Sunday 28 April 2024

Another day at the seaside - Bexhill and the Brickmaker's Alehouse

Last Friday I made my second visit to the coast this month, to the appropriately named Bexhill-on-Sea. I’d spent a considerable amount of time the previous evening, mulling over where to go on my Pub Friday day out. The intention was to visit a pub on CAMRA’s National Historic Pub Inventory and working on the basis of easily reached by public transport and having an historic or characterful interior worth seeing, I’d drawn up a short list of eight pubs, in destinations as diverse as Dulwich, Beckenham Junction, Chelsfield, Crawley and Bexhill-on-Sea.

I opted for the latter seaside town, with the initial aim of visiting an NI listed pub on the edge of Bexhill, called the New Inn. Whilst sorting out how to get to the pub, from Bexhill station, thoughts of another pub in the town came flooding into my head. The place I was thinking of was the Brickmaker’s Alehouse, a converted former shop and showroom for a local brick manufacturer. In November 2019, the Brickmaker’s opened its doors as Bexhill's first micro-pub, offering no fewer than five cask ales and four ciders. The drinks are served direct from casks kept in a chilled cabinet adjacent to the bar, with canned beers and ciders, also available.

Now comes the interesting part, as the Brickmaker’s is owned and run by run by two local CAMRA members, one of whom happens to be a former chairman of the local West Kent branch. This was back in the late 1980’s and, as in many areas of life, events happen, people move on and go their separate ways. In the case of both Robin and myself it was each starting a family, but there were also changes of job, house and all the other things that happen to people over the course of a lifetime.

Fast forward to the end of the last decade, when I discovered that Robin was planning to open a micro-pub in Bexhill, where he was now living. Several local member had visited the Brickmaker’s Alehouse and returned with glowing reports, but it wasn’t until late last year that I bumped into Robin again, when he turned up at the Nelson Arms, in Tonbridge, for the Kent CAMA Pub of the Year presentation. The topic of his pub came up in the conversation, and he seemed surprised, and possibly a little shocked that I hadn’t visited the Brickmaker’s, so that flash of inspiration I had the other evening, was quite appropriate.

Before writing about my visit, I ought to mention a family connection to Bexhill as, until relatively recently, Mrs PBT’s sister lived in the town, She and her late husband Brian had a large bungalow, on the edge of Bexhill that they had lovingly restored and enlarged over the years, but sadly, Eileen’s sister Lynne’s husband, passed away in March 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic. A year or so after, Lynne moved to Uckfield to live with her youngest daughter, in an annexe attached to the side of her property.
As a family, we would normally drive down to Bexhill, for catch-up visits, so it made a refreshing change letting the train do the driving instead. The journey of just under an hour from Tonbridge, involves taking the Hasting’s service, before changing trains at St Leonard's Warrior Square, just one stop before the seaside town. I knew that the Brickmaker’s was close to the town centre, the seafront, and also Bexhill station, but with an hour or so to kill, before the pub’s scheduled 2pm opening, the question arose as what to do in the meantime?

A short stroll down to the seafront provided the answer, in the form of the De La Warr Pavilion, a grade 1 listed building, overlooking the sea. This striking, futuristic-looking building was the result of an architectural competition initiated by Herbrand Sackville, 9th Earl De La Warr, after whom the building was named. The Earl was a committed socialist and also Mayor of Bexhill, when he persuaded Bexhill council to develop the site as a public building The specification for the new building included the requirement an entertainment hall to seat at least 1,500 people; a 200-seat restaurant; a reading room; and a lounge. The competition was won by architects, Erich Mendelsohn, and Serge Chermayeff, with their striking  international design, which is one of the first major Modernist public buildings in Britain.

Construction of the De La Warr Pavilion began in January 1935, and the building was opened in December of the same year by the Duke & Duchess of York, who later became King George VI & Queen Elizabeth. Decades later, and with the privations of World War II in between, the building was starting to show serious signs of neglect. Various suggestions and campaigns for its future followed but following a £6 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council of England, work began to restore the building and turn it into a contemporary arts centre. In October 2005, after an 18-month long extensive programme of restoration, the De La Warr Pavilion officially reopened as a contemporary arts centre, encompassing one of the largest galleries on the south coast of England.

Well worth a look around then, and with some attractive paintings of local fishermen, nice views along the coast towards Eastbourne and Beachy Head, plus that much needed comfort stop, after the train coffee had worked its way through my system, what was not to like. The De La Warr also provided welcome shelter from the cold north-easterly wind that was blowing along the coast. Somewhere amongst several boxes of old photographs, are several of me as toddler, looking out to sea, taken from inside the pavilion, and date from a visit to the south coast, with my parents. I shall dig them out, when I’ve got a spare moment, as they must be about 65 years old.

Pleased after renewing my acquaintance with this iconic, modernist building, I headed back to the Brickmaker’s Alehouse, arriving there shortly after opening time. I managed to beat a group of cyclists to the bar, after they were delayed slightly by locking up their bikes, but I still wasn’t the first customer of the day. That honour went to the gent sat looking out of the front window, who asked me if was from the police, after witnessing me taking a couple of photos of the exterior. “Do I look like a policeman?” was my response, but leaving such possibilities aside, I strolled over to the bar, after first taking a look at the casks racked up inside the glass-fronted, chill cabinet.

After perusing the Brickmaker’s website, on my journey down to Bexhill, I’d already made my mind up as to which beers to go for, so after starting with a pint of Mallinson’s American SIPA, I moved on after to a glass of Abyss, from Neptune Brewery. Both beers, one a well-hopped, straw-coloured pale ale, whilst the other a smooth, easy-drinking, oatmeal stout, were in tip-top condition, kept at just the right temperature, and served direct from the cask, by gravity, it was like being in beer heaven.

I asked joint owner Martin, who I recognised from a photo on the website, whether his partner Robin would be in later, but as he wouldn’t be, I left one of my cards with Martin, and asked if he would give it to Robin, when he next saw him. I then made myself at home, on one of the high stools-posing tables. One of the pub regulars, a chap also called Robin, asked if he could join me. I nodded that he could, and we had an interesting chat about the pub, the local area, and places between Bexhill and Tonbridge, that we both knew.

There was an interesting crowd in the pub, that afternoon, with the cyclists in particular getting stuck into their ale. Several other customers also popped in to get their carry-out containers filled, either with beer or cider. I am not always a massive fan of micro-pubs, but this one certainly seemed to be doing everything right. In 2021 the Brickmaker’s won the CAMRA “Conversion to Pub Use” national award, and in both 2022 and 2023 was local CAMRA Branch Pub of the Year, plus Cider Pub of the Year runner up. My only gripe was the lack of food at the pub, as apart from nuts and crisps, that was it.

Wednesday 24 April 2024

Eridge to Groombridge - the penultimate section of the Tunbridge Wells Circular Walk

It’s been over two months since my last cross-country ramble, and to say I was getting itchy feet would be an understatement. Incessant rain and waterlogged fields, both of which would have made cross-country walking perhaps not quite impossible, but certainly down right miserable, finally came to an end as the calendar changed into April. So last Friday, after a week and a half of dry weather, it was finally time to dust off my trusty walking boots, wrap up warm and head off out, back on the trail.

The trail concerned is the Tunbridge Wells Circular Walk (TWCW), a 26-mile footpath encompassing this attractive Kenish town, that I’ve been trying to complete for over a year. It’s a trail I’d been keen on walking ever since I first heard about it from a friend, but just over two years ago, whilst enjoying a quiet pint at Larkin’s Ale House, in Cranbrook, I came across a guidebook to this circular walk. Liking what I saw, I purchased a copy with the intention of completing this walk, but not before finishing the North Downs Way.

That’s a story for another day, although to set the record straight, I finished that particular Long-Distance Footpath in October 2022. It wasn’t long after, that the weather changed for the worse, following the onset of winter. This meant postponing my attempt at the TWCW until February 2023, when I walked slightly under half of the Southborough to Pembury section of the trail. Between then, and now I completed the latter section, followed by Pembury to Frant, and then Frant to Eridge.

That latter walk took place 10 weeks ago, but further progress was stalled by two months of persistent rain which meant February and March were complete washouts. Last Friday, I picked up, from where I left off back at the start of February, by taking the No. 29 bus to Eridge Green, crossing busy A26 road, before passing the churchyard and continuing along a track to Eridge Rocks. My aim was to walk the three and a half odd miles from Eridge to Groombridge, passing on the way the impressive rocky outcrops that make up Harrison’s Rocks. Despite a much-needed dry spell at the start of April, the weather again took a turn for the worse, with several heavy downpours, mid-afternoon.

The rain occurred at the worst possible time imaginable, with the heavens opening whilst I was a third of the way across a rather large, and very open field, with nothing at all in the way of shelter. I could see the rain saturated clouds blowing across the unprotected field in waves, but with no shelter I had to just keep going. The new hat which Mrs PBT’s bought for me, kept the rain off my head, whilst the three-quarter length coat, meant most of my upper body remained dry.

I crossed the stream at bottom of field, and then continued uphill, before reaching a metalled road which took me past some rather attractive looking properties. The track then veered away to the left and downhill past the intriguingly named Pinstraw Farm, before emerging through the trees at nearby Forge Farm, into an open meadow with the Spa Valley Railway Line to the left, and the start of the ridge formed by Harrison’s Rocks to the right. These tall, impressive sandstone outcrops extend a long way following the line of the valley and are surprisingly high in places. They are popular with both novice rock scramblers, and more experienced mountaineers, including well-known climbers, such as Chris Bonningon.

The path followed the lien of the railway for some distance, before veering of to the right and into Birchden Wood. I hadn’t seen a single soul until I reached the nearby car park and toilet area, so after making use of the facilities there I headed off on the final stage of that part of the walk. Unfortunately, this turned out to be the muddiest stretch of the entire walk, as it followed a narrow path, hemmed in by a field of horses on one side, plus a row of back gardens on the other. By the time I reached the end, where the path crossed over a railway junction, my boots were caked in mud, which was especially annoying, seeing as I’d managed to avoid any mud up until that part of the walk.

Away to my right I could see Groombridge station, whilst to my left was Birchden Junction, where the line towards London once deviated away from the tracks down towards Eridge, Lewes and the south coast. It was sheer folly closing these rail-lines, particularly as they provided useful diversionary routes away from the London-Brighton mainline, but this country is infamous for poor choices and short-term decisions that made little sense at the time, and even less looking back.

I’d reached Groombridge by this point and discovered that it’s a much larger village than I realised. My plan had been t call in for a quick and well-earned pint at the Junction Inn, one of two pubs in a village which is divided unequally between Kent and Sussex. For the record, the smallest, and oldest part of Groombridge is located on the Kent side of the river Grom, and the picturesque, 16th Century, Crown Inn, overlooking the green, is the better-known pub.

The 19th Century Junction Inn, on the Sussex side, is more functional, and down to earth, and as it is many years since my last visit there, I was keen to pop inside and take a look. Unfortunately, I took a wrong turning and found myself heading down towards the busy B2110 Tunbridge Wells-East Grinstead road. So, with a bus due in 15 minutes, and with an hour’s wait until the next one, I headed for the nearby bus shelter to await the arrival of the 291 bus

Arriving back in Tunbridge Wells, at the top of the town, I dived into Fuggles where I enjoyed a very tasty and well-deserved pint of Gadd’s HPA. I exchanged a few pleasantries with Fuggles owner, Alex Grieg, before spotting Clive and Martin, two friends from CAMRA. I joined them for a pint plus a catch-up chat, that was inevitably about walking, but whilst I was tempted to stay for another, I thought it was time to be getting home, and grab a bite to eat as well. 

There is now just one section of the TWCW left to do, and that is the six mile stretch between Groombridge and Southborough. Weather and other commitments permitting, I aim to knock this section on the head, sooner rather than later. To be continued……………………..


Sunday 21 April 2024

Another brewery sadly bows out

So, just a couple of posts after my disclosure that I wasn’t a massive fan of Cellar Head beers, news broke that the company, had ceased trading, with immediate effect, and would be going into administration. Founders Chris & Julia McKenzie posted the news on social media, thanking their team, their supporters and everyone who, over the years, had bought a pint of Cellar Head over the years, or spent time with the team at the brewery tap room.

According to the statement the pair put out, they had spent time over the past few weeks trying to find a buyer for the business, but whilst there had been plenty of interest, no one willing to take the risk necessary to move the business on to the next chapter, could be found. This means Cellar Head, now join the growing band of small, independent brewers that have hit the buffers in recent months, blaming the financial climate, vastly increased production costs, plus a market that was already struggling.

It's always sad when a business goes under and whilst Cellar Head beers never really did it for me, I know that they did for numerous others. The company was founded in 2017, and seemed to hit the ground running, as suddenly their beers seemed to be everywhere, along with their distinctive logo of a ZZ Top look-alike, cool dude. Cellar Head cask beers are un-fined, which means they carry a natural haze and are also vegan-friendly. In addition, they do not filter or pasteurise their bottled beers and neither do they artificially carbonate them. Instead, they undergo a natural secondary fermentation in the bottle which, they claim, results in a gentle, light fizz which gives a more refined texture and mouthfeel.

In 2019, Cellar Head moved to new premises at Flimwell, on the Kent- Sussex border, and in April of that year I visited them in their new home, with a party from West Kent CAMRA. We were on our way back from a visit to Harvey’s brewery in Lewes, and the tour organiser thought it a good idea to call in at Cellar Head as well. The brewery was holding an open day, a function they used to hold once a month. Having just visited Harvey's, I was a little bit beered-up to fully appreciate what Cellar Head had on offer that day, but as  I wrote at the time, the rural setting of their brewery, and the family audience they attracted, reminded me of the visit I made the year before, to the Vanish Woods Brewery in rural Virginia, USA.

During 2023 the number of UK breweries going bust, tripled compared to the year before, as consumers looked for cheaper due to the cost-of-living crisis. This combined, with rising overheads, has led to a wave of insolvencies, and the trend looks likely to continue as we move into the second quarter of 2024. The craft beer market, in particular, has become heavily overpopulated over the past decade, and many of these brewers find themselves fighting for a place in a shrinking market.

I know that I am not the only industry observer who thinks that the number of new cask ale and craft beer brewers is unsustainable, and yet despite all the warnings new start-ups continue coming out of the woodwork. The rate of new brewery openings does seem to be tailing off, but despite this CAMRA continues its unqualified support, by loudly cheering on each new start up.

I haven’t got time today, but when I’m a little less rushed, there are a couple of stories I could tell of ill-advised start-ups, and of well-meaning advice ignored, all for it to end in tears. In the meantime, lovers of Cellar Head beers will have to look for a substitute tipple, although with at least two new breweries that have come on the scene locally, during the past year, they won’t have to look very far.


Saturday 20 April 2024

Sardinia delivers on all fronts, and there could be more to come

I’ve been having a bit of a clear out of my beer stash recently, and as reported in a previous pot unearthed a bottle of Sam Smith’s Yorkshire Stingo. I also uncovered another of Humphrey’s beers, in the form of a bottle of Winter Welcome which, despite being nearly six months past its BBE date, still drank exceptionally well.There will probably be a write-up later about this seasonal winter special, but for now I want to describe a couple of craft beers that I picked up on last autumn’s cruise, in Cagliari – capital of the large Mediterranean island of Sardinia.  

On a blisteringly hot day, and after leaving Mrs PBT’s in the relative coolness of the Queen Victoria, I departed from the port area, and headed up into Cagliari’s old town. You can read more about my brief visit to this bustling Sardinian port here, although if truth be known I was content to sit at a table outside one of the many cafés and bars, overlooking the old market square.I only made it so far though, as beyond the main square there is a much steeper ascent up into what must have been the original part of the town. An imposing, and impregnable looking fortress dominates this area, as does a majestic cathedral, but I was content to sit for a while, enjoying a light snack, plus a couple of refreshing beers at a table outside one of the many cafés and bars, overlooking the old market square. 

The beer was as slightly cloudy IPA, produced by a craft brewery based on the Italian mainland, called Birra del Borgo. Suitably refreshed, I decided to gradually make my way back to the ship, whilst taking in a bit more of Cagliari on the way. I hadn’t gone far before I chanced upon a shop specialising in local Sardinian produce.  

 Il Cuore dell’ Isola di Abbi, in the Piazza Yenne, just off the historic city centre, provided a welcome break from the heat, with its air-conditioned interior, so I was happy to stay inside and browse for a while. Not having taken any photo of the exterior, I couldn’t remember the name of the shop, but fortunately, and almost quite by accident, Google came to the rescue, and I was able to instantly recognise the place whilst searching for the name, and origin of the two artisanal beers I bought.  One was a blond lager, whilst the other was a red one. Both beers are sold under the Cuore dell’ Isola brand, and this applies to much of the produce as well. The shop also contained a small restaurant, although that seemed closed at the time of my visit.

So, some six months after purchasing the beers, I finally got round to drinking them. Both were unfiltered and unpasteurised, in other words they were “bottle conditioned”, and I have to ask the question, why? CAMRA used to claim that bottle conditioned ales (BCA’s), were the equivalent of “real ale in a bottle”, even though there’s no such thing, and increasingly over the years I’ve become increasingly wary of such beers, and with good reason. The red lager was alright, but the blond one fobbed all over the place. It’s a shame, as it was a pretty good beer, although that’s of little comfort when the bottle is behaving like Mount Vesuvius, and the contents are spreading their way all over my computer desk, quicker than I can mop them up! 

I thought I’d seen the last of fobbing bottles, but this one was certainly on the lively side, despite having been kept refrigerated for several hours. Coincidentally, I’m drinking another lively BCA at the moment, in the form of a bottle of Rakau Pils, from the London’s The Kernel Brewery. The bottle didn’t fob, but the beer was rather too well-conditioned, so much so that it was impossible to pour the entire 330ml contents into a pint glass, in one movement. Three different Kernel beers were included as “guests” in this month’s shipment from Braybrooke, which is why I am now drinking one of them. I’m a little bit peeved, if truth be known, as I signed up to receive Braybrooke beers, rather than brews from other breweries, however good their reputation.

Let’s move on now from fobbing BCA’s, and return to Sardinia, and I mean that quite literally because in a couple of months’ time Mrs PBT’s and I will be making a further visit to this attractive Mediterranean island, having booked another cruise. This time we will be sailing on Cunard’s newest cruise ship, the Queen Anne, and apart from two days in Italy, will mainly be visiting Spain. The second of our two days on Italian soil, will be spent in Alghero, which is in the north-west of Sardinia. As well as being a major resort, Alghero is described as one of Sardinia's most beautiful medieval cities. The town, with its historic centre, is within easy walking distance of the port, so there will be no need to book excursions, or queue for shuttle buses. This should mean that Mrs PBT’s will be able to spend some time ashore – something she is keen to do owing to her claimed Sardinian ancestry of 1%!

A few word of explanation. Seven or eight years ago, Eileen and I both submitted saliva samples to the online genealogical research/data-base company, Ancestry, and on the last update we received regarding our DNA, Mrs PBT’s came back showing 1% of her genetic makeup was Sardinian in origin. A relatively tiny amount, of course, but interesting because due to their isolated positions from mainland areas, island populations often tend to exhibit some very specific genetic markers, that are unique to that particular location.

Anyway, that set the lady of the house off on a train of thought, that sometime in the dim and distant past, someone with connections to Sardinia contributed a small amount of their DNA, to her genetic makeup. I suggested a sailor, as the most likely candidate, although at the end of the day, it’s just a bit of fun really, but still, something to tease her about, when I get the chance.

Finally, a few words about Sardinia’s smaller, but still quite sizable Mediterranean island neighbour, Corsica. One of my work colleagues has a Corsican wife, and so is a regular visitor to the island, along with the rest of the family. I’m sure he particularly enjoys spending Christmas in the relatively, but he also told me that Corsican's pay a lower rate of duty on both alcohol and tobacco. My colleague no longer smokes, although he still enjoys a drink, and showed me a few photos of locally produced, super-strength beers. Not my cup of tea, but my workmate is partial to the odd bottle of McEwan’s Champion, or even Fuller’s Golden Pride. I’m not sure why or how this differential duty rate for Corsica, came about and I can find little about it online, but seems like a suitable ending for this post, on nearby Sardinia.




Monday 15 April 2024

Celebration Day

It was my birthday on Saturday. It wasn't a significant birthday but it's not far off being one, although for the time being at least, that's as far as I’m prepared to go on the subject. The Bailey family decided it would be nice to celebrate the old man’s special day, but where to go? Being the name in the frame, I of course got to choose, but I was determined that we should go somewhere different, and some where we hadn’t been before.

After quite a bit of searching both online and asking around amongst work colleagues, we settled on a pub called the Vineyard at Lamberhurst Down. Nestled in the Kent countryside and close to the vineyards of Lamberhurst, the Vineyard is a cosy country pub, formerly known as the Swan.  It is an attractive pub which dates from the 1700's, and originally started life as three thatched cottages.  Today, the pub is largely given over to dining, but according to What Pub, it retains a comfortable bar area for drinkers.

I didn’t get to see the bar, as after checking in with the front of house, we were immediately shown to our table, located at the rear of the building, and close to a door leading to the outdoor drinking/dining area and terraced garden. It was all very pleasant, with a bright airy feel to the place, but the thing that caught my eye, and kept me entertained was the large pizza oven and pizza preparation station, to the right of out table. I don’t know what you call the person in charge of cooking pizzas, but the chap looking after this side of things, was certainly kept very busy.

I can't remember the last time I visited the Vineyard, and it may even have been back in the day (early 90’s) when I worked in Lamberhurst at Crown Chemicals, a small privately owned pharmaceutical company that specialised in veterinary products. I'm not sure either when or indeed why, the pub changed its name, but today it is one of 15 upmarket family dining outlets, scattered across mid Kent and extending down into East Sussex. The company behind this chain is Elite Pubs, even though not all the group’s outlets started life originally as pubs.

Son Matthew visited another Elite Pub a month or so ago, when he dined out with his cousin and her fiancé at the Lazy Fox, just over the Sussex border, at Mark Cross. He enjoyed his meal but in typical Matthew fashion was very understated about the place, so we didn't get much in the way of feedback about the pub, or the food. However, a colleague with connections to that part of the world, and who has dined several times at the Lazy Fox, thought that the Vineyard would be a good bet, so after running my decision passed Mrs PBT's, I went online and made a reservation.

Yes, I booked a table, and yes, I know that one or two people (mainly one), aren't going to like that, but turning up at Saturday lunchtime on the off chance that the pub “might” have a vacant table was always going to end in disappointment, even more so when the Met Office was promising the first decent spell of weather this spring. Booking online was a lot easier than phoning the pub and waiting for a harassed member of staff to answer, find the diary, and a pen, in order to take down my details. I even received an e-mail confirmation sent to my phone.

We drove over to Lamberhurst, which is a reasonably sized village, which straddles the River Teise. The latter is a tributary of the Medway, and whilst it looks quite benign, it can occasionally flood and burst its banks, during times of heavy rainfall.  Lamberhurst is much quieter now than it was during my days working at Crown Chemicals, and it’s hard to believe that the A21 – the main, London-Hastings trunk road ran through the heart of the village. Fortunately, a newish by-pass runs to the east, and Lamberhurst is now a peaceful settlement, and a pleasant place to live.

When we arrived at the Vineyard, the car park nearest to the pub was already full, and the overspill parking area, which is larger than the main one, was beginning to fill up as well. I doubt we would have secured a table had we not booked one.  Our reservation was for 1 pm and were probably about 10 minutes ahead of that time, so after parking we climbed the steps past a series of attractive looking terraces, overlooking the garden at the rear of the pub, and entered, as described earlier.

Apart from the location, plus the recommendation from colleagues and family members, my main reason for choosing the Vineyard was the homemade pie which featured on the menu. Many readers of this blog will be well aware that I really love a pie, especially a proper homemade one where the meat and the rest of the filling is all encased in pastry. Fortunately, the practice of calling, what is in effect a casserole with a pastry lid, seems to be seems to be waning, and more and more places are going the extra mile and producing proper pies.

The featured pie at the Vineyard, had a filling of gammon, chicken and leeks, and was served with new potatoes, broccoli spears plus green beans all smothered in butter, not especially healthy, but it was a treat a birthday treat. The dish came with a small pot of gravy, but as the veg and the new potatoes tasted so good on their own, I was reluctant to smother them in gravy, although I did put a small dollop on the side of my plate, to soak up the pastry part of the pie.

Drink wise, I knew the pub stocked Harvey’s, so I ordered a pint of Best, and when Matthew was asking about the lagers, I heard the name Curious Brew mentioned. This was confirmed afterwards by a member on the family WhatsApp group, who also claimed the pub sold Cellar Head beers. I mentioned this brewery in a previous post, stating whilst there was nothing wrong with Cellar Head beers, I just wasn't overly keen on them. The Sussex Best was excellent, although as I was driving, I only had the one pint.

After the main course, we decided to push the boat out and go for a dessert.  Eileen and I both went for a election of different-flavoured, Cornish dairy ice creams from Callestick Farm – wherever that is, in Cornwall? Matthew chose sticky toffee pudding. With coffee to follow, it was the perfect birthday blow-out. I also have to say that the service at the Vineyard was exemplary, and the girls who took our order and brought the food over, were pleasant, friendly, well briefed, and a pleasure to engage with.

My only gripe was not getting the chance for a proper look around the pub itself. That wouldn’t have been very practical, given the number of people inside, and it certainly wouldn’t have been appropriate to go round taking photos – something my family like to remind me of, whenever the chance arises. I’m tempted to take a drive over there, during an off-peak moment, and enjoy that more detailed look around.

We drove home, via Tunbridge Wells, taking the B2169 Bayham Road through Hook Green and Bells Yew Green. Both settlements have their own tied Harvey’s pubs, the Elephant’s Head in the first instance, and the Brecknock Arms at the latter. All these places (and pubs), can be reached by bus, as can the Vineyard, so for those with a bus pass, this forms an enjoyable way of spending a day in the attractive, Kent-Sussex border area.



Friday 12 April 2024

Beer, deer and cultural highlights in the land of the rising sun

Last Wednesday evening, I was relaxing after a busy few days at work, and sitting down to watch, what for me is a rare spot of television. The programme I was about to watch was the first episode in a new series of Race Around the World. For those who might have been asleep, or otherwise missed the previous three series, five pairs of travellers participate in a race that will take them through several different countries, although there is a major catch. The pairs cannot travel by plane, must leave their smartphones and credit cards behind, and will not have access to the internet. Provided only with the cash equivalent of their airfare from their starting destination to the finishing line, they must find innovative ways to manage their budget and conduct their journey. If the pairs run out of money, they must earn some more to continue the journey, and they must also pass through a number of checkpoints along the way.

Series 4 (Season 4, for American readers), saw the pairs starting in Sapporo, capital of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, on the first leg of an epic journey that will eventually take them to Indonesia. Their destination at the end of this first leg is the resort city of Nara, a short distance from Kyoto, in the south of the country. The mention of Nara, with its attractive deer park, and numerous historic temples, brought back pleasant memories for me, as this was the town that I visited, with a colleague, at the end of a business trip to Japan. That was in May 2013, so almost 11 years ago. But on the last day of what was quite an intense week-long visit, it was good to escape the hustle and bustle of Kyoto and take the short (50 minutes) train trip to Nara.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that the company I work for - part-time, now, is Japanese owned, and whilst there are obviously quite strong links between us and Japan, we operate with a fair degree of autonomy. I’m not 100% sure how the idea for the visit came about, but whatever the reason I jumped at the chance when it was offered. I travelled out with Marielle, our Operations Manager who is originally from France. With no direct flights between the UK and Kyoto, we had to change enroute. Several options were available, but we went with Dutch national carrier, KLM, which meant changing flights at Amsterdam Schiphol.

We were well looked after by our Japanese hosts, and we both came away having learned a lot about how the parent company operates. My sphere of interest was quality control and product testing, whilst my colleague’s specialty was automation of production and packing operations. I’m not quite sure what prompted us to visit Nara, but it probably came about after a senior colleague from the UK joined us, towards the end of the week. On the Saturday evening, the three of us went out for dinner, and as this was our first evening without our Japanese hosts, we decided to choose a European style restaurant, rather than a more locally themed one.

Our choice for the evening was the Beer Restaurant, located in the basement of a tower block, just outside Kyoto’s sprawling central station. Unashamedly styled on a Bavarian Beer Hall, the Beer Restaurant served draught Löwenbräu, bottled Export Bass plus a couple of bottled Belgian beers, but as we were in Japan, I decided to stay local and opted for a mug of Asahi Kuronama. Described as Japan’s favourite dark beer, this distinct, rich, and ultra smooth beer, is brewed from a blend of dark, crystal and Munich malts. It was very good, and slipped down a treat, so much so that I ended up over-indulging and knocked back three "medium" sized mugs of this excellent beer.

Fortunately, the following day was our final one in the country and was reserved for sight-seeing rather than business. Our recently arrived colleague Barry, wanted to do his own thing, but if we wanted somewhere close by to visit, he recommended the of Nara, which is home to a large number of impressive shrines, temples, and other World Heritage sites.  Having done our present and souvenir shopping earlier that day with our Japanese colleagues, a spot of culture, plus an escape from the metropolis, seemed a good idea, which is why Marielle and I found ourselves on Kyoto station the following morning, waiting for a train to Nara.

There are two main rail stations in the town, both called Nara, but are distinguished by the train lines they serve: JR (Japan Railways) and Kintetsu. Whilst this can be a little confusing for first-time visitors, the two stations are only a 15-minute walk from each other. We travelled with the JR service, primarily because we had been given a complimentary JR rail pass (basically a Japanese version of an Oyster Card), when we booked our return ticket from and back to Kansai Airport, when we first arrived in the country. This system where separate rail companies run their own separate trains on their own rail tracks, was what John Major envisaged, when he carried out his flawed privatisation of British Rail, between 1994-97, although things didn’t quite turn out the way he planned.

I digress, we had a pleasant journey through the Japanese countryside, and despite feeling rather hungover from the excess Asahi Dark I’d consumed the previous evening, I enjoyed the ride. My colleague was feeling fine, after restricting herself to wine in the Beer Restaurant, so I allowed her to take the lead when it came to navigating our way around the town. Our colleague Barry had told us that the majority of Nara’s temples, and other attractions were located either in, or close to the large deer park sited at the top of the hill, overlooking the town, so after picking up a map from the station, that is where we headed.

There was a definite “resort” feeling about Nara, as we stepped out of the station, and headed towards the deer park, the whole town felt less hurried, less busy and seemed virtually traffic free. The air too, felt cleaner and fresher – probably due to the town’s location amongst the hills and forests of southern Japan. The thumping in my head was starting to subside, and apart from a thirst, cured by drinking copious amounts of water, I was starting to feel much more human than I did when I crawled out of bed that morning.

Nara Park is a large park in central Nara, and is the location of many of the town's main attractions including Todaiji, Kasuga Taisha, Kofukuji and the Nara National Museum. It is also home to hundreds of freely roaming deer. Considered the messengers of the gods, the deer have become a symbol of the city.  "Deer crackers" are for sale around the park, and some deer have learned to bow to visitors to ask to be fed. Nara's deer are surprisingly tame, although they can be aggressive if they think people are about to feed them, so visitors should not try teasing them teasing them with food.

I won’t detail all the temples we saw because a) I can’t remember them all, b) they wouldn’t mean much to those who haven’t visited Nara, and c) there were too many of them, but the one that really stood out, and attracted the largest crowds, was Todaiji the "Great Eastern Temple.” This is one of Japan's most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara. Todaiji's main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall), is one of the world's largest wooden building, and houses one of Japan's largest bronze statues of the Buddha, which stands at 15 metres tall.

There were also many well laid out, and attractive gardens, and creating these serene and relaxing spaces, is something the Japanese excel at. Nara Park was teaming with visitors that day, including organised school parties, plus many other visitors, mainly Japanese, but there were some European faces amongst them. 

As we made our way towards one of the exits to the park, we chanced upon a traditional Japanese wedding taking place. This was at Kasuga-Taisha, a Shinto shrine, famous for its lanterns.
These have been donated by worshipers, and hundreds of bronze lanterns can be found hanging from the buildings, while numerous stone lanterns line its approaches.

Upon leaving the park, we made our way back to Nara JR station, for the train back to Kyoto. It had been a fascinating day out, and a fitting end of our visit to the Land of the Rising Sun.