Saturday 31 December 2022

Change of plan

Sometimes spontaneity pays off. It certainly did on Thursday, when I made the last-minute decision to go to the lovely East Sussex town of Rye for the day. My original plan made 2-3 days previously, had been to go hiking, as there was a 2–3-mile section of the North Downs Way that I wanted to finish off. This this was a section where I got lost in a wood and, after eventually escaping the confines of the trees, ended up walking along the road instead. It was also the day some 18 months ago, when my knee started playing up, and I ended up aborting the walk along that particular stretch of the NDW, at the Three Horseshoes in Knockholt Pound.

So, whilst I officially finished this long-distance pathway at the end of September, there were still three or four sections where I deviated from the official route. I have subsequently corrected three of those anomalies, which just left this section to the west of Knockholt to finish, and with the forecast for Thursday showing dry and sunny conditions I decided that would be the time to complete this outstanding section.

Unfortunately, the previous day was one of heavy and rather persistent rain, and as it showed no signs of abating, I was beginning to have doubts regarding Thursday’s walk, with particular regard to the conditions under foot. I made light of this, despite Mrs PBT’s expressing the same misgivings, but deep down I knew she was correct. Her concern centered on me slipping over and injuring myself, whilst mine was just getting covered in mud. After dinner that night, I told her she was right, and instead I would go out somewhere by bus.

The destination I chose was the Swan at West Peckham, an attractive pub overlooking the village green, which has brewed its own range of distinctive ales for a couple of decades. I guessed that being following hot on the heels of the festive season, the Swan would have its legendary Christmas Ale on tap. I even went as far extending an invitation on the on the WhatsApp Beer Chat group, in order to testing the waters, and discover if anyone cared to join me.

It was Mrs PBT’s comment, shortly before bedtime, that's sowed the seed of a different idea in my mind. She stated that the buses would be crowded due to the rail strike (she’s still a little concerned about COVID), but I put her straight, and said that the next round of industrial action wasn’t due until the following week, and so the buses would be fine. This was where the seed planted the previous evening turned into a distinct possibility, particularly after my WhatsApp suggestion came back with no takers.

I decided to postpone the trip to the Swan until the following week and take advantage of a full service on the trains. Rye sprang instantly to mind, because over the Christmas period, I had drawn up a list of locations and pubs, I wanted to visit over the course of the coming year, using public transport. A quick look at National Rail inquiries indicated that town was easily doable by train, and In fact is just an hour’s journey from Tonbridge. Rye is a thriving and bustling tow, packed full of independent shops. Many of them are housed in attractive and characterful old buildings, and the same applies to the Waterworks, a micro-pub housed in the town’s former waterworks.

The building, which dates from 1718, has also been home to a public toilet, plus an antique shop. The premises became a micro-pub in May 2018, and since then the pub has never looked back. Several members of my local CAMRA branch had raved about this establishment, but to my shame until last Thursday, I had never set foot in the place. A trip to Rye would allow me to “tick” the Waterworks, as well as calling in at the town’s other outstanding Good Beer Guide entry, the Ypres Castle.

So, on a bright and sunny morning, I headed down to Tonbridge railway station, Senior Rail Card at the ready, for a journey by train, down to the Ancient Town of Rye. After queuing to buy my ticket, I was slightly too late to grab a coffee – a shame as I like to sit on the train, enjoying a caffeine fix, whilst watching the countryside slipping by outside the window. The fields and orchards we passed through looked quite saturated with rain, and many of the associated streams and drainage ditches were full, almost to the point of overflowing. Mrs PBT’s was right in her assessment, as even up on top of the North Downs, I couldn’t really imagine that the situation was any better.

A change of trains at Ashford gave me time, but only just, for the cup of coffee I was craving. The Dover-bound train I was leaving, fortunately pulled up just outside the Starbucks outlet on the platform. My connecting train was the Southern service to Eastbourne, and it was already waiting on the adjoining platform. After queuing up behind several customers with complicated orders, there was just time to order and pay for a flat white, before entering what used to be called the Marshlink service and find a seat.

The train was almost full, but with only three coaches this was not surprising. Several of the stations along this isolated stretch of line, have short platforms – hence the limited number of carriages, but I managed to find a vacant Priority Seat (I qualify in terms of age), and sat down to enjoy my coffee as the train began its journey towards, and then across Romney Marsh. The relatively new Turbostar trains are light years away from the old “diesel thumpers” that used to thunder across this flat, and at times bleak landscape, and it was good to see a line, that was under threat of closure back in British Rail days, being well used.

Roughly an hour after leaving Tonbridge, my train pulled into Rye station. Judging by the number of people leaving the train, Rye is obviously a popular destination, and after an absence of almost four years, I couldn’t wait to start exploring and renewing my acquaintance with the town. Join me next time, as I visit two pubs and two hotel bars: two of them old favourites, and two of them new.

Friday 30 December 2022

The year in beer - a personal look back at 2022

As in previous years I thought I'd better write a review of the year, which is just coming to an end. Fortunately, unlike the previous two years, 2022 was not overshadowed by COVID, in fact it promised a bright new future. I opened the previous year’s review with the prediction, “As for 2022, after the past two years I'm keeping my mouth firmly shut and am saying nothing. I'm sure I'm not the only person who is thinking this way either.”

Rather predictably there's always something or someone who comes along to spoil the party, and that person was Vladimir Putin, the man who pretended that the forces he’d massed on the border with neighbouring Ukraine were there solely on exercise.  If only they were, but we all know what happened next, and sadly the people of Ukraine are still under assault from this murderous despotic tyrant, despite the brave and heroic resistance they are showing this war criminal.

Putin’s so-called "special operation" didn't kick off for real until late February, and unfortunately shows little sign of ending, despite the huge casualties being suffered by Russia's inefficient and corrupt ragbag army. From a rather selfish personal point of view, the former KGB colonel’s illegal invasion put the kibosh on the visit to Saint Petersburg, which was to be the highlight of the cancelled Baltic Sea cruise which Mrs PBT’s and I had booked for late spring. We chose to visit the Norwegian fjords instead, but unfortunately, I cannot now see us visiting Russia in any shape or form, certainly not for many years to come.

Moving on to happier and more positive events, the first quarter of 2022 saw me taking advantage of the free travel, afforded by my Old Persons Bus Pass. The latter allowed me to visit a significant number of outlying rural pubs, that I would otherwise had to have driven to, thereby depriving me of one of the main reasons for visiting them in the first place - having a beer or three! 

Although not an extensive list I visited the Wealden villages of, Benenden, Cranbrook, Hook Green, and Rolvenden, along with several locations along the B2110 between Tunbridge Wells and Forest Row. Basically, this is the road on the northern edge of Ashdown Forest, and I was able to visit pubs at Colemans Hatch, Hartfield, Withyham, and Groombridge. In addition, I used the pass to visit Dunks Green, Plaxtol, Sevenoaks Weald and Brasted, which are all villages on, or close to the Greensand Ridge, to the north of Tonbridge.

I started 2022 with a visit to the Swan at West Peckham, an attractive pub overlooking an equally attractive village green. The pub, the green and the village church, have all featured in the recent television remake of the "Darling Buds of May," but known this time around, simply as "The Larkins." The Swan’s main attraction for me, is its range of distinctive, home-brewed ales, that are produced in an outbuilding behind the pub. The beers have been available at the Swan for a couple of decades now, but during the festive season, the pubs legendary Christmas Ale is normally available. This rich, dark 7.0% abv beer, was certainly on tap when I called visit in early January, and very good it was too!

Also, in January I re-visited Ashford, the town I grew up in, and also attended school at. Son Matthew accompanied me on what was something of a nostalgia trip, so as well as seeing the house that I shared with my parents and my sister, we also saw both the primary and secondary schools I attended. We managed to visit a couple of pubs, one of which was a fully restored former coaching inn with strong connections to my childhood. The other was the brand-new brewery tap, restaurant and event space, attached to the shiny new development that is Curious Brew, just the other side of the tracks from Ashford rail station.

Jumping forward to March, I joined Retired Martin, Citra, plus several other fine fellows for a day out in the splendid Georgian city of Bath. The trip was originally scheduled for the previous month but was postponed due to Met Office warnings, following the arrival of named storm Eunice. Most of the trains had been cancelled anyway, but according to Trainline – an organisation I shall never use again, if I wanted a refund of my fare, I would have to pay a handling charge for both outward and return journeys, and the charges were almost the cost of the original tickets! The weather wasn't much better in March, as whilst the winds had abated our arrival in Bath coincided with heavy rain. The wet conditions failed to put a damper on what was an excellent day out, even though we only visited a handful of the city’s pubs.

The highlight for most of us, was a visit to the legendary Star Inn, a splendid, multi-room pub, with roots going back to the 18th Century. Apart from the simplicity on it largely unaltered interior, one of the attractions of the Star is the availability of Draught Bass, dispensed direct from casks kept behind the bar, and served by the 4-pint jug. The five of us got through several of these jugs between us, and for me, a nice, crusty, cheese and onion cob, helped soak up some of the excess beer. The other Bath pub, well worth a mention, was the Bell, a tall, lengthy, and quite rambling pub spread over two levels. A wide selection of different beers was available, including a rather fine porter, from Parkway Brewing.

April saw the return of the annual Good Friday Ramble, an event organised by Maidstone CAMRA, and one that has been running almost continuously since the late 1970s. COVID unfortunately led to a two-year hiatus, but it was good to be back enjoy a leisurely walk along the River Medway, before heading up through the picturesque Loose Valley, to our lunchtime stop at the Chequers, in Loose village. A substantial lunch of haddock, chips, and peas, a selection of local beers plus the chance to catch up with old friends, made for the perfect day out, a day in which the weather too was ideal.

The end of spring may saw me taking a further two long distance rail trips. The first was to Cambridge and the second to Sheffield. Although I'd been to both cities before, these visits were the first time that I'd been drinking in either of them. Matthew accompanied me to Cambridge, and after seeing some of the city's main sights, we visited a trio of excellent pubs (Eagle, Free Press and Cambridge Tap). I journeyed alone up to Sheffield and was well looked after by local legends Retired Martin and Sheffield Hatter, both of whom live in the city. 

We met up got the famous Fat Cat, in the Kelham Island area of Sheffield, where I enjoyed an excellent lunch of homemade pie, chips and gravy, along with an equally fine pint of Pale Rider, from the next-door Kelham Island Brewery. The latter was under threat of closure at the time of my visit, although I understand it's since been offered a reprieve. We later visited several other excellent pubs in the city, including the Bath Hotel and the Sheffield Tap. The latter is located on platform 1b of Sheffield Midland station and was therefore handy for the train home.

June saw the highlight of the year, which was an 11-night cruise from Southampton, on the Queen Mary 2 to the Norwegian fjords. Our vessel called in at Hamburg on both the outward and the return voyages to pick up and drop off passengers. It goes without saying that the fjords we visited, and the scenery associated with them, were spectacular, and that is an understatement. 

Hamburg was also good in its own right and gave me the chance to see more of a city I had visited twice in the past, but never got to really experience. On the second stopover in Hamburg, I booked a place on an excursion to attractive and unspoilt Hanseatic town of Lüneburg. The cruise itself was pure relaxation and the 11 nights we were away represented the longest holiday that Eileen and I have experienced for several decades.

We took another, much shorter cruise, at the end of November, this time to the Dutch capital, Amsterdam. The weather wasn't brilliant, but fortunately the North Sea was kind to us, and we enjoyed a calm crossing both ways. We managed to see a bit more of Amsterdam, including a visit to Bierkonig, the finest beer shop in the Netherlands, and possibly beyond, as well.  I'm currently looking at a three-week cruise for later next year, this time covering the whole of the Mediterranean, but it does rather depend on whether I can negotiate that much time off from work.

On a slightly less glamorous, but no less enjoyable, note the Bailey family took a trip to Barry Island in South Wales. I titled the blog post I wrote, that covered our visit, “In search of Gavin and Stacey,” because the BBC sit-com was one reason for Mrs PBT’s wanting to visit the resort. We were all pleasantly surprised at what we found, and as well as Barry itself we managed a trip into Cardiff followed by an afternoon in Penarth. Sadly, the death of Queen Elizabeth II coincided with our visit, and we were sitting having our evening meal, at the local Beefeater restaurant, when the news of the sovereign's passing came through.

At the end of August, I was invited down the Hukins hop farm, in the heart of the Kent countryside, just outside Benenden where, along with a handful of other invited guests, drawn mainly from the British Guild of Beer Writers, we were treated to a walk-through the hop gardens, followed by a tour of the hop picking and hop processing facilities. Hukins are an independent family of hop growers, and the tour plus the accompanying talk, taught me a lot about hops, and the important role they play in providing both flavour and aroma, along with a preservative effect in the finished beer. The visit to Hukins was one of the most enjoyable days out that I've had in a long time.

In July I underwent surgery, to repair a hernia in my groin area that had been troubling me for a long time. This necessitated two weeks of recuperation, before returning to work. I also had to take a further five days off, after contracting COVID on two separate occasions. The first time was in February and most recent one, during the second week in December.  I'm fairly certain that in both instances the illness was contracted at work, with the most recent bout due to mingling in close proximity contact with colleagues, at our staff Christmas party. I didn’t feel too bad on either occasion and for this I give thanks to the vaccine and the various boosters I've been given, as whilst not preventing me from contracting COVID, I'm convinced that the boost they gave my immune system, meant my symptoms were relatively mild.

One achievement I'm especially proud of is completing the North Downs Way, long-distance footpath. I had been walking this national trail since 2017, tagging along with friends at first, who were close to completing the trail. I then branched off, on my own in order to walk the entire 153 miles from the White Cliffs of Dover to the town of Farnham, on the Surrey-Hampshire border. After two years of concerted effort during 2021 and 2022, I completed the final stretch between Guildford and Farnham at the end of September. It's a nice and particularly satisfying feeling having walked this distance, and I can now add this achievement to the equally lengthy, South Downs Way, which I completed 14 years ago.

This concludes my look back at 2022, although there is still the mater of best beer, best brewery, best pub etc. I will cover these categories, in a separate “Golden Pints” award article, which should keep Boak & Bailey happy, as these are the people who have volunteered to collate these posts.