Eden, Cumbria, The Lake District – A natural choice for business

Festival exhibition brews up Penrith’s beer history

Penrith on a Plate

12 July 2016

An exhibition delving into the long history of beer making in Penrith will open next Wednesday, as part of the Eden Food and Farming Festival.

The display has been created by Penrith Partnership, the festival organiser, based on research by Janice Wrench from the Friends of Penrith and Eden Museum.

“I heard Janice tell the fascinating story of beer brewing and pubs in Penrith earlier this year when she gave a talk to a local group,” said Peter Ward, chair of Penrith Partnership. “One of the aims of the festival is to help people learn about where their food comes from and so turning the talk into an exhibition seemed like a fantastic way for festival-goers to find out about our food and drink heritage. I think most people will be surprised by how many pubs and breweries we once had in Penrith and the integral role they had in the life of the town.”

Janice, a former librarian and a graduate of the University of Lancaster’s MA in Lake District Studies, began her research after chancing upon a file in the Penrith and Eden Museum.

“I was helping to organise some old files when I came across one with information about local breweries and I got very interested in it,” Janice said. It inspired her to find out more, delving into old records at the Carlisle Archive Centre and archive copies of the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald and Penrith Observer, as well as directories and other local history material in the library and online and research material published by the Brewery History Society.

“Brewing beer was originally a household activity that women took charge of, and they sold their excess beer in the market,” Janice said. “As beer consumption grew, the women began producing more and selling it from their homes, which became the first inns. They were known as ‘ale wives’ or ‘brewsters’.”

This tradition continued in Penrith with the role of women in brewery management and as innkeepers.

“Penrith has had a thriving market since the 13th century, becoming a focus for the buying and selling of the produce of field and fell,” Janice said. “Its location surrounded by farmland and its strategic position as a crossroads have been crucial elements in its development as a town. It’s possible that produce stalls were located even earlier in the area around St Andrew’s Church.”

From the 18th century, brewing became closely linked with Penrith’s growth as a market town. Janice’s research also charted the boom years for brewing in the town in the mid 1800s, spurred on by a change in government policy.

“In 1830 the government reduced the cost of a licence to sell beer, in an attempt to curb the amount of gin that people were drinking,” Janice said. “By the 1850s, Penrith had one pub for every 72 residents – a far higher proportion than in much larger towns at the time. One of the most interesting displays in the exhibition is a map of Penrith at that time, produced by Ron Dearden in the 1980s, showing all the pubs and breweries.”

Penrith’s modern-day pubs and retailers will be welcoming visitors next Saturday at the Penrith on a Plate food festival day in the town centre.

“Although none of the breweries that thrived in Penrith in the 1800s has survived today, we’re lucky in Eden and the wider area to have a diverse range of drinks producers, making craft beers, ciders, spirits, wines and juices,” Peter said.

The exhibition is hosted by Zolena’s Café in Penrith, and can be visited at any time during their normal opening hours from Wednesday 13 to Saturday 23 July. Local groups can also arrange to hear Janice’s talk by contacting her at janice@wrench2.orangehome.co.uk .

Penrith on a Plate will serve up a bumper 50 stalls this year and features the town’s new Gifted Eden Artisan Market for the first time. The festival continues with a free tour at Askham Hall’s edible gardens and animal trails on Wednesday 20 July and places can be booked via the festival website, www.edenfoodfestival.org.

On Sundays 17 and 24 July, there’s a chance to enjoy a homemade Cumbrian farmer’s brunch at Maulds Meaburn Village Institute as part of the festival.

The festival is funded by Penrith Town Council, Eden District Council, Penrith Business Improvement District (BID), Pride in Penrith Lottery and Newton Rigg College, with support from DiscoverPenrith.co.uk, Burnetts Solicitors, Vista Veg, the Rotary Club of Penrith and Penrith Posters.