Blog: Burnham on Sea Food and Drink Festival
I remember the turning point came at about 11pm on Sept 29th last year, after the first Burnham on Sea Food & Drink Festival. Three of us sat round a table, exhausted after running around all day, having counted the kitty in a tupperware box. We were £200 down. We had run ourselves ragged and not eaten all day, spent the previous week madly emailing and carrying heavy things and couldn’t remember the last time we’d had a conversation about something non-festival. We’d entertained two thousand people in our town and we’d ended up subsidising the day’s excitement to the tune of a couple of hundred. Crushed! We really wondered what was the point. Neither of us had jobs at that time. We’d hired the community-owned venue at top dollar. One of our suppliers was trying to duck out of his sale-or-return deal. We’d even plied the press with excellent local wine to try to win more coverage for our exhibitors. And it was looking like an expensive party we’d thrown ourselves to satisfy a whim. As it turned out, we were so shattered that we had miscounted and we had actually covered our costs to within £15, but that feeling remains pertinently fresh in my mind.
But then things started to pick up: the high street fishmonger said he was sorry we didn’t make it but he didn’t have a single gap in trading to allow him to nip out. The start-up cake-maker said she’d sold out by midday and wished she’d made three times the amount. Our sponsors told us how happy they were with the exposure they received. One of our producers turned up with a huge box of sausages for us in thanks for his best day’s trading ever! As the week progressed we heard anecdotes from around town, as neighbours and shop-keepers flagged us down. The visitor to the health-food shop in the Victoria quarter who’d lived in Burnham 20 years and only then discovered it. The lady who’d bumped into two friends she hadn’t seen since school. The interior design studio who’d had a record number of interested punters through the door. The family who’d loved gathering a hamper of great fresh goodies to eat on the beach. Delighted traders, busy skilled professionals, sociable neighbours and a town that likes a party: all the things we would put on our wish list for what makes a happy place to live. It was a no-brainer –we’d have to it again and not wait a whole year. And we’d have to make it bigger and better!
When we moved to Burnham on Sea in 2009 we fell in love with seven miles of sand dunes and a town that is really in touch with its rural surroundings. We can walk to the town centre and still can hear cows lowing from our garden. We got to know the area by following our hunger for great local produce, eating and drinking our way around the county. Colin the postman was our guide and mentor, sending us off on special missions across the levels and up on the moors and to places called Mudgely, Burtle and Wrington. We lavished our weekend guests with local delicacies. When we met neighbours who didn’t know of these delights we enjoyed being able to share the inside info.
We realized that the reason we couldn’t find all these things on the high street is all aboutmaking the right connections. Most local producers are very happy to sell direct but you have to find out about them somehow. Many local people will buy meat and drink from their friends, cousins, neighbours, local farmers, who they’ve known forever. Our treasured town centres seem to be rapidly changing from being the place we buy our provisions to the place we go for a chat and a catch up. We began to enjoy the friendly waves and smiles from people, whose names we struggled to recall, as they greeted us with the words, “Ah, you’re the Ladies Who…!”. We had thrown a few street parties, become volunteer Coastguards Rescue Officers and started a Town Team so we liked to try to guess the missing words before they were spoken. Everyone we met had enjoyed the Festival for a different reason and we began to see that the social value of the work we put in made it worth every minute.
We don’t believe in altruism – it’s pure self-interest that makes us want a bustling town,robust local businesses, farmers producing food not biomass and a calendar full of fun events we don’t have to drive home from. Putting on a Food & Drink Festival is the best way we know how to work towards these goals. We do not make any money from running the festival but the rewards are a bit more sustainable, we hope. If by our giggling home-madeness we can show that it doesn’t take much more than a good idea and some friends and some sticky-tape to make a difference, we might encourage a few more people to have a go too.
Last Saturday we welcomed over 70 local food & drink producers who filled five indoor venues and a large street market in the Victoria quarter of town. We held our third Great Burnham Bake-Off and a death-defying chilli-eating contest. We gave out trophies for the finest home-brew and samples to taste for everyone. Six brilliant chefs offered demonstrations in our Fresh Ideas theatre. And despite the showers around 6000 people celebrated a great British Harvest and were reminded that we all eat three times a day, most of us have a choice what that is and we want people to choose British and choose local and seasonal.
Written by Beverley MilnerSimonds, Founder and Director of The Burnham on Sea Food & Drink Festival. The next festival is on Saturday 24 May 2014 from 9am in Burnham on Sea. The festival is free to attend, dog friendly and a mix of indoor and outdoor venues so suitable whatever the weather.