Enjoy a taste of the good life
I remember the turning point came at about 11pm on September 29 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!
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We 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 he 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 fresh goodies to eat on the beach. It was a no-brainer – we'd have to do 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 miles of sand and a town that was in touch with its rural surroundings. We can walk to the town centre and from our garden hear cows lowing. We got to know the area by following our hunger for great local produce. Colin the postman was our guide, sending us off on missions across the levels and up to the moors 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 sharing them. We realised that the reason we couldn't find all these things on the high street was because it was all about making the right connections. Most local producers are happy to sell direct but you have to find them.
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 Coastguard 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 and we began to see its social value 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 and drink festival is the best way we know of working 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.
Tomorrow we are looking forward to having 70 local food and drink producers fill five indoor venues and a large street market in the Victoria quarter of town. We have planned a Great Burnham Bake-Off and a death-defying chilli-eating contest. There will be trophies for the finest home-brew and six brilliant chefs are offering demonstrations. And it's all free!