Wednesday, 27 April 2022

The Chequers, Laddingford - a beer festival for the whole community

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am no longer a fan of large-scale beer festivals, although by this, I mean events held in large venues, where lots of different beers may be sampled. In the main these festivals tended to be CAMRA organised and CAMRA run events, and whilst this isn’t always exclusively the case, it’s a good enough description to convey what I am referring to.

My reasons for avoiding these events are many and varied, and also well-documented, so I won’t go into them here, but there are certain beer festivals, such as those organised by a local pub, that I am more than happy to attend. Pub beer festivals tend to be relatively small scale and combine the atmosphere of a traditional pub with the chance to sample a range of beers that the pub wouldn’t normally stock. They invariably attract a wide and varied crowd, which adds to their appeal, and often feature live music as well.

Such festivals sometimes take place within the confines of the pub, but more often than not, they are held in land adjoining it, such as the garden or sometimes a neighbouring field. This is because they are normally summer events, and to my mind, there is nothing finer than enjoying a few pints in the great outdoors. The beers and the serving area will normally be located in a marquee, or possibly an outbuilding, for both security reasons, and for protection against the vagaries of a typical English summer.

It is to just such an event that I went this Sunday, the day that happened to be the final one of my recent 11-day mini break. Although I’d enjoyed a couple of hikes over the course of the break, we hadn’t been out as much as a couple as I originally intended. Apparently, I’d picked the “wrong week,” as Mrs PBT’s was snowed under with tax and VAT returns, all courtesy of a motley collection of builders and tradesmen who seem to work for last minute dot com.

As my tax affairs are controlled by the company’s pay roll department, I don’t need to concern myself with such matters, as like it or not, the tax is deducted at source. Like most people on PAYE, I have little or no say in the amount of tax I pay, the upside being I don’t have to file a tedious tax return each year. This is not the case in the world of the self-employed, where tax owed, is paid on account, six months in advance and six in arrears.  To make things worse, HMRC can levy fines for late returns and/or payments, but this doesn’t seem to bother you average jobbing builder.

I mentioned before, carrier bags stuffed full of crumpled invoices and receipts, all liberally sprinkled with cement dust, being left in the front porch, just days away from the final deadline. Mrs PBT then has to pull out all the stops, to disentangle the mess and get the county’s finest tradesmen off the hook, sometimes with just hours to spare.  She does charge appropriately for this rushed, and at times quite fraught work, but as she points out, it feels like she is working solely for HMRC rather than the contractors concerned.

The long and the short of it, there was very little free time for us to go out somewhere as a couple. I had made tentative plans for a day trip to Salisbury, as a sort of post birthday treat to myself, but this was scuppered when realised the gas engineer was calling on the Friday, to service the boiler. All boring domestic stuff, but essential too, especially as our boiler is approaching the end of its serviceable life.

So, with time fast running out, I was determined to at least go somewhere before the 11 days were up and a fast-looming return to work. One idea was to knock off a further section of the North Downs Way, but that would have meant an early start on Sunday morning. Also, my knee was playing up again, the result of spending too much time out in the garden last week, and this is where the idea of attending a local beer festival came in.

I had it in the back of my mind that the Chequers at Laddingford were running their regular beer festival in honour of St George’s Day. This annual event takes place in the pub itself and also in the extensive garden behind. Despite the festival having run for “years,” I had never been before, so Sunday was the perfect opportunity to make amends. The Chequers is an attractive oak-beamed building dating from the 15th Century, and it is no exaggeration to describe it as the heart of village life. The pub hosts a variety of events, including the aforementioned beer festival. Matthew and I made an evening visit there, at the beginning of December and enjoyed a nice, home-cooked meal, but Sunday was the first time I have been there in daylight.

The entry in What Pub, states that Beltring railway station is just 20 minutes’ walk away from the pub, so deciding to put this to the test, I boarded the 12.33 train from Tonbridge. Beltring is the first stop after Paddock Wood, on the Medway Valley Line, and is little more than a halt. It was constructed primarily for the army of hop pickers who arrived yearly, each autumn, to work at the nearby Whitbread Hop Farm, but today sees very few passengers.

There are two very basic and rather bare looking concrete platforms – and up and a down one on either side of the tracks. The only concession to modernity are the steel and glass shelters – one on each platform. There is no car park, and barely any room for a vehicle to pull in and drop someone off. To my surprise one other passenger alighted from the train, apart from me, although having stopped to take a few photos, I didn’t see which way he went.

After crossing the tracks, I headed off along the road, in the direction of Yalding, with the intention of taking a cross-country footpath to Laddingford. The road was much busier than I anticipated, but fortunately, in most parts, there was a verge where I could take refuge from on-coming traffic. It was nowhere near as bad as the recent “Hampshire experience” described by GBG ticker Simon, aka BRAPA, but I still needed to keep my wits about me. I was rather relieved therefore to reach the shady, tree-lined footpath and branch off towards Laddingford.

Towards the end of the path, there was a narrow concrete footbridge, over a stream, and it wasn’t long afterwards that I could hear the sounds of people enjoying themselves. The path enters Laddingford at the side of the pub and so, true to the What Pub description, I’d arrived in the village 20 minutes after leaving Beltring station.

The festival was in full swing, with an ample crowd of people sat at the front of the pub, and dozens more at the rear, occupying the extensive garden. Two women, sat at a nearby table, asked if they could help me. I’d already twigged that the event operated on a token basis – easier for the organisers, as the cash is concentrated in one place, but something of a pain for punters, as you have to guess in advance, how many pints, or halves, you are going to consume.

I opted for £8 worth to start with, plus a £1 charity donation. All beers were priced at £2 per half, regardless of strength and, as is normally the case at such events, a printed sheet giving details of beer, brewery, style, along with tasting notes, was available to all that wanted one.

I had intended to stick with pints, but with a good selection of interesting beers available, all good intentions were quickly, abandoned, and I reverted to my normal beer festival habit, of drinking halves. My excuse was, I could try double the number of beers, but can beer really be tasted by drinking half pints?

Charles Dickens famously said that beer cannot be tasted in a sip, and he was right, of course. The Great American Beer Festival with its (in)famous, 1 oz pours, begs to differ, but a twentieth of a pint amounts to not much more than a sip, whereas a half pint equates to ten such thimbles! The majority of the beers were stored in an old oast house, at the side of the pub, which looked as if it may have been a stable block, back in the day. There were 11 in total, dispensed straight from the cask, in true beer festival fashion. For those who prefer vertical drinking and standing at the bar, three more cask ales were available inside the pub.

There were also a couple of semi-permanent, marquee type buildings at the rear of the pub, with a band playing country & western numbers in one of them. I found myself a seat, plus a table at a sheltered spot, outside one of these tents, and made myself comfortable in a position where I could watch the goings on, whilst enjoying a few of the beers. I tried four in total, two of which would have been preferable in pints, but all decent brews in their own way. I also grabbed myself a cheeseburger, because it would have been rude not to have done so!

I stayed for around an hour and a half, chilling out whilst soaking up the atmosphere of this community-oriented beer festival. I allowed 30 minutes for the walk back to the station, arriving in plenty of time for the train, and was the only passenger to board at Beltring. 

As for the festival itself, it was a nice, friendly, well-organised, laid-back, and chilled out event. The brief snapshot I experienced of it, was sufficient to convince me to return next year. I had floated the idea of attending amongst the Beer Socials WhatsApp group I am a member of, but no one else was free that day. The photos I posted on the group attracted some positive feedback, so I think there might be a few of us heading over to Laddingford next St George’s Day.




Friday, 22 April 2022

The Story of Bass - The Rise & Demise of a Brewing Great

Saturday 16th April was National Bass Day, a day set aside to celebrate one of the UK’s most famous draught beers. Draught Bass is a copper-coloured traditional beer with a fine balance of malt and hops which, in its heyday, was one of Britain’s most widely available cask ales. At one time, brewing volumes were around 800,000 barrels a year, but today production has dropped to just 30,000 barrels per annum.

April 2022 also marks the 245th Anniversary of William Bass founding his brewery in Burton upon Trent, a venture which started as a small provincial brewery, but then went on to become one of the best-known, and most celebrated brewing companies in the world.

Until the year 2000, Bass Brewers Ltd were the largest brewing group in the UK, with a prestigious history dating back over 200 years, behind them, but following fall-out from the UK Government’s ill-fated Beer Orders, Bass decide to quit brewing altogether, and concentrate instead on their fast-growing Intercontinental Hotel Group – a move which came as a shock to many in the industry, and one which continues to surprise commentators today.

Many separate breweries and larger groups were absorbed into what originally became Bass Charrington, and the tale of how this all came about, makes fascinating reading. Those wishing to know more, need now to look no further for, hot off the press is a brand-new book that explores the history behind the creation of Bass Brewers Ltd.

The Story of Bass – The Rise and Demise of a Brewing Great, tells the story of the charismatic, and often driven individuals who played a pivotal role in drawing together the various threads that led to the formation of this brewing behemoth. These events took place against a background of changing economic conditions, different social attitudes, and continuing industrial developments.

The book's author is Harry White, who after joining Bass in 1977, went on to become Director of Quality Assurance, until the takeover of the company’s brewing assets by Coors Brewing in 2000. During his time with the company, Harry was a frequent visitor at all thirteen of the breweries that belonged to Bass at the time, including the mega-brewery at Runcorn, in Cheshire. The development of this 2.5 million barrels per year plant, was a corner stone in the company’s strategy at the time although, for a variety of reasons, it was ultimately to prove an expensive failure.

Harry retired from Molson Coors in 2007 and is now the chairman of the National Brewery Heritage Trust. His book, which is a real labour of love, is an essential read for anyone interested in the history of beer and brewing, delving as it does into hitherto unseen archives, whilst mixed with astute observations of the personalities behind the constituent companies.

Amberley Publishing, who commissioned and published the book, kindly sent me a copy to review, after I responded to a request on the British Guild of Beer Writers’ website. Having worked for Bass myself, for a two year spell, back in the late 1970’s, I was more than happy to carry out a review of Harry’s book, so please read on and learn more about the fascinating story of this former brewing giant and its world-famous trademark – the iconic Bass Red Triangle.

Now I don’t intend on telling the whole of the story behind the rise and fall of this brewing giant, as there would be no point in you buying the book if I did, but the significant steps and event that came together to create Britain’s largest brewing company are worthy of special mention. Put simply, a number of companies from Scotland, the north of England, the midlands, and London merged during the 1960’s to form what became Bass Charrington. But let’s start with the most famous of these, which of course is Bass itself.

From quite humble beginnings during the last quarter of the 18th Century, Bass grew to become the largest, and most successful brewing company, first in Britain, and eventually globally. This ascendancy as the largest ale brewer in the world was achieved by 1879, just over 100 years from the founding of the firm.

Together with their Burton rival, Samuel Allsopp, Bass dominated the growing market for pale ale, primarily for export to India, to keep the colonists, administrators and the troops, there to keep the peace happy. The strong and well-hopped India Pale Ales brewed by both companies, were sparkling, well-conditioned and had a reputation for consistency that enabled them to survive the long and arduous voyage to the Indian sub-continent. It wasn't long either, before these qualities began to be appreciated by an eager domestic market, as well.

Despite being the largest brewer in the world Bass, Ratcliffe & Gretton, as the firm had now become, was never really a pub owning company. Instead, Bass relied on its reputation and its ability to sell its beers through the free trade. It did acquire some public houses, following the takeover of Thomas Salt & Co, another famous old Burton brewer in 1927, but this had followed on from a far more significant merger, the previous year, with its major rival Worthington & Co.

The latter were the third largest brewery in Burton, but despite the merger, the two companies were never truly integrated. For those who remember the creation of British Airways, achieved by a merger of BEA and BOAC, the same scenario applied, as the first loyalties of many workers ended up being to their former employers, rather than to the new company, British Airways. For several years after the merger, many employees still regarded themselves as either BEA, or BOAC people.

Between the two world wars, the Bass management seemed content to rest on their reputation as free trade brewers, rather than commit to owning a large estate of pubs, but as more and more outlets came under direct control from other brewers, there was an increased reluctance on their part, to stock Bass beers. The merger that took place with Birmingham-based, Mitchells & Butlers, addressed this situation as the latter company had built up a large estate of tied houses, across the West Midlands. So, allied with the reputation of both Bass and Worthington, and the large cash reserves of the former, this coming together of two substantially different companies, was the perfect union.

The other links in the chain, that eventually came together to create Charrington United Breweries, in 1962, are rather more complex. Charrington’s were a successful London-based brewer, who had built up a substantial tied estate, primarily in the capital, but also within some of the surrounding counties. United Breweries had a far more convoluted history, and you will need to refer to the book to discover the exact details as to how this rag-bag collection of widely scattered breweries, came into being.

Author, Harry White has done a sterling job in piecing together the intricate takeovers and mergers that led to the creation of United Breweries, but one individual stands out, more than anyone else in the story and that person was Edward Plunkett Taylor. The latter individual was a brash, but very successful Canadian businessman, who, following the creation of Canadian Breweries Ltd, in his own country, wanted to create a national brewer in Britain, that would take his company’s premium product, Carling Black Label lager.

Taylor achieved his ambition in quite a round about way, which came about through the objectives of a man called Tom Carter, CEO of Sheffield based, Hope & Anchor Breweries. In 1951, Carter was visiting Toronto trying to interest the Canadian market in his company’s Jubilee Stout. The latter was a sweet, dark, bottles “milk stout,” which wasn’t particularly suited to the North American market, but Carter was persistent, if nothing else.

Whilst in Toronto he met E.P. Taylor who, as already noted, was keen to launch his company’s bestselling beer, Carling Black Label. Taylor struck a deal with Carter, whereby his Canadian Breweries would brew Jubilee Stout for the Canadian market, whilst Hope & Anchor would brew Carling in Sheffield, and sell it through their own tied houses with a view to expanding sales into other brewer’s pubs as well. The deal went ahead, and the first brew of Carling in Sheffield, took place in 1953.

It wasn’t the best arrangement for either party, as a sweet, dark, and heavy beer, such as Jubilee Stout, was totally unsuited for the North American market. Taylor, for his part, was dissatisfied by the low sales volumes that H&A achieved for Carling, through their relatively small, tied estate. A new agreement was signed in 1958, which sowed the seed of Taylor’s desire to create a national brewing group within the UK.

Canadian Breweries became the major shareholder in H&A, and Eddie Taylor gained a seat on the board. The Canadian entrepreneur's foot was now firmly in the door of the hitherto paternalistic, and closely-knit British brewing industry, and whilst his presence was at first unwelcome, there was little these old-school brewing families could do in order to thwart Taylor’s ambitions. The stage was now set for an almost whirlwind round of takeover and mergers, all engineered by Eddie Taylor, that led to the creation of first Northern Breweries, which then morphed into United Breweries.

As mentioned earlier, United Breweries merged with Charrington’s in 1962, and became Charrington United Breweries in the process. Apart from Carling Black Label, the newly merged company still lacked a national brand; one that could be used to achieve dominance in the market place. The problem was solved five year later in 1967, by the mega-merger between Charrington United and Bass, Mitchells & Butlers. The latter group had two ready-made, well-known, and highly-respected brands, in then hugely important draught bitter market; the brands of course being Bass and Worthington!

The merger was the largest that the UK brewing industry had ever experienced, and the company became known as Bass Charrington. The group continued with this name until 1979, when it was simplified to Bass plc. So, the name of the company, founded by William Bass in 1777, was the one which survived, and the one that transcended the names of all the other famous brewing companies that were absorbed over the years, into the new group.

We are getting very near the end now, but it’s worth noting that Carling went on to become the UK’s best-selling beer. I’m not certain whether it still holds that title, but Carling’s success was sufficient for Eddie Taylor to retire to the Bahamas, in 1972 having seen his persistence and optimism in building the UK’s largest brewing group, finally come to fruition.

The final chapter in the story is rather a sorry one, even though a further 33 years were to pass before Bass finally decided to quit brewing and become a hotel owning chain. Four years previously the company had agreed in principle to purchase 50 per cent of Carlsberg-Tetley, one of the other major players in the UK brewing industry, and a competitor of Bass.

The deal was blocked by the Secretary of State for Trade & Industry, on anti-trust grounds, and was undoubtedly the reason for Bass leaving brewing altogether and abandoning over 200 years of history and tradition within this sector. For someone like me, who had worked for the company, it was very sad to see the name Bass disappear.

I only worked with the group for two years, and was employed in Bass’s wines & spirits section, Hedges & Butler, which was based in London’s East End. They were a good company to work for, and they looked after their workforce,  and reading Harry White’s book has not only brought back some good memories but has also opened my eyes to the history and the fascinating stories behind the rise and fall of Britain’s largest brewing company.

Background and disclosure:

The Story of Bass, by Harry White, is available from Amberley Publishing, priced at £15.99. The book consists of 96 pages and contains 150 illustrations, many of them previously unpublished.  The publishers have kindly allowed me to use a selection of them, to illustrate this review. The photo of young drinkers, enjoying a few beers, dates from the Swinging 60's. It appears on p 90 of the book, and as it reminds me of my youth, I have included it as a piece of pure nostalgia.

I received a complimentary copy of the book, in respect of providing a review, and the thoughts and observations contained therein, are my own, and to the best of my knowledge remain unbiased and uninfluenced by my receipt of the review copy.

With grateful thanks to Philip James Dean, Publicity Officer at Amberley Publishing.



Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Working towards completing the North Downs Way

Tuesday saw me undertaking the second hike of my mini break yesterday, but unlike the first, which was an annual pre-arranged event involving friends from Maidstone CAMRA, this one was a continuation along the North Downs Way. I now have only 17 miles of this long-distance trail to complete, and whilst 12 years ago, when I walked the South Downs Way, that distance could have been covered in a day, my limit these days is 8-10 miles.

This is being sensible, as I see little point in pushing myself too hard, especially as these walks are undertaken for enjoyment, rather than for endurance purposes. This recent hike was the second one this month along the NDW and involved taking the train to Gomshall – a village on the busy A25, between Dorking and Guildford, and then walking along the crest of the downs, to Westhumble.

It was only seven miles, but the first of those miles involved a step climb up the escarpment, along a gravel track that seems to go on forever, just to join up with the NDW. I was knackered before I started but fortunately, once up on the ridge, the going was fairly level all the way to Ranmore Common, where the trail began a long descent as it skirts around a local vineyard. I even had time to stop off for a quick, and well-deserved pint at the Stepping Stones Inn, at Westhumble, prior to catching the train back to Dorking,

Although styling itself as “Country Pub and Dining,” this imposing pub, just a stone’s throw from Box Hill & Westhumble station, served a very acceptable pint of Wadworth 6X – a beer I haven't seen for ages, let alone drunk. You might say, any port in a storm, but I was relieved to find the Stepping Stones open, not only because I fancied a pint, but also because I needed a pee!

So, with Gomshall now representing my current most westerly point along the NDW, what about the hike I did on the first Sunday in April? That particular walk involved filling in a gap, between Betchworth and Merstham stations, a similar distance and another hike involving steep climb. In a previous post, I described the walk as one of the nicest stretches of the NDW I’d encountered to date, and I stand by that description, and whilst there were no pub stops involved, the bustling cafĂ©, at the top of Reigate Hill, provided some welcoming picnic benches, where I could sit and enjoy my packed lunch, and also a welcome “comfort stop.”

There were also sweeping views out across to Reigate and beyond, and whilst there were similar vistas of Dorking, on yesterdays walk, these were limited to gaps in the quite extensive tree cover. I said there were no pub stops on the first walk, but that wasn’t strictly true, because had I wished to detour off the trail, I could have reached the Sportsman pub at Mogador – sounds like a place straight out of the Lord of the Rings.

The Sportsman was a pub which the previous Mrs Bailey and I would often cycle out to when we were living in the south-west London suburb of Norbury. It was a nice peaceful place back then, but now with the M25 close by, I imagine the roar of the traffic detracts somewhat. As an aside, taking a quick look on What Pub and Google maps, the whole area looks far more wooded and enclosed than how I remember it from 40 years ago. I rather wish I’d stopped by now!

So, where next, and how to finish those remaining 17 miles? My North Downs Way A-Z Adventure Guide, contains 69 x 1:25 000 scale Ordnance Survey maps, and this publication has been my faithful companion, ever since starting out on this long distance trail. There are just four OS map pages remaining, between Gomshall and the end of the trail at Farnham, so If I can find a suitable stopping off place halfway, I can complete the walk over two consecutive days.

The Withies Inn at the village of Compton looks promising, although I’m wincing somewhat at the £120 per night price tag. Basically, I don’t care how good the room is, how soft the sheets are and how delicious the breakfast is the following morning, as all I need is somewhere clean and comfortable, where I can lay my head, and the wake refreshed the following morning, ready for an early departure.

Bed & breakfast prices seem to have gone through the roof since the pandemic, which makes overnight stays along these long-distance trails, prohibitively expensive.  In July 2019, I paid £75 and £90, for overnight accommodation, as part of a three-day hike, taking in some of the sections of the East Kent sections of the NDW.  Ninety quid seems almost cheap in comparison, although I baulked at paying this amount at the time.

There is a far cheaper alternative at the opposite end of the price range, and that is the Puttenham Barn Bunkhouse (formerly Puttenham Eco Camping Barn), in the village of the same name. Housed in a sympathetically converted, old barn, and providing 11 spaces in a dorm-style room, divided into 3 sections, the cost for an overnight stay is just £20.  My family would freak out if they knew I was even contemplating such a stay, but for a mere score, and roof over my head for the night, I certainly don’t mind “roughing” it.

The only drawback is the requirement to bring a sleeping bag – an article I haven’t possessed since my camping days, four decades ago. I would need to factor in the cost of a new light-weight bag, plus the fact it would see very limited future use. There is also the weight of the bag itself, bearing in mind I like to travel light when walking, and I would need to carry it. Food for thought, though!

Since writing these final paragraphs, I have actually come up with a plan to finish those final stages of the NDW, without the need for an overnight stop. I shan't reveal details at the moment, but will wait instead until the whole plan is a fait accompli.

Monday, 18 April 2022

Rhapsody in blue?

Back in August last year, veteran and prolific bloggers, Boak & Bailey (no relation), published a post titled, “Why are all the pubs going grey?” It was a valid question, and one which several other commentators had also noticed. Some, such as Pub Curmudgeon, Sheffield Hatter, and my good self, responded with our own thoughts and observations, but the question as to why so many pub owners (chains, or individuals), had chosen to splash what is surely the dullest of colours, all over the exteriors of their properties.

B&B thought that maybe pub owners were “trying to attract a newer, more aspirational crowd – or at least, not put them off,” claiming that grey is the equivalent of “classy neutralness,” whatever that means.  I don’t follow this argument though, particularly as I can remember (just), how drab, dreary and undeniably grimy, post-war Britain was in the first two decades following the end of the Second World War.

The pair did recognise this fact, with the claim that even between the wars, suburban pubs were designed to blend into the local surroundings, rather than making a statement with garish paintwork and intrusive advertising signs, but why this recent obsession with what has been described as a “plague of grey?”

Pub Curmudgeon described the situation best, with the comment. “I really don’t get the rationale behind painting somewhere that is supposed to be welcoming in cold colours,” and he also mentioned that the obsession with grey, often extended to pub interiors as well. Whilst I would agree with that observation I have, particularly over the course of pub visits during the past six months, noticed a rather different obsessional colour creeping into pub interiors, and one which, everywhere you look, seems to be rearing its ugly head.

The colour I am talking here is blue, but rather than a delicate pastel shade of pale sky blue, or subtle floral blue, I mean full-on, in your face, intense cobalt or ultramarine blue. Blue that is designed to make a statement and demand your attention, rather than a restful sea or forget-me-not blue, a vivid blue that is not easy of the eye, and the areas of the pub where these intense shades of blue seem to be splashed the most, are bar counters and bar fittings.

In his classic book, Beer & Skittles, pioneering beer writer Richard Boston, described the colours of a traditional public bar as a symphony in brown. He was referring to the wood from which the bar counters, floors, and often panelled wall coverings, are constructed, and with wood ranging in colour from pale pine to rich, dark mahogany, it is easy to understand where Boston was coming from. Now, with the exception perhaps of the floors, bright vivid blue seems to dominate, everywhere that one casts ones’ eyes.

I have listed, below, some of the “blue bars” I have visited since acquiring my bus pass last year – an asset that has enabled me to reconnect with many rural pubs that would, otherwise, be impossible to reach without getting behind the wheel of a car. There aren’t quite as many as I first thought, but given this is a relatively new trend, there is still plenty of time for this new “plague” to spread.

On final point, whilst blue, in the main, is a restful colour, it is also a cold colour, and like grey, not particularly welcoming. Also, unless the shade applied is a very pale shade of blue, it is nowhere near as unobtrusive as grey. So, unless this is just a passing fad, will blue become the “new grey," as far as pub interiors are concerned?

Poet - Matfield, Half Moon - Hildenborough,  Garland - Redhill, Ivy House - Tonbridge,  Vauxhall - Tonbridge, Anchor - Sevenoaks (more of a pastel blue).


Sunday, 17 April 2022

A well-earned break and a birthday too!

It’s Easter Sunday, and I’m currently on day four of an 11-day break from work; a break made possible by a combination of the long Easter Weekend, and my revised working hours. The beauty is I have only needed to use two days of my annual leave entitlement in order to achieve this 11-day break. Thursday, and Saturday, were spent doing domestic stuff, which included the food shopping, but also allowed me to crack on with my garden projects.

I’ve probably mentioned the greenhouse renovation I’ve been working on, and whilst this isn’t quite complete, we do now possess a fully functional glasshouse, for nurturing seedlings and growing tender plants in a frost-free environment. So, with a few shop-bought tomato plants, plus a couple of trays of runner beans, waiting to sprout, we’re off to a flying start and, most importantly, the weather is warming up too. 

The warm weather caught me by surprise yesterday morning, as I set off to join a group of CAMRA colleagues, from Maidstone branch, on their annual Good Friday Ramble. I had seriously mis-judged just how hot the day was going to be, which meant the warm fleece that was appropriate on Thursday, was totally inappropriate a day later, but never mind.

I’ll be describing the ramble in detail in a separate article, although it does receive a mention later on, but the beer started flowing on Wednesday evening, when I attended an event, organised by own CAMRA branch. The occasion was to present the landlord and landlady of the Nelson Arms, in Tonbridge, with a certificate commemorating the Nelson being awarded West Kent CAMRA Branch Pub of the Year.

Known in CAMRA circles, as the PoTY, this is not a term I care to use, even though in the Nelson’s case, it was an achievement that was well deserved. April 13th, also happened to be my birthday, although unlike some I could mention, I don’t make a huge fuss over what, when all is said and done, is just another day!

Son Matthew accompanied me for a few birthday beers, as we took a stroll down to the pub, arriving shortly before the presentation was about to begin. There were a half dozen or so members present, that I knew, along with a contingent who had travelled over from Tunbridge Wells, who I didn’t, and we just had time to order ourselves a drink before the speeches were made and the certificate handed over.

The extensive beer range included two beers from Ramsgate brewers, Gadd’s. I opted for a pint of the lower strength No. 5, with the plan being to move up to the stronger No. 3 later in the evening. That plan didn’t work, as the latter ran out, before I had the chance to sample it, but for the time being there was the presentation to watch, and the certificate was presented by a friend of mine, along with a suitable speech. Licensees Matthew and Emma, then received a second certificate, this time in respect of the Nelson being voted branch Cider Pub of the Year, as well.

Both speeches paid tribute to the hard work put in by Matt, Emma, and their staff, along with the steps taken by the pub to continue serving their customers, throughout the pandemic, by offering home delivers meals plus draught beer to take away.  It seems like a distant memory now, but it is only, just over a years since the Nelson was allowed to re-open, following the last lock-down, and even then, it was table service in an outdoor setting only!

Once the speeches, the handing over of certificates and obligatory photos were over, landlord Matt very kindly bought us all a drink. As mentioned, the Gadd’s No. 3 had run out, so instead I had a pint of Collusion, a strong, pale, and fruity beer from Surrey Hills Brewery, with an abv of 5.2%.  The final beer was a pint of Harvey’s Armada, a brew that is rarely seen outside the brewery’s tied estate, and one that I hadn’t sampled in ages. It was a good beer to finish the evening on, even though it was one of those sessions where nobody wanted the evening to end.

As mentioned previously, Friday was MMK’s annual ramble, an annual tradition that began in 1977, and one which remained unbroken until Covid-19 came knocking on the door. This meant that Friday’s walk was effectively the ramble originally planned for Easter 2020. It was a day of perfect weather, and also a day of catching up with old friends, most of whom I hadn’t seen since before the start of the pandemic.

The walk was a circular one, that was just over six miles in length, and took us through a lovely part of the county, to the south of Maidstone. Starting at East Farleigh station, on the Medway Valley Line, we walked along the towpath, to Tovil, on the edge of Maidstone. From there, our route took us up through the picturesque Loose Valley which, until quite recently, was a centre of paper making. Despite having lived in the county town for five years, I never really explored the Loose Valley, and neither had I appreciated how picturesque it is. I had though, previously visited the pub where we stopped for lunch.

This was the Chequers, a former 17th-century coaching inn, situated on the old road to Hastings, by the side of a trout stream, in the picturesque village of Loose. The landlord and his team were expecting us, and those wishing to eat had already booked, and pre-ordered their selection from the menu. This was arranged by walk organiser/leader, Peter. For the record I had haddock and chips, which was well-cooked, quite filling, and good ballast for an empty stomach. I also enjoyed a pint of each of the following beers – Rockin Robin Reliant, Musket Muzzleloader and my personal favourite, and most enjoyable beer of this trio, Harvey’s Sussex Best.

We spent around two and a half hours at the Chequers, before heading off along a route that saw us climbing out of Loose, and into and across orchard country. We then gradually descended back towards the River Medway, missing the opportunity of visiting the Horseshoes and the Bull (both at East Farleigh, but a mile or so apart). There was just time though, for a swift half of Whistable Bay Pale, at the recently re-opened Victory, on the other side of the river, and sufficiently close to the station to enable a last-minute dash for the train.

I will finish here, as there’s lots more I’ve got to write about, and there are still seven days left of my mini-break.