Well the winner of the West Kent Pub of the Year has at last been confirmed, but I’ve been requested not to reveal its identity until the pub has been informed. Fair comment, we will instead carry on from where we left off last time, by looking at the other three finalists.
Some time after 2pm, our chartered mini-bus headed back into Tunbridge Wells in order to visit the fourth pub on our itinerary. Finding a place to park on a Saturday afternoon was always going to be a problem, but fortunately there is a row of designated spaces on the edge of Tunbridge Wells Common, reserved for coaches and tour buses. Our driver decided our vehicle qualified in the latter category, so after parking up, we walked up the hill towards our destination.
On the way we passed the site of the old Kent & Sussex Hospital, now being re-developed as a collection of “high-end” houses and apartments. Just past this on-going development is the George, an attractive old coaching inn, which can trace its history back to the Georgian era, when Tunbridge Wells was first being developed as a town.
After an unfortunate period as a rather tacky night-spot (Liquid Lounge, TN4), the pub has been lovingly restored to something approaching its former glory, and reverted, thankfully, to its original name. The George is now a smart, friendly free house, which provides an exciting new venue at the "top end" of Tunbridge Wells.
The pub features a range of seven cask ales, most of which are from small brewers. There is also an extensive selection of "craft beers", along with a couple of traditional ciders. Two beers caught my attention, Marble Pint and 360º Stout. The first beer gave me the opportunity to utter the immortal words, "a pint of Pint, please"; the second was a very tasty half to finish up on.
There are several distinct areas inside, with wooden floors and panelling, and plenty of comfortable seating. A couple of open fires provide a welcoming warmth in winter, and for the summer months there is a patio area in front of the pub, plus a hidden, “secret garden” down some steps at the rear of the building.
After ordering our drinks, most of us opted for something to eat; my Cajun Chicken Melt was particularly tasty, and was just the right portion size so as not to impede further drinking. The stop-over also afforded a good opportunity to catch up with some friends who I hadn't seen since before Christmas. It was then back on the bus for the last leg of the tour; the final two rural pubs.
The first of these was the Windmill at Sevenoaks Weald, a pub which needs little in the way of introduction to readers of this blog. It’s hard to believe now that the Windmill was once under the threat of closure, but after being given a new lease of life six years ago following its acquisition by sympathetic new owners, it went on to become branch Pub of the Year. It kept this title for four years running, and in 2014 reached the final four of CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year competition.
Licensees Matt and Emma have achieved this success through attention to detail and a strong emphasis placed on customer service. This, combined with their sensitive restoration of a fine old Victorian pub, has made this reborn village local a real destination pub. The Windmill's six hand pumps dispense a range of beer styles and strengths, alongside a number of real local ciders.
Unfortunately our visit that Saturday was not quite the full-on "Windmill experience" we’d been expecting. The England v France clash in the Six Nations Rugby Tournament was in full flow when we arrived, and the pub was packed with supporters, all cheering on the home side. It was therefore standing room only.
Now don’t get me wrong, under different circumstances a Six Nations rugby game would have grabbed my interest, so I am being unfair and just a little hypocritical to be moaning about it here, but I believe the packed pub interfered with my ability to judge it as objectively as I might otherwise. I didn’t mark it down, but being squashed into the lobby next to the restaurant didn’t exactly enhance our visit. This did mean there were certain areas where I had to rely on past visits in order to make my score.
I was somewhat relieved when we left, and headed in a south-westerly direction, up into the High Weald for the final pub of the tour; the wonderful unspoilt Queen’s Arms a.k.a. Elsie’s. The Queens Arms is listed on CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, and a visit there really is like stepping back in time.
Nothing much has changed in this simple country ale-house since the 1930's, but its future had been under threat for some time after Elsie, the long-serving landlady, had to move into a care home. The pub was then run by a dedicated band of locals for nearly 5 years, until 2014, when it was bought and restored by its present owners.
Elsie is sadly no longer with us, but her spirit lives on in the pub she was not only born in, but had also lived in for virtually her entire life. It is worth noting that the Queens Arms has one of the last remaining totally unspoilt rural public bars, which dates from the Victorian era. Apart from the paintwork, this step back to an earlier time has been almost untouched since the end of the nineteenth century.
It was this bar which accommodated our party, and it was a relief to be able to escape from the Six Nations rugby match being shown in the other bar. There was just the one beer on; Larkin’s Traditional, which was on fine form, but apart from the community spirit, there was little else in way of attraction, and no food apart from crisps.
This did lead several of us to query, at least to ourselves that despite its obvious historical, why was a pub like the Queen’s Arms included in the Pub of the Year competition? It may well be a “national treasure” but it is run as a “hobby pub”; the current owners both having full time jobs.
All the same it was nice to finish up there, but realistically speaking it was never going to win, and probably just as well given its limited opening hours. For a trip back in time though, the Queen’s Arms is well worth a visit, and further information regarding its history and character can be found here, on Whatpub.
It was around 7pm when the bus dropped us back in Tunbridge Wells. Several people went on to the Royal Oak, whilst a couple of others popped into the Bedford, next to the station With a busy family Mother’s Day event taking place the following day, I decided I’d had enough beer I called it a day and caught the next train back to Tonbridge, after an enjoyable, but rather hectic day out.