Sadly not all of my recent away-days have taken me to areas rolling in good beer. I’ve already visited all of the Midland and Northern clubs in the top eight levels of English football, which leaves me with the area around London, and although I enjoy a pint of Fullers as much as the next man, tracking down some of the newer microbrewer beers is not always that easy.
There are the old faithfuls, of course, like the Bree Louise near Euston station, which always has a good selection of Capital-brewed ale in stock, but as most of my transport to the ‘Smoke’ now drops me at Victoria, that’s a long way to walk for a pint even by my standards.
So the prospects of a trip to a real ‘brewing town’ gives today’s outing a bit of a bonus element. I often profess to a general preference for Northern beers to anybody who cares to listen, but in all honesty I also have a sneaking admiration for one or two from the South-East, especially the afore-mentioned Fullers, the ever-excellent Harveys from Lewes, and also the beers of Shepherd Neame, brewed in Faversham, Kent. Which is where I am headed today.
Like most destinations in Kent, it costs an arm and a leg to travel to from London, and I part with £21 for the return rail trip from Victoria. But at least the scenery is eye-catching, particularly on a sunny, late-November day like today. The hopfields and oast-houses of the ‘Garden of England’ flash past as I reach my destination in good time for a couple of pre-match pints.
Faversham really is a lovely little town, not too big and not over-run with the same old chain-stores you see on virtually every other High Street in the country. As for pubs, where do you start? Every other one seems to be operated by Shepherd Neame, as you might expect, but I decide to save that until later as I go in search of a couple of Good Beer Guide listed free houses. The first of these – right opposite the local Wetherspoons which, with every window showing signs of impact damage, I decide not to explore – is the Old Wine Vaults.
A quaint but not unwelcoming front bar leads to the main bar, lounge and dining areas, and a couple of attractive young girls waiting to take my beer order. I oblige by choosing a pint of Incubus by Kent microbrewer Hopdaemon, whose owner/brewer I met at a recent beer competition. He’s a New Zealander with a penchant for crafting some good, proper English ale. Incubus is just how I like ’em, a deep-bronze-coloured malty brew packed with English hops. Marvellous!
Five minutes away, and just a short walk under the railway tracks, is the Elephant, Swale CAMRA Pub-of-the-Year for five years on the bounce. It’s a little gem with five Locale handpumps facing you as you walk through the door. I only have time for the one, and I select a 3.9%abv mild, Black Prince from the Canterbury-based Wantsum Brewery. I am not to be disappointed.
From here it’s around a ten-minute walk to the home of Faversham Town FC, Salters Lane – or should I say the Shepherd Neame Stadium. It’s fair to say that the brewery dominates the town, and there are reminders all around about the perils of bringing alien alcohol into the stadium. The brewer doubtless wants its money’s worth for putting up four massive ‘Shepherd Neame’ signs around the ground! A shame though that they haven’t seen fit to install a handpump in the clubhouse bar, if only just for match days. There are bottles of their beer in the fridge, but I decide to save my last pint of the day for later.
The ‘S.N.’ Stadium’ is effectively a two-sided ground, with just narrow flat-standing strips along one side and behind one goal. Along the other side is a characterful covered seated stand, and there’s a covered ‘bike-shed’ terrace behind one goal.
The snack bar, operated by a couple of mature ladies game for a bit of banter with the cheeky chappy locals visiting them for refreshment, sells chip rolls but the Pukka Pies are only of the meat variety. “We’ve just about run out of them,” says one of the ladies, as I spot the rolly-poly linesman warming up out of the corner of my eye. It all adds up.
And there’s no bacon sarnies today either, as she’s forgotten to put the dead-pig order in! It’s an oversight which subsequently merits a condemnation over the club’s public address system. There’s obviously a good, friendly atmosphere at the club, as is evidenced by the polite applause which breaks out around the ground whenever the home team put a good move together, and a generous reception at the end of what in all honesty is a pretty uninspiring game of football.
With mid-table Town taking on struggling Burgess Hill, I don’t particularly anticipate a feast of football, but for much of the match the excitement level is low enough to be snooze-inducing. A goal apiece at the end of the first half, and a flurry of activity at the start of the second proves to be the peak of the entertainment, and as the game drifts to its inevitable conclusion I start to think about the last pint.
As I walk back into town I reluctantly pass by the door of the Elephant – with those other four LocAle beers just waiting to entice me in – and decide that, when in Rome, I must visit a Shepherd Neame pub. The Chimney Boy is in the Good Beer Guide, and is handy for the station. It’s been knocked about a bit over the years, with several rooms converted into one, but I find a corner and settle down with my book and a pint of Late Red. Just like the two earlier in the day, it’s a cracking drink.
Sadly, my ‘hit’ list of footy grounds is unlikely to take me to anywhere else quite like Faversham. With the ranks of the old ‘family’ brewers dwindling in numbers as the years go by, towns dominated by one respected company are few and far between. I put my thinking cap on and I come up with Palmers, just along the South Coast in Bridport, Dorset.
Bridport eh? What league are they in? Western League Premier Division, Level 9. You know, I feel a Western League away-day coming up….
Programme: Stiff cover and a splash of colour but very heavy on adverts and not much more than a procession of stats. £1.50 on the turnstile.
Floodlight pylons: Six
Parakeets: No but I did see an old bi-plane doing aerobatics above the ground
Toilets: up a ramp to the side of the clubhouse
Club shop: Didn’t see one
Music the players run out to: A music-less ground. Tannoy used to announce the Golden Goal winners and embarrass the snack bar ladies!
Kop choir: Some noisy individuals in the centre of the stand but no singing
Away fans: A handful
What’s in a name? Whoever is translating the Visitors information for the programme clearly isn’t paying attention as the word ‘age’ becomes tacked on to the end of three of the names. Hence Jonno Meila, age 22, becomes Jonno Meilaage, 22; Olalekan Bankhole becomes Olalekan Bankoleage, and Oli Lockyer is Oli Lockyerage. Mind you, he’s 17 and probably doesn’t!