Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Full Steam Ahead

The excesses of the weekend’s Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival are gradually fading, and my aching body is slowly recovering. When I say “excesses” I am referring to the sheer physical hard work of getting all the beer racked up, tapping and spiling it and then, once it had reached tip-top condition, serving it to the hordes of thirsty punters. I am not referring to having consumed too much of  the stuff myself, as there just wasn’t time to indulge in more than a few glasses, as it was so busy behind the various bars. Obviously this can only be described as a good thing, and both West Kent CAMRA, and all the volunteers from our Spa Valley Railway hosts, can pat themselves on the back following a job well-done.

So despite upping the beer order by 50% on what we had last year, we still sold out, and had it not been for a handful of gallant suppliers, who came forward at the last minute and replenished some of our stocks, there would have been precious little beer left for Sunday’s festival goers to enjoy! 

The festival opened on Friday 18th, but owing to work and other commitments I wasn’t able to attend until the Saturday. I had asked to work further down the line, either at Groombridge or Eridge stations, where there were additional bars set up to provide beer to thirsty visitors travelling up and down the line between the latter station and Tunbridge Wells West. The majority of the sixty or so beers were housed in the historic engine shed at Tunbridge Wells West, which acts as the Spa Valley’s headquarters. Six were positioned at Groombridge, in a marquee just along from the booking office, whilst a further four were at the far end of the line, in the waiting room, on Spa Valley’s platform, at Eridge station  - a facility they share with national rail operator, Southern Trains. In addition, four more beers were stillaged in “Kate”, the railways award-winning and lovingly restored dining car.

I ended up at Groombridge, where I joined two other CAMRA colleagues. It was a funny sort of day as we had spells of frantic activity coinciding with the arrival of a train, followed by periods of relative calm. The latter at least enabled me to sample all six of the beers we had on sale, namely Sambrook’s Wandle; King’s Brighton Blonde; Westerham Freedom Ale; Portobello Star; Ramsgate Gadd’s No.3 and Arundel Trident. We also had a plastic cask of Bushel’s Cider, from Biddenden.  Hot food, in the form of chicken curry, lasagne and macaroni cheese, was available at the station, along with cups of tea, coffee, sandwiches and cake at the railway’s refreshment kiosk on the platform. 

As I said, things got a bit frantic at times, but as the day wore on, and the punters started to tail off, so did the beer. By about 7pm we had virtually sold out, although there were a couple of pints of Trident left. It was just as well there was precious little beer left, as no-one had thought to provide lighting inside the marquee. Fortunately one of my colleagues had come equipped with a battery-operated LED light, which at least enabled us to see what we were doing, and to ensure we took the correct tokens and gave the right “change”.

With the beer virtually all gone, and having to fumble around in the dark, we took the decision to close the bar, secure the tent and get the boxes of glasses and other paraphernalia out onto the platform, ready to load onto the 8pm train back to Tunbridge Wells. Unbeknown to us, the down train had suffered a breakdown shortly after leaving Tunbridge Wells. Before going any further, I ought to explain that the festival was also billed as “The Autumn Diesel Gala”, and  because of this the railway had four different diesel locomotives in operation. These ranged from a moderately sized shunter to a large former Inter-City loco. No doubt railway buffs would have described them better, but as I really don’t know the difference between the various types of engine, these descriptions will have to suffice.

Call me old fashioned, but on a preserved railway I much prefer to see steam haulage in operation. Steam locomotives have heart and soul; qualities that seem lacking in their diesel counterparts. The former are also more reliable, once they are in steam and up and running. This proved the case on Saturday evening, and although we were kept informed by the station master, it was approaching 9pm when our train finally arrived to ferry us back to Tunbridge Wells.

In the meantime, things had been equally manic in the engine shed. By the time we arrived back, the stillages were looking very depleted, with around two thirds of the beers totally sold out, and the remaining casks steeply stooped, indicating they would not be lasting long come the morning. It was here that our gallant saviours in the form of Tonbridge Brewery, plus Sankey’s Bar, stepped up to the plate and provided us with some replacement stocks of beer which were hastily racked and spiled, ready for tapping the next day. What was extremely frustrating from my own, admittedly selfish, point of view was that having been down at Groombridge all day, by the time I’d returned to Tunbridge Wells, most of the “interesting” beers I had been keen to try had completely sold out! The four beers stillaged in “Kate” had also been drunk dry.

The following morning I was back at the Engine Shed, a little later than the previous day, but not that much.  Along with a couple of friends, I was dispatched down to Groombridge to collect a cask of Kent Brewery Zingibeer, which was needed for the dining car, and then on down to  Eridge to pick up the remaining boxes of empty glasses. This was my first visit to Eridge during the festival, and I can now see why increasing the number of beers here for next year could be difficult. Due to the confines of the narrow island platform, there is barely sufficient room for the four cask stillage in waiting room, and finding an alternative and secure home for the beer might prove tricky.

After collecting the full cask from Groombridge, and carefully placing it on the stillage in “Kate”, it was back up the line to Tunbridge Wells. I decided to stay on the train and help out with serving the beer. The only one available was another cask of Zingibeer that had been racked up and tapped the night before. Fortunately it had dropped bright and was in good condition. We had somehow ended up with four casks of this slightly unusual, but quite refreshing Kent Brewery beer. It had been part of the emergency supplies obtained the night before, and had arrived courtesy of Sankey’s, in Tunbridge Wells. Despite it being the only beer available on the train it nevertheless proved pretty popular, and my colleague and I were kept quite busy dispensing glasses of it as we travelled up and down the line. The busiest times were just after departing from the stations, when the train had picked up a fresh load of thirsty passengers. It was a bit of a challenge serving beer from our makeshift stillage in a moving buffet car, but the biggest challenge was when I had to tap and spile the other cask whilst the train was in motion. With the help of a couple of bar towels, and a drip-tray on the floor, I managed this task without spilling a drop.

Another couple of volunteers took over from us, mid-afternoon, and I returned to t he train shed to help out behind the bar and enjoy what was left of the beers. A local rock band were keeping the crowd entertained, but we still had our work cut out behind the bar, keeping everyone served. One by one the casks started to run dry, until by just after 5pm, there was no beer left and we were down to two mini-pins; one of cider and the other of perry. Eventually these too were exhausted, and the crowds slowly began to drift away.

That was that and the end of the festival for another year. It is too early to say what we will do next year, but whatever happens the beer order will need to be significantly increased.

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