Friday, August 28, 2009

Things to do in Northamptonshire - Peterborough Beer Festival

O.k, O.k, Peterborough Beer Festival is in Peterborough and not Northamptonshire, but this series is about finding things to do that are accessible by people in Northamptonshire, rather than strictly things that are in Northamptonshire. Peterborough is less than an hour's drive away from Kettering by car.

We were invited to join a couple of friends who live in Wittering on their trip to the beer festival, and I'm glad we did. First, a bit of background:

Peterborough Beer Festival
The Peterborough beer festival is an annual event, and this year (2009) marks it's 32nd since it began. This year, it's being held from Tuesday 25th to Saturday 29th August, and it is held during the same week each year. It is a CAMRA festival, so you know that real ale is the focus of the day and that it's likely to be a well organised occasion.

Where is it?
The festival is held each year on a large patch of grassy ground on the river embankment in Peterborough. The site comprises a number of enormous marquees, in which the beer, cider, perry and entertainment stage are located, and a number of food stalls around the outside of the enclosed area. There's a car park about two minute's walk away, and it's not much further from the railway, coach and bus stations.

How does it work?
Once you gain entrance to the site, you enter the first marquee where you can grab a programme and purchase (or rent) your beer glass (you can choose between a pint or 1/2 pint* glass). This cost us £3 for each glass, and you can either keep it as a souvenir or take it back for a refund. Anyone who's attended a CAMRA beer festival will know that the glasses are good quality with a unique design on the front and are therefore highly collectible. I would guess that the majority of people keep theirs, rather than claiming the refund.

What does it cost?
Entrance fees:
It depends on when you go, but if you pick the right day and time, it's free. Other times it can cost either £1, £4 or £5 depending on things like whether it's a peak time for beer hunters and whether you're a CAMRA member.
The glass:
It cost us £3 each for a glass. I think this is about standard at most CAMRA beer festivals from year to year.
The beers:
Most of the beers were under £3 a pint (or £1.50 for half), with an estimated average of around £2.60 per pint. Quite reasonable when you consider that many pubs are now selling their ales at a bit over the £3 mark.

Is it just beer?
No. There are ciders and perries** as well, and also a large selection of foreign beers. For the non-alcoholics or designated drivers there are stands selling things like lemonade, J2O, Coke and water, but I noticed that the cider and perry area also sold non-alcoholic apple and pear juices too, which are well worth trying if you like a truly fruit-based drink.

What about food?
Any seasoned ale drinker will know that, while it's nice to taste beer after beer after beer, all afternoon/evening/both without something to mop up the alcohol can leave you feeling decidedly unwell. Rest assured, then, that there are plenty of opportunities for food. These start with your typical burger and doughnut vans for those of you who like your food to be familiar. For the more daring, there was a seafood takeaway stand as well as a stand providing such fayre as crocodile steaks and springbok burgers. Inside the marquees there were more specialised food stalls, including one specialising in olives and roasted nuts, and also one selling pork pies and scotch eggs (locally produced, as big as your fist and in a variety of different flavours- I had a pork and apple one; delicious).

Beer all day sounds a bit boring. Is there nothing else?

There's much more than just beer and food. Off the top of my head, the other things I noticed included:
  • T-shirt stands
  • Classic pub game competitions
  • A general knowledge quiz in teams over the loudspeaker system (basically a pub quiz)
  • A number of fairground-style rides for the kids (and some adults)
  • On-site toilets (not really 'something to do,' but I just thought of it)
  • A stage on which a number of live bands perform during the evenings
  • Pub/beer memorabilia stands (old ad posters, beer mats, bar towels, glasses etc)
  • Plenty of room to sit on the grass and chat

Anything else?

At the time and date we went, the atmosphere was superb. It was genuinely and consistently friendly, the staff behind the stands (most of whom are volunteers) were cheerful and helpful, and the punters (us included) were a cross-section of British life. I saw no fights break out, nor was there any undue or offensive rowdiness. I put this down to the fact that there is absolutely none of the weak, tasteless lager*** (Carling, Fosters, Carlsberg, Budweiser and the like) that seems to attract those who can't hold their alcohol and turn into raving, feral creatures at the merest sniff. Not one kebab was thrown at anybody while I was there, which is more than I can say for an evening out in Kettering town centre.

We're already planning next year's trip- we'll be going on the Friday night and the Saturday, and we'll be taking:
  • More people
  • Some collapsible chairs
  • A picnic blanket
  • A game of twister
My only regret for the 2009 Peterborough beer festival is not being able to stay longer; some decent live music would have been an excellent accompaniment to the beer and food.

More information:

* Half pint? At a beer festival? Well, yes, actually. A beer festival is one of the only places you can get away with half pints as there are so many beers to try, having them in half pint measures allows you to make the most of the occasion without falling over too early on.
** The 'proper' name for a 'pear cider'. There's no such thing as cider made from pears.
*** My friend told me of an experience in a previous year in which a bunch of town-centre revellers turned up, spent a short while searching for exactly such drinks, finding none, complaining about that fact and then leaving. I don't believe that they threw any kebabs at anything during their stay, which illustrates exactly how short it was. Why anybody would turn up to a beer festival and expect to find a can of Carling on site is beyond my wit to comprehend.