The 2022 Great British Beer Festival

When I realized that I’d be in Canterbury in early August, I knew I had to attend the UK’s biggest beer event: The Great British Beer Festival. The GBBF, a week-long event, showcases almost 1,000 cask ales, craft beers, real ciders, perries, and wines. I attended back in 2008, when I lived in Reading, UK, and I had a ball. I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity.

First, you must understand the event’s organizer: CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale). CAMRA is dedicated to the British beer industry (though it’s a private organization and is not owned by any huge brewers) and the preservation of the English pub. That last bit is important, because one UK pub goes out of business every single day. Some of that is down to the pandemic, but it was happening before COVID, too, as a result of government regulation and predatory industry practices. CAMRA helps pubs survive and lobbies the government extensively to prevent beer taxation. Putting it into an American context, I like to think of it as the “NRA of Beer”. Yes, I have been a member since 2008, when I first attended CAMRA’s famous Reading Beer Festival.

This year’s GBBF is being held in the Olympia Exposition Center, near Hammersmith, in west London. I took an hour-long train ride from Canterbury to London St. Pancras station and then a 25-minute taxi ride to get there. London Black Cab drivers are never boring to talk to and mine did not disappoint. One gave me the low-down on the woes of getting driver’s insurance when you’re 70+ years old, and the other was driving while waiting for his television show script deal to come through!

Olympia is a vast space with two big halls and, in it, the GBBF featured 18 bars offering beverages grouped by categories, food stalls, and merchandise vendors. For example, all the beers, some 65 of them, from the US were served at the “Statue of Liberty” bar. Hmm – so many beers, so little time. I consulted the online beer list the previous evening and made a plan. Well, one had to, or risk being lost.

One of the two Olympia halls
Where all the U.S. beers were served, including Heavy Seas, Sam Adams, and Stone

It’s important to lay in a good foundation before starting to drink at these affairs, so I went to the Handmade Cornwall Pasties booth and bought a “Moo and Blue” (that’s steak and Stilton cheese) pasty:

The huge “Moo and Blue” didn’t disappoint

There were also plenty of other food offerings, including traditional English “pies”, shawarmas, cheeses, sausages, “Bombay Street Food”, and more.

What an enormous variety of pies!
In case you’re confused about what meal I was having

And then, it was off to the bars! I may be a rare breed, but I’m surely not alone: the sight of hundreds of beer handles just gives me goose bumps and makes my mouth water.

That’s a view down just 3 of 18 bars!
Started off with St. Austell Brewery’s Tribute

My entrance ticket included a real souvenir Imperial pint glass. Beers were sold in full-, one half-, and one third-pint servings, which was great for sampling. My entrance ticket also included £15 of beer tokens.

In case the pint glass was not to your liking, you could go native with the purchase of a Viking Drinking Horn:

Probably not marked for 1/3 and 1/2 pint servings

Each day of the GBBF has a theme and the day I attended, Thursday, was “Wacky Hat Day”. In 2008, I saw large groups of people wearing amazing hats and there was some kind of team competition. This year, there were fewer hats (although perhaps they appeared later in the day) but there were some amusing specimens:

About the beer: I had some old favorites and a few new ones, some of which were not that great. My beer list follows:

Timothy Taylor: Landlord 4.3% (always a winner)

St. Austell: Tribute 4.2% (ditto)

Harveys: Sussex Best Bitter and Armada Ale (both meh)

Downton: Honey Blonde 4.3% (very nice)

Five Points: Best Bitter 4.1% (okay)

Surrey Hills: Shere Drop 4.2% (last year’s Champion Beer, very nice)

The volunteers manning the pumps were pretty casual about the servings – several times I received a half- when I asked for (and was charged for) a third-pint. Sounds good but maybe not if you’re trying to avoid seeing double by the afternoon’s end.

For those keeping count, I only had one half- or one third-pints and, as a result, I didn’t fall on my ass getting into the taxi going back to St. Pancras station. Which happened about three happy hours after I arrived.

What a nice event. Special thanks to all of the CAMRA volunteers who manned the pumps, served as stewards, and generally made it all happen. I had several long conversations with fine, beer-loving folks, and enjoyed some great traditional English ale and food. If you’re ever in or near London in early August, you should put the GBBF on your schedule in future.

Canterbury’s Roman Origins

The Canterbury Roman Museum was closed due to COVID the last time I stayed here. It’s reopened now, so a visit was in order. The museum is small and below-ground, and geared toward engaging children, but there were some exhibits of interest to me. It’s built on the site of an ancient Roman townhouse.

The Cathedral looms in the background outside the Roman Museum

According to the museum, the town was home to the Cantiaci tribe. The Romans showed up around 43 AD and, over the centuries, developed the town. They renamed it “Durovernum Cantiacorum”. It was located at an important crossroad and was a strategic location, so the Romans applied all of their usual improvements.

What it looked like around 350 AD

A large religious and administrative complex was soon established, including a forum, a basilica, a temple enclosure, and a theater. The theater, originally built around 80 AD, was totally rebuilt in the early 3rd century. It was probably associated with religious festivals as much as the dramatic arts. The public baths were just to the northeast. The town was enclosed by defensive walls in the late 3rd century and was given single-arched gateways.

Oysters, anyone?

Industries included brick, tile and pottery production, as well as bronze working. There were many commercial shops, notably a baker’s shop with donkey-driven millstone. Cemeteries outside the town appear to have continued in Christian use and St Martin’s Church appears to be built around an old Roman mausoleum which stood in one of these.

Durovernum seems to have survived in good order until the Roman administration left, around 410 AD. After that, its decline was rapid. Mercenaries were hired to defend the town but they revolted. By the time of the Battle of Aylesford in the mid-5th century, the Jutes had taken over the area. The town became known in Old Welsh as Cair Ceint (“Fortress of Kent”) and in Old English as Cantwareburh (“Kentish Stronghold”), which developed into the modern “Canterbury”.

As was common practice, eventually the predecessor of the modern Canterbury Cathedral was built atop the site of the Roman temple.

The museum has on display several floor mosaics discovered when the building was being excavated (Canterbury was badly bombed during WWII). Some of these were left in situ and are accompanied by an excellent explanation of how they were created. Wall paintings and the foundations of an under-floor heating system were also discovered. All of these can be seen through glass windows today.

Given the size of the Roman town, the modern museum has a surprisingly small number of artifacts on display. However, its explanations of the various aspects of Roman life are clear and well-presented.

Like many museums committed to stimulating children, there is a large “Please Touch” room, with replica helmets and clothing. There is no separate Gift Shop, just a small display of items for sale near the ticket booth. The museum web site is here:

A Day at a British Beach

I’ve taken the fast, modern train from London to Canterbury several times in my travels. After my latest trip, it occurred to me that the train continues on and terminates a half an hour later at the beach town of Margate. A trip to Margate, at $8 roundtrip, to see the Brits at the beach was definitely in order.

Wikipedia reports that “Margate is a seaside town on the north coast of Kent in south-east England. The small town is 16 miles north-east of Canterbury, has been a significant maritime port since the Middle Ages, and was associated with Dover in the 15th century. It became a popular place for holidaymakers in the 18th century, owing to easy access via the Thames, and later with the arrival of the railways. Popular landmarks include the sandy beaches and the Dreamland amusement park. During the late 20th century, the town went into decline along with other British seaside resorts, but attempts are being made to revitalize the economy.”

When I was doing a little pre-trip research, two things struck me about Margate. First, it has one of the best beaches in the UK, because it’s a sand beach. Yes, beach sand is not usual here; UK beaches are generally made up of small stones. So, getting some “sand between your toes” is apparently a novel experience. And, the main Margate beach includes something I’d never seen before: a tidal swimming pool.

This is a very large concrete-sided swimming pool plunked right down on the beach and, owing to the big tides, it’s overrun and filled with sea water twice a day. It looks like quite the swimming experience, only six-feet deep at most, and quite calm.

Other than that, Margate is a typical beach town. It has all the amusements, casinos, fast food, and souvenir shops you might expect and a main drag along which folks can “cruise”, showing off their hot cars, convertibles, and motorcycles.

This magnificent tower was built in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee

The beach itself has many rental and food vendors. You can rent beach chairs, umbrellas, and even “wind protection”, aka the cloth fencing shown below that many people use to fence off their section of beach.

It was a very popular day for going to the beach, what with a national heat emergency declared for later in the week. Brits flocked to the shore to enjoy the sun and the light breeze.

Beach towns are full of graffiti and strange art, and Margate was no different. As I made my way back to the train station, I passed some interesting art displayed in the window of a house. It was emphatic, as it appeared in the windows on both floors. Your guess is as good as mine:

Enjoying the Lovely English Summer

And so, to Canterbury. It seems fitting that I should be spending the summer of 2022 here, in what was once a major pilgrimage destination, while training for another go at the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain. There’s good, ancient pilgrim karma here.

I’m staying at the same beautiful Airbnb that I stayed in back in 2020. Canterbury is a nice little town and the manageable summer tourist-season crowds are a welcome sign of post-pandemic economic recovery. I have a relaxing view of the river and a wildlife area from my balcony, yet I’m within easy walking distance of all the local amenities and sights.

Canterbury is also a nexus of national biking and hiking trails, making it ideal for my training purposes. The (so far) mild English summer was also one of the reasons I selected this town.

The question has come up: isn’t one Camino enough, why are you doing it again? Well, the perfectionist in me wants to do it again while applying all the lessons learned from my first trek in 2019. And I suppose I think that I’ll be better able to appreciate the experience, absent so many of the unknowns of the first time. Finally, it was a fantastic, life-altering experience; who wouldn’t want to do it again?

Briefly, my training includes weight work in the gym most mornings and hikes most afternoons. I’m slowly building my hiking distances and have the luxury of being able to experiment with a range of gear and strategies. The Camino is not a marathon – my average daily walk in Spain will be but 12 miles – but it does require mental and physical toughness to do it day after day for more than seven weeks, through sun and rain, heat and cold. I’m building that here and I’m all in. My next Camino begins August 29th.

Although England is behaving as if COVID is over, case counts are really climbing here. Same for Europe, with the French openly referring to a “7th Wave” now. I’m aware that my two vaccinations and two boosters may not protect me, so I’m taking a very conservative approach: I still wear a mask indoors in public (yes, including at the gym), I still only eat at restaurants with outdoor seating, and I still practice social distancing. It will be a challenge in the communal settings of the Camino hostels.

Over the next month or so, I’ll be back-filling my posts here. If you want to see what we’ve been up to for the last nine months prior to coming to England, check them out. Marti and I were in Barcelona, Cyprus, Greece, Paris, and the U.S. during our travels. Cheers.