Barrow Hill Rail Ale Festival

Barrow Hill in a nutshell; a beer festival held in a working locomotive shed. Sounds like madness? Well, there’s a fair few reasons why it works so well:

Only a queue or two – Well, the forty-minute queue for the free bus wasn’t too bad- it was a sunny day after all – although the bus-bores in front of me and the train-bores behind me left me wish I’d brought my mp3 player with me. What I now don’t know about exhaust parameters and the finer points of timetabling of 1970s West Midlands routes isn’t worth remembering. But at the fest, the queues for tokens were short and bar service was swift. Yes, even when it was Dom from Marble who was serving.

A really good foreign bottle bar – With the notable exception of GBBF, foreign bottles beers are often treated with disinterest or disdain at many British festivals. Here, the list was small but perfectly formed, with delights such as Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA for a hopshock, the De Molen-Mikkeller collaboration ‘Mikkel & Menno’ for a peachy perfume fix and Emelisse Stout for a roast explosion.

Liver and onions - Yes, there was real ale sausage. Yes, there was hog roast. But there’s something special about a cob stuffed full of just-cooked-enough liver and slippery fried onion. The sort of nom that ought to be available at more fests.

Local beer for local people – Plenty of beer from around the country was on offer, but with over two dozen breweries in the county they were right to showcase some of Derbyshire’s finest. Old favourites such as Thornbridge Jaipur vied for attention alongside new brews from the likes of Barlow, with all of the Derbyshire Brewers Collective represented. And there were some real gems; imagine a beer as complex as Mikkeller Jackie Brown but with less alcohol, so it’s more quaffable. That’s Ashover Mrs Brown, that it.

Smoke, steam and diesel – of course, the combination of heritage buses, working locomotives and real ale can bring out the worst kind of corduroy-clad saddo. But there’s something other-worldy about sitting on a wall in the blistering sun as two locos hiss and cough and chuff and splutter past you. And to sit in the compartment of a corridor coach, drinking beer with strangers as the train is pushed/pulled to the end of a non-descript cutting and back again, is surely one of the most esoteric pleasures at a British beer festival.

A brewer or two. Or three. Or more – It’s not unusual to find a brewer or two at a beer festival; professional networking, quality assurance and all that… So it’s always a pleasure to meet up with a few, chew the fat, put the world to rights and have semi-cogent conversations about flocculation. Perhaps. Janine, Matt, Kelly, Dom, here’s to you; it’s always a pleasure to share a beer with guys and gals who are passionate about what they brew.

Eclecticism – Sandal wearers who didn’t all have beards. Transport ‘enthusiasts’ and stag parties. Brass bands, R&B, impromptu a capella. Small brewers (Leila Cottage), large brewers (Fullers). Few festivals have this broad attraction. Barrow Hill had it in spades.

Ice cream on a bus – simple as that. An ice cream van is parked next to the bus stop. Result; me and Matt Clarke from Thornbridge, the last ones on, end up standing up, eating ice cream, not falling over, not depositing our cornets into the driver’s lap. The perfect end to a beery, sunny day.

If you were there, you don’t need me to tell you how good Barrow Hill Rail Ale festival is. If you weren’t there, why not? You’ve just missed one of the best events on Britain’s ale calendar. Just don’t miss out in May 2011!


  1. That sounds like a really good fest. I was hoping to attend, but went to the Derbyshire Food and Drink Festival with the kids, which was pretty amazing with quite a few local breweries in attendance on their own stands but not quite as decent as RAIL and ALE, what a combination!

    I did however manage to clear out the Thornbridge stand of their 'show special' bottles of Jaipur(500ml) and Kipling(330ml) for £1 each and picked up some Cocoadance Jaipur chocolates - so I'm fairly happy about that :)


  2. A couple of my pals from Newcastle made the journey south for this - gutted I missed it, will definitely try to get there next year. Will remember my corduroy and sandals...

  3. I found it very expensive. £7.50 entry to see very few exibits and to pay between £3.00 and £4.00 a pint!! (served in halves obviously) wont be back any time soon! sorry!