touring sarre's country pubs - a pub crawl to be proud of
some pubs have more to offer than just a good pint. group ten of the best together in one of england's most beautiful countries and you have an excuse for the ultimate pub crawl and the perfect break. jonathan crouch reports
The British pub is one of those national institutions we tend to take for granted. Foreigners don't. Fancy hotels they can get at home. Ancient watering holes going back hundreds of years are unique to Britain.
The problem, as we all know, is in finding a good one. We all have our favourites close to home but on holiday or when further afield on business or a short break, you simply have to take pot luck - don't you? Not necessarily, at least if your travels take you to Kent.
Perhaps they should. From the gentle, wooded hills of the Weald to the historic splendour of Canterbury, this forgotten country is full of undiscovered treasures. Here lie some of the country's most celebrated country houses and castles as well as some of the most attractive and unspoilt landscapes in Britain. Plus, it should be added, some of the very best pubs.
But here at least, there's no need to resort to pot luck before choosing one. Kent's longest (and Britain's oldest) brewer Shepherd Neame has bought up and developed ten of the country's finest hostelries so that they're able not only to provide fine local food and ales but also excellent accommodation. We've seen this kind of thing before of course. Huge company moves in and redevelops characterful country pub into something more resembling a chain hotel. Except that this isn't like that. In each case, there are only a few rooms and all of them have a feel that is distinctly country pub in style.
Or at least that's what I was told. To put the PR to the test, we stayed at the Crown Inn in Sarre, then visited The Miller Arms in Canterbury the following day for lunch, these two establishments apparently typical of the ten in the Shepherd Neame portfolio. We could also have chosen several other group hostelries grouped around the same area: The Grove Ferry Inn in Upstreet, The Marine in Tankerton, The White Horse in Boughton, The Woolpack Inn in Chilham, or The New Flying Horse In Wye. A trip to the historic naval town of Chatham could have been accompanied by a say at The Ship and Trades, while visits to the pretty towns of Lenham and Tunbridge wells could have occasioned a stay at either The Dog and Bear Hotel or the Chequers. Could this group from the basis for the ultimate pub crawl? And could it work as well for a longer motoring holidays as it might for short weekend break?
First impressions are good at The Crown Inn at Sarre. The national room rates were reasonable with the largest of the 15 rooms (the Huguenot Lounge) as good as anything you'd find at a much more expensive four star hotel. You could expect all the usual amenities (TV, bath and/or shower, teat/coffee making facilities) but the feel was very different from that of normal chain accommodation. As you climb the steep stairs up to your bedroom in the Crown Inn, you can imagine weary coachmen and stagecoach travellers doing exactly the same thing down the years as far back as 1650, when this old ale house was bought by one of the Huguenots (French protestants) expelled from France.
Much of the real history of the place is sadly invisible to visitors: Tudor bricks are used in some of the walls and there's a Priest Hole (a secret refuge for men on the run) in the roof space. Still it's hard not to be impressed by somewhere with a visitors book that includes the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Tessie O'Shea and Charles Dickens. All would have returned to sample the same quality of ale you can enjoy today, and perhaps to enjoy a surprisingly impressive menu of local food which today, as then, is prepared using entirely local ingredients put together with the care and imagination the brochure promised.
We found much the same kind of approach taken at the Miller Arms, which stands within Canterbury Town centre on the banks if the River Stour. Here there's a slightly more cosmopolitan feel, but it does have the advantage of being within walking distance of the magnificent Cathedral and wonderful shopping centre.
Having eaten and drunk our fill, it would have been wonderful to continue this very special pub crawl. Perhaps South to Wye, West to Lenham or North West to Chatham. Knowing that each place would have represented a unique little slice of English History. Alas we had to head for home. But we'll be back.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Where: Shepherd Neame Kent Pubs
We Tried: The Crown Inn, Sarre - 01843 847808 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Group Information: 01795 532206 www.shepherdneame.co.uk