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Secret Drinker reviews Shepherd Neame's Joiners Arms pub in West Malling High Street


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This is a place I’ve been before, but not for an awful long while. Last time I was in I recall a slightly unfortunate aroma in certain areas of the Joiners Arms in West Malling.

But, I’m delighted to say the slight whiff of drains I experienced last time has disappeared and all I could smell stepping through the door this time was a blast of decent aftershave.

I haven’t visited the Joiners Arms on West Malling High Street for many years, and certainly not since it added boutique hotel rooms
I haven’t visited the Joiners Arms on West Malling High Street for many years, and certainly not since it added boutique hotel rooms

The pub has clearly undergone a complete makeover and they haven’t held back when it comes to the wallpaper and certain other grand furnishings.

I notice it is now also a boutique hotel offering rooms to more discerning visitors which might well explain the decor.

But whilst there were a number of well dressed, well fragranced gents sitting at the high tables front of house, the back bar is clearly saved for hard-working locals who’ve completed a day’s graft.

After all, you don’t see many guys with a pencil behind their ear these days.

Mind you, they must have knocked off early as it was only mid-afternoon when I arrived.

You can’t get much more traditional than these ancient beams but the rest of the decoration keeps the pub light and bright
You can’t get much more traditional than these ancient beams but the rest of the decoration keeps the pub light and bright
The Joiners also has four boutique hotel rooms. When I looked later, the online prices started from £110 a night
The Joiners also has four boutique hotel rooms. When I looked later, the online prices started from £110 a night

The big screen was switched on and it was showing ITV racing. I didn’t even realise Frankie Dettori was still riding, but he secured a decent double while I was in.

I was a little surprised to hear this Shepherd Neame house didn’t have any bitter but landlord Tony reckons there’s not much call for it and he can end up throwing half a barrel away.

Instead, at Tone’s suggestion, I chose a pint of Boston Lager from the Samuel Adams Brewery as he assures me this 4.8% darker lager is considered a decent substitute by many bitter drinkers.

There might be three pull pumps on the bar but there’s no demand for bitter and the guvnor says he can’t afford to buy in a big barrel if he has to throw half of it away
There might be three pull pumps on the bar but there’s no demand for bitter and the guvnor says he can’t afford to buy in a big barrel if he has to throw half of it away

I have to admit it is a very decent brew, with plenty of body and a deep malty flavour, but looking around at the various shades of green/grey the bar is painted I guessed it wouldn’t be cheap and the price tag was the wrong side of a fiver.

Every time he finished serving our genial host retook his high stool at the bar and re-gripped his pint of San Miguel.

Other than the telly, there are no other real distractions like pool, darts or a jukebox, and a strong, steady flow of banter fills the bar.

When a well dressed, ‘slightly’ rotund cheery fellow rolled in, his half of Moretti was poured and presented without him needing to utter a word.

The TV switched from racing to some guy jumping into rivers to catch monster fish. The landlord’s response to complaints about his poor programme selection was to choose an even-more obscure channels and next up was a celebration of Hitler’s Nazis. Further abuse was met with ‘ack ‘em’.

In fact, it’s quite a popular saying in here and I was quickly warming to the atmosphere.

The grey paint theme is continued outside too
The grey paint theme is continued outside too

Next in was Gooner who reckons: “I’m a lover, not a fighter” and, in between having banter with the barman, he was particularly keen to discover what time a certain barmaid was starting and whether he could justify hanging around.

There is a small section of the bar set aside for guests to book in but I didn’t see any sign of anyone visiting the hotel. The pub is heavily panelled but the dark wood has all been painted so it’s not over-powering.

It was absolutely hissing down when I was in but it didn’t stop the smokers popping out back to indulge their habit and it looked like a decent outside garden area.

The wood panelling in the back bar has all been painted and everywhere is tastefully decorated. But, there’s no accounting for the barman’s dodgy selections with the remote control
The wood panelling in the back bar has all been painted and everywhere is tastefully decorated. But, there’s no accounting for the barman’s dodgy selections with the remote control

I myself was busy tackling the mini maze that led through a dark corridor to the toilets. The small, but beautifully formed, gents is tiled all in black, apart from the white grout, with a stainless steel trough.

The basin was blocked and I mentioned it to Tony but he reckoned the pipes were old and always playing up so there wasn’t much to be done.

One local volunteered to pop home and fetch some powerful solution which he reckoned would clear anything so hopefully they’ll have the issue solved soon.

The gents is compact but well maintained and a good deal fresher than the last time I was in
The gents is compact but well maintained and a good deal fresher than the last time I was in

The front room of the pub might be all chandeliers and guys with overpowering aftershave but the back room is the domain of fellows who’ve put in a decent shift.

The pub certainly looks a little different but there is a good atmosphere and from what I remember about the pubs on West Malling High Street this one would be near the top of my ‘to visit’ list.

Who knows, perhaps by the time I visit next there will have been a change in tastes and the bitter will be back on.

You’ll find tractor seat stools and tables made from barrels in the outside area
You’ll find tractor seat stools and tables made from barrels in the outside area
It might have been served in a Whitstable Bay glass but this was my pint of Samuel Adams Boston Lager – reputedly a good substitute for decent bitter
It might have been served in a Whitstable Bay glass but this was my pint of Samuel Adams Boston Lager – reputedly a good substitute for decent bitter

The Joiners Arms, 64 High Street, West Malling ME19 6LU

Decor: Great traditional touches, like the wall of beams and old fashioned woodworking planes over the bar, combined with some superbly over-the-top wallpaper. ****

Drink: It must be unusual to find a Sheps’ pub which doesn’t serve any bitter at all but I agree with main man Tony that the Boston Lager is a pretty good substitute. ***

Price: I stuck with my initial selection so the only price I have is the £5.25 I had to pay for a Samuel Adams Boston Lager. I know West Malling isn’t cheap but this is a tad expensive for a house lager **

Staff: He might be a nightmare with a remote control in his hand, but Tony is what makes this place tick and all the locals bounce off him. *****

It wasn’t on but there was a decent sized TV screen in one corner of the covered area out back
It wasn’t on but there was a decent sized TV screen in one corner of the covered area out back
A night of two halves – Rat Pack Swing plus Iraq Pack Swing with a comedy dictator
A night of two halves – Rat Pack Swing plus Iraq Pack Swing with a comedy dictator

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