Alton Food Festival 2012

Alton Station

Alton Station

It was touch and go whether I went to Alton.

All night, the early hours of the morning, heavy rain. By morning it was still raining and continued to rain all morning. Parts of the country had experienced more than a month’s supply of rain in less than 24 hours and were now experiencing severe flooding. Though nothing as bad as the severe floods that had hit southern Russia.

I was beginning to understand how Noah must have felt.

Global warming, climate chaos and yet still our corrupt business leaders and the corrupt politicians in their pockets continue to fiddle whilst Rome burns, though in this case whilst England floods.

Was it worth going to the Alton Food Festival? The last couple had been a waste of time.

Plus it ended at 3pm in the afternoon. That is the crass stupidity of Hampshire Farmers Markets who could not organises a piss up in a brewery. Ironic considering Alton was once a centre of brewing excellence due to the quality of its ground water.

The rain eased off. I decided a trip to Alton. I might, if I was lucky, catch the end of the market, but if not, Alton, a small market town, is always worth a visit.

I had to catch a bus, then a train.

As I walked to the bus stop I watched a bus sail past three minutes early, the next bus was three minutes late.

I arrived at Aldershot Station with three minutes to spare to catch the 1420 train to Alton. I asked the ticket seller was that the Alton train pulling in. He said yes. If he had moved any slower he would have fallen asleep. I ran through the tunnel, leapt on the train.

Then I noticed something. The train was not pulling out. Several minutes passed by, then a train pulled into another platform, the platform from which the Alton train normally departed.

Was I on the wrong train? If I jumped off, would the train depart without me?

I risked it. My train was for Ascot, the train that had pulled in was for Guildford. The Alton train had pulled in and gone. The imbecile in the ticket office had put me on the wrong train.

I now had half an hour to wait for the next Alton train. I could forget the Alton Food Festival.

The journey Aldershot to Alton is a pleasant train journey, especially past Farnham. It passes by Alice Holt, a forest. It is possible to alight at Bentley and walk into the forest, but only one train an hour stops at Bentley.

Alton Station is unusual. It is is still 1960s era, or at least pre-Beeching Rail Cuts. It is from where steam trains depart. The start of the Watercress Line.

I had just missed a steam train and it would be about 20 minutes for the next one. I decided not to waste any more of the day, and walk into Alton.

As I left I saw a bus for Winchester. It was tempting but I thought no, but I did ask the driver how often they now departed as they were hourly last year, though I had been told they would be every half an hour. The driver confirmed this was the case and the last bus now departed from Winchester at 7pm, not 6pm as before.

But here is the crass stupidity and an example of how dysfunctional is our public transport system. The bus leaves at the same time the train arrives!

I set off into Alton, but I could smell smoke from a steam train. I returned to the station.

Why is it jerks having the entire platform to stand on stand between me and what I am photographing?

Set off into Alton.

There used to be a lovely wholefood shop in Alton. The man who owned it was elderly and thought it was time to retire. But, he was happy to carry on for a couple more years, and hope in the meantime find a buyer for the business. The stupid landlord would not let him. It was minimum ten years lease or nothing. Yet another shop now sits empty. A good business lost.

I popped in Alton Books. A good selection of Paulo Coelho books, but not what I was looking for, Aleph. I would have loved to browse, but no time.

I caught Brock’s Farm Shop as they were closing. One of the best butcher’s in the country.

I had a very late and excellent lunch at Bottega Dei Sapori, a lovely little Italian coffee shop, delicious mushroom tortellini. The irony of it, I get better Italian food in Alton than in Bassano del Grappa where the food was overpriced and awful. The exception was Ristorante Alla Corte.

Every so often one comes across eating places where the owner take a pride in their food. This was one such place. I had a chat with the owner and to my surprise he is from the north of Italy, north of Venice, but not as far north as Bassano del Grappa.

Their coffee is single origin Bourbon Arabica from El Salvador with Rainforest Alliance Certification. One of the best Arabica coffees I have ever tried was Zapatista coffee from an autonomous region of Mexico.

Apart from tasty main dishes, scrumptious looking cakes. Plus Italian products on sale, including seeds and home made bread.

There are two places to eat in Alton, both are excellent. One is Bottega Dei Sapori, the other is O’Connor’s.

Why do people eat in disgusting fast food outlets when there are decent restaurants serving excellent freshly prepared dishes?

Next door to the Italian coffee shop (it is really a small restaurant) the site of what used to be the bank that belonged to the brother of Jane Austen.

By now gone 5pm and almost everything closed.

Alton is fortunate, it still has a quality butcher and two greengrocer’s.

On my way in I just caught Brock’s Farm Shop open. One of the best butchers in the country.

I also caught one of the greengrocer’s open. They have delicious dates. Expensive but worth it. I also picked up two punnets of English strawberries for a pound!

From Waterstone’s a copy of Aleph. On principle I do not buy from Waterstone’s but this was a former Ottaker’s, so at least some of the staff know something about books. It was a tragedy when Waterstone’s were allowed to acquire Ottaker’s.

I then decided I would take a walk through the water meadows, the source of the River Wey. Last summer the river, here but a stream, had dried up. I was curious, what was its state now?

It was back in flow again. Now about a foot (30 cm) deep and flowing quite fast.

It had been rain on and off all day. Now heavy rain. I was getting soaked. Time to head back.

I passed by O’Connor’s. It was open and I would have liked to have popped in, said hello, but I would have missed the train and was too tired. Once on the train, as it was about to pull out, I noticed a steam train pulling in. But too tired to jump off.

At Aldershot the train pulled in a few minutes past the hour. The bus left on the hour. I would have to wait half an hour for the next bus. Yet another example of our dysfunctional public transport system. Bus and train owned by the same company, Stagecoach.

I never did get to see the Alton Food Festival. If like last few years no great loss. Of the people I talked to, all thought it crass stupidity that it finished at 3pm, half way through the afternoon. I was even asked had it closed early due to the bad weather? To make matters worse, the day was the Women’s Final at Wimbledon.

Maybe there was something worth going to maybe I missed out on a great food festival. I do not think so, not if I go by the Hampshire Farmers Market website. It told me date, location, farmers market and that was it.

The Alton Food Festival, a one-day event, is part of the Hampshire Food Festival. Lots of stalls, plenty of food to taste and buy, cookery demonstrations. At least that is how it once was. July 2006, Sophie Grigson was giving cookery demonstrations and signing copies of her books. It has since gone down hill. The last couple of years not worth attending.

Hosting a food festival is an excellent idea. But it has to be a genuine food festival, an all day event, not a farmers market dressed up as a food festival.

It is time Alton took the initiative and seized back their food festival.

Alton is small market town in Hampshire. Source of the River Wey. It is relatively unspoilt, but in the last few years, national High Street chains are slowly eroding its character. Many old buildings, old coaching inns. Also a strong sense of community, spare land being used as community gardens, lots of local events.

Alton has a strong connection with Jane Austen. It also, surprising for such a small town, has two museums, one housing the finest collections of ceramics outside the V&A in London.

Top Story in The Digital Mission Daily (Sunday 8 July 2012).

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