Why you should care
Because you can experience the Hogwarts Express — with beer.
Walking onto the platform, I can taste the soot in the air as the long line of red wooden carriages comes into view. At the front of the train: a magnificent, gleaming, restored steam locomotive from the 1920s in royal green finish. With the platform decorated in period style and the volunteer workers wearing beautifully authentic uniforms — the ticket masters in black suits and gilded peak caps; the coal stokers in blue overalls and flat caps — it’s like a scene from Downton Abbey. Or in Harry Potter when the Hogwarts Express chuffs over a viaduct in the green English countryside? Yeah, THAT, but in real life. A uniformed gentleman knocks on the sliding wooden door to our compartment with a cheery “Tickets, please!” and — oh, did I not mention the best part? We’re on our way to a beer festival.
Held in August across the platforms of two train stations on an isolated stretch of heritage railway line in Gloucestershire, the annual Summer Ale and Steam Weekend is a chance for train and beer geeks to stoke their passions in one event (there’s also a spring festival held each May). Each platform features a lineup of real ales and ciders, mostly brewed locally. And budding beer aficionados flock to taste as many as the train timetables and their livers allow — using their commemorative pint glasses, of course, which come with the ticket purchase.
This year’s fest — the fourth summer event, though there have been nine annual Spring Ale and Steam Weekends — “broke all records” with around 800 attendees, and there’ll be even greater capacity next year, says Roger Price, chairman of the North Cotswold branch of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale, the U.K.’s largest single-issue consumer advocacy group), which runs the event.
On the train back, most people were still carrying unfinished pint glasses, one nearby compartment even broke into song …
A total of 34 beers were on offer this year, each one with a story, a witty name and a unique flavor — as well as the ABV percentage and the distance in miles between the points of brewing and consumption (the shortest was 2.1). You can sample the likes of North Cotswold Brewery’s 5 percent porter, Hung Drawn ‘n’ Portered, or even the 10 percent Flip INN Hell barley ale from the INNformal brewery — I didn’t manage to give either a taste, unfortunately, though admittedly, my system of ticking off each one I tried with a rating out of 10 fell down somewhat after the fifth sample.
Naturally, by the end of the day, the festival’s dreamlike setting had been brought down to earth — on the train back, most people were still carrying unfinished pint glasses, one nearby compartment even broke into song and a couple of gray-haired men were arguing about whether a certain beer was too dry to be a stout or not. But remarkably, I saw only one pint glass broken on the tracks all day.
The most quintessentially British thing of all: The forecast for rain showers was proved mercifully incorrect, allowing the sun to peek through the clouds to bathe the late-afternoon scene in a fittingly warm, nostalgic light. Just like a scene from the 1920s? Perhaps, but there’s no way they had this much fun back then.
GO THERE: Ale and Steam Weekend
- Directions: The easiest station to access the railway line is via the southernmost terminal of Cheltenham Racecourse.
- Dates: Next year’s Spring Ale and Steam Weekend will be held May 18–20; the next summer event will be August 10–11, 2018.
- Tickets: Beer tokens can be bought on-site at either of the platforms serving ale: Winchcombe and Toddington. Day passes for the steam railway can be bought at any of the stations on the line, also including Gotherington and Cheltenham Racecourse, for £17 (adult) or £7 (child).
- Pro Tip: Buy your beer by the half-pint — it enables you to try more beers, and the servers will often fill your pint glass beyond halfway for half the price of a full pint.