It was a miserable night, with the rain falling sideways, but there was a smashing real fire and as soon as I was through the door it felt like a proper village pub.
I’d had high hopes for the Black Horse in Pembury, near Tunbridge Wells, as it gave off a warm, welcoming glow from outside and looked a snug little old-fashioned boozer.
The four blokes sat at the bar introduced themselves immediately and Al informed me this was a posh pub and warned me I might not be upmarket enough. He then said he recognised a twang in my accent and tried to remember where ‘up north’ was famous for inventing black pudding?
The ceilings at the front of the pub are low and, although there aren’t many beams, it feels authentic and down-to-earth. If you glance upwards you’ll notice the ceiling is a reassuringly cream/yellow/brown colour, harking back to a time when smoking was allowed in pubs.
My new ‘upmarket’ mates used the side fire door as the quickest route to fresh air when they felt the need to light up a fag and for a little while I thought this was all there was to the Black Horse.
However, when barman Adrian popped out from behind the bar to give the fire a good poke, he not only filled the bar with the great smell of wood smoke but also told me to have a nose out the back and see the full extent of the place.
The front bar is full-on tradition – beer towels wherever you look, a crack in my wooden table, plenty of knick-knacks, old church pews with cushions and even an umbrella stand (with umbrellas in it).
As you head further back, the pub goes on forever. The decor gets more and more modern, until you reach the most incredible, covered outdoor space, which can accommodate hundreds of extra punters.
The other thing I noticed was just how many people were in to eat on a Saturday evening and there were even more tables with reserved signs on them. I’m usually sceptical about this but most had names against them and, by the time I left, the majority were full.
I mentioned this popularity to Adrian but he said that’s nothing and I should see it on a Sunday – he reckons they always do in excess of 300 covers and you need to book at least a week in advance.
I returned just in time to witness regular Grant order a pint and put it on the slate simply by giving the number of his tab – good to see another tradition from yesteryear retained (Though I won’t reveal the tab number or Grant will be broke!).
The more you look, the more quirky items reveal themselves and you’ll notice several things are slightly skewed, which will simply endear the place to you more.
There are no darts, no pool, no jukebox, in fact no music of any sort, but it’s not required as everyone in, young, old and middle-aged, were all talking to each and creating a lovely constant background babble.
The Black Horse might not be as posh as Al first suggested, but with a pint of Tribute costing £5.40 and a Cruzcampo lager £5.75 it certainly isn’t cheap. And, if you did decide to push the boat out, against the advice of barman Adrian, then a Neck Oil will set you back £6.50.
Dogs are welcome and there were several four-legged friends in on Saturday evening. The pub hound was also in the bar as there were plenty of fireworks being set off in and around the village and it wasn’t keen on them at all.
Each of my new friends at the bar wished me well as they departed and I myself left feeling comforted that pubs are still a great place to meet new people.
It might look small from the front but it packs a much larger punch and is, without doubt, a Tardis offering a powerful mix of tradition and great hospitality.
And, it was refreshing to find a pub that has managed to successfully combine a bar where the regulars can enjoy a pint and plenty of mickey taking, while diners are free to relax and chat elsewhere.
THE BLACK HORSE, 12 HIGH STREET, PEMBURY, TUNBRIDGE WELLS TN2 4NY
Decor: Old, rustic and reassuringly old-fashioned up front, it gets more modern as you make your way through the place. Probably the best example of a pub creating two different environments – one perfect for a pint with mates, the other great for Sunday dinner. ****
Drink: There was a good selection of drinks available, including, but not exclusively: Tribute; Timothy Taylor’s; London Pride; Fosters; Heineken; Inches; Moretti; Guinness; Amstel; Neck Oil; Cruzcampo; Strongbow. *****
Price: I Know I need to get used to a pint costing more than a fiver, but I still think £5.40 is a bit steep for Tribute and Cruzcampo was £5.75. A Neck Oil for £6.50 was never even a consideration. **
Staff: The bar staff and the waiting staff were efficient and friendly. They created a remarkably relaxed atmosphere but always seemed to be in control. ****
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