Tuesday 27 February 2024

Dark Beer Weekend at the Dovecote

Last Friday, in the company of a half dozen or so members of West Kent CAMRA branch, plus one small dog, I visited the Dovecote Inn, situated in the tiny hamlet of Capel. Travelling by bus, we took the 205 Autocar service from Tonbridge, and then alighted at Five Oak Green – a small, but rapidly expanding village, close to Paddock Wood. From there, it was a 25-minute walk, along the lanes to the Dovecote, which along with the adjacent row of Victorian houses, forms part of a rather isolated settlement.

This was a repeat of the journey a smaller group of us made a the end of October last year. The occasion back then was the Dovecote’s Green Hop Beer Festival, and this time it was a different festival that the pub was hosting in the form of their Dark Beer Weekend. The even featured 14 different dark beers, from 13 different breweries, all available from Friday onward for the duration of the festival, or until the beers ran out.  

The Dovecote is situated on the back road between Colts Hill and Tudeley which, as we discovered, was surprisingly busy. From the outside it is a typical Victorian building, that has been extended at the front and at the side, whilst to the rear there is a part-covered terrace, along with an extensive garden and large car-park. With very few chimney pots in the immediate vicinity, the Dovecote has always needed something different to offer its customers, and it achieves this by selling a wide range of cask beers (up to six), direct from the cask alongside a selection of what it describes as “good traditional, locally sourced homely food, in a cosy atmosphere”.

Arriving at the pub at around quarter to one, we found the pub already quite busy, with a party of expectant diners occupying the area to the right of the bar. We therefore made a grab for the other main seating area, at the opposite end of the building, but not before purchasing a few tokens. As with the Green Hop event, the Dark Beer Festival was tokens only, priced at £2.50 per half pint, regardless of strength. This seemed a little strange given that the pub was still taking payments (cash and card) behind the bar, although I suppose this policy kept the festival finances separate from the rest of the pubs transactions, including the food.

Several of us had already decided to have something to eat and seeing the number of people already in the pub, and knowing that the kitchen closed at 2pm, we got our orders in quick. My choice was the chicken, ham, and leek pie, served with mashed potato, veg and gravy – a no brainer really, given my love of pies. The food also arrived, whilst I was still on my first beer.

Speaking of which, there were a couple of old favourites featured on the line-up, in the form of Harvey’s XXXX Old Ale plus Larkin’s Porter. I was especially pleased to see the latter on sale, as it represented my first glass of this full-bodied, dark, seasonal ale this winter. Seasonal, is probably the wrong adjective, as I was told by a couple of branch members that Larkin’s now brew Porter all year round. Things have certainly changed since brewery founder Bob Dockerty’s passing, at the end of 2022, although I’d be interested to learn how many casks of Porter are sold during the summer months.

Other beers of note included Coffee & Irish Cream Stout, from North Riding Brewery, plus French Toast Brown Ale from New Bristol Brewery. Both beers tasted as their names suggested, and whilst not exactly mainstream, were interesting in their own right. I ended the session on a strong beer – Westerham’s Audit Ale a 6.2% abv strong ale, brewed to the same strength and using the same ingredients as the pre-war, Audit Ale from the original Westerham Brewery. My tasting notes on Untappd, describe the beer having a vinous taste, and I think this was deliberate, as barrel-aged, or vatted ales from the early part of the last century, would have had this characteristic, which is reminiscent of certain aged, strong Belgian beers.

Our group left the pub just after 3.15pm, allowing sufficient time to walk back to Five Oak Green and then catch the 3.44pm bus back to Tonbridge. I alighted at the Vauxhall Inn, on the edge of Tonbridge and under 10 minutes’ walk from home, but the others stayed onboard, heading, I believe, for Fuggles and no doubt more strong beers, possibly dark, but possibly not.

 A few final words about the Dovecote which is now back in the capable hands of licensees Simon and Lindsey who,
despite their laid-back appearance, run a highly professional and very tight ship, which is reflected in the strong client base they have built up since taking over the reins. Another familiar face from the past at the Dovecote, is the chef Yvonne, who used to run the Royal Oak in Tunbridge Wells. She certainly cooks a mean chicken and ham pie, and her culinary skills are also fondly remembered by Mrs PBT’s who, upon knowing Yvonne was back in the kitchen, recalled the excellent Christmas dinner she provided for West Kent CAMRA members, 10 years ago at the Royal Oak.

Sunday 25 February 2024

A couple more books at bedtime

Despite claiming that I would finish reading the 18th Century, classic novel, The History of Tom Jones on last autumn's Mediterranean cruise, I never managed to complete the book. My excuses were, there were too many other distractions, alongside complaints from Mrs PBT’s, that having my face stuck in a book, was being antisocial. I didn't actually finish the 800 or so page novel until the Christmas-New Year break, but instead of getting stuck into the next rather lengthy volume on my reading list, Cask, the Real Story of Britain’s Unique Beer Culture, by Des de Moor, I decided to leave Des’s magnum opus until I’d finished another beer related book, that found its way into my Christmas stocking.

The Local – A History of the English Pub, does exactly what its title suggests. Written by historian Paul Jennings, the book traces the history of the English pub, and looks at how it evolved from the humble alehouse and more opulent coaching inn, of the 18th Century, the back-street beer houses and dazzling, brightly lit gin palaces of the 19thCentury, into the wide variety of different drinking establishments that we enjoy today.

Paul Jennings is a history tutor at the University of Bradford and has been writing, lecturing, and broadcasting on the subjects of the pub and drink for over twenty years.  It’s no surprise then that the book is quite academic in nature, and packed full of historical facts, figures, plus anecdotes. One reviewer thought there were perhaps a few too many statistics in places, but to my mind, at least, they not only reinforce certain points but also help illustrate the development of the English pub from its humble beginnings into the key role it plays in today's multi-million-pound "hospitality sector."

The book covers all aspects of pub life, including the effects of controlling and policing the licensed trade, political interference plus the effects that major world events have had on this uniquely English contribution to the world of drinking. The First World War is probably the most significant and dramatic of these, certainly in terms of its effects on both drinking culture and the pub itself. It also had long lasting effects, as repressive restrictions on pub opening times, and other legislation affecting the sale and consumption of drink, lasted far longer after 1918, when the guns fell silent in. It was to be almost a further eight decades before publicans were allowed to welcome customers onto their premises throughout the day, without the requirement for a compulsory, mid-afternoon break.

The pub has been the heart and soul of English life for centuries, but how has this unique institution changed over the past 300 years? Covering all aspects of pub life, Paul Jennings’s history covers pubs in cities and rural areas, seaports, and industrial towns. It identifies trends and discusses architectural and internal design, the brewing and distilling industries, and the cultural significance of drink in society. The book also looks at activities associated with public houses, ranging from music and games to opening times and how they have affected anti-social behaviour. The Local is a must-read for every self-respecting pub-goer, from casual drinker to beer enthusiast, from architectural connoisseur to regular drinker, looking for company over few shared pints.

According to the Historical Association, this very readable account is the result of twenty years of diligent research and benefits from the sense of quiet humour of the author, and what the academics describe as a “little gem," of a book is available from your local bookshop, or from that well-known purveyor named after a South American river. As The Local is an academic work, rather than a straight forward ordinary volume, it should be noted there are a further 48 pages of reference notes at the end of the book. These provide a link for those who want to follow up on any of the books, pamphlets, notes, newspaper reports etc, highlighted in the text, where the author wishes to make a point, or reinforce one.

Given the publication dates of these references, I suspect many are out of date, but are no doubt held somewhere under lock and key, or gathering dust on the shelf of a tucked away library, awaiting for some historian or researcher to come along and turn their pages. Veteran writers, Boak & Bailey, spring to mind, or perhaps even someone like the author of the next book on my list, award-winning beer writer – Des de Moor.

Des’s, book is next on my list, and I have already started on "Cask, the Real Story of Britain’s Unique Beer Culture". This detailed and well-illustrated 300-page, publication is an attempt to explore the influence this uniquely British product has had on British Beer culture and the English pub. Cask, unfortunately no longer enjoys the same priority among beer connoisseurs and brewers that it once did, and there are worrying signs of a further decline in its fortunes. Des sets out to introduce cask beer to a new generation, explaining why it is still important, what distinguishes it from other beer formats, and what it can add to the drinkers enjoyment of beer.

The book examines the history of cask in detail, explores why it has survived and takes a close look at the way some of the leading producers make it today. At the same time, Des attempts to dispense with the numerous myths surrounding this type of beer which, for many years CAMRA has described as the "Pinnacle of the brewers art." It looks like I am in for an interesting read!



Wednesday 21 February 2024

Mortlake, Brentford and memories of Watney's

I’ve written elsewhere about the funeral I attended at Mortlake Crematorium last Friday, and I had it in my mind that Mortlake represented a stretch of the River Thames in London that I hadn’t been to before. I’d visited Kew, Richmond, Hammersmith, and Twickenham, but had no recollection of Mortlake - or so I thought. It wasn't until I’d walked the short distance from Mortlake station towards the Thames, that I developed a distinct feeling of déjà vu. Heading off initially, in the wrong direction after leaving the station didn’t help – shades of Macclesfield there, but without a street name or landmark to reference one’s position to, it’s an easy mistake to make. Anyway, upon reaching the large, and rather soulless looking buildings, overlooked by a massive concrete chimney, that I realised this was the now closed, Stag Brewery, that once belonged to CAMRA’s one-time arch enemy, Watney’s.

I’d visited the Stag Brewery back in the early 1980’s, on a works outing, when it was still owned by Watney’s, and was brewing beer for Watney Mann & Truman. A strange place to visit, perhaps, for someone who was passionate about cask beer, but not for someone interested in the science of brewing, as well as its history. Work colleagues, aware of my interest in beer, had cajoled me into putting my name down for the tour, and when the allotted day arrived, I joined them on the coach that would take us to Mortlake and back.

I remember very little about the tour, and even less of which beers I drank, (Holsten Pils, probably),  but years later, and following the fall-out from the UK Government’s ill-conceived Beer Orders, Mortlake suffered the ignominious fate of becoming the main production centre for the brewing of American Budweis, in the UK. Eventually, following further consolidation and mergers within the brewing industry, Mortlake was earmarked for closure, and this was originally scheduled to take place in December 2010.

Various stays of execution then followed, and the brewery continued producing Budweiser, until the end of 2015. After decommissioning, brewery owners Anheuser-Busch InBev, vacated the site a year later and it is now owned by a Singapore-based developer. This large site, overlooking the Thames, has been earmarked for regeneration as a new mixed-use neighbourhood of flats, shops, and offices. Some of the historic buildings will be conserved as part of the package, but in 2024 there are no signs of  any development work taking place.

I discovered this for myself, after giving up on the nearby Jolly Gardeners – a former Young’s pub, as a place for a lunchtime drink, plus a quick bite to eat, choosing instead to follow the narrow Ship Lane along to the banks of the river. The lane divides the two unequal halves of the former Stag Brewery site, with the older, historic buildings to the right, and the newer, more functional section to the left. Emerging onto the road running along the riverbank, I reached the Ship Inn an attractive, 18th Century, riverside pub with a double frontage, and a beer garden, overlooking the finishing line for the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race.

I only discovered that fact from WhatPub but enthused with a sense of keenness to experience a small part of the excitement of this annual spectacle, I stepped inside the pub, having first perused the lunchtime menu, displayed outside. A toasted sandwich would suit me fine, as would a quick half of beer – I had no desire to interrupt a solemn occasion, like a funeral service, having to squeeze past mourners, whilst finding my way to the Gents.

The Ship had a spacious interior, which was virtually empty. A large, l-shaped bar counter occupied a large part of the left-hand side of the bar, but he thing which struck me most, was the pub was virtually empty. It was certainly far emptier than one would expect for a Friday lunchtime, at a pub occupying a prime location, on the bank of the Thames, just to the left of the graceful stone arches, that make up Chiswick Bridge. The cask offering looked rather empty as well, with just a pump-clip for Greene King IPA tempting discerning drinkers away from the numerous keg offerings available from the “T” bars., but as I soon discovered, that beer too was unavailable.

In the end, I settled for a half of Beavertown Neck Oil – an old standby, but just the right thing to go with my toasted cheese sandwich. There was no real need though, for the rocket and raw onion, and I’m still puzzling over the brown liquid in that small white dish - soy sauce, hoisin sauce? Perhaps dressing simple food up like this is what they teach at chef school, but it isn’t really wanted, and as my good lady wife would say, it just contributes to food waste, whilst bumping up the price.

Sitting at a window table, at the front of the pub, I pretty much had the place to myself, although there were several groups occupying the far rear of the bar. I wondered whether, like myself, they were mourners, heading for the funeral. As I happened, they were, but if it hadn’t been for funeral attendees, the Ship would have been visually empty. I heard the barman explaining to a couple of late arrivals, that the pub was due a change of management, and that he was just looking after the place in the interim.

I imagine things would be different, come Boat Race day, but for a mid- Friday afternoon, the Ship had all the atmosphere of a hospital waiting room. I returned my empty glass to the bar – my plate with its uneaten rocket untouched and made my way towards the crematorium.  It was just a short walk away, along the river bank, and under one of the arches, of the attractive Chiswick Bridge. I retraced my footsteps after the funeral and made my way back to Mortlake station. The post-funeral wake would be taking place at the Griffin, a lovely little, Fuller’s pub, in a quiet residential area, close to the site of the former Brentford FC football ground. Getting there by train was a bit of a balls ache, as the kids would say, as it involved catching a train to Barnes, one stop back towards Waterloo, and then changing platforms, for one that would take me to Brentford. With an approximate 15-minute wait at each station, it was some time before I arrived at the Griffin.

Talking later, to a lady at the wake, I realised it would have been quicker to have walked there, and I’m sure it would have been a pleasant riverside walk between Chiswick and Kew Bridges – but not after dark! Stepping inside the Griffin I was left wondering if I was too late, and the wake had already finished.  I needn’t have worried, as after securing an excellent pint of London Pride at the bar – yes it was drinking well, I was directed along a short corridor to a room at the far right of the pub.

It was standing room only in the function room, but there was still a good spread of food laid out on a couple of tables, along the back wall. I had several interesting conversations with people who had been at the funeral, and who obviously knew Bryan a lot better than I did, including a very engaging gent from Copenhagen, who happened to run a brewery in the Danish capital. I was also able to express my condolences in person to Bryan’s sister Jaqui, and his wife Helma. It was a fitting, and appropriate end to what had been a very emotional day.

Before leaving, I nipped back along the corridor to the bar, and the main part of the pub. The place was heaving, and I couldn’t help thinking what a smashing pub the Griffin is. It certainly has a Tardis-like interior, but in real life has a proper claim to fame, and one that I only discovered following Friday’s visit. Until fairly recently, it was one of the four pubs surrounding Griffin Park, home of Brentford FC, which was known as the only stadium in the whole football league to have a pub on each corner. I later learned that the football club moved to a new ground close to Kew Bridge station, less than a mile away from their old home.

Upon leaving, and handing my empty glass back across the bar, I complemented a drinker sitting on a nearby stool, about how impressed I was with the Griffin. It’s certainly a brilliant pub, he said, and one that I travel a long way to. In my naivety I asked him how far, oh, just across the road was his reply! What a lucky bugger, I thought, as I wished him goodnight!

Monday 19 February 2024

Bryan Betts - Beer Viking 1962 - 2024

They say that only the good die young, and this was definitely the case with the recent sad passing of Bryan Betts aka Beer Viking. Bryan left this world, unexpectedly, and far too soon, following a brief, but particularly virulent illness on 2nd February. He was just a few months short of his 62nd birthday. He leaves behind a loving wife, two children, various other family members, colleagues plus his many friends from both the world of brewing, as well as Viking re-enactment.

I first met Bryan back in 2014, whilst attending my first European Beer Writers Conference, which took place in Dublin. Bryan was staying at the same centrally-located accommodation as me, an establishment called the Gate Hotel, just off O'Connell Street right in the heart of Dublin. The Gate was ideally situated for the conference and, as well as being reasonably priced, served up an excellent full-Irish breakfast each morning. It was whilst getting stuck into one of these amazing breakfasts, on my first morning in Ireland, that Bryan and I first met.

It didn’t take long for the two of us to gel, which wasn’t surprising, as Bryan had a real ability to engage with people, and to share his passions about beer and brewing. His inquisitive nature was apparent from the start and, given his journalistic background, he was a prolific note-taker, stopping often to write things down. You can see Bryan’s note-taking in action, in the photo above, taken at the Dublin Conference. 

 Over the years, I quite often bumped into Bryan at other beer-related events, primarily the summer and Christmas parties organised by the British Guild of Beer Writers, of which we were both members. Unlike me, Bryan played an active role in the Guild’s activities, and formed an integral part of the membership committee. His dedication to the post was evident in his in the way he welcomed new members, and helped foster connections, in order to ensure the Guild thrived as a vibrant community of brewers and beer enthusiasts.

I always looked out for Bryan at Guild events, welcoming his presence, and appreciating him introducing me to other members. Due to clashes with holidays or other events, I missed out on a couple of Christmas dinners, as well as last year’s summer party. Because of this, the last time I saw Bryan was in August 2022, when I received an invite from UK Brewery Tours, to have a look at hops growing in the fields, with Hukins Hops at their farm near Bethersden

Bryan was on the tour, accompanied by his daughter, who particularly enjoyed the part where we were all given a glass jar, and told to pick sufficient hops to fill it. We could then take the hop-filled jar home with us, as a souvenir of our visit. I have fond memories of that day, enjoying the sights and aromas of the extensive hop gardens, whilst soaking up the warm, late August sunshine, in the beautiful Kent countryside.

It was therefore a great shock to learn of Bryan’s passing when, almost by accident, I clicked on an email from the British Guild of Beer Writers. I don’t always open communications from the Guild, as they are rather frequent at times, but fortunately I did with this one, learning the sad news last Monday, and discovering that the funeral would take place at the end of that week.

The memorial funeral service in Bryan’s honour, took place at Mortlake Crematorium on 16th February. It was a typically dull and overcast mid-February afternoon, but the chapel was packed full, packed with family, relatives, colleagues, and Bryan’s many friends. Music from AC/DC, Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, Guns & Roses, plus Led Zeppelin formed the background to the event. There were touching tributes from Bryan’s widow, Helma, his sister Jaqui, and one from Peter, an old friend from childhood who had grown up with Bryan, attended the same school and shared many of his interests. Bryan’s children also brought Toast, the family dog along to the service.

There was a wake afterwards at the Griffin, a charming, back-street Fuller’s pub, close to the site of the former Brentford FC football ground. As with the service, the event was packed, and people were able to exchange cherished moments and favourite memories of Bryan. His warm personality, quick wit, and genuine interest in others created a welcoming atmosphere, and helped put people at ease.

Like me, Bryan hosted his own beer blog, called BeerViking. The Viking part referred to his other hobby of Viking re-enactment, and it was at such an event, in northern Germany, that he first met his wife to be, Helma. Helma recounted the story during the funeral service, as part of a tribute to her late husband.  Bryan was obviously a loving family man, as well as a thoughtful friend. I feel privileged to have known him, even though our shared experiences were, at times, rather brief. I extend my deepest sympathies to Helma, plus their children Elfie and Roric.

Wednesday 14 February 2024

Old Family Brewers of Britain. Part Twelve - Truman's of East London

Without looking back through the archives, I’m not quite sure which number we’ve reached in the occasional series that takes a look back at the Old Family Brewers of Britain, but I’m guessing the forthcoming article is No. 12. As with Fremlin’s of Maidstone, East London brewers, Truman’s may well have started as a family enterprise, but just over 200 years from the founding of the latter company, it had grown to become the largest brewery in the world.

Truman's Brewery had its roots in the east-end of London and could trace its history back to the 17th Century. Established in 1666, as the Black Eagle Brewery, on a plot of land next to Brick Lane in Spitalfields the company grew steadily under the management of Benjamin Truman. During the 18th Century the company enjoyed a period of rapid expansion, driven by an almost insatiable demand for the beer known as porter, and become one of the largest brewers in London.

I am old enough to remember Truman’s Brewery, and first became aware of the company and its beers, during a school trip to London, for a visit to the Geological Museum in South Kensington. This would have been sometime around 1972-73. Like many sixth formers, we thought we were terribly grown up, so the idea of sneaking off for a pint or two seemed a good idea. Somewhere close to the museum, we found a pub and it belonged to Truman’s. This was not a brewery I was familiar with at the time because whilst the company owned many pubs in the capital, and also quite a few in north Kent, there were no Truman’s pubs in the east of the county where I grew up and went to school.

Although I can’t remember its name, I can still picture the pub because it was cosy and comfortable. It was around this time that Truman’s re-branded themselves, dropping the historic “Hanbury & Buxton” part of their title and becoming plain Truman’s. They also dropped the historic Eagle logo, based on the Black Eagle Brewery. Instead, the company made great play of their year of foundation, and 1666 appeared everywhere. Multi-coloured stripes appeared right round the outside of many pubs, along with a new stylised logo which was meant to represent a sheaf of barley.

For an impressionable teenager in love with modernity, this was cool and obviously the way forward, so I was highly impressed with what I found in this South Kensington pub. I liked the fact that it was carpeted throughout, and the fact the carpet was embellished with the new-look Truman’s logo. I also liked the fact that the pub was low-lit, in a fashionable and modern sort of way.  (I was only 17 at the time!).

 I mentioned earlier that Truman beers were not available in East Kent, but not long after that school trip, the company arrived in Ashford with a bang. The town was unfortunate to have been designated a London “over-spill” town, and several new housing estates sprang up on the outskirts of what had once been a very pleasant Kentish market town. The largest of these estates was called Stanhope, and despite the best intentions of the town planners, it turned out to be a rather unpleasant concrete jungle. Back in the 70’s, it was considered essential for estates like these to have their own local pub; and this is where Truman’s stepped in. A brand-new pub called the Ben Truman was constructed, right in the centre of the estate; the idea being it would act like a hub and draw the community together, In reality, it wasn’t exactly a place for the faint-hearted. The Ben Truman has subsequently been demolished and the estate largely re-built and re-modelled.

Returning to the Truman’s story, the company continued to grow into the 19th Century, as manifested by the expansion of the brewery and the enlargement of the company’s pub estate, helped by the purchase in 1873, of Philips Brewery in Burton. For a while, Truman’s became the largest brewery in the world, but as the 20th Century progressed, Truman's had to come to terms with the deprivations of two world wars, competition from cheap imports and the consolidation, through mergers and takeovers, of some of the biggest names in British brewing.  

The 1960's, in particular, proved to be very turbulent years for the British brewing industry, but sensing the mood, Truman’s restructured the entire business, closed their Burton brewery, rationalised their pub estate and invested heavily in improving the Brick Lane site. These measures had the desired effect as profits grew by a third in the last four years of the decade, and Truman's emerged as the last major independent brewery left in the capital. This happy situation failed to continue into the next decade, because in 1971 Truman's became the centre of a bidding war between hotels group Grand Metropolitan and Watney Mann. Grand Metropolitan eventually won and then immediately turned its attention to Watney Mann. After taking over Watney Mann, Grand Metropolitan merged the company with Truman's, and from then on, the company’s fortunes declined rapidly.

Grand Metropolitan made many changes to the company, including amending the name to Truman, creating a new brand, switching their draught beer from cask to keg, and reformulating the beer recipes. These decisions proved detrimental to the company, and when the pendulum swung back the other way, in favour of cask (Real Ale), with breweries falling over themselves to either promote existing cask brands or bring back long dead ones, Truman’s found themselves left behind.

Realising their mistakes, cask was gradually re-introduced, initially with Truman Tap Bitter, dispensed by the controversial “County Air Pump”; a device which came very close to splitting CAMRA. A few years later, Truman’s re-entered the cask ale market properly, with a range of well-regarded cask beers, which included a biter, best bitter, a strong ale and even a mild. To complete the picture, the Truman’s Eagle also made a comeback. Unfortunately, it was too little and too late, and despite the quality of the new cask beers, the damage has already been done. Sadly, the closure of the brewery was announced in 1989.

In 2010, two beer enthusiasts James Morgan, and Michael-George Hemus, purchased the Truman’s name from Scottish & Newcastle – the owners of the brand at the time. They then began the lengthy and difficult undertaking of re-establishing this highly respected London brewery. Unfortunately, despite some early successes the process ran into difficulties, caused partly by the COVID pandemic and subsequent lock-down. As far as I can make out, the undertaking is still unfolding, but whatever the case, it remains outside the scope of this article, particularly as we are looking at the original Truman Brewery, rather than its modern-day successors. For the curious, this excellent article by Des de Moor, contains all the gory details.

Saturday 10 February 2024

Hunting down the Huntsman at Eridge

Anyone who has been following this blog recently might be forgiven for thinking I’m becoming somewhat obsessed with the pubs that lie along the A26 road south of Tunbridge Wells. So we have the Boar’s Head Inn, just to the north of Crowborough and  the Cooper’s Arms slightly to the east. Then there's  the Nevill Arms at Eridge Green, where I ended up after my walk last Saturday.  Then, for my first Pub Friday in February, I once again headed south to Eridge once more.  However, unlike last weekend’s walk which ended up at Eridge Green, this time I headed further south along the A26, to Eridge station – an isolated settlement consisting of a handful of houses, the railway station, plus the Huntsman pub.

I've been waiting six months now to cross the Huntsman off my list of pubs to visit, following my aborted visit back in July. That was scuppered, by a power outage forcing the pub to close for a few days. So, after taking the No. 29 bus to Eridge station from Tunbridge Wells, my heart started to sink when, I noticed several contractors vehicles, plus workmen in hi-vis jackets and hard hats milling around outside the station. One of the trucks had an extendable cage on the rear, allowing the occupant to work on the cables overhead. Was the curse of no electricity about to strike again? Fortunately, as I drew closer, the signs on the side of the vans indicated they were from BT Open Reach, rather than UK Power Networks.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I hurried along to the Huntsman and entered the pub for the first time since way before the pandemic, and for what was probably only my fourth visit ever. When I first moved Tonbridge late in 1984, the Huntsman at Eridge was one of just two pubs locally, that belonged to the late and much lamented Horsham brewers, King & Barnes. This small independent brewery was renowned for its range of distinctive and hoppy beers, but sadly ceased production in 2000. The Huntsman’s location, next door to Eridge station, meant it was easy to reach by public transport, but that was about to change.

The railway between Tunbridge Wells and Eridge, had been under the threat of closure for some time, and in 1985, British Rail enacted legislation that closed the line. At the time I was quite active within the local CAMRA group which, in those days, was known as the Tonbridge & Tunbridge Wells branch. Along with a handful of other people, I was instrumental in getting the branch get back off its feet, after a lengthy spell in the doldrums. Right from the start, we decided that visiting as many local pubs as possible, would go a long way towards achieving this aim, and that wherever possible we would use public transport.

One individual involved in this exercise, worked British Rail, and was well aware of the impending closure of the line to Eridge. So, just a few weeks before rail services ceased, a small group of us boarded the train at Tonbridge and travelled right through to Eridge. The line wasn't electrified so the train we travelled on was one of the notorious diesel "thumpers". After reaching Tunbridge Wells Central (now the only mainline station in the town), the line branched off to the south and after passing through a tunnel, emerged at Tunbridge Wells West.

This was a much larger and more grandiose station, having been originally constructed by the London Brighton & South Coast Railway, which operated direct train services to London as well as to Brighton and the Sussex coast. Following years of cutbacks and line closures, the West station found itself increasingly isolated from other parts of the network. It stood next to a large, former marshalling yard, and this made it a prime target for redevelopment, especially for a cash strapped British Rail. This was the main reason for the closure of the line and the sale of the site to supermarket giant, Sainsbury’s.

Back in 1985, the line continued from Tunbridge Wells West, to Eridge, passing through Groombridge Junction. The latter was once an important stop on the line, and was the point where services diverged, either north to London, or south towards Brighton.  We left the train and visited the Huntsman, where we enjoyed some truly excellent King & Barnes beers, but regrettably, that was the only time I travelled on the Tonbridge to Eridge line, at least as part of the main rail network. Fast forward 25 years, and trains are once again running from Tunbridge Wells West to Eridge, thanks to a hard-working group of volunteers whose vision allowed the line to reopen as a restored Heritage Railway known as the Spa Valley Railway (SVR).

The next time I visited the Huntsman was with a group of fellow CAMRA members, and the SVR was our means of conveyance. By that time King & Barnes were no more, having been taken over in 2000 by Dorset brewer, Hall & Woodhouse (Badger Ales). The Horsham brewery was closed, and Badger beers were supplied to the former K&B estate. I remember sitting outside on that gorgeous, baking hot summer's day when we enjoyed some excellent Badger beers along with a meal. It seemed hard to believe that a quarter of a century had passed between that and my first visit, but life has a habit of creeping up on you and catching you unaware.

Since then, my visits to the Huntsman have been very intermittent, despite the pub being relatively easy to visit by bus, so on Friday I finally bit the bullet and boarded the 12.19 No. 29 bus from Tunbridge Wells, towards Crowborough and Uckfield. I alighted at the stop for Eridge station, and after crossing the busy A26 with great care, made my way to this small and remote country pub, which owes it existence to the coming of the railway.  This was where I passed the BT contractors hard at work.

Relieved at finding the Huntsman open, I stepped inside, and it was only then that I remembered quite how small the pub is. The seating areas inside, form an “L” shape, with a narrow section immediately in front of the bar, and a larger, and more commodious dining area, extending to the rear of the building, and to the right of the bar counter. This section of the pub was full, almost exclusively with diners, despite the time not having reached one o’clock, but fortunately I spotted a small, unoccupied table, with space for just two persons, at the far left of the bar.

Before sitting down I ordered a beer, the choice being Long Man Best Bitter or Larkin’s Pale. With both beers of a similar strength, I went for the Larkin’s to begin with, and very good it was too. I scored it a 4.0 on Untappd, but with hindsight it was worthy of a higher score. The Long Man was also good, but here I think the 3.75 I awarded it, was the correct score. Not long after I arrived, a group of four dinners arrived, and their presence meant the entire pub was fully occupied. I remarked on the number of people present to the girl behind the bar, and she said they hadn’t expected to be quite so busy. She, and her male colleague coped admirably though, serving the drinks as well as bringing the food out to the hungry diners.

It was good to see a pub so full, especially one so remote.  I suspect that most of the customers would have driven there, despite there being an hourly train service in both directions, from Edenbridge and Uckfield, as well as a half-hourly bus service from Tunbridge Wells or Uckfield. What I wasn’t quite so impressed with was the lack of snacks – filled rolls, and the like, a Scotch egg, or slice of pork pie. This insistence on full meals only, at lunchtimes, has become increasingly common in this part of the country, and in my view, pubs are missing out here. Not all customers want a substantial meal during the middle of the day, and falling into this category, I feel our needs are not being catered for adequately if you’ll excuse the pun.

This gripe aside, I enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with the Huntsman, and I won’t leave it so long next time. There is a large garden and outdoor drinking area, to the left of, and beside the pub, set at the same level as the nearby train tracks. A summer visit then sounds like a good idea, especially if one picks a day when the SVR are running trains down to Eridge. A heritage pub, plus a heritage railway, sound like the ideal combination!