Burton Upon Trent, beer, marmite and rain

19 July 2019

Summer came late this year but, when it hit, it hit hard with weeks of high temperatures and high humidity. The thought of a little camping at Thunder Run in mid July was a bright spot on the horizon. Both Rob and Commando said they were going to take things easy this year, do a few laps but also relax a little. We didn’t really believe them but I still imagined Kim and I chilling in the gazebo in the sun, sipping cool drinks and walking a lap or two ourselves.

The last thing I expected to see when I checked the weather for this weekend was wall to wall rain. Rain and camping really don’t go together very well. There were a few hasty changes to the packing list, including my stout boots and our dry robes plus the removal of unnecessary skimpy t-shirts and sandals. It seemed this camping trip was not going to be nearly as much fun as we’d expected.

Yesterday, as we drove up the M3 towards Burton upon Trent in our hired van, the rain seemed to be following us. After more than a year driving an automatic car, the gearbox and clutch came as a bit of a shock to Commando but, thankfully, the windscreen wipers worked a treat. Sitting in the van for most of the day meant I didn’t get nearly enough steps in, even with a few very damp evening laps of our first night hotel.

This morning it was still mostly raining. Kim and I made the most of the hotel facilities, including hot showers and a lovely breakfast, while Rob and Commando went off to bag a good pitch in the solo area and put the tents up. Somehow I think we got the better deal.

Our next task was to drive into Burton and get supplies for the next two days. This was accomplished fairly quickly. As the rain was falling steadily and sitting in a wet tent was fairly unappealing, we decided to spend a little time exploring Burton before heading off to the camp site. Two previous very brief visits to Burton upon Trent had given me a tantalising glimpse of wonderful old industrial buildings and lots of history I’d love to have explored so I was quite excited by this prospect.

The little market town is the administrative centre for East Staffordshire and is known chiefly for brewing. Burton boasts eight breweries and is also the place where  Marmite is produced. For those who don’t know about Marmite, it’s a thick, vitamin rich, brown black spread used on sandwiches and toast in the main. People either love it or hate it. In our house CJ and I love it and Commando hates it. Anyhow, it was invented in the late nineteenth century by Justus Von Liebig, a German scientist, who discovered brewer’s yeast could be concentrated, bottled and eaten. The Marmite Food Extract Company was formed in Burton upon Trent in 1902. The yeast used to make it was a by product from the local brewery. 

Unfortunately, heavy rain cut our outdoor exploring short almost before it had begun. Luckily, before we got too wet, Commando and I discovered the Cooper’s Square shopping centre and ducked inside. Originally called Burton Shopping Centre, this indoor mall was opened in 1970 by Princess Alexandra, with a roof being added in the mid 1990’s when the name was changed.  We weren’t really in the mood for shopping but we were in the mood for staying dry so we wandered around window shopping and took advantage of the toilets while we were there.

In the middle of the shopping centre we stumbled upon a really beautiful bronze sculpture of a cooper making a barrel by James Walter Butler. The Burton Cooper was commissioned in 1977 and originally stood opposite the town market. When the Cooper’s Square shopping centre was refurbished in 1994, the sculpture was moved to its present position, despite quite a bit of local protest. I was very taken with the Burton Cooper, especially the expression of concentration on his face.

Eventually there was no avoiding going back outside, it was still raining and, as we’d come out of a different door to the one we’d entered, we weren’t quite sure where we were. Trying to find our way back to the place we’d started we walked around the outside of the building and stumbled upon another sculpture. This, I later discovered, was called the Malt Shovel and was by Andy Hazell. It was unveiled in 2001 and is a rather quirky thirty foot high stainless steel shovel with a human sized beer bottle cut out in the blade.

The wet paving stones below the sculpture were equally interesting. They were imprinted with miniature beer bottles and the chemical formula for the fermentation process. Unfortunately, there was a little too much H2O around for my liking.

Around the corner we were soon back on the High Street and things began to look familiar again. Then we stumbled upon Market Place running off to our right. Standing side by side with the modern buildings were some of the beautiful old red brick buildings I’d so admired on previous visits. There was also a small market selling lots of interesting plants. Of course we were too far from home for me to buy any but looking at them kept me amused. 

Behind the market was an interesting looking clock tower. A closer look told us this was the tower of St Modwen’s, the mother church of Burton. This rather angular red sandstone church was built on the site of Burton Abbey in 1719. The church was designed by brothers Richard and William Smith of Tattenhall but both brothers died before it was finished and the work was completed by their younger brother Francis Smith. 

Surrounded by greenery it looked like an interesting place to visit but the door was closed. Besides, we really needed to get back to the High Street and try to find Kim and Rob. In the end, although we did explore a little bit of Burton on Trent, and I did take a few wet photos of the lovely Victorian architecture, the weather and time meant I didn’t see nearly as much as I’d have liked.

We found Kim and Rob not long after we left the church. By now the rain was getting heavier and heavier so we decided to cut our losses and head back to the cars.

Our eight or so mile journey to Catton Park, Walton on Trent, where out tents were waiting took us right past the Marmite factory. I looked at it longingly through the wet window of the van, wondering if they did tours and, if so, whether they might give out samples? It rained all the way there, which made negotiating the very narrow bridge just outside the tiny town of Walton on Trent a little more tricky than it might have been, especially in an unfamiliar hired van. In the end we had to fold the mirrors in to get through.

It carried on raining all afternoon. We spent a great deal of it huddled in the middle of the rather windy and damp gazebo, trying not to get wet. The rain finally stopped just as the sun was going down. We went to bed wondering what on Earth the Thunder Run course was going to be like after so much rain?

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