Thursday 31 March 2022

Even in the most unexpected places

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned I had called into the Vauxhall Inn, for a quick pint. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the weather, which was wet and windy, wasn’t exactly conducive to gardening.  So, needing an excuse to stretch my legs and get out of the house, the Vauxhall fitted the bill, even though at the time, I considered it something of a distress purchase.

I was feeling too lazy to walk down to a proper pub, such as the Nelson, or a beer café like Fuggles, so the Vauxhall it was, because when it comes to pubs, there is not much choice within the proximity of Bailey Towers. In fact, since the closure and subsequent demolition of the Primrose, the Vauxhall and the Cardinal’s Error are the only hostelries within 10 minutes’ walk of home and picking a pub from those two is pretty much Hobson’s Choice.

The Cardinal’s has been unknown territory since before the pandemic. It’s a typical estate pub, but not your typical estate
pub building. So instead of a flat-roof, concrete box, we find instead an attractive old tile-hung pub which in 1949, was converted from two former farm cottages to serve the surrounding post-war housing development.

As with the Vauxhall, which I will come onto in a moment, I’ve enjoyed a mixed relationship with the Cardinal’s Error over the years. When I first started working in Tonbridge, which was some five years before I moved to the town, the Cardinal’s was a good place to enjoy a lunchtime drink. No one really batted an eyelid back then, about having a couple of pints at lunchtime, and the pub did serve a particularly well-kept pint of Fremlin’s Bitter.

The pub had two bars, back then, which were very different and distinct from one another, but this arrangement worked. Things changed a decade or so later, and whilst I can’t remember exactly when the changes took place, they were to the detriment of both bars. Today, the Cardinal’s is divided internally into two distinct drinking areas by a massive brick chimney, with open fireplaces either side.

The cosy atmosphere of the former saloon bar vanished, as did the rough and ready feel of the public bar, and today there is still an uneasy truce between the two halves. The Cardinal’s also turned into much more of a local’s pub than it had been previously (probably due to the demise of the lunchtime, office, drinking crowd). There’s nothing wrong with this change, of course, but the pub isn’t really some where to go for a quiet drink, especially when one is on ones’ own.

For these reasons, it was the Vauxhall that I headed along to the other Sunday, and despite my initial misgivings, the pub managed to tick many of the right boxes. The Vauxhall is a former coaching inn, sited on what was, once the main road between London and Hastings. When my wife and I first moved in with one another, we had a dog, and our canine companion needed plenty of exercise.

There is an area of enclosed grassland, sandwiched between the A21 Tonbridge Bypass and a track leading up from the Vauxhall pub. It is the site of the former municipal tip, although the tips has been filled in and the area grassed over. It is known, rather unimaginatively, as “The Field,” but it provided a good area to allow the dog a good run around, and then repair to the Vauxhall for a couple of pints.

The Vauxhall was the perfect place to go, as with The Field sandwiched in between home and the pub, the dog and I could combine exercise with an hour or two in the pub. Like many local pubs back then, the Vauxhall was owned by Whitbread.  It was fairly basic and perhaps a trifle run down, but it had character and a welcoming open fire in the winter, plus a couple of well-kept cask beers from the Whitbread stable.

Sometime in the late 80’s the Vauxhall was sold off to a local pub company, who had a small number of pubs scattered across West Kent and underwent a major renovation. This was much more than just a quick paintjob, as the pub was changed out of all recognition. It was extended to the rear and was joined with the adjacent, free-standing, former stable block, effectively increasing the size of the pub by a factor of three. The original part of the building contained the bar, whilst the rear extension, plus the old stable block formed the main dining areas.

The proper open fires were replaced by fake, gas-fuelled "log-effect" ones and the place re-opened as a "Chimneys" restaurant.  Dogs of course were no longer welcome, so I too decided that my custom was not wanted either and took myself off elsewhere. That was getting on for 30 years ago, and the Vauxhall has slowly mellowed since its enlargement. The extension has blended in so seamlessly with the original pub, that unless you are in the know, you would be hard pushed to distinguish the old parts from the new.

The Vauxhall is now a Chef and Brewer pub, and despite various ups and downs over the years, is a pleasant enough place to go for a quiet drink. Mrs PBT’s and a group of her friends, reported back on a very nice post-Christmas meal, and get together at the pub, which provided further encouragement plus a reason for me to call in. I noticed that the customers are encouraged to use the side entrance, rather than the one at the front, and this is possibly a left-over from Covid restrictions. The sign, asking customers to wait to be seated was probably the same, because as soon as I was spotted and declared that I just wanted a drink, I was informed I could go and sit anywhere in the front part of the pub.

There was a reasonable number of customers in the bar area, including a student working away on a laptop, at a table in the corner. I walked up to the counter and ordered a pint of Black Sheep Pale Ale – the other cask ale was Greene King IPA, and stood at the bar for a while, watching the comings and goings. Judging by the number of people with dogs, the Vauxhall seemed very canine friendly, a real change from when it first re-opened after its enlargement.

There was a young girl with a puppy, sat at one side of the bar, plus an older gent with a quite boisterous beagle. I struck up a conversation with him, and it turned out that he lived locally, and normally drank in the Nelson. He had called in at the Vauxhall, for a change – rather like me really, and again like myself, was enjoying the Black Sheep. This was a pale coloured and well-hopped ale, which I believe is a relatively newcomer from the Black Sheep pen (horses are kept in stables, whilst sheep are kept in pens!)

Later on, as if to complete the canine line-up, a couple came in accompanied by a large and rather elegant looking Afghan hound. All in all, it was a pleasant half hour or so’s interlude, and all things being equal, I’m quite likely to call in again.

With the diners tucked away, in the lower (rear) part of the pub, it was difficult to tell how busy the lunchtime food trade had been, but there were plenty of cars parked outside, so I imagine business must have been quite brisk.

For those contemplating a longer stay, there is a Premier Inn adjacent to the pub, which makes this a good base for those visiting this attractive part of West Kent; although like many of the chain’s other hotels, there is a busy main road within earshot.


Tuesday 29 March 2022

Re-visiting the Bourne Valley

Last Friday’s trip made use of the 222 bus, operated by Autocar. It is a service the local CAMRA group and I have used in the past, and it runs between Tonbridge and Borough Green. It also runs to Tunbridge Wells a couple of times a day, but this seems to be connected with the school run.

There were three pubs on our schedule that day, starting with an old favourite, and ending with one that we don’t often manage to visit. It was a lovely sunny day, with hardly a cloud in the sky, as we boarded the 11.22 bus in Tonbridge. There was a reasonable number of people on board, apart from ourselves, which is encouraging given the looming threat of cuts to bus services.

We alighted from the bus on the edge of the hamlet of Dunks Green, right outside the Kentish Rifleman – our first pub of the day, and the one we would be spending the most amount of time at. As I mentioned earlier, this attractive 16th Century pub is a long-time favourite and one we have visited on numerous occasions, but only once before by bus. Previous visits have normally involved walking uphill from Hadlow, towards the slopes of the Bourne Valley, and then cutting across to Dunk’s Green.

The Rifleman is a very difficult pub to photograph as the sun is invariably behind the building making the chances of a decent photo almost impossible, and given the conditions on Friday, the same applied. Inside the pub, there is a long room at the front, which serves as a public bar, with another room behind. This also has access to the bar-counter/serving area, but then leading off to the right, and behind the centrally placed chimney breast, is a further room still, which serves as a dining area.

The pub opens at 11.30, so arriving 15 minutes later there was still plenty of room inside. Given the fine weather we opted to sit in the garden, although as the lawn had been re-seeded, we were directed to a marquee at the back, that had been erected on the patio. The landlord advised us that those of us wishing to eat (all of us), would be wise to order sooner, rather than later, as they were expecting several parties of visitors that lunchtime.

There were four cask beers on sale – one too many as we subsequently discovered, and these were Harvey’s Best, Tonbridge Traditional, Old Dairy Blue Top and Pig & Porter Jumping Frog. I had a half of the Tonbridge, plus the Pig & Porter beer, before ending up with a pint of Harvey’s.  All were very good, so when one member of the group announced that the Blue Top wasn’t at its best, I felt somewhat relieved not to have chosen it. However, it does begs the question, is four one cask ale too many?

Food-wise, I opted for the homemade, steak & ale pie – somewhat predictably, although only after checking that it was a “proper pie.” I do think that the message has got through on this issue, as the infamous casseroles with pastry lids, masquerading as pies, now seem few and far between – good! Served with new potatoes, gravy, plus a selection of seasonal vegetables it was not too filling, but just the right amount. As the lunchtime wore on, all these areas started to fill up, mainly with diners, but their number did include a good sprinkling of drinkers.

After a most pleasant stay, where we witnessed the Kentish Rifleman as busy as I can remember, it was time to move. We thanked the staff and moved outside to wait for the bus. The sun was still problematic as far as photography was concerned, but the thing that really amazed us, was the row of parked cars stretching out down the hill, as far as we could see.

One member of our party remarked that it was a shame that some of these customers didn’t think to travel to the Rifleman by bus, but as another replied, fuel prices will have to rise far more steeply, than at present, for people to even contemplate abandoning their cars.

The second pub was just a five-minute ride away, in the nearby village of Plaxtol. We were somewhat surprised when the bus came into view, to discover it was a double-deck vehicle, particularly in view of the narrowness of some of the lanes on this route. We flagged it down, and the tour leader asked the young driver if we could be dropped off outside the pub, rather than at the official stop, which is the church, at the top of the hill. “No problem,” was the reply, although still somewhat amused to have picked up six passengers in such a rural location.

The Papermaker’s Arms, is an imposing Victorian building that is now the only pub left in a village that once boasted seven, and it seemed to have had something of a makeover since the last time I visited. That occasion was over a decade previously, and despite my initial surprise at the alterations, they seem to have worked, and if anything, the Papermaker’s seems more popular than ever.

The interior has been divided into two, by a sleeper wall, with a dining area to the left and the bar, plus drinking space to the right. Timothy Taylor’s Landlord and Larkin’s Traditional were the beers on sale, although I couldn’t help noticing the hand pulls were dwarfed by the line-up of oversized keg fonts dominating the bar counter. The two girls behind the bar were pleasant and friendly, and appeared to have everything well under control.

The Landlord was "drinking well," as the saying goes, and it was standing room only in the bar area. Contrast this with the dining area, where only a couple of tables were occupied, although to be fair, the area of raised decking at the rear of the pub, was well occupied – hardly surprising in view of the fine weather. Checking back on the photos I took during my previous visit, the decking wasn’t there, and neither was the car park, but I didn’t get a chance to see whether the rather pretty and rustic looking garden at the far rear of the plot was still in existence. We only had a half hour at the Papermaker’s before the return bus was due, but we saw enough to confirm that the pub was thriving.

It’s worth noting that this part of Kent, which is known as the Bourne Valley, was formerly a centre for paper-making, on a pre-industrial scale. The area takes its name from the stream which flows through its midst, so given Plaxtol’s association with this once thriving industry, the Papermaker’s Arms is a highly appropriate reminder of this trade.

We waited outside for the return bus, which took us on to the final pub of the day – the Chaser, at Shipbourne. Apart from the parish church, and the adjacent pub, Shipbourne has the appearance of a village without an obvious centre, but the large open space opposite the pub, which is where the bus dropped us, is popular with walkers and others who appreciate the great outdoors.

Judging by the number of parked cars, we expected the Chaser to be bursting at the seams, but it is a rather large pub, with an equally large garden, and given the warm weather, many customers were enjoying a spot of early spring sunshine. We made our way indoors, and after traversing the rooms at the front of the building, reached the centrally located serving area.

This was only my third visit to the Chaser, a pub which takes its name from the racehorses that are trained and stabled at the nearby Fairlawne Estate. The Chaser is part of the Whiting & Hammond group, a small, local chain of slightly upmarket food-oriented pubs. One of the company’s other pubs is the Little Brown Jug, just 10 minutes’ walk away from where I work in the linear village of Chiddingstone Causeway.

Comparing the two, it is relatively easy to spot a common thread, although I should add that pubs within the group are permitted a fair degree of autonomy. The beer range at the Chaser was certainly interesting with Musket Ball Puller, and Gun Brewery Chummy Bluster, complementing local favourite, Larkin’s Traditional.

We took our beers through to the front room at the far-left corner of the pub, and for a while had the place to ourselves. My pint of Musket beer was very good, demonstrating that beers from this brewery, who are based just outside Linton, to the south of Maidstone, have improved in quality over the past few years.

This final session afforded the perfect opportunity of catching up with friends, most of whom I hadn’t seen since before Christmas. Like me they’d been slowly resurfacing and getting back into the swing of things, although again like myself, two of them had also had Covid. It’s fair to say that all of us remain thankful that the vaccines had mitigated the worst effects of the virus, allowing us to get back on with our lives after a relatively brief period of isolation.

Being a CAMRA outing, most of the group were discussing the weekend’s forthcoming Good Beer Guide selection meeting, but not having to attend such an event was, as far as I was concerned a real bonus and yet another reason to be thankful!  We caught the 15.29 bus back to Tonbridge, where five of us decided to give the recently rennovated, Ivy House a try. There’s not a huge amount to report, although I might post a short article at a later date. Spoiler alert – the pub is still operating a table service regime –  you have been warned!


Saturday 26 March 2022

A brief catch-up

I went on another bus trip yesterday, and it’s almost as though these days out, by public transport, have become a regular Friday event. Yesterday’s trip was organised by West Kent CAMRA, and whilst I am no longer a member of the Campaign for Real Ale, I am still on their mailing list, and receive regular updates along with their newsletter.

Prior to lock-down, the branch introduced these end of the week bus trips as a means of getting out into parts of the branch area that were either difficult, or even impossible to reach during the evening. I am referring of course, to being able to reach outlying locations by public transport, and whilst this provides a reasonable service during the day, public transport is nearly always, non-existent at night. The situation doesn’t really apply to rail services, as these tend to run well into the evening, but on the other hand, trains run to far fewer places than buses

By their very nature, the daytime CAMRA bus trips cater mainly for retired, or otherwise non-working people, with those in the former category usually having bus passes as well. This is where I come in, and whilst I have missed a few trips recently, due to them clashing with other events, I am happy to join my former CAMRA colleagues in visiting some of these outlying pubs, wherever possible.

Yesterday’s trip took in three pubs to the north of Tonbridge, including one that afforded the opportunity of a spot of lunch. Full details will be revealed in a separate post, but the really positive thing which struck all six of us who took part in the trip, was how busy all the three pubs were.The fine weather may have had something to do with it, but we got the impression that this wasn’t the overriding factor. Their popularity might have been down to the day of the week – Friday, but again I feel this was a minor factor, rather than a major one.

The previous day saw Mrs PBT’s and I making a trip to IKEA. The Swedish store has two outlets within relatively close distance to Bailey Towers, namely Croydon and Lakeside. We opted for the latter, as it allowed me to use my Dartford Crossing account – last used in February 2021! It is only a 30-mile/30-minute journey, but I know from the times I used to travel to Norfolk that congestion at the approaches to the Dartford Tunnel, can often considerably increase this time. Also, as Friday is invariably the worst day of the week for travelling, it made sense to schedule our visit for a Thursday.

Luck was on our side for both outward and return trips, although it is usually the former where the hold-ups occur. The stretch where the A2 joins the northbound M25 is normally a notorious bottleneck, but on Thursday we were able to maintain the 60mph speed limit. Remembering to take the older, left-hand bore, we were through the tunnel in next to no time, and after negotiating the numerous roundabouts at Thurrock, were driving into the car park at IKEA.

IKEA was also devoid of the crowds which normally plague the place – families on a cheap day, whilst their kids run amuck around the store. We therefore felt at ease ditching the face-coverings because as one HSE official said to me the other day, distance and ventilation are the key factors in reducing the risk of infection, far more so than surface disinfection.

Unfortunately, the replacement office chair that Mrs PBT’s selected, was out of stock when we reached the warehouse area on the lower floor. That didn’t stop her from buying various plants, associated pots, plus one or two other items “that might come in handy.” The psychologists responsible for the layout of the store are rather clever in that respect.

We had to go for a meal, of course, and what could be more IKEA and more Swedish than meatballs? Priced at just £5.50 per plate, Eileen had chips with hers, whilst I went for the healthier (slightly), mashed potato. Topped off with peas and gravy the meal was tasty and satisfying, without being over-filling. There was a decent cup of coffee, priced at £1.50, to finish up with, and then surprise, surprise, as we joined the queues downstairs for the checkouts, what should be lurking in one of the freezers, but packs of frozen Swedish meatballs. (We picked up two packs, as you do).

Continuing the "cheap coffee theme" for a moment, earlier that morning, I broke my boycott of Wetherspoons by calling in for one of their coffees. I had an appointment at the barbers, and needed some change, in order to tip the hairdresser – see my post on tipping, and reluctant to fork out three quid for a Costa (nice though they are), a £1.20 refillable coffee from Spoons would provide both the change plus the caffeine fix I needed.

With time of the essence, I went for the take-out option, so no refill, but it did allow me the chance to sit down and enjoy my drink, in a sunny spot, next to the river. Pensioners enjoying a coffee or two, seemed to make up the majority of the Humphrey Bean’s customers that morning, but with just a fleeting visit to go by, perhaps I missed the usual early morning Stella drinkers.

I did stop to take a few photos of the set-up, close to the bar, promoting their forthcoming Beer Festival. The pub was also celebrating 12 consecutive years in the Good Beer Guide, so it must be doing something right as far as the CAMRA’s are concerned! It’s still not my scene though, but to be fair the Bean certainly provides a thriving and useful amenity for the local community, and guess what? There wasn’t a mobility scooter in sight, inside or out!

I shall sign off there, as you won’t want to read about my haircut!