Peter Peckard would have made of it? After all, I was standing on his grave in Peterborough Cathedral drinking gin on a Saturday afternoon. Peckard was Dean of Peterborough from 1792 to 1797, and as he was of a liberal tendency I hope he would have approved of the first Peterborough Gin Festival.I wonder what
The festival was to help raise much-needed funds for Peterborough Cathedral. There’s been a church on the site since about 655AD, and the magnificent cathedral that stands there today dates back to the 12th century. Its 13th-century ceiling still survives and is one of only four in Europe. It’s a wonderful building that needs and deserves all the financial support it can get.
After all, as Bernadette Pamplin pointed out in her Masterclass for Tinker Gin, religion and alcohol have long had a good relationship. From Trappist beers to green chartreuse and Buckfast tonic wine, alcohol has always been a successful fund-raiser.
The particular gin I was sampling when I noticed where I was standing was PJ Gin Apple, from Belgium. It was beautiful, like a cross between gin and cider, with an intense apple aroma and taste. Although I’d previewed the festival here, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I imagined it might be held in the grounds of the cathedral rather than in the cathedral itself, but no. The whole cathedral was given over to the festival for three different sessions, on Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening. 4,500 people were expected.
When we arrived mid-afternoon on Saturday, the joint was jumping. A gypsy jazz duo, Holder and Smith, was playing infectious music which had people dancing in the aisles – well, the nave, actually – and the bars were doing terrific business. Tickets cost £13 during an early booking period, and £16 afterwards. For this you receive your own proper coupe glass when you arrive (and a bag to hold it in), a copy of The Gin Book detailing all the 100+ gins that are available, free sample tastings from a handful of featured gin brands, and the opportunity to attend any of the several masterclasses that are being held.
You also receive a wristband with a magic gizmo that you top up with cash at the top-up station, which then enables you to go and top up with gin at the bars. It’s a clever but simple system. Gins cost £5, cocktails and liqueurs cost £10, and thanks to the ginerosity…. er, generosity of Fever Tree there’s all the tonic you can drink.
To soak up the gin there were two food options. Just off the vestry were two street food vendors, a dim sum stand and Striped Pig, serving a range of pulled meats in buns – and boy did they smell good.
So where to begin? Where else, but free gin! At the back of the cathedral, several companies were set up to promote their gins by handing out free sip-size samples. This was where I found the lovely PJ Gin Apple, though my wife preferred the PJ Gin Elderflower. We were told that if we went online to the Gin Festival online store we could get a generous 3-for-2 offer. (More free gin!) These Belgian gins, and several more, are only available in the UK at gin festivals and through the Gin Festival website.
We wandered across to the Brockmans Gin stand, which was garnished, you might say, with a gin glass filled with blueberries. ‘We use blackberries and blueberries,’ the guy on the stand told us, ‘but the last thing we add is distilled almond oil, which gives it a distinctive taste and means you can enjoy it like a fine cognac.’
It was indeed a superbly fruity and smooth gin, intended to be drunk neat, although all the stands were well-stocked with Fever Tree tonics and recommended which of the nine different tonics went best with which gin.
We’d only been at the festival for ten minutes, and visited just two stands, and we’d already discovered some very different and impressive gins. Others providing free samples included the Spanish-style Tinker Gin, Black Tomato from the Netherlands, Two Birds from Market Harborough and Malfy Gin from Italy.
The hard part, though, in a wonderful way, was deciding which of the 100+ gins to try that were available at the four bars. As we headed to the first bar I noticed a row of pomegranates at the side of one aisle. The pomegranate was the symbol of the first wife of Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, who is buried here in Peterborough Cathedral. So too, for a while, was Mary, Queen of Scots, till her body was later moved to Westminster Abbey.
In honour of Katherine of Aragon I decided my first gin would be a Marula Gin Pomegranate from Belgium, but unfortunately that particular gin hadn’t been delivered though I was happy to have another shot of PJ Gin Apple while my wife tried an Aduro Bell Pepper from the Dolomite Mountains in Italy. This had a delicious chili bite to it, and was even more enjoyable with the recommended serve of Fever Tree Mediterranean Tonic.
The whole festival organisation was impressive. Behind the scenes somewhere there were people slicing vast quantities of apples, lemons, limes, oranges, ginger and all the other garnishes that were served with each gin. People were scurrying back and forward to make sure none of the bars or stands ran out, and although there were sometimes lengthy queues at some of the bars, the drinks were dispensed quickly. You were left to add your own tonic (or not), and the wrist-band payment method only required a quick swipe by a smartphone and you were done.
At another bar my wife was seduced by a Pinkster Gin from down the road in Cambridge. This has only five botanicals and, apart from juniper of course, the most notable is raspberry. It was another fruitilicious gin, and the raspberry garnish meant it looked and smelled amazing. I was loyal to my native county of Lancashire and tried a Cuckoo Gin. This was a down-the-line traditional gin, garnished with orange peel and ginger, which gave it a lovely bite.
Elsewhere there was a strawberry gin from Cadiz, a pink pepper gin from Cognac, a violet gin from Scotland, wasabi and tangerine gins from the Netherlands, a sloe gin from Yorkshire and an elephant gin from Hamburg – which didn’t taste of elephants but donated 15% of its proceeds to support African elephant charities.
There was more entertainment from a duo called Northern Epidemic, a dynamic covers band who had enormous energy and a great stage presence. They did everything from I Walk the Line to a rousing finale of The Mavericks’ Dance the Night Away, by which time everyone was dancing the afternoon away.
As 5pm came around and the 4.5-hour session came to an end, we reluctantly had to leave the cathedral to give the organisers chance to clear up and set up and be ready for the evening session, due to start at 6.30pm. The crowds were already queuing. It was admittedly a bit weird having so much fun in a cathedral, with Christ on his crucifix high above us looking down on the gin-worshippers below, but I like to think Peter Peckard would have approved of the money that was raised to help keep this unique building standing.