Thursday, 25 September 2014

Hop Festival

The end of August means one thing in East Kent.
Hops.  Not the Tigger variety.  The beer variety.  It's the time of year where it is OK to wear garlands of verdant green hops tied around your head and shoulders to celebrate the harvest.
For the last 25 years the little market town of Faversham has been transformed into a revelry of celebration for the humble hop, and 50,000 people descend upon the high street to drink, eat and dance their way through the first weekend in September.

The Hop Festival is a mish-mash of lots of different things.  It has beer, but it isn't a beer festival.  It has live music, but it isn't a music festival.  It has Morris dancing, but it isn't a folk festival.  It has children's rides, but it isn't a funfair.  It sells food, but it isn't a street market. 
It was born as an idea in the head of the one of the founders of the Rochester Sweeps Festival, and has grown every year since it's initial inception in 1990.  It is now one of the key events in the East Kent calendar, is internationally renowned, and is a real community activity, organised and run by the people who live in and love Faversham.

Now (surprisingly for me) I haven't been before.  I've been meaning to, but life just kept getting in the way.  Not this year though; I was fully determined to partake in all the glory that the hop festival had to offer!
So it was that I found myself skipping down Faversham high street, hops in my hair (and falling in my eyes), beer in my hand (pint of Golden Braid from Hop Daemon at the Old Wine Vaults) and on the hunt for something for lunch with Sarah and Sally. 
It's a little hard to describe the experience of the Hop Festival.  Imagine if you will a high street taken over with street stands selling every conceivable item of food.  There are burgers and hot dogs (ostrich burgers and bison hot dogs mind you), Greek tabbouleh stands, bhaji's by the dozen, ice cream and milkshakes and cream pies and drinks.  Drinks to sink even the stubbornness of battleships - home brew and speciality and artisan beers and ales and ciders alongside flavoured gins and fruit vodka's and floral cocktails.
Everywhere you look people have hops in their hair and a huge amount are also in fancy dress.  We saw smurfs and Arabian sheiks, ballerina's and 80's disco dancers.  There were Pearly Kings and Queens from London parading next to Morris Dancers and Belly Dancers and Folk Dancers. 
There are four huge stages packed with a full programme of live music from around Kent and the surrounding areas, from dawn until dusk, with musical styles ranging from Rock to Folk to Comedy. 

Well spotted, that is Green Diesel playing on the Market Stage in the bottom picture with their very own Hop Festival Song.
Hops have always played an intrinsic part of British life and there is evidence of Hops in Faversham from as early as 900AD.  It's no surprise then that in the last 1100 years we have really grown to know and understand these wonderful little feminine flowers that add such complexity to one of our national drinks.  Faversham has been growing and trading in its own hops since the 1520's and it has become a major part of the Faversham economy ever since.  Shepherd Neame was founded in Faversham in 1698, making it the oldest brewer in Britain and their headquarters (and brewery) are still based in the town to this day.
We drank and sang and danced our way into the early evening, stopping only for some food (Scotch Eggs and quiche's from a local farmers market) and the occasional toilet break.  This normally took a while as most of the pubs close off their seating areas and only allowed access to the bar.  This is the one problem with the Festival - nowhere near enough facilities and nowhere to sit down at all.
We just staggered on through - smaller ones had their own creative solutions.  I must admit, the Hop Bed did look comfortable!
There is a huge amount of entertainment for children, including jugglers and Chinese dragon dancers and a complete Fairground with rides, shooting games, bouncy castles and tombolas.
After admitting defeat on the music front by having the music stages close on us, we headed off with some friends to a local pub for a couple of pints (again, absolutely packed!), and then made our way to one of the schools in the area where they were having, of all things, a ceilidh!
There was a ceilidh band playing and attempting to shout out the instructions to us at the same time.  I wish I could say that everyone looked graceful and elegant whilst completing the ancient, ritualistic dance moves, but sadly this was not the case.
If anything we tripped and stumbled our way, looking around wildly for our next partner, and sprinting to where ever we were supposed to have ended up.
Strictly Come Dancing this was not.
Absolutely bloody brilliant it was.
Can it be the last weekend in August all the time please?

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