Shrewsbury Food Festival organisers get a taste of victory with rural Oscar

It started in the wardrobe.

Shrewsbury Food Festival organisers get a taste of victory with rural Oscar

'Should I wear this dress or that one?' 'Should I be smart casual or formal?' Beth Heath, the co-creator and co-owner of Shrewsbury Food Festival, had been invited to the House of Lords to receive a rural Oscar. The event that began in 2013 had been selected as a regional winner, being named the best food festival in the West Midlands, by the Countryside Alliance. A day at Parliament beckoned along with 40 other exceptional rural businesses.

"Being named the best food festival in the West Midlands was a real feather in our cap," said Beth. "We started Shrewsbury Food Festival three years ago and to accelerate past all of the exceptional events and festivals in the West Midlands in such a short space of time has been remarkable."

The event began in a Shropshire restaurant. Beth had been asked out to dinner by a friend, who'd come up with the idea. He'd explained it over three courses at the Best Western Valley Hotel and the evening had ended with a simple question: "Are you in?"

Beth says: "My friend is one of the quietest men I know. He wanted to start a food festival in Shrewsbury and asked me what I thought and whether I'd join in. Within a few weeks, we'd started a joint partnership, held a public meeting to outline our plans and decided to risk the mortgages on our homes if it all went wrong."

Happily, it didn't. The inaugural Shrewsbury Food Festival featured 130 exhibitors, a raft of live bands, chef demonstrations from local cooks and more besides. It attracted 13,000 people – a number that doubled within the space of two years.

So when the Countryside Alliance came calling with a rural Oscar, it ought not to have been a surprise. After all, Shrewsbury Food Festival had previously won a Mayor's Award from Shrewsbury Town Council and had also been nominated for a Shropshire Star Spotlight Award.

Beth laughs. "Everything's a surprise to us," she says. "There's a strong streak of humility running through what we do. We just want to have fun and create something that people can enjoy and that showcases the amazing food we have here in Shropshire. People tell us we're on the right track, but we never really know until the gates open whether anyone's going to come.

"We know that we should attract a sizeable crowd and we know that we've quickly become the biggest food festival in Shropshire and the wider region. But we never take it for granted. We're always a little bit surprised when we open the gates and the crowds flood in. And we're grateful that people do."

The Countryside Alliance interviewed Beth and her office team, Amy Tuitt and Rachel Davy, before conferring a regional award. And as regional winner, the food festival was then invited to London to meet Defra Secretary Liz Truss at the organisation's annual celebration of rural produce, skills, enterprise and heritage.

Thousands of people flock to the highly successful Shrewsbury Food Festival in Quarry park every year

The Champions' reception in the Cholmondeley Room was a glittering affair that featured more than 40 businesses from across England and Wales, selected in November as finalists.

Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss voiced support for farming and the rural economy, telling the room: "Rural businesses are the lifeblood of this country and its communities, contributing over £220 billion to our economy, so it is only right we celebrate the heroes that make our countryside great.

"I've seen first-hand how the nominees for the Countryside Alliance Awards represent the brilliance of rural Britain and I am delighted to be able to celebrate their many wonderful achievements.

"They are ambassadors of thriving rural enterprise; something I am committed to boosting even further through our Rural Productivity Plan. This will improve technology and infrastructure, creating the conditions for rural growth."

Shrewsbury didn't win the overall award in the Tourism Enterprise category. That distinction went to Harveys Brewery, in West Sussex, with the second prize going to The Burnham On Sea Food and Drink Festival, in Somerset.

Beth says: "It was a fabulous day and we were very inspired to find out what other food festivals and rural enterprises do.

"It's one thing to be ahead of the game in our region but when we heard about the way other events around the UK are run it was a real eye-opener. We certainly came back equipped with loads of new ideas to make our festival even better. And we're also more determined that even to do more for the community by providing support for charities and other organisations.

"Each year, we give a grant to local schools so that youngsters can build their own gardens and plant vegetables. That's important to us so that children know where their food comes from. At the moment, we're working with Wenlock Spring and a local artist on a project to build a garden at Clive School. It's really exciting.

"We also work with Self Help Africa and have raised thousands of pounds to support projects in the Developing World. But being among other regional winners from around the UK made us realise we can do more."

Shrewsbury Food Festival returns on June 25 and 26 and will have a new theme. It will be featuring the best chefs from Wales on its Chef Demonstration stage, as well as showcasing the talents of local cooks in a new-look FBC Manby Bowdler Cookery School.

Beth added: "We've got some really exciting stuff lined up for June. We've got some of the best chefs from Wales coming across the border as part of a Welsh Invasion. We've got the celebrity chef Stephen Terry, from The Hardwick, who used to work for Marco Pierre White and who was also Gordon Ramsay's best man.

Shrewsbury Food Festival helps raise money for Self Help Africa. Beth Heath with the charity's Steph Smith, at the launch of a fund-raising event.

"We've also got the Michelin star holder Bryan Webb, from Tyddyn Llan, in Corwen, as well as a number of other big names. And then we've got a new-look FBC Manby Bowdler Cookery School, which is being curated by Chris Burt, from The Peach Tree, in Shrewsbury.

"The intention is to give more people the opportunity to learn how to cook and we're really looking forward to that. We'll have lots of courses that people can sign up to and all of the entry fees will go straight to charity."

Back in London, Beth was pleased to get to London to enjoy a day at the House of Lords. "It was a really good day and we were thrilled to be nominated. We didn't think we'd win. It's just good to have been nominated in our third year."

The event has big plans to push on and become bigger and better in recent years. "We don't want to become a festival that stands still and gets tired. We're constantly looking to improve and innovate, to bring new things to the table.

"We've expanded this year and will be taking a much larger space in The Quarry. We're taken another big field in the park so people have more space when they get here."

If the festival goes well, Beth and her team might be invited back to the House of Lords for another awards ceremony in 12 months time. And, who knows, next time they might even win?

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