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Previous Pint Pleasures - November 6, 2001

guinness eileen

The Rock, Hoath Corner, Chiddingstone Hoath, Kent

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The Spotted Dog, Smarts Hill, Kent

Over in the southwest corner of Kent, where the Garden of England rubs noses with Surrey and East Sussex and the River Eden meets the River Medway, is an area called the Weald. Lying between the North Downs and the South Downs, the Weald was once forested but is now mostly open country with hills and spectacular views. The most notable place of interest in the area is Hever Castle, where Anne Boleyn's ghost undoubtedly loiters. Once a home of Henry VIII, the castle was purchased in 1903 by billionaire William Waldorf Astor who refurbished it, adding a lake and a "Tudor Village" which is used today as a conference centre. Also in the area is Penhurst Place, an architecturally interesting country palace dating from 1340, and the National Trust village of Chiddingstone with its Tudor castle. All this is just to the southwest of Tonbridge and to the northwest of Royal Tunbridge Wells, the "Tunbridge" a misspelling of the aforementioned Tonbridge and the "Royal" added for much the same reason that "Regis" was added to the city of Bognor to make it "Bognor Regis". In other words, it doesn't really matter in the general scheme of things, especially in this hectic 21st century when we all have far more important things to worry about. But I do often wonder if Tonbridge and Royal Tunbridge Wells are simply mirror images of each other, regardless of any delusions of grandeur.

Anything is possible on the Kent Weald. The area around Chiddingstone is notable for the research of a former resident, Tony Wedd. A native of Glastonbury, Tony was interested not only in the countryside but in individuals who had been contacted by extraterrestrials. When he lived in Chiddingstone he observed unusual clumps on high points in the surrounding countryside. Having researched ley lines at Stonehenge, he detected an alignment of these clumps and developed a theory connecting UFOs and ley lines. He also formed the STAR Fellowship, whose aim was to welcome extraterrestrials and learn from them.

Needless to say this doesn't exactly explain why the Rock in Chiddingstone is such a charming, down-to-earth pub. Although the pub is a bit challenging to find, the drive up to it is spectacular and well worth it. The unspoilt country pub features a lovely brick floor and bar, lots of old wood everywhere, and the freshest-looking hops I've ever seen hanging in a pub. The large hearth is piled high with tons -- sorry, bunches -- of wood, and a bull's head is mounted on the wall for the game of Ring The Bull. (I gave it a go and won in four tries! Beginner's luck?)

Our party for the day consisted of myself, driver Andrew, my mother, and our landlord friend Stuart, who had told us about visiting this pub in his youth when he lived in Croydon. Since my mother insists on daily pub lunches whenever she visits we'd intended to have lunch here. Sadly the cook was off so there was no food today. So we contented ourselves with sitting at the sunlit table in the corner and sipping pints of Larkins Traditional Ale (3.4% ABV, Larkins Brewery Ltd, Edenbridge, Kent) as we gazed out the window at the rustic views. Brewed in nearby Edenbridge, our pints of Larkins were very, very good for such a low-alcohol beer, with hops floating on the surface -- and a sensible choice for our hungry driver. My mother's Chiddingstone Cider was very dry and pleasant, just the way she likes it.

Moving on down the road a little in search of lunch we bumped into the Spotted Dog in Smarts Hill. With the emphasis on its fine food, the Spotted Dog has a cosy pub area with tile and oak flooring as well as a large terraced back garden with lots of greenery and views over the Weald. Built in 1520 as a row of cottages, the Spotted Dog was erroneously named when a short-sighted painter mistook the leopard on the family coat of arms as a dog. And it's been called the Spotted Dog ever since.

We sat in the back garden and had a magnificent lunch -- my Indian Ocean Butterfish with Mango Chutney was superb. We accompanied our meals with pints of Old Spotty. At 3.6% ABV, this is reportedly brewed by Benskins Brewery. Once located in Watford, Hertfordshire, the Benskins Brewery was taken over by Ind Coope in 1957, and the site of the former brewery is now the Watford Museum. Wherever it's currently brewed, Old Spotty is a nice even bitter, accompanying our food supremely. And it's a perfect pint to drink in such a fragrant woody hillside garden setting. Strangely enough it doesn't have any spots in it, even of floating bits of hops. If you do find yourself sitting in the garden with a spotted pint of Old Spotty it'll most likely be from migrating autumn leaves.