Sunday 26 February 2023

Seamless rail travel in the south-east, just got even easier

Major infrastructure projects often come in for more than their fair share of criticism, much of which is undeserved. Providing they are sensible and properly thought out schemes, whose purpose is to enhance the common good, then they are fine with me, as long as they are affordable. What we don’t want, as a nation, is some useless vanity project, aimed at “bigging up” its instigator or principle proponent, and unfortunately we have had to deal with a few of these, over the years. Examples of the latter include John Prescott’s Thames Gateway scheme, Boris Johnson’s Garden Bridge across the River Thames, or the so-called “Boris Island” – an artificial island in the Thames Estuary, constructed to accommodate a new airport, for London.

Leaving aside the vanity of politicians, and their over-blown “puff pieces” we have seen several major infrastructure projects come to fruition in recent years which, whilst running way over budget, have in general led to major improvements in people’s lives, especially when it comes to traveling. I am thinking here of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, Thames Link, and most recently the Elizabeth Line – formerly known as Crossrail.

These three projects all came in late and over-budget – sometimes way over budget, but the first two have already proved their worth, and from what I have seen, the third looks set to deliver enormous benefits for people living in London and the south-east. It is the Elizabeth Line I want to talk about here, but before doing so it’s worth looking back for a moment at the comment made by my own, late and very dear father, when he first learned of the plans for a high-speed railway, linking the Channel Tunnel with the capital. “British Rail never built a railway; they only closed them.”

Dad’s comment still tickles me to this day, and whilst to a certain extent he was right, the CTRL was eventually constructed, albeit in two stage, and has been a great success. We should all be aware of NIMBYism, although I’m sure the great 19th Century railway pioneers, came up against the same thing. Moving on, last spring I wrote a piece about a rail journey to Cambridge, that Matthew and I undertook. It involved what many like to call “seamless travel” and for us involved just one change of train, and no change of station.

Last Friday, father and son made another almost seamless trip, which whilst involving a couple of changes of train, still did away with the hassle of physically changing terminal stations in the capital. By making use of the recently completed Elizabeth Line, we were able to travel from Tonbridge to Henley-on-Thames, without physically changing stations. Want to learn how? then read on below.

First, take the 09.48 train from Tonbridge to London Bridge (LBG) arriving at 10.20. At LBG change platforms (time for a quick sausage roll from Greggs) and take the 10.31 Thameslink service to Farringdon (3 stops). Take the lengthy escalator down to the Elizabeth Line and wait for the next Reading-bound service. We caught the 11.00 train through to Twyford, which we arrived at an hour later. There was time for a quick cup of coffee, before boarding the 12.15 two-car, GWR shuttle service, to Henley – just two stops in between, and a 12.27 arrival in this attractive, and well-to-do, Thames-side town.

Easy peasy, as the kids don’t say, but a quick, efficient, and pleasant journey, and all without having to get from one mainline London terminal to another. There was just one hassle, and it’s quite a big one if you’re male (am I allowed to use that term, these days?), of a certain age, and you’ve spent several hours enjoying the local beverages, served in a provincial town. THERE ARE NO TOILETS ON ELIZABETH LINE TRAINS!!

The outward journey wasn’t a problem, and there was time for a quick pee, as well as that welcome cup of coffee at Twyford, and I even managed the return journey without incident, after squeezing one out at Henley station, but it is a factor to take account of. I suppose it you were desperate, you could alight (strange term) at one of the larger intermediate stations, such as Maidenhead or Slough, and then wait for the next eastbound service, but it is worth remembering.

It's also worth remembering that the toilets (both Ladies & Gents), at London Bridge, are the other side of the ticket barrier. When travelling with a “through ticket” I’m always slightly concerned the machine is going to swallow my ticket, and leave me stranded thereby making me, in effect, a fare dodger.  “The machine withheld my ticket, Mr Revenue Inspector.” “A likely tale, sir. That’s a hundred pound fine, plus the cost of the journey, if you please.”

In such circumstances, approach one of the staff on the ticket barrier, and ask to be let out, and then back in once you’ve accomplished your mission.” It could save you a lot of hassle, a lot of money, and besmirched your otherwise impeccable character. With tips and advice like this, I ought to become my own travel correspondent!  

Saturday 25 February 2023

Second-hand cars and some first class old ale

I found myself in vicinity of Gatwick Airport on Thursday. Matthew is looking at upgrading his current car, and wanted to see what was available from a Ford main-dealer in Crawley. Being a kind hearted and considerate father, I offered to accompany him, and even volunteered to drive us both there, as I am also looking to change my vehicle. I’ve decided to stick with Skoda, as apart from my current car, I’ve owned two previous models, so with a dealer for the Czech marque in the vicinity as well, taking my vehicle along would act as a bargaining chip, when it came to party exchanging it.

I decided we would take the scenic route from Tonbridge towards Crawley, rather than the usual drive, via East Grinstead.  This meant heading out to Edenbridge and then up through Lingfield, and then approaching Copthorne from the north. Our route into Lingfield, took us past the town’s horse racing circuit, and this prompted the thought that a family day out at the races, would be a good idea, but later in the season, when the weather has warmed up. Although Eileen has been to the races, it’s one of life’s experiences that I have so far missed, but having now raised the idea, it's something the family is determined to pursue further.

The route towards Crawley we were following, ended up taking us further south than intended, and we ended up heading into Turners Hill. This was the place I’d intended stopping a on the return journey, particularly as I wanted to visit the Red Lion, an excellent Harvey’s pub that I remember from several decades ago. I was optimistic that the pub would have Harvey’s Old Ale on sale, but with the time, just after 11am, it was too early to expect it to be open. Regrettably, as things turned out, our visits to the two dealerships, ended with us taking a different route back into Kent, but fortunately, not all was lost on the old ale front, as we managed to stop at a different Harvey’s pub.

I don't know Crawley particularly well, apart from remembering getting lost in the town centre, last June. Mrs PBT’s and I were driving down to Southampton, ready to board the Queen Mary 2 for a voyage to the Norwegian fjords. There was a requirement to take a Covid test, 24 hours prior to boarding, so we’d pre-booked a slot at a COVID rapid testing centre at Gatwick Airport. We found the test centre, without any trouble, and after being swabbed for the test, had a 40-minute wait before receiving the results, by e-mail. We decided to head into Crawley, park up somewhere grab a coffee and wait for the test results to come through.

I won’t bore you with the details but finding our way through the Saturday afternoon traffic into Crawley town centre, was not a pleasant experience, and was made worse by the anxiety we both felt about our test results. What would happen if either, or both of us returned a positive Covid result? We would be denied boarding, have the cancel the cruise and the overnight stay at Southampton (which also included car-parking for 11 nights) and then have the hassle of claiming back the not inconsiderable cost of these items on our travel insurance. Fortunately, our results both came back negative, but those unpleasant memories came flooding back as we headed into Crawley, even though we were approaching the town centre from a different direction.

Matthew’s Ford dealer was in the Manor Park area of the town, and after using the Google maps App on my smartphone, we found our way there without too much difficulty. Disappointingly the dealership turned out to be much smaller than Matthew was expecting, and with only one example of the model and specification of car that he was interested in. Undeterred we headed back out towards the M23, in order to find the Skoda dealer at Felbridge.

I had better luck, and took notes and several photos of vehicles I was interested in, but didn't go inside. There's something about car salesman, particularly those offering second hand vehicles, that just rubs me up totally the wrong way, and with no desire to subject myself to a lengthy sales pitch, I thought it better to narrow down my choice by looking at the dealership’s online marketplace. I’ve also misplaced my driving licence, so there is no chance of a test-drive until I find it! For the record, it’s an old-fashioned paper licence, of the type that you don’t have to renew, not until one reaches the age of 70, that is!

We then carried on back into Kent via East Grinstead. I was hungry and thirsty, by this time, and also increasingly in need of emptying my bladder. Finding a pub that was not too far away, and which sold decent beer was therefore high on my list of priorities. So, having missed the Harvey’s at the Red Lion at Turner’s Hill, I decided on another pub belonging to the brewery, in the form of the Fountain at Cowden. According to Google maps, It was closer than I thought, and only 20 minutes’ drive away, sufficient time to avoid having to pull over, and dash off into the bushes for that much needed pee!

The car park was already full as we drew up outside the Fountain - always a good sign, so we parked in the lane opposite, squeezing in, next to a hedge, before making our way inside. The last time I visited the Fountain, was pre-pandemic, but as a work colleague lives in Cowden, I’ve been kept pretty much up to date on what’s been occurring there, including a fairly change of licensees.

The pub itself, is a solid, red-brick building, sited on a bend, as the road from Holtye enters the village from the south. We ascended the steps leading into the pub, noticing the presence of a couple of groups of drinkers, sitting close to the inviting, open fire. Peering round the corner in order to check the beer situation on the pumps, I was pleased to see Harvey’s Old Ale on sale, alongside Best Bitter and IPA. I naturally opted for the Old, whilst Matthew went for one of the continental lagers.

Most of the pub’s customers were eating, and we would have joined them, had it not been for the fact that I’d promised to pick Mrs PBT’s up from work. This was a shame as the Fountain used to have a good reputation for food, as witnessed by the photo of their homemade pie, taken several years ago. The three “ladies that lunch” sat across the room from us, were having a good time reminiscing. I wasn’t really ear-wigging, but one of them made me laugh with her tales of being a mod, back in the 1960’s, and running from the police in Brighton, one Bank Holiday, after a fracas with some visiting rockers. She looked so respectable, but had obviously been a bit of a girl, back in the day!

So, despite slight disappointment on the car front for both father and son, and a missed opportunity to re-visit the Red Lion, the day still ended well, with a fine pint of Harvey’s Old Ale, and a brief, but enjoyable interlude at the Fountain.


Saturday 18 February 2023

Walk a mile in these shoes for a glass of Good King Henry

A week is a long time in politics, as someone famously said. I think it was that wily old devil, Harold Wilson, whose surprise resignation in 1976, shocked me, as a young student. Prime Ministers didn’t resign, did they? Well actually they did, and still do of course, although the number of resignations amongst Tory Prime Ministers – four since 2016, must be something of a record. I saw Harold Wilson once, in one of the tearooms at the Houses of Parliament. 

It would take too much time to explain the reasons why Mrs PBT’s and I were in that auspicious place and wouldn’t be at all relevant to the piece I am writing, but he looked wizened, and shrunken with age, the unfortunate results of the condition that caused his resignation a decade and a half earlier. The poor man was suffering from Alzheimer’s, a condition that afflicted, and ultimately killed, my own father, and something I feel that many of us secretly fear, as we grow older.

That’s enough morbidity for one article, but the analogy used to describe how much can happen over seven days, in the seedy world of politics, to illustrate that a week is also a long time in the world of a beer writer. It depends on your reference point, of course, and if you’re a dedicated “pub ticker” like Retired Martin, or Simon Everit (BRAPA), then visiting a dozen or so pubs, over the course of a week, is small beer, if you’ll pardon the pun. Now I’ve only visited one pub, since my most recent article, but there’s been a lot else going on in other areas of my life, some of which involve plans for the future, whilst others are just plain old, run the mill, stuff, associated with an, at times, mundane existence.

So, at the risk of appearing like Boak & Bailey, with their weekly, Saturday morning write-up, here in no particular order, are a few things that have been happening in the world of Paul. Some of you will know that a switch of roles at work, following my decision to go part-time, saw me taking on the mantle of company Safety Advisor. Without bragging, I’ve made a lot of progress, although as I started from a rather low baseline, there remains, still much to do. Since November, I’ve become increasingly involved with the firm’s much vaunted, “expansion project,” a plan that was seriously derailed by the appearance of COVID, during the first quarter of 2020.

In the absence of anyone else, I’ve become the company’s de facto Site Manager, a role that sees me dealing with all sorts of diverse, but often interrelated issues. Alarm systems (both fire and intruder), is just one aspect, as are areas such as air-conditioning, heating, the phone system, waste collection, which includes the safe disposal of expired products and raw materials. The kick-start to the expansion project, has seen me dealing with various contractors, including several builders, and with my H&S hat on, the need to conduct risk assessments, prepare safe methods of working, plus the issue of PTW’s (Permits to Work), for some of the more high-risk activities.

Never a dull moment then, but to top this, our sales team have asked me to join them on the stand, at the major International Dental Show (IDS), which returns to the Rhineland city of Cologne, after a four year hiatus, thanks to COVID. It was in preparation for this show, that saw me taking the bus over to Tunbridge Wells, yesterday, with the express purpose of buying a new pair of (smart), black shoes, and therein lies a tale. I bought some black shoes last May, primarily to wear with my suit, during our Norwegian cruise. This was only for the onboard, formal evenings, and as things turned out, we only attended one of these “stuffed shirt” events.

The shoes themselves were comfortable, so I wore them to work, alternating them with my other, brown pair. Now I do a fair amount of walking, both around the site -see above, but also at lunchtimes, when I head off on my regular Chiddingstone-Charcott walk, but even so, I didn’t’ expect the soles to split. This defect only really became evident during last month’s business trip to Dundee, and whilst rain was perhaps expected, north of the border, wet feet were not, and after walking the short distance from the car-park to the conference centre, the defect affecting my footwear was only too apparent. Wet feet, means cold feet, and an unhappy Paul, so the situation obviously needed rectifying. Mrs PBT’s said it served me right for buying a cheap pair – Shoe Zone, being the High Street retailer at fault here.

I have to admit she is right, as both of us often castigate our son for the increasingly large pile of defective shoes, that he has purchased, over the years, from Shoe Zone, but even so, I would expect rather more wear from my foot wear than just seven months. I therefore grabbed the bull by the horns and headed to Clarks. “You get what you pay for,” as my wife always says and, as I’m sure I’ve reported on before, my parents were avid promoters for decent footwear, and both swore by Clarks, as a quality manufacturer and retailer.

We now come, at last, to the beer related part, as my bus journey to Tunbridge Wells, allowed me to call in at Fuggles Bottle Shop, as well as the company’s excellent beer café. So after trying on and purchasing a new pair of smart, back shoes, I headed off to the Bottle Shop, which is just a short distance away, in Camden Road. The shop looked as if it had received a makeover since my visit last year, but with a number of fridges packed full of bottles and cans, plus an array of taps offering draft craft keg to takeaway, by the litre, I was spoiled for choice. I had already made my mind up, having looked online the night before, so opted for three choice Bavarian strong, bottled beers to enjoy over a couple of chilly evenings.

Mission accomplished, I headed along to Fuggles Beer Café, which is just past the town's main Post Office. Opened in 2013, the Tunbridge Wells outlet is where it all started for Fuggles. Whilst I’m a fairly regular visitor to the Tonbridge outlet, it’s been quite a few years since I last called in at the company’s original beer café, so I was quite surprised (pleasantly) at just how busy the place was. Granted it was late afternoon, at the end of the week, but there was a good mix of customers, and a real buzz about the place.

I approached the bar, pleased to see that the Good King Henry Special Reserve, from the Old Chimneys Brewery, was on tap, as promised on Fuggles website and Facebook page, the previous day. This 10% Imperial Stout is something of a rarity, and is now brewed at Grain Brewery, under the supervision of Alan Thompson, who founded and ran, the Old Chimneys Brewery between 1995 and 2019. Like the (in)famous Westvleteren 12°, ranked as best beer in the world by RateBeer, GKH is one of those beers that most people haven’t heard of. Despite this low profile, it apparently is the only British beer to feature in the RateBeer top 50.

Call me a philistine, but such rankings mean little to me, and certainly don’t impress, but having said that, and seeing this potent stout on sale, from hand-pump, right in front of me, meant it would have been rude not to try a glass – except I didn’t, at least not straight away. To start with I needed a beer that was pale, hoppy and refreshing, especially after having completed a small section of the Tunbridge Wells Circular Walk, that morning. My attention was drawn to Comfort Zone, a 3.8% beer from Bone Machine Brew Co. Asked by the barman if I wanted a straight glass or a jug, I opted for the latter, the second occasion I have done such a thing in Fuggles.

After paying for my beer, I manged to find a small vacant table at the rear of the pub and sat down to enjoy my beer. It lived up to expectations, so my pint didn’t last long. There was only one thing for it afterwards, and that was to go for the GKH, but only a third mind you, seeing as this was a 10% beer. As you can se from the photo, the beer looks rather lost in the bottom of that rather strange “house” glass. What the stout lacked in quantity, it more than made up in quality, being dense, dark and delicious, with an underlying intense sweetness reminiscent of a fine dessert wine. Some beer lovers have compared it to Harvey’s Prince of Denmark, a beer that I enjoyed over the Christmas period, but as the latter only weighs in at 7.5%, it is difficult to make such comparisons.

I rather rushed the last mouthful, as I knew there was a bus due shortly. Fortunately, the bus stop is just across the road, and almost directly opposite Fuggles, so I managed to catch the bus, back to Tonbridge. Once there, I was also able to jump onto a connecting service which took me to the top of my road. There’s more to come regarding rambling, toilets in micro-pubs and an old beer book that turned up, whilst I was sorting out a number of items to take to the charity shop. Keep watching these pages for further details.