Sunday, 27 February 2022

Larkin's Alehouse

I had been aware of Larkin’s Alehouse in Cranbrook for quite a few years, which isn’t perhaps surprising, given that this beer-centred, and award-winning outlet opened in 2017. I’ve been meaning to visit for some time, especially as I’ve now got my bus-pass, but the thing that spurred me into doing so, was a comment made on my blog by someone who is an occasional, and very welcome contributor. All contributors are welcome of course, but David Harrison, who I’ve never met, appears to share a mutual knowledge and admiration, of pubs and places that I remember from the times I lived in other areas of Kent.

First, there’s Ashford, where I grew up and went to school, but there’s also Maidstone, the country town of Kent, and the place where I lived for six years, when I first moved back to the county. David had been looking, unsuccessfully as it turned out, for some Larkin’s Porter, and mentioned that he hadn’t seen the beer at all this year, despite it appearing on the “Coming Soon” board at Larkin’s Alehouse. He of course, mentioned that despite sharing a name, there is no link between the Cranbrook pub and Larkin’s Brewery of Chiddingstone.

That conundrum was cleared up, by my visit, but more of that later. Somewhat ironically, I had passed Larkin’s Alehouse, a month or so before, on my trip out to Benenden; and in fact, Jeff - my friend from Maidstone, who I had met earlier that day at the Bull in Benenden, had tried persuading me to join him for a couple of pints, on the return journey. Unfortunately, I was unable to do so, as I needed to get back early to Tonbridge, on that particular day, but having seen where the place was, there was no excuse not to visit.

The chance came last Thursday when, despite the rainy and quite windy conditions, I took the bull by the horns, and set off for Cranbrook, by bus. I wrote about the journey in my previous post, and also waxed lyrical about the delights of this charming little, Wealden town, so cutting to the chase I walked into Larkin’s just after 12.15. The door was open, when I arrived, and there was just one old boy sat at one of the tables. As it happened, he didn’t stay long, but small matter, what was important was the friendly greeting I received from the lady who turned out to be the manager.

I thought at first, that she was one of the owners, but from the conversation that developed over the course of my visit, I discovered this wasn’t the case. Her name was Emma, and her job title is Bar Manager. She asked me if I’d been in before, but after saying I hadn’t, I was given a quick lesson in the basics, starting with the beers. These are written up on the chalkboard, just along from the bar, and show the four brews that are current plus the three that are coming up next.

The beers themselves, are kept in a temperature-controlled room, just off the corridor that run to the back of the pub and are dispensed by gravity. There is nothing finer, in my book, than beer served straight from the cask, unless you are a northerner, of course, who likes several inches of foam on top of your pint! The pub has no cellar, so all beer has to be brought through the pub and stored in a shed at the rear of the property.  A couple of deliveries took place whilst I was there; one from Hop Fuzz and the other from one of the cider suppliers.

And so, to the beer. There were three beers from Cellar Head displayed on the board, and I have to admit beers from this company are not amongst my favourites. There is nothing wrong with them, although I do feel that Cellar Head’s insistence on not fining their beers, does impart a degree of coarseness, which to my way of thinking, detracts from the main event. A substantial number of people obviously disagree with this sentiment, as evidenced by the sheer number of outlets stocking Cellar Head beers, but with an old ale from Long Man brewery as the only alternative, I had little choice but to go with something from the former outfit.

I’d planned to move onto the Long Man brew later, so to start with I opted for the Cellar Head Session Bitter. With an ABV of 4.0%, it was midway between the Session Pale and the 5.0% India Pale Ale, but to give credit where it’s due, my pint was perfectly acceptable, well kept, well-conditioned, and just what was needed to slake my thirst. Long Man Old Man is a 4.3% old ale, and is a beer I’d enjoyed in bottle, a couple of weeks before. This full-bodied, traditional old ale is packed with chocolate and coffee flavours, which complement the soft malt and gentle hop base, and went down very nicely with my lunch.

Lunch took the form of a filled roll – cheese or ham. I went for ham and jolly nice it was too. Supplied by one of the local butchers, it was full-flavoured, tasty and just the right filling for a substantial soft-crust roll. Pork pies are available during the summer months, again sourced from the same butcher. Crisps, nuts, and the inevitable pork scratchings, complement the more solid fayre.

The pub was on the quiet side during most of my visit, with just one other customer - a young lad who came in for a couple of pints and a chat. Emma was happy to chat too, apart from when she nipped out for a “fag break.” It turns out she knew quite a few of the Maidstone CAMRA members, which is hardly surprising given that the pub was awarded, MMK Pub of the Year for 2019. I asked about name of the pub, knowing that there was no relation with Larkin’s Brewery at Chiddingstone, and the story is it is owned by two couples, up in 2017. Larkin’s Alehouse is a conversion of a former shop, and the name comes from the maiden name of the two sisters who set up the business, in conjunction with their husbands.

One of the sisters came in, shortly before I had to leave, and I was introduced, as someone who knows one of the regular helpers behind the bar. I won’t name names, but he is someone who lives locally, who I have known for a long time. I left my card with Emma promising both her and the proprietor that I will definitely make a return visit. I had to leave promptly to catch the bus, and it was a good job I did, as it arrived early – it waited until the allotted time before departing, though!

Larkin’s Alehouse ticks all the right boxes, as far as I am concerned, especially as it is a pub, rather than a micro-pub adhering to the constrictive and over-bearing, Herne rules. With the exception of the spirits, most of the beers, wines and ciders are locally sourced, and the same applies to the snacks. The pub is well liked and well-used by the local community, which is another point in its favour. So yes, I shall be returning, sooner rather than later.


Saturday, 26 February 2022

Cranbrook - “Capital of the Weald”

After a two-week hiatus, due to a bout of Covid and then various named storms; a fortnight when I was unable to journey anywhere, Thursday dawned relatively normal. I say relatively, because an increasingly disjointed, and out of touch dictator, decided to launch an un-provoked and unwarranted invasion on a much smaller, neighbouring country whose only “crime” was trying to do its own thing, in a way that met the aspirations of the majority of its citizens. We will have to see how this pans out over the coming days and weeks, but one thing is for sure, Mrs PBT’s and I won’t be visiting St Petersburg, any time soon.

Moving on to happier things, and what was starting to become my regular “bus wankers’ Friday,” got brought forward a day, primarily due to the weather, and associated travel plans – we have a trip to Dungeness planned for later today. There was also the matter of an overdue VAT return, for one of Eileen’s builder clients, that needed her urgent attention. Busses run on Thursdays, and pubs which might have limited opening times earlier in the week, have much friendlier hours, so far as customers are concerned, on that day as well. In fact, as the friendly lady behind the bar of Larkin’s Alehouse told me, “Thursday is the new Friday.”

Larkin’s Alehouse is located in Cranbrook, a small Wealden town that will form the main content of this post, but it’s an establishment that had long been on my list of places to visit. So, with this in mind, I set off, bus-pass in hand, to make the hour or so’s journey to this unspoilt little gem. It was raining quite heavily as I left the house, and with the small local bus that runs almost from the top of my house cancelled (the beauty of having the Arriva app on my phone), I needed to walk into Tonbridge, in order catch the Ham’s Travel service that runs, right across the Weald, to the slightly larger, and more developed town of Tenterden.

Walking in the rain, reminded me that my shoes are no longer waterproof, and whilst I have a brand-new pair at home, they haven’t been broken in yet. That will be a job for later today! The rain had eased off slightly, by the time I arrived in Tunbridge Wells, and with 40 minutes before the Tenterden bus was due, I had time to call in at the bank, and then grab a cup of coffee. I always prefer an independent operator to the likes of Costa and Starbucks, and fortunately I came across one that I hadn’t before, situated a couple of minutes’ walk from the bus stop.

TN1 Bar & Kitchen, is an attractive and modern bistro, offering breakfast in the morning, meals at lunchtime and evening, plus cocktails and other drinks, throughout the day. Proof of this was the font I noticed, for Meantime Beer. I was the only customer to start with, but I hadn’t been chatting long with the friendly, Turkish owner, when a few other customers appeared. The proprietor told me it was a family-run establishment that aimed to cater for local shoppers, plus visitors to the nearby Assembly Hall and Trinity Theatre. I though it a nice touch when he beckoned in a local road-sweeper, telling him to leave his cart outside, come in to escape the rain, and enjoy for a coffee. The latter was on-the-house, which I thought was a nice and very community-minded gesture.

After and enjoyable and very reasonably priced flat white, I made my way to the nearby stop, and boarded the 297 Tenterden bus. I wasn’t, of course, going the full distance, but after travelling on the same service a month or so previously, I was surprised by the lack of fellow passengers. Was it the rain, or more worryingly, the threat of war that had kept them away? But we will never know, so leaving such gloomy thoughts behind, I settled down to enjoy the journey.

Any gloom was further lifted, by the appearance of the sun, breaking through the clouds, as we journeyed through the delightful villages along the way – places like Matfield, Brenchley, Horsmonden and Goudhurst. We changed drivers at the latter, and I’m still not sure how the rather rotund and slow-footed gentleman, manged to clamber into the driver’s seat and squeeze in behind the wheel. As a friend of ours would say, “He was no stranger to a fish supper,” but he was far more careful and considerate behind the wheel than the driver he replaced. The latter was rather fast for my liking and aggressive with it – perhaps he thought he was commanding one of Putin’s tanks?

We arrived at the pleasant, and some might say quaint town of Cranbrook, shortly before midday. The bus dropped me in the High Street, within sight of Larkin’s Alehouse, but with 10 minutes to opening time, and a lengthy session ahead, before the bus home, I wanted to have a look around first, and renew my acquaintance with a town I’d last visited 30 or so years ago. That visit too was quite a rare one, as Cranbrook, with its narrow and winding streets was by-passed a long time ago, so it’s not even the sort of settlement one passes through on route to somewhere else.

Known as the “Capital of the Weald,” Cranbrook is a small and attractive town, which dates back to early medieval times. The town received a charter from King Edward I to hold weekly markets, and a century later, large numbers of Flemish weavers were drawn to the town, attracted by plentiful supplies of wool, from nearby Romney Marsh, as well as local deposits of fuller’s earth. The latter is a clay material, with a variety of uses, including the de-greasing of wool. This, coupled with the presence of streams that could be dammed in order to power fulling mills, led to Cranbrook becoming the centre of the Wealden cloth industry.

Large “cloth halls,” capable of holding large weaving looms, were constructed, in Cranbrook, as well as the surrounding area, and this, alongside the parallel development of iron-making, led to considerable expansion of the town. Many fine buildings were built, and the Parish Church of St Dunstan, known as the “Cathedral of the Weald,” was enlarged.  The town’s prosperity declined, when the wool trade and ironmaking moved to other parts of the country, most noticeably the north of England, and Cranbrook then became a centre for agriculture.

The railways never properly reached the town, although the short-lived, Paddock Wood to Hawkhurst branch line, did serve nearby Hartley, between 1893 and 1961. Today, Cranbrook remains as a town that time has passed by, but this only adds to its charm, and its narrow medieval streets, lined with attractive houses, many of them constructed in typical, white-painted weatherboard, style, make it a place well worth exploring on foot, and this is what I set out to do, on Thursday.

I began with a visit to St Dunstan’s church, before continuing up towards Cranbrook School, a selective, but non-fee paying, co-educational establishment, with a mixture of both boarders and day pupils. I then retraced my footsteps, and headed off in the opposite direction, to view the town’s impressive windmill. Set on a hill, overlooking north of the town, Cranbrook’s Union Mill, was constructed in 1814. It is a smock-mill, and the tallest such windmill in the country. A noticed, pinned to the door, advised that the mill would be re-opening to the public, from 1st April, and by then, the sails (or sweeps), which were conspicuous by their absence, will have been replaced.

Walking back towards the town centre, I came across numerous small, and independently owned shops, cafés, and restaurants, but for a town of its size, Cranbrook appears quite poorly served by pubs. I was heading of course, for the aforementioned Larkin’s Alehouse, but on the way back, I passed the impressive, brick façade of the George, the town’s most prestigious hotel. Said to date from the 14th Century, the George has obviously been altered and enlarged over the years, and whilst I was tempted to pop in, a glance through the windows, confirmed that it wasn’t really my sort of place. According to What Pub, the George stocks up to three Shepherd Neame beers, and this was another factor in persuading me not to visit.

Just across the road, and occupying a prominent corner position, is the White Horse, described by What Pub as “Cranbrook’s only true local.”  The pub boasts a large, brick-built frontage, and extends upwards for three floors. It certainly looked worthy of a visit, and IF truth be known, I very nearly did. The pull of Cranbrook’s only micro-pub proved too strong though, so I will have to save that experience for another time.

We’ll conclude this brief article on Cranbrook, here, and allow the next one to take a much more detailed look at Larkin’s Alehouse. After all, this establishment was the main reason for my visit to the town.

Sunday, 20 February 2022

The weekend finishes on a high

After an extended weekend of atrocious weather, cancelled trips, and sitting at home, bored kicking my heels, it was good to get out of the house today, visit a classic rural pub, and spend some quality time with son, Matthew.

The day started with breakfast at Chiddingstone Causeway village hall, a move that ushered in the return of what had once been a regular Sunday morning activity for Matthew and I. The pandemic an associated lock-downs put a stop to those breakfasts, as it did to lots of things, so it was good to return and enjoy a hearty and well-cooked, full English classic of bacon, sausage, tomatoes, fried egg, and bread, plus toast. With a cup of tea, and re-fill, thrown in as well, and all for the princely sum of £7!

The Causeway breakfasts take place once a fortnight, and the profits they generate, go towards the upkeep of the village hall, but before you start wondering what the connection is between this small village and me, it is the place where my company is located. Working on the basis that it is good to support local enterprises, for more years than I care to remember, I have enjoyed these breakfasts, usually accompanied by Matthew.

The events have always been well supported in the past, and we have discovered that it pays to arrive early, especially if you don’t want too long a wait for your food, so earlier today we arrived just after 9.15am. Matthew was driving and parked the car at my company’s factory, a few minutes’ walk away, just down the road. We planned to call in there after breakfast, but more of that later.

There were about half a dozen others in the hall, when we arrived, several of whom I know. One was a member of my old department, who told me that the workforce had been sent home early on Friday, because of storm Eunice. Our breakfast duly arrived and was wholesome and tasty. Decent and locally sourced bacon and sausages make all the difference, and were a complete contrast to the rather bland, catering versions we’d had a few weeks ago, at an unnamed café in Tonbridge.

We walked back to the factory afterwards and entered the building. I had the regular checks on the emergency lighting to carry out. These form part of my Safety Advisor remit, and I quite often perform the checks when the building is unoccupied – primarily because the main lights have to be switched off, in order to carry out the checks. Matthew helped me, as he performs a similar role at the High Street retail outlet he works at.

By the time we finished, it was "beer o’clock," so I suggested we try a couple of local pubs in the search for some Larkin’s Porter. We drove out to Chiddingstone village first, passing Larkin’s Brewery on the way. Thoughts of getting a pint at the Castle pub, in the village, were dashed by the number of cars parked along both sides of the street. There was also a group of drinkers sitting outside.

With this in mind, I told Matthew to drive on, and we doubled back to the other pub I had in mind – the Rock, at Chiddingstone Hoath. Regular readers of this blog will know I adore this unspoiled, classic rural inn, set in its equally attractive and isolated rural location.  As the road continued to climb up to the high ground, where the Rock is situated, I was beginning to have doubts as to whether threw would be space in the pub’s car park, but fortunately there was, and we stepped inside.

There was a reasonable amount of people inside, but still, plenty of room. The raised area to the right of the main bar, had tables laid out for diners, and there was a reservation sign (for after 2pm) on the large table by the window, facing the fireplace. We chose to sit at one of the high, bench-style tables, close to the door, but not before ordering our drinks.

Joyfully, Larkin’s Porter was one of the cask ales available, alongside the brewery’s Traditional. Dark Star Hophead was the other offering – a beer that I have noticed on several previous visits. Matthew chose a pint of Amstel, although had he noticed its presence, he would have gone for the Pilsner Urquell. This was his first visit to the Rock, and I don’t think he’d been anywhere quite as basic and unspoiled as this before.

Being a proper country pub, the Rock attracts proper country folk, and by that, I mean “proper country” rather than what used to be called the “gin and Jag brigade” or, worse still, the “green wellington gang.” From our vantage point, at the high table, we could see what was going on, ranging from the loved-up couple, sitting in the window seat opposite, the group with their dogs, crowded round the bar, and the extended family group who came in, slightly after us, complete with parents, children, and grandparents.

They grabbed the group of comfortable chairs, set in front of the log-burner, and it was amusing watching “mum” trying her luck at the “Ringing the Bull” game, set on the wall where the kids and grandma were sitting. She had several near misses, including nearly giving grandma a black eye, but it was quite entertaining, and no real harm was done.

The group also had a rather lively, nine-month-old puppy with them who was looking enviously at the packs of Pipers crisps that Matthew and I were enjoying. Several more groups arrived, including the people with the table reservation, but as one group departed, Matthew recognised one of them as his former headmaster – now retired!

The food that was brought out looked good, but there weren’t as many diners as I thought there might be. The two young girls behind the bar, were doing a sterling job, pulling pints, taking orders, and bringing out the food. One of them also fetched a bowl of water for the puppy. I thought I heard one of them say they’d had several cancellations, due to the stormy weather, but the winds had actually died down by then. 

They’ve certainly got up again now, but not enough to deter a friend, who’d seen my post on social media, from making a visit, earlier this evening, and then posting a photo of his own. Strangely enough, my friend has just posted again on social media, to confirm that the Rock is now open again, mid-week, Tuesday to Thursday. This follows the staffing issues the pub had experienced, at the end of last year.

We took the scenic route home, passing the rocky outcrops at the top of the road which give the pub its name, before dropping down from the high ground of this remote area, and into Penshurst. From there, it was a climb back out of the Medway Valley, and onto Bidborough Ridge. This small section of West Kent ranks amongst my favourite parts of the county.

I amused Matthew by calling it “bandit country,” before explaining that the term was due to its remoteness and feeling of isolation, rather than a place where bad things happen. I’m grateful to have such an attractive area on my doorstep, and equally grateful for the lovely old pubs that lie hidden around some of its narrow lanes, and isolated settlements.


Friday, 18 February 2022

Blown away

48 hours ago, I was looking forward to rounding off the week, with a day out in Bath.  The occasion was another “Proper Day Out,” in the company of a few select members of the Tapatalk - Beer & Pubs’ Forum, and involved visiting a handful of Bath’s finest pubs, including the legendary Star Inn, home of Draught Bass served direct from a jug.

As sometimes happens with the best laid plans, it seemed like nature had other ideas, because when I mentioned the trip, to a couple of work colleagues, they looked at me rather skeptically, and asked if I’d seen the weather forecast for Friday. Admittedly, I had been keeping an eye on the forecast, and saw there was another named storm (Eunice), due to hit the south of the country, on Friday, but like many of these warnings, paid it little heed. Far too often, these events are beefed up, out of all proportion, by the news media.

Not so, in this case, because mid-morning on Thursday, the storm was upgraded, with a rare red warning given. Mrs PBT’s wasn’t at all keen on me travelling, and after checking the websites for the train companies whose services I would be using, neither would I. Both train operators would be operating a much-reduced service, and with 50 mph speed restrictions in place, the return train journey was starting to look untenable.

With one prominent participant also pulling out, I also decided to follow suit, and then set about cancelling my rail ticket. Unfortunately, as my pre-booked tickets were Advanced ones, cancellation wasn’t possible, although time and/or date of travel were, providing the journey was still between the original start and end points.

So, after a bit of faffing about which involved checking the availability of other participants on the trip, I managed to re-schedule my tickets for three weeks’ time. All I need do now, is return my current tickets, by post, to the Trainline and wait for them to process my refund.

Thursday threw up a cancellation of a different kind, this time regarding our long-awaited cruise to various locations, scattered around the Baltic Sea. Queen Victoria, the vessel we were due to sail on, will be staying longer than scheduled in the Caribbean, ahead of some work that requires dry-dock facilities. So as the ship will not be returning to full service until 5th June, our voyage which commenced at the end of April, has regrettably been cancelled.

That was the bad news, but the good news concerns a similar cruise that embarks during the middle of June, and as compensation for the cancellation, we will receive a 110% credit against the deposit we have already made. So, slightly longer to wait, but the weather should in theory be warmer, and the seas calmer, two months further down the line.

Today, storm Eunice hit with a vengeance, and I’m certainly glad not to have ventured outside. Given the ferocity of the winds, it was no surprise that train services across a large swathe of southern England were cancelled, so the decision to postpone the trip to Bath was definitely a wise one. Son Matthew had to go into work, but reported that Tonbridge was extremely quiet, and trade at his shop was very slack.

The day wasn’t entirely wasted, even though it wasn’t the one I’d planned for, and instead of a pleasant saunter around some of Bath’ s finest pubs, I found myself stuck indoors, for the second Friday on the trot. I manged to complete the task I’d started during my period of enforced self-isolation – that being sorting out various paperwork relating to pensions, health matters, house, and home improvements, but it really wasn’t what I wanted to be doing.

We’ll see what the weekend brings and how much damage has been done outside, as there’s at least one fence post requiring additional support. I’d also like a pint or two at a local pub, as it’s a long time since I enjoyed that particular pleasure.

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

I'm Free!

Back in the mid-70’s, Joni Mitchell sang about being “A Free Man in Paris," and a few years earlier, Roger Daltrey, belted out the power ballad, “I’m Free,” whilst performing the part of Tommy, the deaf, dumb and blind boy, in Pete Townshend’s rock-opera, of the same name.

Okay, I’m over-egging the pudding somewhat, but last Sunday morning, after returning a negative lateral flow test for the second day running, I know how Mitchell’s and Townshend’s characters felt.

My release didn’t come quite as early as it might have, as the results I was looking for manifested themselves on the seventh and eighth days of my period of self-isolation, but it did mean I was able to return to work two days earlier than I might have done.

I was also able to escape, not just the confines of the back bedroom – comfortable though it was, but I managed to leave the house as well. I’d been slightly concerned that the car wouldn’t start, after standing idle for eight days, but no problem, it started as usual, at the first turn of the key. I did think though that a reasonably lengthy run would help make up for any fall off in battery power, so I took the vehicle for a spin, up to Sevenoaks, via the A21 dual carriageway.

I asked Mrs PBT’s if she fancied coming with me, having been stuck at home herself for the same period of time, but she declined my offer. I don’t blame her, as it had been blowing up a gale for much of the morning.  Sure, enough when I left, the rain started, following me to Sevenoaks and back.

At Sevenoaks I called in at the large Tesco superstore, which at 2pm on a wet Sunday afternoon was far busier that I thought it would be, or indeed would have liked it to be, but beggars can’t be choosers. As it happens, I didn’t really need much, as Mrs PBT’s has been having groceries delivered, but it was still nice to escape from the house, and the garden too, for that matter. 

A hinted at in the previous post, the garden has been something of a saviour, being easily reached without having to pass through the house. For much of last week the sun was shining, which more than made up for the chilly, north-easterly wind that was blowing.  Several circuits of the garden, from the rear fence to the edge of the front boundary of the drive, led to me clocking up an average of 2,000 steps. It really was my escape, so much so that I don’t know how people who live in high rise apartments managed to self-isolate. Those situations must have been hell, particularly during the lockdowns.

I returned to work on Monday, which itself was a strange feeling. One of my fellow Covid sufferers was back that day, with the other returning the following day. All three of us had similar stories to tell, although neither of my colleagues isolated from their families. In both cases their wife/girlfriend contracted the lurgy, demonstrating just how contagious this particular strain of the virus is.

I was the only person to have lost my sense of smell, although thankfully it started returning on Sunday. I could still taste things though, which is surprising given that taste and smell are linked, but not being able to smell things was a sense I really didn’t want to lose. Although it’s often overlooked, the olfactory realm is the most subtle, but also the most sublime of the five senses, and whilst not in the same league as being able to see, hear and touch, it’s surprising how much you miss appreciating the aromatic delights that accompany a well-cooked and nicely presented meal, a hoppy pint of beer, the scent given off from a vase of flowers or the smells associated with just being outdoors.

All three of us report feeling tired and somewhat washed out, but as a bonus have been sleeping really well. As one colleague said, the sound of that alarm clock came as real shock on Monday morning, but where do we go from here?

At a meeting this afternoon, we discussed reviewing the procedures we have in place to combat the spread of Covid. This comes less than a month after updating our Covid risk assessment. The consensus was that in some ways we are fighting a losing battle, especially with the government set to scrap most remaining anti-Covid restrictions at the end of the month.

It’s possible to sense a real, yet understandable sense of weariness amongst the public at large, many of whom have abandoned face coverings in crowded indoor situations. That’s just one example, albeit the most visible, and it may well be that we will just have to learn to live with this particular Coronavirus, as we have done with all the others.

As a responsible employer though, we have a duty to take care of our workforce, but in a way that comes across as not too restricting or too draconian. This basically means we will rely on common sense and people’s general decency in the way they behave and interact with one another, because whilst at the end of the day we’ve all had our fill of the SARS-CoV-2, virus, we want to get back to living our lives in a way that minimises any threat to our general welfare and sense of well-being.

Friday, 11 February 2022

Tipping and gratuities - are they still necessary in a modern world?

Being at a loose end, at the moment, I’ve decided to crack on with a post about “tipping.”  This is the article I've been meaning to write for quite some time so, seeing as I'm still confined to my quarters, here goes. I apologise in advance for offending anyone, especially Americans, some of whom are family members, but I find the whole practice quite archaic, often patronising and worse still, rather servile.

"Tipping" is an a an act which, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary is, “giving an amount of money to someone who has provided a service, especially in a hotel or restaurant.” This is almost universally understood, especially in the British Isles, but further afield the act of tipping someone, takes on a much greater significance.

When further afield extends to across the Atlantic Ocean, and to the United States in particular, that “greater significance” is much more pronounced, but before making that crossing, I want to look first at what goes on in this country, and any conventions that might be attached to the practice.

Like many people growing up in Britain, I learned that it was normal practice to offer an additional sum of money to people engaged in certain professions, particularly those who had rendered a service of one sort or another to you. That sum of money is usually referred to as a “tip,” although the correct technical, and probably legal term as well, is a “gratuity.” The tip, of course, is given in addition to the basic price of the service.

The occupations which normally warranted a tip were, hairdressers, taxi drivers and waiting staff – in restaurants. You were also expected to tip hotel porters, and possibly luggage porters at large railway stations, but as a child, the family never stayed at a hotel, and because we had a car, long-distance rail journeys were also, never undertaken.

This leads onto the question of, how much should one tip? The answer was, and still is in many cases, 10% of the bill total or, in the case of exceptional service, a higher amount 15% upwards, and this has been a rule I have normally worked to, but none of it answers the question as to why some workers are deemed worthy of a tip, whilst most are not? I often thought, particularly when I was younger, that because no-one ever offered me anything extra for doing my job, why should I be expected to offer an additional payment to a stranger, just for doing theirs?

I’m obviously older, and I’d like to think wiser as well, but offering gratuities does seem restricted to those who offer us a very personal service. Things don’t get much more personal than having our hair cut, and the fact that taxi drivers offer a personalised door to door service that often involves helping with a person’s luggage as well, brings them into the same category as well.

Then there are the waiters and waitresses, the people who take our order in a restaurant, but also in something slightly more basic, such as a pub or bar.  They don’t just scurry off with our order and then bring the food to our table. Sometimes they offer suggestions, or recommendations and, depending on the standing or status of the establishment, may even serve the food up in front of us. This also is a very personalised form of service and is why it is almost universal practice to give these people a tip.

But when and where to draw the line, and should you feel compelled to offer a tip, especially if you have received slow or poor service? This is where things become tricky, and boundaries can become blurred, but before going any further, it’s worth taking note of a small piece of advice, I once read. It said that the word “TIPS” is an acronym meaning To Insure Prompt Service, which almost implies handing over the gratuity, prior to receiving the goods or service – almost as if it were some form of insurance policy.

Well, I don’t know about that, but it does rather tie in with what one researcher categorised as 5 motivations for tipping:

1. Showing off.

2. To supplement the server’s income and make them happy.

3. To improve future service – as mentioned previously.

4. To avoid disappointment from the server.

5. A sense of duty.

In my opinion, the first and the last of those “motivations” are probably the main ones for people to leave a tip, but before looking at the history behind the origins of this practice, let’s make that journey across the Atlantic to the good old US of A. I discovered there, more or less straight away, that waiting staff in establishments ranging from top nosh restaurants to the humble diners, not only expect a gratuity for their services, but are also quite adept at showing their feelings when they don’t receive one. The same applies in bars, even where the staff are just pouring you a drink.

I found this out in a bar at Cincinnati Airport, whilst waiting for a connecting flight. I had only just arrived in the country, and after an unfortunate incident involving a Customs & Border Protection agent, I really needed a beer. I describe the “incident” as unfortunate and whilst with hindsight, the remark I made wasn’t perhaps the most sensible thing I’ve uttered, but if whilst queuing to enter a foreign country, you are asked the question below, you might be tempted to give a similar response.  

“Do you have more than $100,000 about your person?” To which I

replied, “No, but I wish I had!” Ask a daft question and expect an equally daft answer, was my logic, but like most government officials CBP agents are lacking in a sense of humour, and I was told, rather firmly, to stand to one side, asked all sorts of other questions, whilst a detailed search of my luggage was conducted. It could have been worse, and there were no invasive body searches, or anything similar involved, so after feeling rather foolish, I was looking forward to that beer!

It was America, and people sit at the bar. This type of behaviour is frowned

upon back home, and viewed as “bar blocking,” at least amongst most of the people I mix with, but seems the norm in the US. There was a good selection of beers available, although I can’t remember now which one, I opted for. They were dispensed of course, from an array of different taps, mounted along the back wall, directly opposite where I was sitting. All the bar person had to do was pick up a glass, pour the beer, turn around and plonk it on the counter in front of me, so I thought little of it. I handed over a $10 bill, pocketed the change and started necking my first beer on American soil.

I thought the bar tender had looked rather strangely at me, when I pocketed the change, and it wasn’t until the woman sitting next to me, pointed out that I should have given a tip, that the penny dropped. A tip for pouring a beer – a task that involved a minimum of effort, and yet they expected a gratuity? I pleaded ignorance and muttered something about tipping double for the next beer, except there wasn’t a next beer, because when the same woman asked me which part of Australia I was from, I decided the conversation was going nowhere, and it was time to leave.

The experience did prove an important lesson in awareness of the different customs and behavioural etiquette that might be encountered in a foreign country, and over the course of that visit and the subsequent one, I slowly became acclimatised to the requirement for tipping. My sister and her American husband were at pains to explain that hospitality staff, in the US, relied on gratuities to supplement the low, basic wage they received. I can understand this if it wasn’t expected. As argued earlier, a tip or gratuity is offered for the personalised service received, as per a haircut, or help with one’s luggage. Flicking the lever of a tap with your index finger, does not exactly tick the box of “personal service” in my book!

Despite having now lived a quarter of a century in the USA, my sister has similar views to my own, namely pay your workers a decent living wage so they don’t need to rely on the vagaries of gratuities but returning briefly to the question of “entitlement” it’s worth sharing the following story, relating to my last visit.

The three of us had been out for the day – if my memory serves me correctly it was a drive along to the area of downtown Cleveland, known as The Flats. This is a thriving area of bars, restaurants and boutiques that has sprung up quite recently along the banks of the Cuyahooga River before

it flows into Lake Eire. After an afternoon wandering around several street markets, and calling in at the odd bar or two, we were feeling rather peckish, so decided to pick up a Chinese takeaway on the way back to the house.

I said I would pick up the tab, so my brother-in-law phoned the order through, and 30 minutes or so we turned up at the restaurant to collect the meal.  All very straight forward until I went to pay, and my brother-in-law informed me I needed to add a tip. “For a takeaway?” I said, “are you kidding?” “No, it's expected,” was my brother-in-law's reply. So reluctantly, and bearing in mind I was in a foreign country, I added the 15% to the “add service gratuity” option on the card machine.

My sister, who had been waiting in the car, felt embarrassed, and agreed with me that a gratuity for a takeaway, that you pick up yourself, was taking the p*ss. As with pouring the beer, handing over a carrier bag full of foil containers, wasn’t in my view worthy of extra payment, even though the meal itself was excellent. Perhaps the money should have gone to the chef, rather than the bloke behind the counter?

Returning closer to home, and to trips to Europe – remember them? As we know, table service is pretty much universal across most of the continent, even if you are just stopping by for a few beers. Even closer than western Europe, is Britain itself where, for several parts of the pandemic, pubs and bars were required, by the Covid- restrictions, to operate on a table-service only basis.

It wasn’t popular with customers or with publicans, meaning extra waiting times for customers, and increased staffing costs and slower turn-over for landlords. We’re just not used to this type of service in the UK, and if I’m honest, I often find it rather frustrating when I’m abroad., as well.

I’ve raised the subject of table service primary because it relates to tipping again, and the verdict is that in much of Europe, tipping, whilst welcomed, is not automatically expected. I will normally round a bill up to the nearest whole number, or perhaps add a couple of extra Euros if the food, drink, and the evening were exceptionally good.

The same, of course, applies here in the UK, where again there is no automatic expectation of a tip. This does rather leave the United States out on a limb, and whilst the intention of this article, right from the start, was

not to knock our friends and, in my case, relations on the other side of the Atlantic, one does have to ask why one of the richest and most powerful nations on earth leaves millions of its workers reliant on the generosity of others, rather than paying them a true living wage.

Final word on the subject – tipping very much depends on the customs and social etiquette of the country you are visiting. As already covered, tipping is expected in the USA, but there are also parts of the world where it is discouraged and may even be considered as insulting. Japan and Korea fall into this category, so the best advice is to follow local practice, and remember the old adage of “When in Rome, do as the Romans.”