An Autobiography in Beer


The beers of Kent & Sussex may seem a surprising theme for July’s Beer Festival at The Dun Cow. To be honest, I hadn’t given any thought to what beers I was going to choose until we were visited by two members of North Oxfordshire CAMRA who were looking for assurance that the Hornton Beer Festivals would continue now that Lisa and I had taken on the pub. “Absolutely” I replied “the dates have already been fixed”. They looked suitably relieved and asked what the theme would be, a question that I must admit, caught me completely by surprise but without a seconds’ hesitation I found myself saying “Kent & Sussex”.

Being born and raised in the South-Eastern fringes of London, my childhood day trips to the countryside or seaside always began by heading due South through West Kent and into Sussex. This was long before the rural A-roads had been made into dual-carriage ways and so my Dad’s bright yellow Mark2 Ford Cortina (this was the 1970s) would often be reduced to a snails’ pace as we were caught in holiday traffic jams or forced to follow a tractor down a country lane.

In an effort to ward off the nausea of car-sickness, my brother and I would play endless games of “Pub Sign Cricket” a game (which I still play with my son) in which players score runs by counting the number of legs owned by the subject of the pub names that the car passes en-route. The Dun Cow, for example would score four runs and Pub Sign Cricketers are deemed to be “out” when they pass a pub name that has “no legs”, like The King’s Head. The result was that I paid special attention to the passing landscape and so came to know and love the sight of hop gardens, oast houses, the tile-hung main streets of towns like Sevenoaks, Tunbridge Wells and the “hurst” villages of the High Weald (Goudhurst, Lamberhurst, Sissinghurst, Wadhurst). It also gave me an encyclopaedic knowledge of pubs along the route of the A21, which was unusual in a ten-year old.

In later years, it was these same by-ways and villages, all redolent of the idyllic, long, hot summer days of childhood that I would explore with friends. These trips would often end up in one of the very same pubs that had featured in epic Pub Sign Cricket matches of the 70s (the “Eleven Cricketers” in Storrington – 22! Get in!), in one of the many pubs that overlook the shingle beaches of Hastings and Rye or one of those that nestle in sleepy hamlets at the foot of The Downs. It was here that my love of cask ales began and the taste of Harvey’s Sussex Bitter was added to the smell of hot vinyl car seats and the prickle of sea-salt drying on sunburnt skin as something guaranteed to produce a Proustian rush of happy memories.

Thankfully, Harvey’s is very much still a Lewes landmark (since 1790) but there are some brewers that the years have been less kind to. In 1900, Maidstone had four independent brewers but these had all gone by the early-70s leaving Shepherd Neame as the only significant Kent brewery for many years. Similarly, 200 years of brewing in Horsham ended in 2000 when King and Barnes were bought by Hall and Woodhouse (Badger) and production moved to Dorset. Recent times however have seen an astonishing renaissance; Sussex has no less than 22 breweries, including WJ King and Hepworth & Co, which were founded respectively by the former CEO and the former Head Brewer of the defunct King & Barnes. Brewing returned to Maidstone with the founding of Goachers in 1983 and since the 90s some truly great breweries have emerged, including Dark Star (1994), Gadds’ Ramsgate Brewery (2002) and Kissingate as recently as 2008. Frankly, we’re spoilt for choice and so we haven’t yet made our final selection but I think that I can confidently promise that we you’re in for a treat.

Who knows, if this idea of picking the beers of a specific region as a Beer Festival theme proves a winner we could carry it on in February. Where next? Surely London deserves a festival all of its own? What about Yorkshire? (spoilt for choice there) East Anglia? The South West? These are all places that also hold particular memories for me, so you might even be treated to another instalment of my “Autobiography in Beer”.

Hornton’s Summer Beer Festival will take place at The Dun Cow from July 15th to July 17th 2011 and details of the beer and food on offer can be found here. See you there