Sunday 28 January 2024

Dark and Delicious Winter Beers at the Cooper's Arms

The Dark and Delicious Winter Beer Festival, held at the Cooper’s Arms, Crowborough, is an annual event hosted by the pub at the end of each January, and normally features a dozen or so strong, “winter ales”, most of them on the dark side, although not exclusively so. This year’s festival was the first I have attended since before the pandemic, and it largely followed, the pattern set by previous events.

The Cooper’s Arms is an attractive 19th Century pub perched on the side of a hill, in an affluent residential area to the west of Crowborough. It is constructed partially from brick and local stone, and is situated in a quiet side road, which falls away sharply as you turn into it. As the road starts to descend further, there are some quite spectacular views towards the edge of Ashdown Forest; a reminder, if one was needed, that at 787 ft above sea level, Crowborough is the highest town in South East England. 

The Cooper’s is a former Charrington’s tied house, and back in the day, served a very acceptable pint of Draught Bass. It also offered good food, as I discovered when I was taken there for lunch by Brian, the owner of the printers my company used at the time. After working closely with Brian, we both realised our mutual appreciation of good beer and good pubs, and because of this he was keen to show off his local. Straight away I could see why he liked the Cooper’s, although after 35 years, there has been quite a few changes.

Friday 25th saw myself and a group of friends boarding the No. 29 bus at Five Ways in Tunbridge Wells, alighting in the centre of Crowborough at the Cross. As mentioned earlier, the town is the highest in the south-east, and it is also one of the most spread out. Despite the welcome winter sunshine, there was a rather keen wind blowing as we crossed the road, and I was certainly glad that I’d donned an extra layer of clothing before leaving the house.

It’s quite a trek to the Cooper’s from the centre of Crowborough, and if you are on foot, it’s one of those walks where you keep thinking the pub is just around the next corner, or just over the brow of the next hill. It’s mainly downhill as well, passing through a mixed residential area of quite substantial modern houses, interspersed with older, and rather posh looking Victorian dwellings. Around virtually every corner there are splendid views out towards the flanks of Ashdown Forest, but eventually after about 20 minutes of brisk walking, a turning on the right (Cooper’s Lane), leads to the pub which the road is named after.

I stopped to take a few photos, before entering, and was pleasantly surprised that the place had been given a long overdue makeover. Internally there is one long and quite narrow bar, which opens up at both ends. Arriving on a Friday, meant there were plenty of unoccupied chairs and tables, so after laying claim to a spot close to the wood burner, we approached the bar to see what beers were on sale.

There was a dozen carefully selected beers, most of them dark in nature, such as porters, stouts, brown or old ales. Breweries that featured prominently, included Burning Sky and Goacher’s, with contributions from Arkells, Kernel and Tonbridge. Tucked away, in a narrow alcove on the customers’ side of the bar, was another bank of four hand pumps, dispensing the stronger stuff, with a couple of aged casks from Dark Star (Critical Mass) and Moor Beer (Old Freddy Walker). More on that later.

Our party of six, had grown to ten with the presence in the pub of another group of local CAMRA members, and after we’d all settled down, got stuck into the beers, and were deep in various interlinked conversations, that thoughts turned to something to eat. According to the pub’s website, food would be available between midday and 3pm. But with no sign of  anything to eat,  I asked the landlord as to when some solid sustenance might be available. He said that whilst there would not be any hot food, a selection filled rolls would be forthcoming, although with time wearing on, and no sign of any rolls, most of us had decided to make do instead with the old fallback of crisps and peanuts.

The lack of anything to eat was in sharp contrast to the event that took place in 2016 when, as reported here, there were stacks of wrapped and pre-prepared cheese and onion rolls at each end of the bar, and the kitchen staff were kept busy serving either pasties or sausage and chips. I'm not sure what happened this time around, although as the landlord was there on his own, it may well have been down to staffing issues. Comments the next day, on social media from a number of CAMRA members who attended the festival on Saturday, reported the presence of a food truck parked at the rear of the pub, which at least solved the issue of something solid, to soak up the beer.

Beer-wise, there was an excellent selection of mainly dark beers, served in good condition and sold at reasonable prices. There was a nice and convivial atmosphere inside the pub,  although the clientele was almost exclusively male. As far as I was concerned, Burning Sky delivered the outstanding beers of the festival, in the form of their Porter, plus their 5.9% Blended Export Stout. For the connoisseurs amongst you, the latter had a touch of Brettanomyces - "Brett" which imparts a slight sour touch to the beer which, in small quantities, and when set against the main background flavours of the finished beer, gives it a refreshing edge.

I’d never really got the "Brett" thing before, but I certainly did this time around, and for this reason this Blended Export Stout was “beer of the festival” for me. I didn’t get to try the Old Freddy Walker from Moor Brewery near Bristol, a full-bodied, rich, and dark, 7.3% abv strong ale. As at previous festivals, mine host had laid down a cask of this beer to age in the pub’s cellar, for a year. I didn’t try this year’s version, but the example sold in 2016 was a stunning beer, and I was not the only one to state, back then, that it was the best beer of the day.

Apart from at special events, such as festivals, the Cooper's has limited weekday opening times, and is closed altogether, from Monday through to Wednesday. I imagine this is a sign of the times, although it is in sharp contrast to that occasion, 35 years ago, when my printer friend treated me for lunch at the pub. The Cooper's opens at 5pm Thursday-Saturday, and 3pm on Sundays, although  possibly that may change, come the summer. Unfortunately, its current restricted opening does rule out a daytime visit, with the exception of Sunday afternoon, which is a great shame, but perhaps reflects changing times and changing social habits.



Thursday 25 January 2024

My first ever brewery visit, which just happened to be to a company in Burton-on-Trent, that's making the wrong sort of headlines at the moment.

With the Marston’s Brewery at Burton-on-Trent currently in the news for all the wrong reasons, it’s worth taking a look back at the time I visited the brewery on what was my first ever brewery trip. I wrote this post several years ago, but for some reason never published it. I’ve had to tweak it a bit, and even re-write parts of it, and whilst it doesn’t tell you that much about the brewery itself – for reasons that will become apparent later in the piece, I trust it still makes interesting reading.

My first brewery visit took place in 1974, towards the end of my first year as a student at Salford University. The brewery trip followed an approach from a friend called Nick, who I hadn’t seen for some time, owing to us being on a different courses. Several weeks previously, Nick’s departmental society had organised a visit to Marston’s Brewery at Burton-on-Trent but following several fellow students literally dropping out at the last minute, there were now some spare seats on the pre-booked coach.

I was sitting in the Student Union Bar at the time, with course mate Chris, when Nick approached us, trying to drum up support for the trip to Marston’s. Although I was tempted, Chris and I had already made other arrangements, and it would have been somewhat churlish for me to have abandoned these in favour of the brewery trip. Whilst I was weighing this over in my mind, Nick proved very persistent in his arguments, even broadcasting an appeal over the Student’s Union Tannoy system, extolling the virtues of Marston’s beers, and the opportunity of seeing how they were brewed.

Nick’s persistence worked, even though I felt the Tannoy appeal was aimed primarily at me, but Chris felt differently, and whilst we didn’t exactly fall out over the matter, we agreed to go our separate ways that afternoon. I still had some misgivings over letting down a friend in favour of another, but these feelings were soon dispelled by the prospect of touring Marston’s Brewery, and sampling some of the beers produced there.

A relatively short coach ride saw us arriving in Britain’s brewing capital in time for a lunchtime drink. The tour wasn’t scheduled to start until mid-afternoon, so we headed for the Albion Hotel, the nearest Marston’s outlet to the brewery, and effectively at the time, the brewery tap. The Albion had been chosen by the tour organiser, a mature, Welsh student called Gareth who, like Nick, was studying to be an Environmental Health Inspector. Unlike Nick, Gareth already had a job working for Manchester City Council, who were sponsoring his studies. Having been around a while, Gareth turned out to be quite a connoisseur of good beer and pubs, as well as having rather an eye for the ladies!

Several pints later we presented ourselves at the brewery entrance, just a short distance away. Unfortunately, I remember very little about the brewery itself, partially because the beer I’d consumed that lunchtime had clouded my judgement, but mainly because I knew very little about the brewing process at the time. This is pity, as undoubtedly, we would have seen the soon to be scrapped, Burton Union system in action. At the time, Bass also employed this system of fermentation for their stronger beers, and I think I’m correct in saying there were far more union sets at the Bass Brewery, than there were at Marston’s.

After our tour of the plant, we were conducted into the brewery’s Sports and Social Club. Those of a certain age will remember it being quite common for companies of a certain size to provide facilities where employees could relax after work, or in the evenings, and Marston’s were no exception. This was the one part of the visit I do remember, as the hospitality shown to us was on the generous side, with plenty of food and copious samples of the brewery’s products.

It was there that I sampled Marston’s Pedigree for the first time, and very good it was too, despite being dispensed by "top-pressure." The latter system was in common use during the early 1970’s and, as its name implies, top-pressure involves applying carbon-dioxide gas, under pressure, into the top of the cask (via the spile hole). This forces the beer out of the cask, and along the line, to a tap on the bar. It came into being as a way of preventing cask beer from going sour (oxidising), but unfortunately the excess gas tended to dissolve in the beer making it fizzy and compromising the taste.

I was already familiar with Marston’s weaker, but eminently enjoyable Burton Bitter; this being a fairly common drink in the company’s Manchester pubs, but Pedigree was a new beer so far as I was concerned. The following term, the nearest Marston’s pub to where Nick and I lived, ended up stocking Pedigree, but that’s another story. As far as the trip was concerned, the journey back was uneventful, although I have vague recollections of stopping somewhere en-route at a Bank’s pub. This was mainly to answer the call of nature, but of course also entailed another pint or two!

 By the time I arrived back at my lodgings, or “digs” as they were called back then, I was slightly the worse for drink and too late for the evening meal. 

Fortunately, I had eaten well at the brewery, so I went to bed early to sleep off the surfeit of ale I’d consumed and awoke the next morning feeling none the worse.  Later, that day I was able to recount my exploits to my course mate Chris, and although he put a brave face on things, claiming he had had an enjoyable afternoon, deep down I’m sure he was secretly wishing he’d come to Burton with Nick and me.

That trip to Marston’s was to be the first of several dozen brewery visits I have enjoyed over the years, and whilst I’d like a return trip there sometime, it won’t be the same now, given the recent decision by the company’s current owners, to scrap the Burton Union system. 



Sunday 21 January 2024

Gone for a Burton!

In a move that will cause dismay, sadness and possibly even anger amongst beer connoisseurs, brewing giant Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company - CMBC, have announced the retirement of the four remaining union sets at Marston’s Burton-on-Trent brewery. The reason behind this decision is the usual big-brewery excuse of cutting costs, although CMBC hide behind the claim that fermenting beer in the union sets is no longer viable. They argue that low volumes, caused by the decline in the UK cask market, means fermentation using the sets no longer makes economic sense, although they fail, dismally to explain why this should be.

The sets which constitute the Burton Union System, were first developed in the Victorian era, and were essentially a means of removing yeast from the beer, as the fermentation came to an end, and also a method of collecting it for use in subsequent brews. The system particularly suited the rather powdery yeast strains traditional in Burton on Trent, and because of the very clear beer it produced, it ended up being used by most of the breweries in the Burton area. The largest of the Burton Union Systems was at the Bass Brewery (sadly closed in 1982) which boasted 1,560 linked, 150-gallon oak casks, in double rows of 30, making 60 casks per set. Each set produced 200 barrels of beer at a time, and I was fortunate to witness the awe-inspiring sight of this system in action, during a visit I made to the Bass Brewery, in the late 1970’s.

The reason for the closure and destruction of this this system was one of cost-cutting – penny pinching by the company’s accountants, who held the simplistic belief that switching to more conventional fermentation methods, would have little or no effect on the finished product. Despite this argument being debunked by brewers and beer connoisseurs, Bass went ahead with the closure, leaving their Burton neighbours, Marston’s, as the last brewery in England to utilise this tried and tested method of fermentation.

At the time, Marston’s were proud to remain as the sole custodians of this unique system, and this pride was echoed in the company’s promotional material, at the time. Unfortunately, today’s Marston’s company bears little resemblance to the one that existed right up until the turn of the century, because in 1999, Marston, Thompson & Evershed Ltd, as it was then known, was taken over by West Midlands based, Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries Ltd. Whilst the latter were certainly a major player in the region, with their Banks, and Hanson beers, Marston’s was the better-known brand – due to the company's large, tied-pub estate, which ranged from Hampshire in the south-east, to Cumbria in the north-west.The merged company became known as the Marston's Beer Company, but this is not the end of the story. 

Before continuing, it is worth taking a breath and stopping to look at the Burton Union System in detail, to find out what made it unique, and so successful when it came to the brewing of Burton pale ales. At the brewery, fermentation begins in conventional, rectangular fermenters and after two days the partially fermented wort is transferred into 24 interlinked, 150-gallon oak barrels, known as a Burton Union Set. This historic process invigorates the yeast, clarifies the beer, and leaves unwanted flavours and dead yeast cells behind.  The beer ferments in the sets for five further days, with the yeast bubbling for the initial two to three days through stainless steel “swan neck” pipes into a yeast trough above. This offers a protective blanket of CO2 for the beer, and at the end of the process, the yeast is collected to be used for other beers or sold for Marmite.

Given this, why would you want to even consider, scrapping this unique system? The answer lies in the corporate world of multi-national brewing, because in 2020, Marston's disposed of its brewing operations, selling the assets to a newly formed joint venture with the Danish Carlsberg Group to create the Carlsberg Marston's Brewing Company (CMBC). Marston's plc holds a 40% share in the new group, but there are no prizes for guessing that it is the producers of “probably the blandest lager in the world” who wear the trousers.

Since the merger, CMBC has closed the following local breweries that were part of the former Marston's Beer Company.  Jennings of Cockermouth (2022), Wychwood of Witney (2023) and Hampshire-based Ringwood (Jan 2024), blaming in all cases fierce competition and the need to cut costs. CAMRA National Chairman Nik Antona, said at the time, "CMBC’s proposal to close Wychwood brewery in Witney this November is the latest in a growing list of casualties at the hands of global brewers. It comes fresh off the heels of closing the Jennings brewery in Cumbria and selling off Ringwood brewery in Hampshire, and it is worrying to see the UK’s brewing heritage slowly erode. The diminishing consumer choice at the hands of the commercial giants is of great concern.”

When viewed against such a background, the scrapping of the Burton Union System comes as little surprise, especially given the reach of the multi-national Carlsberg Group. Currently, Pedigree destined for cask sale is fermented to completion in open fermenters, before being blended, prior to packaging, with beer brewed in the Union Sets. This practice will now cease, and conventional fermentation will be the order of the day. CMBC claim this will help ensure a high-quality cost product (whatever that means), while delivering improved sustainability and efficiency at the brewery, by reducing water and energy consumption. “Greenwashing” in other words!

The group’s director of brewing, Emma Gilleland went on to say that CMBC take great pride in the quality of their beers, and by moving cask Pedigree across to stainless steel fermenters, they will be able to deliver consistent, strong quality for their customers, going forwards.  Does that mean that Pedigree brewed in the Union Sets was of lower quality? Because that is what she appears to be hinting at.

The final piece of big-brewery, doublespeak is the statement, “We will invest in preserving two Union Sets which will remain at the brewery, so they can continue to be part of its future as enduring iconic symbols of British brewing.” In other words, these items will be on show as a museum piece, and nothing more than an empty, and rather cynical gesture to 150 years of brewing history at Burton – the former brewing capital of the world.  A Facebook page titled “Save the Burton Unions” has been formed, and already has attracted over 200 members. Its opening statement described the decision as a sad day for Burton, but the plan is to show Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company the strength of feeling in a considered and professional way.


Thursday 18 January 2024

Remembering the old Medway Brewery at the Cellars Alehouse

In the post before last, you left me, sitting in Maidstone’s Rifle Volunteers pub, contemplating a visit to another pub on my Pub Fridays list. The place in question was the Cellar's Alehouse, situated on the other side of the river Medway, opposite Maidstone West station. I’d been wanting to visit this establishment for some time, but its limited opening times, made this rather awkward. The pub is closed all day on Monday and doesn’t open 4pm on the other weekdays.

This meant the weekend the best time to visit, although Friday’s slightly extended 4pm was doable, and as I was already in town, it seemed daft to call in. A spot of research on my phone, regarding train and bus times home, revealed there was a bus departing from outside the station at quarter to five, so after a quick WhatsApp message to Mrs PBT's to confirm this, a quick visit to the Cellar’s was on the cards, but what to do in the meantime?

Despite the cold, I decided to take a nostalgic walk around Maidstone, taking in, amongst other things a look at my old house. This was a two-up, two-down, Victorian terrace house, in a residential street, quite close to the towns grim and imposing prison. Back in 1978, and in conjunction with previous Mrs Bailey, the property was purchased for the princely sum of £12,500, although it required an additional £3,000 for the addition of a proper kitchen and bathroom. I also took a look at some of the numerous former pubs, now converted for other uses, or demolished altogether.

By the time I arrived at the Cellar’s Alehouse, it was getting dark, but first a bit of history about the location of this micro-pub, and the building where it is housed. As its name suggests the Cellar's occupies a former cellar of the old Style & Winch Brewery, which was once used for the maturation and storage of barley wine. These old cellars, plus the handful of surrounding buildings above ground, are all that remain of the substantial Medway Brewery which stood overlooking the left (west) bank of the river Medway.

The Medway Brewery was one of the largest breweries in Kent, having been formed in 1899, by the amalgamation of Maidstone brewers A.F. Style & Co with Edward Winch & Sons Ltd of Chatham. All brewing was then concentrated at Maidstone, and the Chatham brewery was closed. Style & Winch Ltd then embarked on an acquisition strategy purchasing and closing eight Kentish and Greater London breweries by 1924. The growing success of the company meant it too became a target and in 1929, Style & Winch Ltd was acquired, along with its 600 public houses, by Barclay, Perkins & Co. Ltd of London.

In 1955, Barclay, Perkins & Co. Ltd merged with Courage & Co. to form Courage & Barclay Ltd, and five years later the new company combined with H. & G. Simonds Ltd, of Reading, to become Courage, Barclay, Simonds & Co. Ltd. Brewing ceased at the Medway Brewery in 1965, although a bottling plant was operated at the site until the early 70’s. Sadly, the main brewery buildings were demolished in 1975 despite valiant efforts to save them.

I can just about remember the Medway Brewery, because in the summer of 1974 I was in Maidstone with Roy, a friend from our days together in the VIth form at Ashford Boys Grammar. We were both members of the still young Campaign for Real Ale and were in the county town looking for the real thing. Cask ale was readily available in Shepherd Neame pubs, and to a lesser extent, in Whitbread-Fremlin houses, although Courage was a different proposition altogether, with virtually all their Kentish pubs selling top-pressure or keg beer only.

Somehow my friend Roy had got wind that the Seven Greys, a traditional back street Courage pub, close to the river, as well as the Medway Brewery, was selling Courage beer on hand-pump. It was a fairly basic put, and I can still picture the two of us standing at the bar and enjoying a couple of pints of cask PBA - Pale Bitter Ale. The latter was a light mild, stocked in quite a few Courage pubs at the time, although normally served under top-pressure. We hadn’t been in the pub long, before the peace and quiet was shattered, by a group of, mainly female workers, from the old brewery opposite, who came storming in.

They were obviously on their lunch break, and many were still wearing their overalls.  The group were boisterous but good natured, and were probably as surprised to see us, as we were to see them. Roy and I were surprised in a different way, as we both thought the former Barclay Perkins plant had ceased brewing a long time ago. It actually had, and what we were witnessing was the brewery in its death throes, as the part of the plant was still being used for bottling. Not long afterwards, that activity was transferred to Courage’s depot at Parkwood, to the south of Maidstone.

It was some years before I returned to the county town – bearing in mind I was a student studying at Salford University, but when I did, I hardly recognised the town centre. The Medway Brewery had vanished (see earlier), along with the Seven Greys. A new bridge had been built across the Medway, and a gyratory traffic system was in place. The attractive and ornate, red-brick, late-Victorian, offices, of the former brewery stood for a number of years, opposite Maidstone West station, but they too have vanished, leaving just a small collection of buildings from the same era, overlooking a yard on the other side of the railway.

One of these is home to the Cellar's Alehouse, and to enter this attractive micro-pub one has to descend a series of steps at the side of the building. A flagstone floor, and a series of vaulted, brick ceilings await, with the latter being covered with numerous beer pump clips. The walls are adorned with various old brewery and pub signs. There are plenty of wooden chairs and tables, most of which are to the left of the serving area. Six cask and eight keg ales as well as a number of local and fruited ciders are all perfectly kept in a temperature-controlled cool room, behind the bar, although my arrival, right on the dot of opening time, meant I was the only customer.

Apart from the manager, I remained the sole punter for the duration of my visit, but as the former was busying himself, getting things ready for a presumably busy night ahead, I was left to sit and reflect, whilst enjoying my beers. These were, Inn Keeper, from Long Man Brewery, plus Volumes Milk Race, from Vocation Brewery. With a pint of the former, but only a half of the latter, I got my ratios the wrong way round, as whilst the former was described as a Winter Ale, it needed a lot more colour to be a true winter brew – in my opinion, at least. Vocation came up trumps, yet again with their offering which, as hinted at by the name, was a rather good milk stout.

All too soon it was time to make a move and head for the bus stop. I explained my abrupt departure to the manager, who replied, “There’s always another bus.” I told him that he didn’t know my wife, so after complimenting him on the excellence of his beer, and the appeal of his pub, I departed. The bus was late, of course, meaning I could have stayed for at least another half, but had I done so, it would have been early. So, a good ending to a rather chilly day out in Kent’s county town.

The back and white, aerial shot opposite, shows the Medway Brewery in its heyday, and illustrates the scale and impressive size of the former Style & Winch brewery. It is sad to think that apart from the small group of buildings, that house the Cellar's Alehouse, plus the neighbouring small businesses, not a stone or a brick of the former Style & Winch Brewery remains today. The photo, which is downloadable free for home, and personal blog use, is dated 1921 - a time when a lot more beer was being drunk, than is the case today.



Sunday 14 January 2024

Swan looks to the village for salvation

If you read my most recent post, you may have noticed me mentioning the Swan on the Green, in the tiny village of West Peckham. You may also recall me mentioning there had been some recent developments concerning the pub, which could possibly impact on its future. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Swan, as I have written at least three posts about the pub in the past. For those who are new to these pages, or those who may well have forgotten about the place, here’s a quick catch-up.

The Swan has overlooked the green in the centre of West Peckham since 1523 and has been an ale house since 1665. West Peckham itself is a rather rare “no drive through” village in the heart of West Kent, surrounded by soft fruit and apple farms. No drive through, means exactly that, as the road into the village is the same one travellers must leave by, so West Peckham isn’t somewhere you can drive through, on the way to another destination.

Despite its relatively isolated position, the Swan commands a strong and loyal local following, and also attracts custom from further afield.  One particular aspect that draws in trade, is the range of own-brewed beers produced in an old coal shed at the rear of the pub. Brewing of up to eight cask ales, all named with a “Swan” theme (Bewick, Cygnet, Trumpeter and Whooper), had taken place since 2000, but sadly, and for reasons it’s been difficult to pin-point, brewing ceased last spring. I'm kicking myself for not calling in over Christmas 2022, thereby missing my last chance of enjoying the Swan's amazing Christmas Ale!

The self-built, two brewers barrel plant was said to be approaching the end of its working life, and I don’t doubt that for one minute, but whilst replacement brewing equipment may have been obtainable, the additional costs might not have been worth it. There is another, and potentially more worrying reason for not renewing the brewing kit, and that is the decision by current owner, Gordon Milligan, to sell up. Gordon has owned the Swan for the past 23 years, but rather than seek to convert the pub into housing, he approached villagers and asked if they wanted to take it on.

Fortunately, their answer was “yes” and so a steering group was formed to co-ordinate a bid to purchase the building collectively for the village. This is because unlike many villages, where rescue attempts are made after the business has failed, the Swan on the Green is still a successful pub with a popular restaurant, employing five full-time staff as well as a number of casual workers. Its 16th Century interior offers the perfect destination for everything from a quick bite to eat to family dining, working lunches and private parties. The pub is also popular with walkers, as it stands at the crossroads of the Weald Way and the Greensand Way, something I know from my own experience, having walked the former route 13 years ago, and parts of the latter long-distance way on several previous occasions, with friends.  

Towards the end of last year, the steering group’s chairman confirmed that Gordon Milligan had given them six months exclusivity on buying the pub. After recently agreeing a price with him, the group is now looking to source funding from the Community Ownership Grant scheme - part of the Government’s much vaunted Levelling Up programme. They will also be seeking donations from villagers and local businesses. Their aim is to set up a Community Benefit Society, known as the Swan Community Project Ltd, which will then own the Swan and be responsible for its future. The society is a “not for profit” company with a mission to operate for the benefit the Community, and in order to achieve this any profits will re-invested in the project.

Unlike a company there are members, rather than shareholders, and no dividends are paid. Everyone who invests in the project gets a vote, regardless of the size of their investment, and this form of community ownership will give all members a say in how the pub is to be run. The group’s vision is for a friendly local pub offering great food, great service, and a great atmosphere, but they also want to extend the services the pub provides by improving access for those who live nearby but are unable to be active members of the community. To do this, they will be setting up initiatives aimed at increasing participation of the disabled, infirm, elderly, and young in community events.

Some possible changes the group might want to make, include a new toilet block plus a refit of the kitchen, but overall, the pub will be run as a business, with a manager. Group chairman Mr King stated that the Swan plays an important role in the local community, not just in West Peckham but wider afield with neighbouring villages. The project has been given the backing of Tonbridge and Malling MP Tom Tugendhat, and county councillor Sarah Hohler.

The group is looking for pledges of support – with a minimum donation of £250.

A statement on the group’s website, reads as follows: "The Swan is the hub of our community, a place where locals and those from the surrounding countryside, villages and towns can socialise and take part in quiz nights, music nights and other social events. It’s at the heart of our Village Fête, Produce Show, Bonfire night and many other Community events. As the only full-time provider of hospitality, food, and drinks for several miles it brings money into the local economy, supporting local businesses and tourism. It’s also a major employer in the parish, providing five full-time jobs and the first work experience for many younger members of the Community."

I wish the group every success and might even chip in myself!

Rifle Volunteers for Pub Friday

Just over a year ago I came up with the idea of “Pub Friday.” This was a list of pubs I could visit conveniently on a Friday, a day free of both work and domestic commitments, when I’ve got the whole day free to do as I please. The pubs on my list are those in relatively hard to get places with the main proviso being they’re reachable using public transport. In the main the journeys to and from these places would be by bus, making full use of the free travel afforded by my Senior Citizens Bus Pass, although for some of the longer journeys I will travel by train. Finally, for a handful pubs on the list, a combination of both modes of transport would be used.

My Pub Friday list wasn't a New Year's resolution or anything like that, although it might well have been, because I'm sorry to say that I only managed to visit two pubs on the list, and these were right at the start of the year. It’s almost as if l lost momentum, before getting going, although it's hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. Things obviously got in the way of my plans, perhaps even conspiring against them, but until the other day, the Fordwich Arms, and the George & Dragon, both in the tiny town of Fordwich, a few miles to the north of Canterbury, were the only ones crossed off my list.

So, on Friday, seeing as Mrs PBT's had decided to go into hibernation, I grabbed the bull by the horns, wrapped myself up against the cold, and headed down to the bus stop that serves Tonbridge station, and waited for the No. 7 bus to turn up. This particular service operates the route between Tunbridge Wells and Maidstone, and the latter town was my destination that day.  My plan was to visit the unspoiled Rifle Volunteers, a stone built, back street local, close to the former Ophthalmic & Aural Hospital, now long demolished, and replaced by housing. I mention the hospital, because of the unpleasant memories it invokes, as it was there that I had my wisdom teeth extracted, a procedure that involved two separate appointments, one for each side of my mouth.

Understandably, I still shudder at the memory, and it is not an experience I would wish to repeat. Fortunately, I don’t have to and leaving such horrors firmly in the past, I waited for the 12.07 service to turn up. There is something both smug and satisfying just tapping my pass on the card reader and boarding the bus, completely free of charge. I headed up to the top deck and sat down to enjoy the 50-minute ride to Kent’s county town. Ever since I was a kid, I've always enjoyed sitting on the upper deck of a bus, not just for the enhanced view but also for the ability of seeing straight into people's gardens, and even beyond. Invariably it creates a better
understanding of what’s there, including lanes and side roads I wasn’t aware of. It also helps put each settlement into perspective in relation to the surrounding topography and countryside.

The bus follows the route of the A26 between Tonbridge and Maidstone, passing through on the way, the large villages of Hadlow, and Wateringbury. The former is home to a famous agricultural college which, I gather, is now being expanded. The latter settlement which as well as continuing a large number of attractive Victorian houses, was also home to two large breweries. Both have now vanished, almost completely, but whilst the premises Jude Hanbury & Co, which stood on the crossroads on the edge of the village, disappeared 90 or so years ago, buildings of the other concern, Frederick Leney & Son’s, lasted until the early 1990’s. Photo - Courtesy of Wateringbury Remembered

Leney’s Phoenix Brewery, an impressive red brick, tower construction, stood in Bow Road, in sight of the River Medway. As with Jude Hanbury, Leney’s had been part of the Whitbread group since the 1920s, although in the latter case, brewing continued there until the mid-1980s. Towards the end of its life, the Wateringbury plant produced bottled beers for Whitbread, primarily Pale Ale and Gold Label Barley Wine. After closure, the brewery building were demolished, and the extensive plot of land was used for a new housing development. There’s a family connection here, as for several years, the younger of my two sisters lived in one of the houses there. Despite its detached status, you could stand on her back doorstep and almost touch the wall of the next property along, across the fence.

In between Hadlow and Wateringbury, is the village of Mereworth, a settlement thankfully off both A26 and the adjoining A228. I mention this as the village is the place to leave the bus and walk the mile and a half to the tiny village of West Peckham and it's delightful pub, the Swan on the Green. Unfortunately, some changes are afoot in relation to this pub, not all of them good although with luck they herald a move which should ensure the pub's survival. More about this in a later blog.

I digress, and shortly before 1:00 pm the bus arrived in Maidstone, and I alighted at the bottom of the High Street, ready to make my way towards the Rifle Volunteers. On the way I stopped to take a few photos, including one of a pub which is now called The Stag, but one I remember as a lovely old hostelry, called the Sun, belonging to Fremlin’s brewery. Moving on, I headed through the enlarged Royal Star Arcade, an up-market shopping development which, as its name suggests, is an area once occupied by the former, Royal Star Hotel. The attractions here, include the Skull Bar & Grill, and just outside in the colonnaded Corn Exchange buildings, behind the Hazlitt Theatre, the Maidstone Distillery. Stop off here for your fix of local craft gin!

I then head up along Earl Street, towards Maidstone’s main shopping thoroughfare, Week Street, before navigating my way towards the Rifle Volunteers, the first of the two pubs on my Pub Friday list, I’ve known this thriving street corner local since the time at the start of the 1980’s, when I lived in the county town for five years. Back then, the pub was owned by Shepherd Neame, who at the time owned nine public houses in the town centre and it's immediate surrounds. As I discovered on Friday, at least half of those pubs have ceased trading for one reason or another, and Shep's now only have a handful of houses in Maidstone.

Fortunately, the Rifle Volunteers didn't suffer the same fate, and in 1997 was acquired by local brewers, Goacher’s. It represented their second pub in the town, and longstanding licensee couple, Alan, and Wendy, stayed on to run it on behalf of the new owners, before eventually stepping down in 2018. As far as I recall, my last visit to the Rifle Volunteers took place in 2010, when I met up with Norwich-based blogger, Paul Garrard, host, and writer of the now sadly defunct Real Ale Blog. Paul and his wife were staying over in Maidstone for a couple of days and after suggesting we meet up, decided that the Rifle Volunteers ticked all the right boxes.

You can read about that meeting here, but without giving too much away, apart from there being a new couple running the pub, little had changed. The attractive ragstone exterior remains the same, showcasing what is an attractive street corner local at its best. I stepped inside and was pleased to notice the place was quite full, with the majority of tables and chairs to the right of the serving area occupied. Perching proudly on the bar counter were four hand pumps, all dispensing Goacher’s beers and these were Real Mild, Fine Light, Imperial Stout, and Gold Star.

Last year, saw Goacher’s celebrating their 40th anniversary, and a note marking this event features quite prominently on the pump clips. I kicked off with a pint of Fine Light, which was in excellent form and seemingly being drunk by nearly everyone in the pub. I managed to find a small table adjacent to the door, where I could sit and watch the proceedings taking place in the pub before me. There was plenty of banter flying around, and many of the customers were obviously regulars, who knew one another. One of them was heard to remark, that the majority of customers were of pensionable age, something I could see for myself but wasn't going to mention.

The age and type of customer was reflected in the choice of beers available, with plenty of cask being poured, and little or no draught lager. in fact, I don't even know whether or not the pub sells the stuff. Cooked food seemed to be available, but it was relatively low key, and I’ve a feeling it might have needed to be ordered in advance. However, I knew from the entry on WhatPub that filled rolls were available at the Rifle, so I ordered myself a cheese roll served up with a few crisps. This was just right for me at lunchtime, particularly after the excesses of the Christmas and New Year celebrations.

I moved on from the Fine Light to the Imperial Stout, recording it on Untappd as a "tasty, dry, Irish style stout, with plenty of roast malt and balancing hop flavours." Although it doesn’t say directly on their website, I get the feeling that Goacher’s were trying to match this particular beer with the most famous stout of all, namely Guinness. It was whilst sitting there that the idea or visiting another Maidstone pub on my list popped up in my consciousness. The pub in question is situated on the other side of the river Medway, opposite Maidstone West station, and I've been wanting to visit this establishment for some time. Its limited opening hours of 4:00 pm were one reason for not having finished visited before, but as I’ve waffled on long enough already, you’ll have to wait until next time to discover its name and read more about it.