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Cider, Cheese, Bluegrass and Mayhem: The Gower Cider and Cheese Festival

Long blog post alert!

In two weeks’ time the Welsh Perry and Cider Guide, co-authored by me and cider photographer Bill Bradshaw, will be launched. We were commissioned to write it by the Welsh Perry and Cider Society, and spent much of last year touring Wales to research it. The highlight of our research, for me, was the Gower Cider and Cheese Weekend. It didn’t look that great on paper, but like all the best drinking occasions, its charm snuck up on us and captured us before we knew what was happening. 

For many reasons, some of which will be obvious if you read on, much of my write-up was completely unsuitable for an informative guidebook. So here’s the long version of the brief, restrained account that features in the Guide. 

The Welsh Perry and Cider Guide will be officially launched at the Welsh Perry and Cider Festival which runs from Friday 24th to Monday 27th May, and will eventually be available via Amazon and through Welsh bookshops and tourist centres. Photos below are copyright Bill Bradshaw – see more of his brilliant work at his blog, IAMCIDER.

The festival is happening again this weekend, Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th May. If you can go, I urge you to do so. 

If you time it wrong, driving through Swansea can be a dispiriting trudge past endless TGI Fridays and Premier Inns, the kind of urban crawl where, to relieve the tedium, your brain wanders off to dream up creative new methods of suicide. This is followed by an eternal limbo of endless suburban streets that only make sudden appearance of the magical playground that is the Gower Peninsula all the more surprising. At the end of another dull road you duck under some trees and instantly you’re in a dreamy, alien landscape of dunes and grassy outcrops, and winding roads that curve around cute pubs and swoop down dips and through copses, and steer you gently but firmly into conversations about scouting and woodcraft.

Fifteen minutes later we descend into a broad, shallow natural bowl ringed with trees, and arrive at the Gower Heritage Centre. This self-styled ‘vibrant crafts and rural life museum’ advertises itself as ‘a superb day out for all the family’, situated only 20 minutes walk from the spectacular Three Cliffs bay, ‘as seen on ITV’s “Britain’s Favourite View” with Katherine Jenkins’.

My accomplice Bill Bradshaw and I need no further encouragement to settle in for the day.

Built around a watermill that resembles a friendly giant, the centre is a real world manifestation of Toy Town or Hobbiton, an eccentric complex of brightly painted shacks, shops and workshops that tumble over each other to create a maze of narrow corridors and tempting doorways that assault the senses like Dorothy’s first glimpse of Technicolor Oz. Past the dairy, the puppet theatre, the ancient games arcade and village shop, all roads eventually converge on a red-tiled courtyard, roofed against the rain. On one side stands a tea-room, on the other, a pen full of small, rideable plastic tractors.

I’m trying not to say it, because it’s clichéd and lazy, but at this point I crumble. I’m only human.

“Ooh, isn’t it quaint?”

We grab a cuppa while we wait for Richie, our busy host. I browse the tea shop’s information stand: today’s event is part of a busy summer that includes Pirate Week, Viking Week, and a Medieval Fun Week where you can meet a knight and learn how to slay a dragon.

That’s it – I want to live here.

At first, I’m not so sure about the festival itself though. I’m used to beer and cider festivals with long lines of trestle tables with endless casks on stillage. Here there’s one stall with bag-in-box ciders piled three-high, and one long table selling a huge array of Welsh cheeses that all seem to be the same type of cheddar.

“It’s quiet, isn’t it?” I say to Bill. “We can probably get what we need here in a couple of hours and then go and see some more of the Gower.”

On reflection, my naiveté about cider back then was staggering.

Richie finally bounds into view and introduces himself. Impish and hyperactive, he appears to be dressed in my old school uniform of grey shirt, grey v-necked jumper and red tie. He welcomes us in a lilting, music accent and introduces us to Shaun, a local man selling his cider here for the first time, and then he’s off on another errand. We seem to have started drinking cider, and it’s nearly midday, so we take a seat and decide to do a bit of product sampling.

The centre makes its own cider on an old press rescued from a farm in Pembrokeshire. The overflow car park is an orchard with geese snoozing under trees that are only now coming into blossom, weeks late thanks to the incessant rain. Today – on the first day of the year that you actually dare to hope for summer – the produce of last year’s last year’s crop is a deep russet red, a good, honest cider at 7.4% that’s sweet and sharp with a mouth-watering metallic hint.

We’re trying to drink halves because we want to be able to sample as many as possible. Gwatkin’s Kingston Black is tart with hints of smoke and sherry. Blaengawney Blindfold has loads of structure, a real journey from acidic to dry with a hint of bubblegum before a full, pure apple flavour opens out. Two Trees Perry is clean and clear like unfermented pear juice with no trace of its 6% alcohol until it’s far too late.

By lunchtime a mellow, family-friendly vibe permeates the courtyard. There’s folk music on the stage, and the smell of barbecuing burgers and sausages in the air. The queue at the cider bar gets longer, until it snakes around the courtyard, and we decide it would be far more efficient and practical to switch to pints.

We’re sitting by the cheese stall. A chubby black Labrador, obviously the inspiration behind the invention of the hover floor cleaner, makes sure any spillage is swiftly dealt with. I love Welsh cheddar. It’s hard and strong but it melts in your mouth, seducing you unexpectedly.

I suddenly notice that I’ve been eating Snowdonia Black Bomber for some time. I wanted to see if I could find a perfect cider and cheese pairing, but that seems to have gone by the wayside. Instead, I start to imagine that the cheese can speak, and it’s saying to me in a very pleasant, reasonable South Wales accent:

“Alright mate? All it is, right, what I’m going to do, is I’m going to destroy all your willpower and any defences you have, and I’m going to come in there, and there’s going to be nothing you can do about it.  You’re going to carry on eating me, and I’m going to fill up your arteries, and then fill up your heart with cheese, and I’m going to kill you, alright? And you’re gonna love it. Anyway, enough talking, open wide.”

Gwynt Y Draig’s Black Dragon is a real crowd pleaser, open and golden with all the fruit you want before a dry tannic finish. And I suddenly realise I can’t remember how much we’ve had. The folk music onstage is sounding better and better as the afternoon progresses. The Baggy Rinkles – a Swansea sea shanty band – tell us they enjoy singing traditional drinking songs but the influence of the chapel meant they had to go to England to find them. The people waving the ancient Welsh yellow cross on a black field – somehow more terrifying than the modern dragon flag – don’t seem to mind. Give us the punch ladle, we all roar, and we’ll fathom the bowl.

A teenage boy walks past wearing a hearing aid and a Guns and Roses T-shirt, a combination which amuses me enormously for some reason. Two young couples have liberated an old Buckaroo game from the village shop, and are becoming steadily worse at playing it.

By five o’ clock, there is a very slow, mellow vibe in the air. Folk singer Ian Jones complains from the stage that his cider has run out, and one of the Buckaroo girls comes up and pours the dregs of her glass into his. Some people are wearing wellies, others flip flops. There are trilbies and deer stalker hats, and the writing in my notebook is starting to look strange.

We decide we need to sober up a bit so we pop out to walk the short distance to Three Cliffs Bay (as seen on ITV’s “Britain’s Favourite View” with Katherine Jenkins’, remember.) Folk music follows us through the woods and down the valley, echoing off the hills until we’re half way there.

When we get back to the centre, the atmosphere has changed. It’s quite a lot looser and giddier. One of the Buckaroo girls is now slumped with a hood over her face like someone waiting to be hanged. People are playing mandolins and flutes. One of the bands that was on stage earlier has now invaded the children’s little plastic tractor enclosure. While the kids charge around gleefully crashing their tractors into each other, the musicians proceed slowly and extremely carefully around the pen, as if trying to ensure they don’t get pulled over for driving under the influence.

Richie, having rakishly discarded his grey jumper and loosened his tie a little, jumps onto the stage to announce that he’s had to send up the motorway for some more cider, that they’re meeting Gwynt Y Draig half way, and this raises a loud cheer. He jumps back off the stage and starts collecting glasses and clearing up litter, seemingly a one-man festival staff operation.

My notebook is looking really odd now. I’m pushing letters uphill onto the page. I have no idea what that means, but I write it down anyway. Something is happening to me that has only happened once before.

When I drink, my handwriting generally becomes messier the more we go on, but when I decipher the scribble later I’m usually pleasantly surprised to find that I was writing some good stuff. But once I found an absinthe bar in a seedy backstreet in Barcelona, and got inside-out drunk: the more the absinthe hit my system, the neater my handwriting became. But the stuff I wrote made no sense whatsoever, and was quite disturbing in places.

Now, here on the Gower, my handwriting gets neater, then messier, then neater again as my drunken self makes an extra special effort to send messages to the sober me who will read this notebook the next morning. Or the following week. Or six months later, only days before I need to make sense of these notes for a reading at the Abergavenny Food Festival, having left it to the last minute.

At some point, I write:

“This is what my handwriting looks like when I’m a bit drunk and concentrating harder on making it look neat than on what I’m saying.” 

We drink some Gwatkin Yarlington Mill, a smouldering glass in which a candy sweetness meets a grainy, spicy dryness.

And then I write:

“It gets harder and harder to feel like this, the older we get. We’re just trying to recapture joy. We’re trying to achieve transcendence, run from boredom and mediocrity that we can’t endure. Sobriety is an illness to us, an awful state of self-doubt and awareness.” 

There’s still a family thing going on in the courtyard, but it’s wrapped around a vitality running through the place, as if it’s on a ley line. I’m conscious that I’m missing the final of Britain’s Got Talent, but I think I’ve got the better deal. In fact, I think I’m watching next year’s winner. A teenage boy is on stage singing and playing guitar, and a semi-circle of cider-drunk women seem to be closing in on him, the intense look in their eyes making it clear how keen they would be to help him grow up a little. Then he plays the Jungle Book’s ‘Bear Necessities’ for an encore. If there were any hearts in the place not won over, they are now.

I drink some more cider.

And I write: 

“Lascivious Flautism.” 
Up The Creek, a Swansea Bluegrass band, have taken the stage. And I learn that Bluegrass pulls everything in and makes you its own. I’ve written a lot about pairing the right music with the right beverage recently, and pairing cider with bluegrass is like dropping a packet of Mentos into a fizzy bottle of Coke, or a magnesium strip into water. Anything you’re holding flies into the air. Banjo and fiddle tear the corrugated plastic roof off the courtyard and fling it into space. I have no idea where Bill is. Everyone is going absolutely insane, surfing a wave of pure joy. Richie is grinning, having finally stopped working. He catches my eye, and gestures to the band. Everything about this festival, this weird little place, now makes perfect sense.

I drink some more cider. And decide it’s probably time I put my notebook away and focus on the music.
This is the first of various posts I intend to write in the drunken travel theme of my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind. If you enjoy this aspect of my writing, look out for the label ‘Four Sheets’ as I document more of my recent tipsy journeys.