Saturday 29 July 2023

Gales HSB - another blast from the past

Back in April I wrote a post about Walter Hicks Special Draught – HSD, a beer brewed by Cornish brewers, St Austell. It’s a beer that many drinkers thought had disappeared, and without beating about the bush, it’s a real, old fashioned strong best bitter, of the type we don’t see much of today. The article was sparked by the appearance of HSD in a well-known Tonbridge pub – the Nelson Arms, and it is the Nelson again where another strong, best bitter, complete with a proper traditional taste and feel, has featured on a couple occasions recently.

The beer I’m talking about has a similar three letter acronym to HSD and is called HSB. This strong, English bitter, is russet in colour and is packed full of rich, soft-fruit flavours, which are definitely not citrus in nature! Its full name is Horndean Special Bitter, Horndean being a small village 8 miles north of Portsmouth, on the main A3 road from London. 

Until 2006, Horndean was the home of George Gale & Co Ltd, a brewery with a distinctive range of traditional, bitter ales. It was founded in 1847 but found itself on the market when a member of the owning family decided to cash in his share of the business. Gales was bought by well-known, London brewers, Fuller, Smith & Turner in 2005, for £92 million, and closed the following year, after which production transferred was to Chiswick.

In the years leading up to the takeover, Gale’s beers – primarily HSB, were often seen in the free trade, and were stocked locally, until quite recently, at the Dovecote Inn at Capel, near Paddock Wood. During the early years of my association with West Kent CAMRA, HSB sometimes featured as a guest ale, at the Little Brown Jug at Chiddingstone Causeway, but apart from those two outlets, I haven’t come across the beer in ages. Several days ago I did, and enjoyed my first pint in years of HSB at the Nelson. It was every bit as good as I remember it. Then, the following day I noticed it on sale again, this time at the famous Lewes Arms, a wonderful unspoilt pub at the top of the Sussex county town, in the shadow of Lewes’s imposing castle. Some might call it serendipity, whilst others will just dismiss it as coincidence, but it’s worth noting the care that new owners, Fuller's put into this beer, as HSB is still brewed with the same Gales yeast that gave it its famous flavour.

I first enjoyed Gale’s beers on a visit to a small village in Surrey. This would have been in the mid-1970’s, whilst I was a student, at Salford University. A friend of mine had access to a small cottage, in the equally tiny village of Eashing, near Godalming. The property belonged to his mother, and her partner, and having borrowed the keys (with permission), my friend Nick and I, along with our respective girlfriends, headed down into deepest Surrey, to enjoy a long and relaxing weekend in the Surrey countryside. The four of us met at Waterloo station, and boarded a train to Godalming, but not before enjoying a few pints of Brakspear’s, at the Hole in the Wall opposite.

The latter was a well-known free house, occupied a railway arch opposite the station, and was renowned for offering a good selection of cask ales. This was the first opportunity any of us had to sample a few pints of Henley’s finest, so we made the most of it, before catching our train. Without a car at our disposal, we walked from Godalming station to Eashing, and it was getting dark by the time we reached Nick’s mother’s cottage. There was an Ind Coope pub in Eashing, serving top-pressure Ind Coope Special Draught, but little else of interest to budding beer enthusiasts, like ourselves. Fortunately, our host had done his homework and knew, from previous visits, there was a Gales pub in Milford, the next village to the south, situated just off the busy A3 trunk road.

There were a couple of bikes at the cottage, so the following day Nick and I cycled to the pub, leaving the girls to their own devices. Whilst there, we enjoyed Gale’s Light Mild, Bitter plus of course, HSB. I’ve been trying to identify the pub itself, as none are listed on What Pub under Milford, but a look at a website for closed pubs indicates that the village had two pubs, both named after lions, one red and the other white. Looking at the photos, I’ve a feeling it was the Red Lion, situated on the Portsmouth Road, that we visited. The pub closed in 2009 and is now used as a Tesco Express. The White Lion fared slightly better, by managing to hang on until 2015.

Going back to the takeover of Gales, for a moment, the brewery at Horndean, had suffered from years of under-investment, and whilst Fuller’s had intended on keeping it open, the costs of the work required to bring it up to modern standards, would have made this uneconomical. This is the reason why the plant closed when it did. As I mentioned earlier, Fuller’s  managed to save Gale’s unique strain of yeast, and as well as HSB, they produce another former Gale’s beer, this being the unique Prize Old Ale, an extremely strong, old ale, that is matured in oak casks, prior to bottling. The bottles were originally sealed with a cork, but I understand more conventional crown caps are now used instead.

Unlike its Cornish counterpart HSD, this other survivor from the past, is much more widely available, and HSB can often be found on the bar, in Fuller’s tied houses. The reason I haven’t seen it, is there are very few pubs owned by that brewery, in this part of Kent, and the only one I can think of is the George & Dragon in Westerham, an imposing old inn, overlooking the green in the centre of the town. The brewery have plenty of pubs in London though, so the capital might be your best bet, it you are after that elusive taste from a largely bygone era.



Friday 28 July 2023

Banished from the house!

I want to take a look back at the week before last, which was the period when Mrs PBT's was feeling quite poorly and sorry for herself due to a bout of Cellulitis. The condition had left her feeling tired, nauseous and off her food, a situation that was made worse when she started the prescribed course of strong antibiotics. It became bad enough that even the smell of cooking was sufficient to make want to throw up, so for a couple of evenings Matthew and I decided it was best to eat out.

Every cloud has a silver lining as they say, and this was no exception, the only trouble was, apart from the well-known chains, there aren't that many pubs in the local area that serve food on a Monday evening. One place that I knew kept its kitchen open, was the Spotted Dog, at Smarts Hill near Penshurst, but just to make sure I phoned up and made a reservation. The lad and I arrived shortly before 7:00 pm but were rather bemused to discover there was no free parking space available in what is, quite a substantial car park.

This seemed strange, although the cause soon became apparent, because milling around in the car park, were a large number of athletic looking individuals. At first, I thought they were ramblers, but it soon dawned on me that they were runners, looking at maps and comparing notes with one another. They were obviously about to depart on a run, and the logical conclusion Matthew and I jumped to was that this group of individuals were rather cheekily leaving their vehicles in the pub car park before setting off on a run.

Not amused, I phoned pub, to inform them I booked a table but was unable to get my vehicle into the car park. “You're not cancelling, are you?” replied the lady who answered the phone. I replied that I might have to, as there was nowhere to leave the car. She told me that there was some space to the left of the pub, in front of the garage, and that as the roads were slightly wider there, we should be alright. I did as instructed, even though I'm not a fan of leaving my vehicle, in an exposed position on an unlit country lane.

We walked back to the Spotted Dog expecting to it heaving, but there was ample room inside, especially for people like us who had booked a table. We were directed to one close to the fireplace, and facing the bar, but first we wanted a drink. I said to the lady behind the bar that I’d expected the pub to be bursting at the seams, given the number of cars parked outside.  She laughed and explained that most of these belonged to members of a local running club, and the idea was they would leave their vehicles in the car park, go off for their run, and then return to the pub for a drink, a bite to eat or perhaps both. That was the plan, although I wondered how many runners would actually do this. Just in case most of them did, I suggested to Matthew that once we were suitably fed and watered, it would be best to leave the pub before it was taken over by a load of dusty, sweaty and potentially smelly runners.

This aside, we ordered some drinks, a pint of Harvey’s Best for me as, disappointingly, the Goacher’s Silver Star that had been my original choice had gone off (why not turn the pump clip around?) The other cask beer was the ubiquitous Larkin’s Trad, a 3.4% ordinary bitter which, despite being the brewery’s best-selling brand, has never been my favourite. Matthew, on the other hand, didn't need much persuasion to go for the Hofmeister, although it was me who spotted it!  He's obviously not such an experienced pub-goer as me.

We were a little disappointed to find the pub had changed its menu, because until quite recently, Monday evening was Curry Night at the Spotted Dog, and whilst there was a single Korma dish featured on the menu, most of the options were pretty standard pub fayre. One item that took my fancy was “pie of the day,” although when the time came to order I didn't really fancy the idea of Steak and Stilton as a filling. Instead, I decided to be boring and went for good old fish and chips. Matthew chose burger and chips, so no surprises there, and we didn't have to wait long either before the food was served up. It was pleasant enough, although my piece of battered fish looked too small to be a fillet of cod. As if in response to this, I couldn't help overhearing another diner commenting on the size of the fish to his companions.  He too seemed to be wondering what type of fish it was, but despite this neither of us plucked up the courage to ask the staff.

As planned, we managed to leave the pub in good time, and certainly before any panting and sweat soaked runners turned up to spoil the show. Thank goodness I said, because I can't think of anything worse than a cross country run, as it reminds me too much of school, and the times we used to bunk off, and hide in the woods, before tagging on the end as the rest of the group came panting back, having completed the full course. It reminds me of the time I was chosen to be a marker for the House Cross-country Competition, and I sent a group of runners along the wrong path. This wasn’t deliberate, although I got into trouble for it, but my argument was the PE master hadn’t explained the route properly. Happiest days of one’s life? I don't really think so, but looking back I have to allow myself a chuckle over the incident.

The following day, the lady of the house was still feeling poorly, and the smell of food was again inducing feelings of nausea. This time I told Matthew I didn't want to drive, so we walked the short distance from home to the Vauxhall Inn, an enlarged former coaching inn, on the edge of Tonbridge, on the old London-Hastings road. Today it forms part of the Chef & Brewer chain, although when I first moved to Tonbridge it was a much smaller, and rather basic Whitbread pub. For those contemplating a longer stay, there is a Premier Inn adjacent to the pub, which makes the Vauxhall a good base for those visiting the area.

The entrance to the pub is via the side door, and once inside we were met by a member of staff, who showed us to a table at the rear of the pub. According to Matthew, who frequents the Vauxhall far more often than me, this is now the restaurant area. He said that his friend was annoyed as the management don’t allow customers to eat in the bar anymore, but this didn't particularly bother me at the time. I asked the young man what beers were available, and I was told there was no cask. So as a distress purchase, I opted for the Greene King Ice Breaker, a keg “craft ale”. Matthew went for an Amstel, or something equally insipid, but when my beer arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not full of gas, not too cold, and instead it was rather flavoursome.

As with the Spotted Dog, pies featured on the Vauxhall’s menu, so I chose the chicken and ham hock variety, served up with mash, vegetables, and gravy.  Once again, Matthew went for a burger, but that’s what he enjoys, and it’s never a bad choice. There was a reasonable number of customers in the pub, but it wasn't exactly heaving. Also, as most of the diners were already there when we arrived, Matthew and I ended up being the last to leave. All in all, it was a good meal and the Ice Breaker too, wasn’t a bad pint either.

By Wednesday Mrs PBT's was feeling a little bit better, although she was still off her food. Matthew and I bought ourselves a "ready meal" each, and when we got home from the supermarket, Eileen disappeared upstairs, leaving us to enjoy our meal without feeling guilty. The same thing happened the following day, but by Friday she was feeling much better and eating again.  

Neither of us are sure what caused Eileen's Cellulitis. It’s a non-transmittable disease, and the consensus is that the bacteria which cause it, breach the body’s defences by entering through a small wound, such as an insect bite, or a cut. 

We’re pretty certain that in Eileen’s case, a cracked heel was the cause, but this is now the second time that she’s had this condition. As I wrote before, it’s far more common than people realise, so do take care whilst gardening, or walking through brambles, and wear long trousers as well, when hiking. Shorts might feel more comfortable, but there are quite a few nasties out there, lurking in the long grass, just waiting for a juicy chunk of unprotected leg flesh to sink their fangs into. Tick-borne ailments, such as Lyme disease, are on the increase, so do take care whilst out there.