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival.

The reason for the visit was a birthday celebration for a member of Mrs PBT’s extended family. It was her niece’s youngest daughter’s 18th birthday, so a dozen or so of us pitched up, on a rather chilly night, to enjoy a family get together, plus some Tex-Mex-style cooking. We arrived early, due to Eileen getting the time right, so we were invited to sit and have a drink in the bar, whilst waiting of the others to arrive.

The bar is sited in a raised area, away from the restaurant sections, and the Bailey family were its only customers. If you want to sit at the bar, you literally have to get your leg over, and sit astride one of several, rather wide, leather saddles, mounted on posts. Guess which big kid felt compelled to sit on one?

There was no cask available, although I think that back in its days as a Beefeater, the West Station did stock a solitary, token cask ale. Instead, I spotted amongst the keg “levers,” Atlantic Pale Ale, from Sharps. I went for a pint, which lasted through into the meal, but have to report that it tasted slightly stale, proving that even keg beers can “go off” over time. 

When the rest of the party arrived, we were seated in the old “jail” section of pub, that is to say we were seated behind bars! The bar staff were dresses as cowboys, with Stetsons, scarfs etc., but there were no cowgirls to be seen, and as the evening wore on, it became obvious that the restaurant was very understaffed.

This meant the service was very slow, and most of us ended up ordering starters alongside the main courses. The food itself was okay, but wasn’t that special, but the occasion was more probably important and young Holli managed to celebrate her 18th birthday in style. It was largely a female gathering and Matthew, and I made up two of the three blokes present that night. It was good though, to get together with family members after the various lock downs and periods of isolation.

So, all in all, an interesting experience, despite the rather kitsch, set up, and given the style and associated history of the Old West Station, worth a visit. One final point worth noting is the small hotel operation situated on the first floor of the building. Here guests have the choice of nine well-appointed, and reasonably priced rooms, although I believe a wild-west theme pervades there as well. Yeehaw!!

 Final point, the Smith & Western pictured in the first photo, is the company's outlet on the top of Box Hill, in Surrey. Emerging through the trees, whilst walking a short section of the North Downs Way, on New Year's Eve, an American-themed diner was the last place I expected to see!