Sunday 31 August 2008

Harbury Beer Festival

Harbury Beer Festival
Celebrate the beer ! All Hail to the ale ! (insert other stolen catch phrases as required)

What could be more English than enjoying a warm beer on a summers evening in a rural village ? Apart, obviously, from getting staggeringly drunk, running around a town centre looking for a fight and ending the evening in a pool of vomit anyway. None of that in Harbury though, this is proper grown up appreciation of traditional brews.

The event takes place in Harbury Village hall. Despite having no less than 5 pubs, more drinking space is required when you have 60 different beers to chose from. With a bus stop outside you don't get a much more convenient location and for a change, public transport is well patronised in the sticks. As the weather was unseasonably (in the new world order where summer is like winter but with slightly higher temperatures) warm and dry everyone spilled out onto the grass outside.

Strawberry Blone BeerFor the uninitiated, a beer festival works like this:
When you go in you pay an entry fee. For that you get in (obviously, unless you are under 18 in which case you go back out again), a beer glass (which you can hand back for the return of a deposit at the end of the evening if you don't want a souvenir), a guide to the beer available and a card with a grid of 10 & 5 pence's.
You could wander round savouring the ambiance but most people head for one of the bars. There, the cognoscenti will examine the guide and pick accordingly. The rest of us just choose a name we fancy.
You order your drink, deciding between 1/3, 1/2 and a full pint and hand over your card as payment.
The barman fills the glass as required and crosses off some of the payment.
Left hand barYou drink the beer and repeat the above as long as you can either stand/run out of money(more cards can be bought)/the beer supply lasts/the event closes.

One couple, Mr & Mrs Tom Dunne, had in a stroke of genius, decided to hold their wedding reception at the festival. I can't think of a better way to do this - there are handy bars for the guests, you can give them all a beer voucher sheet and when they run out they are on their own, you have space for a band and everyone will remember the "do". They paid for the band, saving the organisers the cost too which was generous.

Anyway, what I should present is a detailed description of every beer drunk conjuring up the taste for you with my eloquent words. But I can't, partly because I'm not that good at writing and partly because I was drinking beer at the time and can't entirely remember each one in detail.

Here's some highlights though:
Strawberry Blonde - The guide says: 4.4%. Leadmill, Denby. A golden coloured beer with a bubbly white lead. This hoppy, slightly fruity beer has a dry malty finish. Some sweeter honey notes are apparent. - I say, it was a nice.
Pink Elephant - The guide says: 5.4%. Hampshire. Distinctively different; with pale malt and red wine grapes, which give a surreal flavour. Don't drink to excess, or you will see Pink Elephants - I say, it tasted like a mix of beer and wine and was very nice. Slightly pink too.
Old Field Perry - The guide says: 7.5%. Dry , yet still quite fruity. - I say it smelt like vinegar and tasted a bit like a liquidised barbecue but was very nice. Quite a sharp shock after the beer but very nice.
Navey Blue BeerBlack & Tan - The guide says: 4.3%. Houston, Renfrewshire (no not America, it's beer after all). A traditional mix of stout & pale ale - I say it's what was left at 10pm as the beer ran out. Quite nice though.
Navey Blue - The guide says: 4.5%. Church End, Warwickshire. A dry hopped golden beer soaked with fresh blueberries. It is hopped with Styrian Goldings and First Gold Hops - I say, it's blue beer. That is Beer that is Blue. Yes BLUE.

Obviously there were other beers and ciders and perry's (no lager obviously) but those are the ones I remember. The Scouts did some excellent food including hot dogs containing beef, horse radish and, wait for it, Beer.

The evening sort of drifted to a close as the larger than expected crowds finished off all the beer a bit earlier than might be expected but I don't think anyone really minded. For those that had been there all day, arriving at lunchtime and staying until the break at 4pm then heading off around the local pubs is apparently popular with some with rather stronger constitutions than mine, I doubt that they noticed anyway.

Night timeOne thing that strikes you though is that no one was actually drunk. Mellow, relaxed or tire perhaps but not proper British town centre drunk. Even the bus home was quiet. We can drink like the French, we just need to right stuff that's all.

Photos on Flickr
Warwickshire CAMRA website

Tuesday 26 August 2008

IWA National Festival & Boat Show 2008

CanalIf you think travelling ought to involve some discomfort then welcome to my trip to Wolverhampton. To start with, the train from Leamington was as heaving as a hen night at 3am. I shared the vestibule at the end of the coach with eight other people - we'd have fitted a couple more in but there was a ball of bodies consisting of three students in one corner who were fast asleep and mostly horizontal. As the weather was unusually warm this wasn't pleasant and didn't get any better every time we stopped at a station. Coventry saw a few get off and a few get on. Birmingham International removed a couple but this was balanced by one person and a ton of luggage.

New Street was the best though. We lost a few but those that got on obviously thought that we were standing there for fun and charged by us into the main part of the carriage. Of course when they got there a shock awaited - no seats ! Last on were a couple with their young daughter, three cases and a folded pushchair. They repeatedly said that they had booked seats and were going to get them. I had a feeling that he saw the presence of anyone in a berth with their name on it as a slight to his masculinity. None of us cared much as it was crowded enough without a ranting fat bloke in the middle of the space.

London commuters have a technique for dealing with this sort of travel - listen to a walkman with some nice soothing music, and read a good book. It works well and despite struggling to find space for my feet some of the time the trip was fine. Of course had anyone walking in with a blue rosette, my hatred of those who scrapped the evil BR (we'd have had 12 coaches in the old days not 4) would have erupted and I'd have pummeled them into the carpet with a diet coke bottle and a Sexton Blake penny dreadful.

The fun didn't stop at the station either. Finding a bus was easy - the stands are just across the road and a 505 was waiting. Explaining to the driver where I wanted to go was the challenge. I wasn't even the first he'd heard either - the people in front had also wanted Pendeford park for the same event. Our driver didn't really want anyone on his vehicle who wasn't from "round 'ere". We don't understand the route. We don't get the "exact money only" stuff. We don't realise that you can't buy a return. And as for the accent, well it doesn't really help if you don't speak Black Country. Anyway, for future reference a day ranger costs 3 quid and a single £1.50.

We were dropped off a ten minute walk from the park. I think the driver tried to explain that he would be going closer but only after a trip around the houses but it might as well have been in Chinese. Still, it was a nice day for a stroll.

Crowds£7.50 to get in was a touch steep even if a free show guide was included. The first thing that struck the visitor, or rather stuck him or her was the ground. Thanks to several days of rain, vehicles unloading and the crowds already there, the place was a mudbath. A temporary road had been laid along part of the showground but if you'd decided that flip-flops were the order of the day you would be wanting a dip in the canal later on.

I don't own a barge and only half aspire to doing so. The problem isn't buying one, it's finding somewhere to put it, especially if you fancy living aboard permanently. With this in mind I skipped any stand featuring engines or other mechanical bits. People with fenders, rope or otherwise got only a cursory glance. Strangely I didn't see anyone selling tyres despite their popularity with the boating crowd who like to decorate barge sides with them. This Corracolsstill left dozens of stands for entertainment. The exhibitors had come from all over the country. Many were promoting their own particular bit of the canal system and for the uninitiated the maps showing just how far you can still travel buy boat were fascinating. I was mentally planning a cruise from Leamington down to Worcester and back via Oxford. At 4mph thats a long journey but very satisfying.

The boats were fun. A display of historic vessels ran along the canal at one side of the show - a passout was required to get back in meaning you could have seen the best bits without paying :-(

Since I don't know a huge amount about barges, the detail Tug bargedifferences were slightly lost on me. In fact if I'm honest most working boats look the same apart from the paint jobs on the cabins. For technical reasons though, I found the insides of the hulls interesting as these are normally hidden by the canvas over the load. One owner tried to persuade me that by tightening up the turnbuckles that joined the tops of his sides he could gain a couple of inches for excessively narrow locks. Not sure how the cabin would get thorough though. Perhaps he takes a run at them...

I did learn one thing. There are mobile diesel stations for boats. One had a pump in it's middle. He also sold logs, coal and charcoal - just like an all night garage ! You could even have a pump-out which is perhaps a service that Shell et al might like to look into offering for night time users.

Barn owlsBack in the show we all waddled around on the soggy ground. The biggest mud bath was opposite a display of birds of prey. Everyone had the chance to pet birds with sharp beaks and talons. They were all very well behaved and didn't eat anyone, at least while I was there.

Of course if you wanted to buy a boat then plenty of people could oblige. Two rows of boats separated by and entertaining, wobbly, pontoon. One ladies description of it's movement as like a cakewalk was pretty accurate. Of course not being landlubbers we didn't care, unlike those soft, southern, nancy b******s down south who got a bit jittery when one of their bridges was a bit bouncy a couple of years ago. It's all part of the fun !

The ground conditions limited the boat visiting for me. Thanks to an irrational fear (surely a coating of the stuff isn't going to put the serious boater off buying ?) of mud, most builders asked people to take their shoes off before boarding, or wear blue plastic overshoes. Now my feet are big and I doubt any overshoe would fit me and if it did I'd look like I was wearing a bin bag on each foot. Not good. Anyway, I was only tyre (prop ?) kicking and there were queues for most craft.

There was an exception, and since I was there I determined to see the inside of one craft. This came from a Southam builder and was for sale for the "bargain" price of £46000 for a 51 foot boat. Fully fitted and with a years mooring. It was cosy in a couple of places but the shower looked good and there was the same amount of space as you'd find in a much more expensive flat. Storage would be an issue but not unsolvable. The options list showed that the price would go up once such luxuries as electricity, central heating and a non-chemical toilet were added but it didn't sound like that bad a deal. The ceiling was high enough for me to walk down it and not rub the top of my head too - something new in the canal world.

Later, avoiding some more mud I ended up in the clutches of a finance salesman so I asked the obvious question about the boat I visited. If you fancy something similar, here are the numbers: Deposit will be £9k. The remaining £37k will be loaned against the boat for 10 years. Repayments will be just over £500 per month. In other words you pay back £60k - I can't help feeling that there are better deals out there.

Lunch time saw me in the beer tent. I had brought some lovely cheese rolls smothered in home made tomato chutney and a proper pint would go very nicely with these. From the 40 beers on offer, I went for "Ginger Snaps" which was lovely. Full bodied but not too heavy for a day in the sunshine.

More strolling and I found an oddity - a canal boat you can tow behind the car. At 38 foot long it's a reasonable sized aquatic caravan. Not sure how you power it though as I'm sure most boats have a propeller underneath. Perhaps in these eco-friendly times the owner is supposed to row. Or perhaps you don't sail the thing, just dump it in the water and live aboard. With most canal holidays Bargesbeing elongated pub crawls with a bit of sailing, this isn't such a bad thing if you can find a nice pub !

One area I did miss out on big time were the craft lessons. Even though they cost extra I'd have really enjoyed a few hours learning to signwrite or paint traditional roses and castles. Looking at the prices, being taught how to make a button fender would have been a good business proposition too. Perhaps next year.

More pictures on Flickr
Inland Waterways Association website

Sunday 24 August 2008

British Waterways Museum, Gloucester Docks

Waterways MuseumDo we “Disneyise” the past in museums ?

Having taken a trip to Gloucester docks the whole area is so clean and tidy – a far cry from the images of the working port I've seen in books. The stone buildings are free from smoke and dirt. The pavements are clear and level. I fear that in gentrifying the area we have lost the atmosphere that existed in The Good Old Days.

British Waterways Museum is found in the Llanthony Warehouse in the corner of the site. For a very reasonable £3.95 there are two floors of exhibits and several historic boats to explore outside. I was lucky, on a damp day in the holidays, the place wasn't overrun by kids making it easy to see everything. I'm not saying that junior shouldn't get to go to a museum like this, just that if he or she isn't interested then please tie them up outside where there is a covered area to keep them dry, and let the rest of us enjoy the efforts of the curators.

Somehow I managed to start in the upstairs gallery. It's littered with examples of loads and loading implements that would have been Barrelsa common sight in the heyday of the docks. They aren't tucked away behind glass either. Built for industrial use it's obviously been decided that things like sack trucks can take a bit of handling from the sort of people who visit museums. There are proper hands on exhibits too – the principle of the block and tackle is explained by three sacks hanging from the ceiling with various numbers of pulleys and by pulling on the ropes you find that some are easier to lift than others. Aimed at the smaller and weaker visitor the sacks aren't exactly challenging but I suppose at least if you were to get your head underneath one when it came down in a hurry the concussion wouldn't last too long.

Good use is made of archive film too. One from the 1970's had Johnny Morris opining about “the lovely life on the water” with bucolic shots of pleasure boats and canal sides with flowers and grasses in the sunshine. A little bit of history is injected but nothing involving hard and heavy work or living 6 to a cabin in the deep midwinter. Further round the room though is the excellent British Transport Film Robert Reid reports on British Waterways”. In this Robert Reid travels up the Bristol Channel by various means of water transport commenting and interviewing people as he goes. While maintaining the BTF standards for production, the film is obviously a period piece. The interviewer travels in a tweed 3-piece suit with hat, the docks are still working well with much crane and stevadore action. There is no sign of the ISO container on any of these boats – everything is loaded and unloaded by hand. Many officials are interviewed and all are bullish about the future for water transport in the future. At this point the film introduces a campaigning element with a call for more goods to be sent by water to relieve pressure on the railways and fledgling motorway system, something British Waterways are still suggesting.

Watching the shots of Gloucester docks in the 1960's and then looking out of the window provides a real contrast. Now we have offices, flats and a giant antique centre. Once thousands of men would find work and ships from around the world (Empire in the film) called to offload cargo.

Men in suitsDownstairs the highlight (for me 'cos I'm a big kid) is a model canal system. Basically a stainless steel trough with water circulating through it with various types of lock. A couple of bathtime plastic boats are swept along by the current and visitors can work them through different locks by opening sluice gates or paddles. Someone has put a lot of thought into this exhibit – it's robust and accurate, the locks really do work like real ones. Of course this will be lost on most children who will just pull on levers and gates but maybe some will get an understanding of the mechanisms involved.

I wasn't alone in my appreciation of this either. Behind me a ground of men, all very smartly suited and booted, had a go and were thoroughly enjoying themselves despite the tendency of the water to escape onto the operator. I suspect they were a delegation to a local conference (there is a suitable commercial hotel on site) and bet this wasn't how they expected to kill time before heading home !

Outside the weather was inclement so when I found a sign inviting visitors to have a look below decks on the bucket dredger I descended the steep and slightly slippery steps into the vessel. The dredger is divided into two halves – it's a but like being inside a steel cattermeran. The entry takes you into living quarters with furniture and replica food. Further forward is the engine room with steam engine and boiler. I was accompanied by one Dredgerof the Friends of the Waterways Museum whose name I didn't get but explained in great detail how everything worked. Asking the odd intelligent question showed a little knowledge so I, and those who followed me into the room, learned everything we could possibly want to know about the workings of a dredger. You don't get this from anyone except an enthusiast who really cares about the subject. Perhaps there is a role for me there – the thick leather belts driving the buckets that scoop muck out of the bottom of the port are joined in exactly the same way as film in a cinema with all the same fun of tensioning the band except that this involves thick steel teeth and not sticky tape !

Back in the open there are other boats to look at, including a rare concrete barge, and a working steam crane that is demonstrated several times a day.

For the entrance fee I had several hours of entertainment. OK so I'm interested in the subject and better suited to the sort of museum where you can learn rather than just bang buttons and look at expensive (but usually rubbish) video displays. Located just off the centre of the city this is ideal for those who want a day out as you can do it and look around the shops comfortably.

Gloucester Docks website
More Photos on Flickr

Thursday 21 August 2008

Sharmanka Kinetic Gallery

Sharmanka Travelling CircusIt's school holiday time. What better way to entertain the kids for half an hour than to take them to see a circus ? Look, the Gloucester Museum has a free one - it's the Sharmanka Travelling Circus. Great, lets take the sprogs in there for a while, it'll shut them up.

Hold, on, what this ? I've dragged them past all the bones, roman stuff and the biggest collection of stuffed animals I've ever seen, past dusty old paintings and all there is in the room is some weird machines. We can't even see them properly because the lights are funny. Still, we get top sit downwhich should keep them still for a bit.

SculpturesHold on, the show has started. The carved monkey things have started clanging bells. At least it's got their attention.

The bells have stopped and the next machine has started. Some figures are jumping up and down. I'm not sure what they are but at least there is movement and noise which keeps the kids quiet.

Oh, no, now they've started asking me what is happening. According to the label this machine is called the leg and is inspired by the movie "Cabaret" and reflects the decadence and escapism of 1930's The LegGermany which was being overshadowed by the political events of the period. How the hell and I supposed to explain this to an 8 year old ? I'll tell him it's a penalty taking machine. Yes I know there is a little man hanging on the foot, it's foreign.

More clanging. There is a little golden man jumping around on the pointed bit of a machine. Apparently this is the artist. If he looks like that I'm surprised he can make anything. God knows who's paying for this stuff.

Last machine. There's a naked woman jumping up and down and holding two blokes who are pointing away from each other by some reigns. It looks a bit kinky to me. The labels says women are the representation of death in Russia. I know what they mean, it was the missus that told me to bring the kids here. At least the lights have come back on - I'm going to take them back to see the stuffed animals, at least I know what they are supposed to be.

Wikipedia entry
Sharmanka Official Website
Gloucester Museum Website

Phil's note - Tim Hunkin is much better at this stuff.
More pictures in Flickr

Tickets to ride

Originally uploaded by Phil_Parker
How many tickets does it take to get one person from Leamington Spa to Gloucester ?

7, Made up as follows:

Single L/Spa to Gloucester.
Mandatory seat reservation, L/Spa to Birmingham.
Mandatory seat reservation, Birmingham to Gloucester.
Single Gloucester to L/Spa.
Mandatory seat reservation Gloucester to Birmingham.
Mandatory seat reservation Birmingham to L/Spa
Collection receipt - Marked NOT VALID FOR TRAVEL

OK, so I booked the ticket online and bought to singles to save money (Cost - £12) but that's still a lot of cardboard. And only the tickets were checked, no one was interested in the rest.