HOW to make the most of a cider festival? Work up a proper thirst first.
We take the Jurassic Coast bus from Weymouth to Burton Bradstock, and set off on a six-mile cross-country walk to Powerstock via the villages of Shipton Gorge and Loders.
Here we find a very distressed mother duck, quacking desperately after her 10 cheeping ducklings that fell six feet down a drain! We ring the RSPCA hotline, give the call centre directions and a grid reference, and hope for the best.
On up a steep field full of sleepy lambs and over stiles, through pastures carpeted in dandelions, past hedgerows dotted with primroses. Fern fronds unfurl under bright April sun. It’s as if we have turned the clock back 200 years, country folk tramping across meadows to get to the annual village bash.
We descend into Shipton Gorge, dodging a tractor bearing vast piles of manure. Luckily, the New Inn is shut, because we could do with another cider, and that would probably hamper our progress.
We wind along footpaths and ancient green lanes plotted from an Ordnance Survey map (with a little help from the Memory-Map app). We barely see another living soul as we hike along, flanked by Hammiton Hill to our right. We meet some inquisitive cows, and three buzzards soar on the thermals above us. Green hill fort workings waver in a spring haze as we trot down hillside carved in two by the A35.
We stop atop a hill for a picnic, with the Asker meandering at our feet. The sound of distant church bells carries on the wind. I munch on wild garlic leaves with bread and ham.
It’s just before 6pm as we descend into Powerstock. People are flocking to the village hall. Hanging over the entrance marquee is a sign reading: “This way to cider heaven.” Inside the hall, 20 or 30 craft cider makers are gearing up to ply 500 punters with barrels of medium, dry and sweet ciders. There’s the odd pear cider as well.
We meet Nigel Stewart of Bridge Farm Cider in Somerset and Rose Grant from Winterborne Haughton, a one-woman show who makes the earthily delicious Cider By Rosie (she’s looking for a freehouse to supply in Weymouth, so get in touch if you know of any!) I sup plastic cupfuls of Old Groper 2008 and New Groper 2009 – buzzy little numbers from West Milton Cider. A cider competition was held this year for the first time, and both Nigel and Rose land first and second prizes. As well as the larger orchardsmen who supply the westcountry’s big brewing houses, we meet first-time cidermakers Kitty and Dicky from Somerset, clutching their second prize certificate in delight. Emboldened by cider, I pester a Normandy farmer in appalling schoolgirl French, and meet a Bristolian double-glazier, who keeps his cider in old whisky barrels – a heady brew that’s not for the faint-hearted! We even meet Rosie, a cider-tasting terrier, who licks droplets off her owner’s fingers. We sip Nettlecombe Nectar, and of course we try a couple of the infamous Suicider (8% ABV), produced by Tim Chichester of Wiscombe Cider. Apparently Tim uses horses to pull the granite mill on his Devon farm.
By 9pm the Powerstock Hut is rammed: it’s testament to the growing status of this festival, which, according to the National Cider Makers Association Growers Update, started as a cider tasting evening founded by the West Milton Cider Club. The real joy lies in getting to meet the cidermakers: to find out where they grow or pick their apples, how they share presses, and what blends they use to finalise the tipple. It’s clear that both making and drinking cider is a powerful glue that brings a community together. Hoorah!
This morning we wake up with serious cider headaches. But at least it’s a happy ending for the ducklings, as a voicemail from the RSPCA informs us: “Just to let you know that I managed to get a chap from Dyno Rod Drain Services to go and fetch the ducklings out of the drain. They’re out of the drain and he is going to be taking them to a local swannery tomorrow morning. He actually used to keep ducks himself so he knows what to do overnight, and they are well. The only sad thing is that the mother has flown off so it has been impossible to reunite them, and he has been waiting there for some time, but there is no sign of the mother duck. But they will be cared for.”