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The Sportsmans Bar at the Folkestone Sports Centre, Radnor Park Avenue, Folkestone, Kent
Sometimes the best real-ale pubs can be found in the least likely of locales. The Sportsmans Bar, located at the front of the Folkestone Sports Centre, is one of those places. As you first venture down the stairway you might expect to find yourself in a dark brick-lined cellar of a place; alas, the decor is mostly vintage 1960-1970, with dusty rose upholstery, sunlit windows, cork wall tiling, and a mundane formica bar top.
But don't let this dissuade you: the Sportsmans is indisputably the best place in Folkestone to get a truly fine pint of real ale. There are always two to three selections on tap at any time, and the selections change often. And most pints, regardless of the strength, are only £1.70 to £1.80 a pint. Landlords Stuart and Gilly Gresswell, an extremely friendly and animated pair, serve their beers straight from the cask via the tap and spile method. On our very first visit here we met a new prospective real ale convert, a previous lager drinker who'd decided to take the plunge and try the good stuff. This always warms my heart.
Besides being the best venue in Folkestone in which to drink fine pints of ale this is an excellent place to sit at the bar and chat with the locals. Although there are two pool tables in the back room, a prehistoric jukebox (loaded with strange round black disks with holes in the middle, sort of like what Mom and Dad used to jitterbug to), a TV in one secluded alcove and a fruit machine near the stairs, it's basically a bar for conversation. Landlord Stuart, a sparkling comedian in his own right, has often been compared to Basil Fawlty of "Fawlty Towers"; in fact, there's a photograph of John Cleese as Basil Fawlty behind the bar. Gilly claims she never runs out of things to talk about and is an engaging conversationalist. Oldest son Tommy, who also works behind the bar, seems to be progressing along in his father's Cleeselike footsteps. And on one recent weekend day we met substituting landlords Trevor and Mandie, a charming couple who are practicing to open their own pub.
Although the bar is located in the Sports Centre it's unfortunate you can't actually catch a glimpse of the swimmers in the pool, or the golfers or squash players for that matter, or the skiers on the practice ski slope. But since the ski slope is snowless, and there's no little chalet in which to curl up around the roaring fire for an aprés-ski hot cocoa or Irish coffee while nursing a broken leg, the bar is a welcome amenity.
It would be impossible to review all the pints I've had at the Sportsmans Bar, but I'll try to summarize a few. Timothy Taylor Landlord Bitter (4.3% ABV, Timothy Taylor & Co. Ltd., Keighley, West Yorkshire) is a classic, aristocratic beer -- a truly fine pint! This is an honest-to-goodness no-nonsense bitter, tastefully complex, and a good fire drill comforter as well, seeing as how there was a fire drill in the bar when we were tasting our first pint. Josephine Grimley's Bitter (4.2% ABV, Charles Wells Brewery, Bedford) is a light-bodied bitter with a slight texture curve, quite bright and sensibly clothed in good sturdy walking shoes and smart yet comfortable off-the-peg tweeds. Brakspear Special (4.3% ABV, W.H. Brakspear & Sons, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire) tastes stronger in alcohol than it actually is, with a faint touch of chicory -- or is it cruciferous vegetables? Perhaps I'm thinking of cruciferous chicory. Cains Brewery Bitter (3.5% ABV, Robert Cain Brewery, Liverpool) is a bit on the weak side but has a nice bitterness. As my partner Andrew describes it, it possesses a square bitterness as opposed to a pointed bitterness -- a veritable quadrilateral of bitterness. And then we have the Morrells Brewery of Oxford's scholastic series: Oxford Bitter (3.7% ABV); Graduate Bitter (5.2% ABV), a simple, straight-laced pint with a beautiful bronze colour and a nice sunny bronze finish; Varsity (4.3% ABV), a good basic round bitter, a step up from Oxford; and Old Don (4.6% ABV), the granddaddy of Morrell's beers: dark but not treacly, nice and hoppy and complicated, a winter brew as warm as a favourite pair of mittens or that ever-necessary wool pullover.
And then there are the strong pints. We almost missed out on The Dogs Bollocks (5.2% ABV, Wychwood Brewery, Widney, Oxfordshire) getting the very last pint in the cask. But we did get to sample a couple pints of Bishops Tipple (5.2% ABV). Bishops Tipple is a very nostalgic beer to me, reminding me of a beer garden in Sutton, West Sussex. I stopped here with my friends Peter and Ann on my very first visit to England in 1982, and after a few pints I became quite enamoured with (and legless on) the Tishop's Bipple -- er, Bishle's Tippop. It's a sweetish beer, currently brewed by the Ushers Brewery in Salisbury. Back in 1982, when it was brewed by Gibbs Mew in West Hampshire, it was a whopping 6.5% ABV, but the alcohol level has been recently reduced for marketability. Ahh...such a full beer this is, interesting, drinkable, tinterering, kindrable...um...a perfect beer for watching rugby on the VT -- er, TV, before Fengland and Iji...or...well, you get the picture...
And last but not least, on our most recent visit we were treated to a lovely elixir, Dr. French's Old Remedy (4.8% ABV, Weltons North Down Brewery Ltd., Dorking, Surrey). This is a wonderful special seasonal, a bitter and full-bodied beauty of a beer, with just the right balance of hops and malt. The character is similar to a porter but more full-bodied, more satisfying in general. And the colour is unusual, rather a brisk tone of brown -- oh! Now it's lavender! No, it's purple, like black currants with a hint of damson. Actually, it's somewhat irredescent in colour, like a purple velvet gown which looks brown at just the right angle. My partner claims it's an intelligent-tasting beer. Does this mean, as Stuart suggests, that the more you drink the smarter you get? Could this be possible? Can this be this winter's miracle of a beer? T'is the season of miracles, you know...
By the way, the food at the Sportsmans Bar is good and reasonably priced; the cheese and onion toasties are just right, the burgers (traditional and vegetarian) are supreme, and the baguette sandwiches are satisfyingly ample -- in fact, far too big to finish. Costas Sotirio, whose restaurant is in Hythe, is now consultant to the caterer, so expect some delectable delights in the near future.
The Sportsmans Bar was in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide until this year, disqualified on a triviality, apparently because it's located inside a sports centre where the public pays a subscription fee. This is completely unfair and a real travesty to local real ale lovers. Although I am a card-carrying CAMRA member I think the group has become way too preoccupied with piddling details such as this one. They've lost sight of the original aim of CAMRA: to protect and promote those pubs which serve a truly decent pint of ale. Therefore I implore CAMRA to reconsider the addition of the Sportsmans Bar to their guide. As I said before, this is a gem of a place where real ale lovers can always count on a decent, enjoyable pint.
(Last updated 3rd April 2000)