A memoir by John Barrett
Many thanks to Geoff Rosam, who has been festival treasurer since 1979, for filling in some of the gaps in the earlier version of this.
I have been involved in the organisation of every Cotswold Beer Festival bar one. Here are some of my reminiscences – some things, in particular exactly when some changes took place, are a bit hazy, so if any of the “old hands” can add or contradict anything , please let me know. Where I am unsure of something I have inserted question marks (although Geoff’s help has eliminated many of these) – I hope others can clarify some of these points.
Shortly after CAMRA Gloucestershire came into being in 1975, we started looking for a suitable site to hold a beer festival. We considered various venues, including both the Town Hall and the racecourse in Cheltenham, but everything seemed either impracticable or too expensive. Then we heard about the Postlip Community (a work colleague of our then chairman was a member of the community). After some initial discussions we agreed to go ahead with a festival in Postlip Tithe Barn in July 1977. And so this unique event was born.
The first festival
In 1977 the concept of a beer festival was quite new in this country, and the only experience we had was from attending some other early CAMRA festivals. But we were young, enthusiastic and perhaps naive! The fact that we had little or no money for up-front expenses did not seem to be a problem, and much equipment that we now own or hire was begged or borrowed (but never as far as I know stolen) from various contacts.
The first festival had three main sessions, on Friday evening, Saturday lunchtime and Saturday evening, a pattern that has continued ever since. There were no tickets but people paid a small entrance fee at the gate by the main road. The publicity for the festival consisted of posters and flyers distributed to pubs and shops in the area. There was no world-wide web, Facebook or Twitter!
The event proved to be hugely popular, so much so that we had to turn people away when the tithe barn was getting too crowded – apparently the pubs in Winchombe, of which there were then seven, were unusually busy as a result. By sheer luck, the beer just about held out till the end of Saturday evening, but after about 10pm, there was only one beer still going – the late lamented Whitbread West Country Pale Ale! The tap on the cask remained open while a succession of glasses were filled.
In the second year, we decided that we had better sell tickets in advance, rather than have to turn people away. We sold tickets at CAMRA meetings, at our workplaces and to personal contacts for the next few years. In addition the Box office at Cheltenham sold tickets for us until 1982, after which they we sold them through a succession of local outlets, mostly pubs. In 1988 we hired the Grosvenor Hall in Cheltenham on a Sunday afternoon, and sold most of the tickets there – the queue outside was about 100 yards long at times!
The third festival (1979) was different in three ways:
- I took a year out from the organisation;
- It took place in September instead of July;
- The logo depicted a building (Postlip Tithe Barn) rather than a creature.
1979 remains unique in the first two of these respects, but the 2006 logo depicted another building, Postlip Hall itself.
One feature of the tithe barn in the early years was that there was no paved floor, but a thick layer of sand. This was beneficial in two ways – the sand soaked up spilt beer, so we didn’t need buckets under the casks, and it appeared to help keep the barn cool, so there was no problem keeping the beer cool.
Evolution – some successful changes
Sunday lunchtime session to use up beer from 1981.
Thursday evening trade session from 1996.
‘Token aid’ – donation of unused beer tokens to charity from 1989.
Festival bus service from Cheltenham since 2009 and from Winchcombe since 2012.
Sale of tickets by post since 1989.
Sale of tickets through local outlets resumed in 2012.
Sale of soft drinks from 1988.
Marquee in grounds to provide extra cover from rain and sun from 1986.
Sale of tickets on-line since 2014.
An extra marquee behind the barn for sale of cider, perry and soft drinks, from 2014. This has freed up space inside the barn, allowing us to have more beer in the smaller (9 gallon) containers favoured by most new breweries.
…and some things that have not changed
The festival has always been held in July (except 1979).
The logo has always depicted a creature formerly or currently to be found in the Cotswolds (except 1979 and 2006).
Food and drink has always been sold for tokens rather than cash.
A wide selection of beer and cider from near and far.
Some experiments that were not repeated
Selling beer from an island stand in the middle of the barn (1980).
Including beer tokens in the admission charge (2012).
Selling tokens in advance of the festival (2013).
The 40th festival
In 2016 we celebrated our 40th Festival, making ours one of the longest running CAMRA beer festivals, and probably the only one to have been held in the same location for as many consecutive years.
And now …
Cheltenham CAMRA are assisting with the organisation of the festival. We hope this infusion of new (and younger!) blood will enable the festival to continue for many more years.