PETER AND ANN FROST visit vineyards, cider makers, hop gardens, breweries and distilleries. It’s a hard job but someone has to do it.
Would you like a glass of wine, a beer, whisky, perry, cider, even an apple brandy? This month we’ll explore some places where liquid refreshment is more than just a drink but also the theme for an interesting visit.
English and Welsh wine are gaining an international reputation for quality and flavour wherever wines are judged. Many of our best producers offer tastings and tours around both the vineyards and the wineries.
Good British beer needs no introduction. We’ll tour some traditional breweries and also spend some time in the hop gardens where the raw materials are grown.
English apples and pears are delicious and never more so than when made into cider and perry. We’ll find some places where you can understand the magical process of cider making. Some bold cider makers are even distilling the golden nectar to make apple brandy, we’ll take a sip.
Whisky from Scotland has always been the National drink north of the border. We’ll tour some of the distilleries.
Finally a warning: alcohol producers can be generous with their samples and tastings. Remember it is always dangerous to drink and drive. Far better buy a bottle or two to take back to your caravan and enjoy in the evening when the driving is over.
1 – Mr Caravan’s very own vineyard
Chilford Hall, Linton, Cambridge
This lovely English vineyard was established by the late Sam Alper the man who invented the Sprite caravan and whose huge company Caravans International (CI) built caravans in Newmarket and all over the World. When Sam retired from making caravans he planted this vineyard. Sam Alper was also a patron of the arts and the site also houses a print studio and an impressive outdoor sculpture collection. There are tours and tastings and you can eat at the Vineleaf Bistro.
2 – King Offa’s distillery
Hereford Cider Museum
One of the very few places where apple brandy is made in Britain is the Cider Museum in Hereford and its distillery named after King Offa. It’s also a great place to see the whole story of cider and perry making from the planting of orchards to the sampling of some delicious brews.
3 – ‘Opping down in Kent.
There are songs, dances, jokes and stories of the hundreds of London families like Ann’s Dad’s who came down to Kent for the only holiday’s they could afford, working holidays picking hops. These old times come alive at the Cobtree Museum of Kent Life near Maidstone. There are exhibits and demonstrations all year round but at the end of the summer Cobtree comes alive with its own hop harvest. Families still turn up who have been coming down to pick in the hop gardens of Kent for generations. You can have a go at stripping the bitter but fragrant hop flowers from the bines and also find out just what these amazing working holidays were like. (Since this article was published the Cobtree Museum has re-opened as Kent Life.)
4 – A vineyard in the Weald
Deep in the Weald of Kent, near the pretty half timbered old village of Biddenden from which the wine takes its name you will find one of the longest established and best know of English Vineyards. Predominantly German grape varieties are grown including Ortega, Huxelrebe, Bacchus, Schönburger and Reichensteiner, together with Pinot Noir, Gamay and Dornfelder. Being in Kent the vineyard doesn’t stop at English wine. They also make an impressive range of English ciders and apple juices, all products of local orchards. Admission and tasting are free but there is a fee for the vineyard tours. There is a pleasant coffee shop on site.
5 – Making Cider in Thomas Hardy country
Mill House Cider Museum, Dorchester, Dorset.
This is Thomas Hardy country. Indeed Mill House itself featured in Hardy’s ‘The Distracted Preacher’ where Owermoigne becomes Nethermoyton. At the museum there is an amazing collection of old wooden cider presses some of which are real giants. Apples are still pressed in these antiques and the museum will usually be demonstrating some part of the cider making process. There are always a few brews to sample and the helpful staff are the people who make the cider themselves so they really know what they are talking about. The museum sells its own cider and some from other local makers. Apple and pear juices are also on sale. The Cider Museum is open from 10am to 6pm from Tuesday to Sunday.
6 – Where three choirs sing
Three choirs vineyard, Newent, Gloucestershire
This vineyard gets its name from the Three Choirs Festival. For the past 300 years, the choirs of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester cathedrals have met once a year for a week of music. The vineyard itself is set in 100 acres of attractive Gloucestershire countryside with a wine and nature trail with boards explaining both vine cultivation and local wildlife. Here you can learn the many ways of training a vine. The most common system at Three Choirs, Geneva Double Curtain makes a delightful green and shady tunnel. The vineyard, which uses no pesticides, has a shop and a restaurant. They offer constant tasting and will open bottles of whatever you want to try. Don’t miss the Three Choirs’ Beaujolais Nouveau.
7 – Somerset Cider Brandy
Kingsbury Episcopi, Martock, Somerset.
Cider Brandy in England dates back to 1678. The craft died out, and it wasn’t until 1989 that Her Majesty’s Customs issued the first new licence to distil Cider Brandy. It was granted to Julian Temperley who still makes the brandy at Kingsbury Episcopi today. The cider, raw material for the brandy is made at Burrow Hill from more than 40 traditional varieties of local Cider apples, they have been making cider for more than 150 years. The Brandy is matured in old oak barrels, some from ships wrecked off the coast. Visitors to Kingsbury Episcopi can see the cider being made and the copper stills which distil the brandy. The distillery is open for visits every day except Sunday from 9am to 5.30pm.
8 – Join in the Harvest
Denbies, Dorking, Surrey
At Denbies you can actually join in the autumn wine harvest. In the brief window of October the foundations are laid for the wine production of the coming year. Denbies produces in excess of 300,000 litres of grape juice a year, which is reflected in the energy, enthusiasm and celebration that surrounds the harvest. At a ‘Vine and Dine’ event you’ll learn the workings of the vineyard and winery. The experience includes tuition in grape picking, harvesting the grapes, a traditional vineyard workers lunch accompanied with Denbies wine, watching the grapes being pressed, and tasting the grape juice. The day concludes with wine tasting in the Denbies cellars.
9 – Old Hooky’s horses
Hook Norton, Near Banbury
The pretty village of Hook Norton has a wonderful Victorian steam powered brewery. Yes, they still power the hoists and brewing machinery here with a steam engine installed in 1899. Steam and boiling water are used in many parts of the brewing process of course; for boiling the wort – the basic liquor from which beer is made – and for washing the casks.
Better still local deliveries of Hook Norton’s beer are still made by horse drawn dray. The brewery has an interesting museum and a shop both open from 9 to 5 and on Saturdays from 9.30 to 4.30. Closed Sundays.
Brewery tours are available Monday to Friday and last about two hours but they must be booked in advance.
10 – The Leaping Hare vineyard
Wyken would make a good day out even if there were no vines and no wine! The restaurant is so popular you always need to book. Teas are served outside when the weather is fine and there is a wonderful shop selling all kinds of posh things. Wyken Hall also has a number of fine gardens open to the public. A romantic garden, a knot and herb gardens, a formal kitchen garden, and an old fashioned rose garden, add to that a wild garden, a wildflower meadow, a nuttery, an elegant gazebo, a fine beech maze, and a woodland walk that leads finally to the vineyard. If all that isn’t enough for you go on a Saturday morning when they hold a splendid farmers market.
11 – The Hop Garden
Paddock Wood, Kent.
Hop gardens are part of the romance of beer and H.E. Bates caught some of that romance in the ‘Darling Buds of May’ stories. The tall hop-bines grow up poles and strings; so high in fact the hop farmers would use stilts to get up and tend the precious hops. Harvest was a labour intensive time that brought thousands of London families, just like Ann’s Dad’s down to Kent for their working holidays. The hops were dried over coal fires in distinctive oast houses. Once dried the hop flowers are so light they can be packed into huge sacks called ‘hop pockets’ taller than a man. At the Hop Farm in Kent you can see all these old techniques in action. Some disused oast houses a now house an impressive hop museum and the Farm has many more family attractions as well as its own popular campsite.
12 – Black Sheep Brewery
The small market square in the town of Masham, deep in the Yorkshire Dales is often full of sheep. Sheep farming, sheep festivals and sheep markets are all part of the day to day business of the town. No surprise then that the local brew is called Black Sheep. Masham in fact has two breweries. No doubt it is something to do with that wonderful Yorkshire water that filters down through the age old rocks to the springs of Nidderdale. The other brewery in Masham is Theakston’s; makers of the famous Old Peculiar. Theakstons still deliver beer to many of the pubs around the town with a wonderful horse drawn dray. Black Sheep Brewery tours must be booked in advance. The day time tours include a free half pint. Evening tours offer two free pints and a choice of hot suppers.
13 – Speyside malt whisky trail
Well placed for exploring the beautiful Spey Valley and its malt whisky trail the Camping and Caravanning Club Campsite at Craigellachie is almost next door to the legendary Macallan distillery. In fact there are more than fifty whisky distilleries in this part of the Spey Valley. Real enthusiast might want to visit a few (or even a lot). Most offer tours and tastings for visitors. Glenlivet is a particularly famous brew that might be a good place to start.
14 – Saintly Brewing in Suffolk
St Peter’s Brewery, St. Peter’s South Elmham.
This must be one of the prettiest settings for a brewery anywhere in England. Black swans and fancy ducks swim the moat of St Peter’s Hall a superb medieval house with beautiful gardens. The Hall is now an excellent restaurant open for lunches, dinners, drinks and snacks. The brewery is relatively modern making a range of interesting bottled beers. The tour will show you the brewery and ends with what is called a tutored tasting. There are wheat beers, a whole range of porters and some light fruit beers that reminded me of nights in the bars of Brussels as well as some more conventional brews. Tours are only available on Saturdays and Sundays between noon and 4pm.
Versions of this article have appeared in a number of magazines.