Monday, 29 March 2010

The Red Lion, Snargate

The Red Lion at Snargate features on CAMRA's National Inventory of unspoilt Heritage Pubs .Known locally as Doris's, after its legendary and long-serving landlady it is a pub where time really has stood still. The building itself is believed to date back to 1540, but unlike many old pubs of a similar age, the inside has not been modified and there are a series of inter-connecting rooms. The walls are decorated with a series of original World War II posters, and other memorabilia, and the rooms are also home to a selection of traditional pub games, such as "Devil Amongst the Tailors" and "Shut the Box". Although there is a set of three handpumps on the bar-counter, they have not been used for many years. Instead all beers are served direct from casks kept stillaged behind the bar. Local beers feature prominently on the menu, with Maidstone brewer's Goachers being a firm favourite.

I have known the pub over many years, and whilst I don't often visit it, I do so whenever the opportunity arises.
Last Saturday, my son Matt and I joined a couple of friends in travelling by train down to Romney Marsh in order to visit the Red Lion. After alighting from the Marsh-Link train at Appledore Station, we had a slightly hair-raising, 30 minutes walk along the busy A2080 before arriving at the pub shortly after opening time.

Doris's daughter Kate was behind the bar, and we were pleased to see a good selection of Kentish ales on tap, awaiting our attention. Eric went straight in on the 6.5% Audit Ale from Westerham. The rest of us plumped for a beer called Red Top, from the Old Dairy Brewery. The latter is a brand new micro-brewery, based somewhere in Kent (their website doesn't specify where), that only commenced production at the beginning of the year. The Red Top was a copper-coloured, quite malty brew, with a distinct hoppiness to balance. It certainly seemed to slip down well. Later on that lunchtime I also sampled the Goachers Mild as well as their Imperial Stout, before returning to the Red Top for my last pint of the session.

The pub was packed; a mini-bus party from Whitstable having arrived shortly before us. There was also a good sprinkling of "locals", including a chap from Tunbridge Wells plus a cyclist from nearby Warehorne. Doris herself put in an appearance shortly afterwards, although she left the serving to Kate and her partner. Apart from crisps and nuts, the Red Lion doesn't serve food, but Doris was quite happy for us to sit in the games room and eat the sandwiches we had brought with us.

We stayed until closing time at 3pm. We were not particularly relishing the prospect of waking back along the busy
A2080, so were therefore extremely grateful when we were offered a lift back to Appledore Station by a group of regulars. We piled into two cars, and in next to no time were deposited safe and sound back at the station. We had nearly half an hour before our train was due, so we popped into the adjacent, and very welcoming, Railway Hotel for a quick pint of St Austell Tribute before catching our train.

That wasn't quite the last pint of the day. We had decided to travel back to Tonbridge via Hastings; breaking our journey in the seaside town. I won't recount our afternoon and evening in Hastings apart from saying that
we ended up in the FILO (First In Last Out), an old established home-brew pub in the Old Town. It was a good place to finish up at after what had been a most excellent day out.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

A Day In Maidstone

I spent the day in Maidstone last Saturday. Our local CAMRA branch had organised a crawl around some of the county town's best pubs, so I tagged along. I had a particular reason for attending though, having lived in Maidstone during the early 1980's. I bought my first house there, and it was the town I settled down in following my return to Kent after a six year absence. I was especially keen therefore to re-visit some of my old haunts and to see how much things had changed during the intervening quarter of a century.

The plan was to start at a pub called Drakes, an old half-timbered building that dates back to the 17th Century. It was formerly known as the Lamb, but towards the end of my stay in Maidstone was given the full renovation treatment by then owners Whitbread, and was re-named Drakes Crab & Oyster House. Decorated with a bare-boards, exposed brick-work and old beams theme, and lit largely by candle-light, Drakes proved especially popular with the younger generation. That was 25 years ago, and looking at the outside of the pub yesterday, not much in the way of renovation appeared to have been carried out since. I say outside, because that's as far as we got, for despite being advertised as opening at midday, the pub remained well and truly closed.

Eventually we gave up waiting for it to open its doors, and made our way instead to Druids. On the way we passed the large Fremlin Walk shopping centre, with the brick entrance arch forming all that now remains of the huge Fremlins Brewery that once occupied the site. The brewery itself had ceased production back in 1972, following the takeover by Whitbread, and a decade or so later was pulled down to allow a modern distribution depot to be built in its place. I remember watching the wrecking ball and bulldozers at work and thinking what a waste of a fine brewery, who's ales were once justifiably promoted under the banner of "Kent's Best". At least the brewery buildings had lasted a lot longer than the characterless, shed-like depot, which was torn down a few years ago to create yet another identi-kit shopping mall.

I digress; Druids is a former Hogshead Alehouse that is now run by Greene King. Apart from the usual GK offerings of IPA, OSH and Abbot, there was the extra choice of Holdens Golden, Okells Olde Skipper and GK's seasonal ale for spring. Myself and a friend opted for the Holdens, as this is a beer not often seen in this neck of the woods. Unfortunately it was on the turn, so after handing it back we plumped for the Okells instead. This was a pleasant enough beer, but was not particularly outstanding. However, I will need to get used to it when I visit the Isle of Man next month.

The next port of call was the Muggleton Inn, one of two Wetherspoons outlets in the town, and one of my favourite JDW's. This tasteful conversion of a large cavernous former insurance building occupies two floors. Unlike many of the company's outlets, where service can be a bit slow, we didn't have to wait long to get served. We also found ourselves a table, as several of us wanted to eat. I enjoyed a very good pint of Grainstore Triple B, but there was also an interesting beer from Saltaire on offer called Rye Smile, which is brewed using rye malt. I had a coffee after my meal, before we moved on to the next pub on our itinerary.

The Flowerpot lies on Sandling Road on the route out of town. I remember it as a Truman's pub that offered the full range of the beers produced during the company's short-lived return to the real-ale fold. They were, from memory, rather good and even included a dark mild. I think it must have been some time during the late 1980's that Truman's ceased brewing; a great shame as they were the oldest brewery in the country, and made great play of their foundation date of 1666 in their advertising.

These days the Flowerpot is a free-house and a very good one at that! The pub was Maidstone CAMRA pub of the year for 2009, and whilst we were there we learned that it had also won this prestigious award for 2010 as well. What I remember most about the Flowerpot was the dark-stained wood paneling which gave the place a bit of a gloomy feel. This has now all been painted a creamy colour which gives the pub a much more bright and cheerful appearance. As one would expect from a POTY entry, there was a range of interesting beers on. These included Gold Star from local brewers, Goachers and OTT from Hog's Back, an excellent dark beer, but at 6% perhaps not the wisest beer to be drinking on a pub crawl. The beers that caught my eye though were a couple from a brewery called Bays. Even our well-travelled former branch chairman had to admit this was a new one on him. Together we tried them both, with the 4.3% Gold scoring higher, in my opinion, than the 4.7% Breaker. Both were good though, and it was encouraging to see a pub offering something unusual for a change. Some of our party also sampled the Flowerpot's food, and had I known that it would be as good as it looked I too would have forsworn the standard JDW fare for something a little bit different.

We spent several hours in the Flowerpot; some of us wanted to sample the full range of the pub's beer, some wanted to stay and watch the rugby, whilst some wanted to do both. By the time we left it was getting dark and starting to rain. We made our way to the Society Rooms, Maidstone's other Wetherspoon outlet. This was my first visit to this relatively new JDW and the contrast between this and the Muggleton could not have been more striking. The latter is a characterful and stylish old building, whilst the Society Rooms are an unashamedly modern glass-fronted building, housed beneath an imposing office block. Strangely enough though, the concept works and what's more the pub is a surprisingly popular meeting place. I spotted Batemans Salem Porter on sale, and as I rarely see this excellent dark beer my mind was swiftly made up. Others in our party went for the Gaelic-sounding offering brewed from peated malt, from Hilden Brewery. Just like drinking Laphraiog said Scottish Iain, but the sassenachs amongst us weren't convinced.

There was just enough time for one final pub before catching the train, or bus, home, and it was an absolute gem. The Rifle Volunteers is one of only two pubs belonging to Goachers Brewery. I remember it from its days as a Shepherd Neame house, even though I have re-visited it several times since it swapped brewery. It is an attractive, street-corner local, constructed out of blocks of locally quarried ragstone. Inside there is a single plainly-furnished bar, with three handpumps plus, for those that want it, a Hurliman Lager fount. Three Goachers beers are served: Fine Light, Real Mild plus Crown Imperial Stout. There are no noisy fruit machines, juke box or other electronic disturbances, and the proceedings are expertly looked after by the original landlord whom I remember from the time I lived in Maidstone.

I tried the Fine Light and the Imperial Stout; both were in excellent condition, which is hardly surprising given the pub's regular listing in CAMRA's Good Beer Guide. Shortly before leaving, we were joined by several members from Maidstone CAMRA. They had been on a bus trip down to Lewes, which explains why they were unable to join us earlier in the day. Unfortunately we weren't able to stay and chat as long as we would have liked, owing to train and bus departure times, but it was good to see them nevertheless.

So ended an excellent day out, enjoying a few of the County Town's best pubs. There were quite a few others, of course, that we did not have time to visit, but there's always another occasion when this can be done. For me the day was especially enjoyable, allowing me to re-visit several old haunts, plus one or two new ones.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

A Visit to Crouch Vale Brewery

I originally wrote this article some fifteen years or so ago, following an excellent day's visit with West Kent CAMRA to the Crouch Vale Brewery in Essex. The day also included visits to two excellent pubs. Read on, and discover a bit more about this unspoilt rural corner of Essex.

Whilst I have enjoyed visiting many of the new micro-breweries which have sprung up in recent years, I find that they do not have quite the same appeal and attraction attached to them as their more established counterparts. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the beer they produce. On the contrary, I have found that much of it compares well with the products of the established breweries. Some of it is even better. What I am getting at, is more to do with the architectural designs of the buildings rather than the products produced in them.

The older, established breweries are invariably housed in purpose built structures, which are both attractive in appearance and functional in design This form of industrial architecture reached its peak with the classic Victorian tower brewery, where gravity is put to good use, allowing the flow of ingredients from one stage of the brewing process to another. In addition, such breweries often tend to be home to all sorts of interesting pieces of plant and equipment, ranging from teak-clad mash tuns, to functioning steam engines.

With a small number of exceptions, none of this applies to the new breed of micro-breweries. Although I can think of micro-breweries that occupy old barns, converted farm buildings, and redundant railway stations, new breweries, in the main, tend to be housed in modern, light industrial units, of the type which are commonplace throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom. Such buildings are functional, relatively cheap to construct, and easy to maintain. Unfortunately they have none of the embellishments, or indeed character, of their Victorian predecessors.

Crouch Vale Brewery, at South Woodham Ferrers in Essex, is no exception to this rule, and it was outside just such a unit that myself plus a dozen or so fellow CAMRA members found themselves on a sunny February morning, back in 1994. This was the prelude to a trip round this small, but well respected micro-brewery. However, if the outside of the building looked plain and functional, the inside was anything but.

We were met by Colin Bocking, one of the two original partners who had set up the brewery in 1981. Realising that we would be thirsty after our mini-bus trip up from Kent, we were each given a pint of Crouch Vale Millennium Gold, before beginning the tour. As its name suggests, this particular beer is gold in colour, and is a well-hopped brew of 4.2% abv. Whilst we were enjoying our beer, our host gave us a very interesting talk on the brewing process in general, followed by details of how it is carried out at Crouch Vale. He also gave us a potted history of the company, and described how it was just entering into a period of expansion, thanks largely to the “guest beer” rule. All this was interspersed with amusing anecdotes, underscored by Colin's very dry sense of humour.

It is always encouraging to hear of success stories, and that of Crouch Vale certainly fitted the bill. As stated earlier, the brewery was founded in 1981 by Colin and his partner, Rob Walsted and after steady, but unspectacular expansion had reached a stage where it was ticking over nicely. Then along came the 1989 Beer Orders, which opened up the guest beer market to the new breed of micros, and the company has never looked back. Rob Walsted left, several years ago to set up his own beer agency and concentrate on the wholesaling side of the trade. He also bought his own pub - more about that later. Today, Crouch Vale supplies over 100 free trade outlets, as well as its own tied house. At the time of our visit this was the award winning Cap and Feathers at Tillingham, but the pub has since been sold and another purchased – the Queen’s Head in Chelmsford.

The talk was followed by a look around the brewery itself. Every available square foot of the unit seemed to be pressed into use. Most interesting was the brewing copper, sited on a mezzanine floor above our heads, and fired from below by direct gas flame.

After a further pint of Millennium Gold, it was time to leave our host to get on with the brewing, and depart for the next stop on our day out. This was to be lunch at the aforementioned Cap and Feathers. The pub took a fair bit of finding, despite having been given directions from Colin, but the perseverance of our driver, and the map reading skills of the navigator within our party brought about our eventual success. So after a pleasant half hour's drive through the winding lanes of this lesser-known part of Essex, we arrived in the picturesque village of Tillingham, and parked outside the Cap and Feathers.

The Cap and Feathers was everything a village pub should be, with old oak beams, open fires, traditional pub games and a quiet, unspoilt atmosphere, enjoyed by a varied and appreciative clientele. Not only did we enjoy lunch here - courtesy of the brewery, but we were also able to sample several more beers from the Crouch Vale portfolio. These included Woodham IPA, Best Bitter and, for the braver souls amongst us, the head-banging 6.4% ABV Willie Warmer, described by the Good Beer Guide as "a meal in a mug".

It was therefore, with some reluctance that we left, come closing time, at 3pm, but where to go next? That question was answered by our then branch chairman Dave Aucutt, who was able to guide us to the third stop on our itinerary, a pub called the Prince of Wales, in the tiny hamlet of Stow Maries. Dave, at the time was also director of East-West Ales Beer Agency, and through the course of his work, collecting beer from small independents and delivering it to freehouses throughout the region, knew the area well. We were therefore able to locate the pub without any problem.

I must admit that before we arrived at the Prince of Wales, the beer was beginning to catch up with me, and the prospect of drinking yet more starting to appeal less and less. However, once we reached the pub all such thoughts vanished, for housed in a white-painted, weather boarded building, constructed in typical local style, was one of the best pubs I have been in. The Good Beer Guide describes the Prince of Wales as a rural gem, and it was therefore hard to believe that only a few years previous the building had been more or less derelict. It had been beautifully restored by its then owner, who turned out to be none other than Rob Walsted - the former partner in Crouch Vale, whom I mentioned earlier.

What I particularly liked about the Prince of Wales was the way in which it had been divided up into a number of separate, but inter-connected rooms. The floor was part wooden and part quarry tiled, with an open fire burning in one of the rooms and, from what I recall, a stove in another one. The decoration was provided by a number of old brewery advertisements, some of them from long defunct concerns, but they were just the right sort of thing to hang on the walls of this marvellous old pub.

There was no piped or other recorded music to disturb one, or to detract from the gentle hub-bub of conversation, and on a cold February afternoon, the pub seemed to possess a really relaxing and tranquil atmosphere. Moments such as these are to be cherished, especially when one is in good company, and whilst it is easy to romanticise when one has enjoyed a considerable number of pints, I have extremely fond memories of that Saturday afternoon in the Prince of Wales.

We spent a couple of hours in this wonderful pub, sampling several of the different ales that were on offer. All were in good condition, and it was with considerable reluctance that we took our leave. The journey back to Kent was uneventful; I fell asleep, and missed my first trip across the then recently opened Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford.

So ended an excellent day out; just the thing to lift one’s spirits at, what can often be, a depressing time of the year. I would like to return one day to the Prince of Wales; something that could quite easily be achieved, now that the pub offers bed and breakfast accommodation.

Footnote: Crouch Vale moved to a new site, still in South Woodham Ferrers, back in 2006. Looking at the pictures on their website it really looks sate of the art.