Saturday 29 April 2023

The “Valley of Vision”

After one of the driest February’s on record the following months of March and April have turned out to be the complete opposite, with more than enough rain to make up for February’s shortfall and surely enough now to see us through into summer. The water companies, of course, will insist that despite all the heavy rain, many reservoirs are still only partially full, but I get the impression they are pulling our collective legs. If they worked instead, to repair countless leaks affecting the water supply system, then I'm sure there will be no water shortage.

So, what to do on a wet Friday when your wife has got a load of tax vouchers to issue? Don’t ask, but Mrs PBT’s does bookkeeping for a rather disparate group of jobbing builders, and at certain times of the year these “tradesmen” need to let HMRC know how much they’ve earned and what they are allowed to offset against tax.

That’s my take on it, and I might well be wrong, but it’s a task that requires a lot of concentration, so when my dear lady wife is up to her neck in financial matters, I’m better off out of the way. So, with me at loose end I decided to head off through the rain to somewhere I could enjoy some decent scenery and a nice quiet pub where I could enjoy a pint or two of beer.

For some reason the village of Shoreham sprang to mind, and I'm talking here about the Kent village of Shoreham rather than the better-known Shoreham-by-Sea, on the South Coast. The Kentish Shoreham nestles in the floor of the valley scoured out by the River Darent.  The latter is a fairly small river but is responsible, over the millennia for carving this valley deep into the chalk hill of the surrounding North Downs.

  According to Wikipedia, just over 2,000 souls live in Shoreham, but if you walk down into the village from the railway station, higher up in the valley, you get the feeling that the inhabitants have all disappeared. With the settlement hidden away in the floor of the valley, this is an easy assumption to make, despite proximity to the M25 and Sevenoaks, which is only a few miles away. I've been to Shoreham several times previously, either as part of a download walk or because there was some CAMRA related event taking place. Most of these involved arriving by train, and then walking to the Crown, which is the furthermost pub at the northern end of the village, and then work our way back towards the station, visiting the other pubs on the way. There used to be four public houses in Shoreham, but with the closure of the Two Brewers in 2019, there are now only three.

This time around, the pub I wanted to visit, was the Samuel Palmer, a rather upmarket gastro pub. Formerly known as Ye Olde George Inn. The pub was quite often missed, due to time restraints regarding last train home, so for this reason, along with the change of name, the Samuel Palmer was the obvious choice for an overdue visit. 

The pub is now owned by the nearby Mount Vineyard, who have spent a considerable sum renovating and smartening the place up (within the bounds of its listing). A courtyard/terrace area has been opened up, behind the building, and in spite of its upmarket theme, dogs are welcome both there and in the main bar, although not in the main restaurant or function rooms. Situated right at the southern entrance to the village, the pub’s new name relates to the 19th Century, artist Samuel Palmer.  Taking his inspiration from what he referred to as this North Downs “Valley of Vision”, Palmer moved into a rundown cottage in the centre of the village, where he produced some of his best pastoral paintings - In a Shoreham Garden and A Cornfield by Moonlight, both in watercolours, for those who are interested in art.

My journey to Shoreham that Friday, involved a change of train at Sevenoaks station, and then a short ride of just three stations to the village. The rain had stopped by the time I alighted from the train, and after crossing to the opposite platform, I followed the off-road, gravel path which leads down in to the village. A walk through the churchyard, along a path lined on both sides with rows of carefully clipped yew bushes, brought me out opposite the Samuel Palmer, but I wanted to do a spot of exploring first, and then have a pint.

As I followed the narrow lane, past the pub and then down towards the centre of Shoreham, I could hear the sound of rushing water. Reaching the bottom of the slope and turning the corner, led me to the source of the noise, namely the fast-flowing River Darent, its waters swollen by the recent heavy rains. The river is crossed by a narrow bridge, and not far from there, on the left-hand side of the road, I could see the King’s Arms, the second of Shoreham’s three pubs.  It’s an attractive looking, white-painted building, and I was going to pop in for a pint, and to refresh my memory, but spotting the group of people standing outside, made me realise a funeral wake was taking place inside, so not wishing to intrude, I gave up on the idea, and instead headed back to the Samuel Palmer.

I had a quick look at the painter’s former cottage, which looked far from the rustic, rundown, rural idyll I was expecting, and a few minutes later, set foot inside the pub that bares the artist’s name. I’ve been having a spot of bother with the camera on my phone. The memory is approaching saturation point, which means that not all photos are loading correctly. Unfortunately, this means there aren’t that many photos of the Samuel Palmer’s interior, so “bear with” as they say, but what the few photos I did manage to take, don’t reveal, is the scale of what’s inside.

There are plenty of exposed old beams, an open fireplace to the left, and a couple of cosy, wood-panelled rooms. Further round is a bright and spacious restaurant area which, judging by the height of the open-plan pitched roof, must be a recent addition. Of much more interest to me than the architecture, was the presence on the bar of a hand-pump dispensing Larkin’s Best Bitter, which was a rare sight indeed. I say rare, because the 4.4% Best Bitter, brewed by Larkin’s is hardly ever seen in local pubs, most of which prefer to stock the weaker, and to my mind, inferior Traditional. At 3.4% abv, the latter is a full percentage point lower in strength than the Best, and this is reflected in both the body and the taste of the beer.

Larkin’s founder, the now sadly deceased Bob Dockerty, always claimed that “Trad” as it is known in the trade, was popular in rural pubs, due to its low strength. Drinkers could enjoy a couple of pints of this beer, and then drive home, safe in the knowledge they were unlikely to fail the breathalyser. This may well have been the case, but for those times when you are NOT driving, Trad fails to satisfy, and is not really the beer for those who like a bit of body in their beer. Imagine my excitement then as the barman pulled my rich, foaming, and full-bodied pint of Larkin’s Best, and I’m pleased to report it tasted every bit as good as it looked, but it was £5.25 a pint!

I sat at a table, opposite the bar enjoying my beer, and taking in the sights and the comings and goings in the pub. Diners, whether sitting in the bar area, or in the more upmarket section at the back, appeared to make up the majority of the Samuel Palmer’s customers, but there were a few casual drinkers – dog walkers, or the occasional rambler. I only stayed for the one pint, before making the walk, back up the hill to Shoreham station, but I enjoyed my visit to this upmarket pub, and  I especially enjoyed my pint of Larkin’s Best.

Wednesday 26 April 2023

The Barton's Arms - Victorian splendour on a grandiose scale

My visit the other Friday to the Barton’s Arms at Aston, was in many ways the highlight of the trip I made to Birmingham. That is not to detract from the many other positives of the day, including decent beer, some fine pubs plus equally fine company. Setting foot inside this high temple to late Victorian pub design, was something really special, and an experience that will stay in my mind for a long time, but – spoiler alert, it was NOT my first visit to the Barton’s Arms.

My initial visit took place, sometime in the mid-1980s, but if I'm honest I can't remember exactly when it occurred during that period, or why |I was in Birmingham in the first place. I believe I there on business, and it would have been the time when I worked in the water treatment industry. The trouble is I never used to write things down, and with no Internet, no blog, and no social media, during the mid 80’s. there was really no need to report on such matters. What I do remember is the long walk out from central Birmingham to the Aston district of the city, where the pub is located. It seemed rather desolate at the time because a lot of urban clearance had taken place, and this reminded me of similar clearance work I had witnessed a decade or so earlier, in the Greater Manchester area.

The Barton’s Arms dates from 1901 and was built for Mitchells and Butler who, even back then, were one of Birmingham’s premier breweries. The pub is built of stone and red brick in a style that is said to be inspired by the nearby Aston Hall and was regarded as the flagship pub of the Mitchell and Butlers brewery estate. The imposing exterior includes shaped gables and a tall clock tower, with the building occupying a site at the junction of two roads. It is one of the most spectacular survivors from the late Victorian era in the country, with one of the most beautiful pub interiors to match.

The inside is blessed with numerous original features, including rich mahogany woodworking’s, stained and engraved windows and mirrors, snob-screens, a sweeping wrought-iron staircase and what the pub is best known for, its wall-to-wall tiles, from shiny-glazed decorative patterns to huge painted scenes. Because of these features, the Barton’s was granted a Grade 2* listed heritage building status in 1976, one of the few pubs in the country to be so highly rate. This move helped preserve the pub for the nation, but it wasn’t quite out of the woods, as subsequent events were to prove.

I’m fairly certain the Barton’s would have served Draught Bass at the time of my first visit, as by then Mitchells and Butlers had become part of the Bass empire, a company that, at the time, were Britain’s largest brewing company.  Dark clouds were gathering on the horizon, thanks in no small measure to fallout from the government's misguided attempt at reforming the brewing industry. The move, which was designed to increase competition within the trade, by breaking up the vast tied estates owned by companies such as Bass, led to the latter moving out of brewing altogether.

Their former tied estate fell into the hands one of the various pub owning companies (Pubcos) that sprang up to take the place of the big brewers, but unfortunately, the Pubcos proved even worse than the big brewers, especially when it came to looking after the pubs they owned. Somewhere along the line the Barton’s Arms fell into neglect and was even closed for a time. Its fate seemed uncertain, as it stood like an island of Victoriana in a sea of modern development. There must have been a real concern that this treasured gem of a pub, could be pulled down and lost forever.

Fortunately, a knight in shining armour, in the guise of Oakham Ales of Peterborough, who came along, purchased the property, and spent a considerable sum of money restoring it to its former glory. The pub reopened in 2003, following three years of closure, and 20 years later, us five intrepid pub explorers walked in through its grandiose entrance, and experienced this fully restored, late 19th Century masterpiece in all its glory.

The walk out to Aston had seemed very different from the one I undertook nearly 30 years ago. The new buildings, whether they were high rise flats, or more modest dwellings; the new shops and other businesses, including industrial units, had all had several decades to mature and blend in with their surroundings. I can't pretend they were all attractive, but with plenty of tree planting and other greening activity having taken place, the area had a lived-in feel to it, even though the fast-moving, A34 dual carriage way road at its midst, rather spoiled the effect.

Most of us paused outside to take photos of the impressive exterior, before diving inside. We made ourselves at home in one of the rooms at the front of the pub, but before sitting down I took the opportunity of a visit to the Gents, to photograph as much of the interior as I could. There were plenty of delights to occupy my camera’s lens, and with its multiple rooms, mahogany woodwork, stained and engraved windows, mirrors, snob-screens, and its ornate wrought-iron staircase, I was spoiled for choice, but judge for yourselves whether or not I succeeded in capturing the essence of this magnificent pub.

There were just two cask beers on sale at the Barton’s - Oakham Citra and Titanic Plum Porter, and I enjoyed a half of each. Thai cuisine is the pub’s main food offering, and an extensive menu prepared by real Thai chefs, is available to satisfy the hungriest of customers. Despite the appeal of the food, I didn’t fancy a whole curry. Rice is not particularly conducive when it comes to drinking large volumes of beer, due to their combined bloating effect, so I opted instead for a chicken satay wrap, served up with a portion of fries. This was just the right amount to soak up the beer, without filling me up, too much.

During our time at the pub, our observations turned into a discussion on whether a pub such as the Barton’s has much of a future, in such a culturally diverse neighbourhood. There seemed to be plenty of customers but given the size of the building their numbers weren’t really making much of a dent on the amount of available space. Food for thought, perhaps, and a discussion for another time, but if you haven’t been to the Barton’s, then you really should make the effort, as historic pubs of this scale and grandeur, really are few and far between. 

Footnote: There are two other reports on the Barton's, written by Prop up the Bar, Nick, and Retired Martin, both of whom accompanied me on my recent visit. They offer their own, slightly different perspectives on the pub, so click on the adjacent links. Life After Football might also add his own take, later on.