The joyous bedlam that is 'The Beer Race'...

Show notes (summary)

Beer, boats, costumes and occasional skulduggery… Only in Britain could this kind of bonkers bedlam take place each year. Tracy Watson from Noss Mayo joins us to ‘unshroud the mystery’ behind a photo she sent us last year of something called ‘The Beer Race’. An episode you will not want to miss…

Transcript: Season 2 / Episode 8

Johnny Thomson 00:01
When we received a crazy photo of something called The Beer Race last year, we were well… amused, intrigued and slightly confused. So, I’m delighted to say we’re now going to find out what on earth was going on. Hi, everyone, I’m Johnny Thomson and welcome to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK’s largest specialist provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. Now, we in Britain, we’re all pretty well known for holding interesting and slightly off-the-wall events, from Cheese Rolling to Welly Wanging, Tossing the Caber to Bog Snorkelling, it kind of all happens here. But when Tracy Watson sent in a photo of some action from an event, to our competition last year, our reaction was basically what is going on here? The photo, which you can see via the links on our website for this episode, is just bizarre to be honest, and we’ll get on to talking about that in a minute. But for now, let me introduce you to Tracy, thank you so much for coming on today.

Tracy Watson 01:13
Hi, Johnny. Thanks very much for having me.

Johnny Thomson 01:15
Yeah, no, brilliant. And before we get on to the photo and The Beer Race, tell me a little bit about you and where you’re from Tracy and your local village hall as well, of course?

Tracy Watson 01:26
Yeah, of course. Well, my name is Tracy Watson. I live just outside beautiful twin villages of Newton Ferrers and Noss Mayo, which are in the South Hams area of Devon, so right down in South Devon, not very far away from the Cornish border really. Beautiful villages, they are split between or by a quite large tidal river. I tend to favour Noss Mayo. That’s where I was brought up. There’s quite a lot of rivalry between the locals of Newton Ferrers and Noss Mayo. But I tend to favour Noss Mayo and Noss Mayo Village Hall is the reason that I entered the competition in the first place. Just a small local community village hall that does and hosts many events, one of which I’ve just finished doing, which was our local pantomime.

Johnny Thomson 02:18
And your photo. It’s impossible to describe it to be honest. You really have to look at it yourself is what I’m going to say, but the best word I can think of is bedlam. You’ve got people in fancy dress trying to get out of some crazy small and very oddly decorated boats with confused people looking on. What is happening here Tracy?

Tracy Watson 02:41
Well, it does pretty much sum up the whole the whole race. The Beer Race is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a race. It’s basically a relay race between three pubs which are situated on the banks of the river that I was mentioning earlier. You have six people per team, so two people stationed at each pub and you… the men will drink a pint, run to the boat, row across to the next pub, handover to their partner who will then do the same and the women drink half a pint. It’s become a real feast for the eyes now because fancy dress has really taken over as the main part of the event, which is fabulous to watch.

Johnny Thomson 03:28
And is it every year, does this take place yeah?

Tracy Watson 03:31
Yeah, it takes place, we have an annual regatta, which is mostly rowing. A lot of people associate regattas with sailing, but we are mostly a rowing regatta, again, very hotly contested between the two villages. And at the end or towards the end of the regatta, The Beer Race takes place, it’s not part of it, but it’s it’s an obvious time to hold the event.

Johnny Thomson 03:57
And the geography is quite important, as you say, isn’t it, because one village is one side of the water and the other is the other and then you’re rowing between the two as part of the race. How long has this been going on then?

Tracy Watson 04:08
Well, this year is the 50th year.

Johnny Thomson 04:11

Tracy Watson 04:11

Johnny Thomson 04:11

Tracy Watson 04:12
So we’re, yeah and it’s fabulous. And I would say it grows every year. It actually doesn’t because we’re very much limited by the size of the river. So we are limited to the amount of teams that can go in. But there’s all but a waiting list and people are queuing up to get the nominations in to actually join each year. So it’s yeah, it’s hotly contested.

Johnny Thomson 04:37
How many can can kind of take part?

Tracy Watson 04:40
We have we 12 teams as a rule. It used to be just mainly the pubs. So the pubs used to sponsor a men’s team in a women’s team. So that would be six of the teams and then another six teams would be allowed to join. That tends to be the case, still the case however the other teams now tend to as I say, they’re virtually queuing outside waiting for the entry forms to be opened up once the once the dates are announced.

Johnny Thomson 05:08
Have you any idea how all this started 50 years ago?

Tracy Watson 05:12
Yeah, I do. I was actually speaking to one of the founder members today. A lovely lady called Shirely Pegg, she’s lived in Newton Ferrers for forever. And it used to be just two teams from The Dolphin and there were a group of people in The Dolphin in Newton Ferrers. One group used to be bass drinkers and the other group used to be Guinness drinkers. And for some reason, and we’re still, they still can’t quite remember how it happened, but they decided that they were going to have a race across the river. And it was just men at the time, just two teams rowing across the river and rowing back again. And it started. That’s how basically all, it all started.

Johnny Thomson 05:57
I like how you said you didn’t know how they had the idea. It had to be somebody had too much Bass and sombody had too much Guinness?

Tracy Watson 06:03
Oh absolutely, yeah. And there would have been a competition somewhere about Bass drinkers being better rowers than Guinness drinkers. That has to have got in there. A few years later, the women decided they wanted to get involved, because Shirley was very much a Bass drinker. So the women wanted to get involved so there became a women’s race as well as a men’s race and sort of the rest, as they say, is history. Then more people wanted to become involved. It became impractical to just have a two legged race, so that’s when it became all three pubs and a relay.

Johnny Thomson 06:34
Have you ever taken part yourself?

Tracy Watson 06:38
Just once or twice? Yeah, I was thrown out when I was 16, because I wasn’t old enough. So I wasn’t allowed to compete. So my very first race was when I was 18 and I was allowed to, and then I think I competed every year then until I was 50.

Johnny Thomson 06:57
Right? So you must have had all kinds of different costumes and things like that? I hope when you were Tina Turner you were Simply The Best?

Tracy Watson 07:03
Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, like, like I say, to start with it was the fancy dress side of it was pretty tame. We used to row for one of the pubs on the Noss Mayo side and it used to just be a t-shirt with the pub name on it. And then gradually, things sort of started to develop with the the fancy dress and we’ve been Tina Turners and we’ve been sailors and we’ve, you know, you name it. And you know, we’ve had a go at being it. Oh we were, absolutely. Well, we were, we’re probably the most successful team in the in the whole of the river, to be honest.

Johnny Thomson 07:40
Yeah. And presumably, as well as having a lot of people who want to turn up and take part. You also have a lot of people who turn up to watch all of this craziness yeah?

Tracy Watson 07:51
I mean, it’s in the middle of the summer holidays. So it’s a massive event for the village. And as long as the weather’s nice, then you can have hundreds of people just dotted around trying to sort of get a good vantage point. Because as you can imagine beer and small rowing boats and costumes don’t necessarily make for very stable rowing, especially in the latter stages, once people have had a few pints. So there’s quite a lot of dunking and capsizing and rowing with one oar by the end of the race. And that’s when it tends to get really funny.

Johnny Thomson 08:27
Here’s the big question, is there any any kind of purpose behind all of this shenanigans?

Tracy Watson 08:33
I think to start with, there wasn’t. I think it was just done for the for the fun of it. And just because it was something new, but for as long as I can remember, we raise money for our local cancer hospice, which is St. Luke’s Hospice in Plymouth. It’s very much dependent on the weather as to how many people come out and so how much money is raised. But we can go from raising several £100 into a couple of £1,000 pounds on a really good night and all that money then gets donated to St Luke’s Hospice in Plymouth.

Johnny Thomson 09:05
It is a proper race, isn’t it? You know, tell me people take this really seriously Tracy. I mean, you know, I want I want to think that people are really given it for this yeah?

Tracy Watson 09:15
There are an element, who do take it very seriously. I was in a team who did take it very seriously. And to the point where the the ladies team that I was part of were all pretty good rowers, and we did actually win the whole event ahead of the men at one point and then that’s when the men started complaining bitterly that the women only had to drink halves in comparison to their pints. And it’s that that argument has been going on ever since. There are some some teams, probably over half the teams now who just want to win the fancy dress competition side of it, because they’re not too worried about the rowing as long as they complete the course. But there are still some who properly go for it.

Johnny Thomson 10:01
Where do you stand on the pint or the half pint?

Tracy Watson 10:04
Oh, erm…

Johnny Thomson 10:06
Are you gonna sit on the fence?

Tracy Watson 10:08
Yeah, I think I might, I think I might do that.

Johnny Thomson 10:12
Wonderful. So come on spill spill the beans on some of the, some of the classic moments, because there must have been some over the years. There must have been some strange goings on? I’m hoping a bit of cheating, or a bit of sabotage, or something like that?

Tracy Watson 10:28
Oh that happens regularly.

Johnny Thomson 10:29

Tracy Watson 10:30
Because once the boats get to each pub, the person who’s rowed has to then run get out of the boat, run to a table where their partner is, and their partner then drinks. And they’re relying in that time on other people turning the boat around for them, so they can get a fast move off. And it has been known that people will come back and the boats are floating merrily in the middle of the river. So you know, there should just be let loose. Various, I mean, crashes and collisions in the middle of the river are just commonplace. I mean, some, which is really frustrating for the people who are properly racing to then collide with somebody who really hasn’t got much of a clue in the race and so has no idea how to get out of a collision, the language can sometimes be pretty blue. This year, which in one of the photographs, my son was in the boat, which is in the background, which was made up of or made to look like a refuse collection truck. And as they got into the boat, because it was so top heavy it took on an awful lot of water. So they were basically struggling with a flooded. I would, I did say it was a flooded engine. But yeah, they were trying to bail out this refuse collection truck. They’re just too many. Just a spectacle. It’s absolutely bonkers. But it is a spectacle.

Johnny Thomson 12:01
What about if you know if anyone listening wanted to witness The Beer Race in all its glory? Presumably anyone can kind of turn up and watch this, yeah?

Tracy Watson 12:10
Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, you know, it tends to be towards the end of August, every year. It used to be midweek, which was always a bit of a shame for the competitors, because as you can imagine, it’s not the soberest of evenings. So doing it midweek was always a bit of a tough shout the following day. It now happens on a Saturday night, which is much nicer. The reason previously is that the pub, the landlords in the pub, quite reasonably used to say, look, we’re busy enough on a Saturday night without having to deal with all this carnage. But they’ve finally given in. So they’re quite happy for us to run it on a Saturday night now. So it is just a case of turn up, find somewhere to park, work your way down to the river’s edge and watch, because the amount of people you have who are on holiday, who have no idea it was gonna go on and they have the best night ever. And the comments that go on afterwards it’s just brilliant.

Johnny Thomson 13:06
Yeah, I’m really surprised I’ve never heard of it, to be honest with you until you sent the photo in. I think I might take a trip there myself this year. The whole thing just sounds totally mad.

Tracy Watson 13:15
Yeah, it is. I mean, it’s an hour, hour and a half of complete carnage.

Johnny Thomson 13:20
Yeah. Fantastic. And we all need a bit of that in our lives every now and then, of course.

Tracy Watson 13:24
Oh we do. Yeah we do.

Johnny Thomson 13:26
Is there a Facebook page, or a website, or anywhere?

Tracy Watson 13:29
No, no, there’s not. I mean, it’s all it sort of tends to get advertised on the River Yealm Regatta Facebook page, but it hasn’t got its own event, because it is very local. You know, it’s one of those events, which is just people who are local to the villages take part in it. People who know about it tend to come and watch it. But other than that, that’s about it really. This is probably the most publicity it’s ever had and it’s just because the photo, I just had to enter it, because it just summed up what community and village life is all about.

Johnny Thomson 14:03
I love it! It’s a Village Halls Podcast exclusive.

Tracy Watson 14:07
Absolutely it is.

Johnny Thomson 14:08
Let me know Tracey when it’s happening. When you’ve got all of the kind of information and we’ll update everybody, you know.

Tracy Watson 14:14
That’ll be brilliant. Yeah.

Johnny Thomson 14:15
And let them know exactly when it’s when it’s going on. Thanks so much for answering all my questions here.

Tracy Watson 14:22
Well as I say anybody is welcome to come along and have a have a laugh and have a giggle. And you know if they can chuck a few quid into the charity buckets that are going around on the night, all the better.

Johnny Thomson 14:33
Yeah. Because your photo really did raise more questions than answers to be fair..

Tracy Watson 14:39
Yeah, that does make sense.

Johnny Thomson 14:40
Yeah. So I’m glad to have had the opportunity to chat and congratulations again, as well for for winning a prize in our competition last year.

Tracy Watson 14:47
Thanks very much.

Johnny Thomson 14:48
Thanks again Tracy. It’s been wonderful having you on.

Tracy Watson 14:51
That’s great. Well, thank you Johnny for having me on and giving me the opportunity to unshroud a little bit of the mystery.

Johnny Thomson 14:57
Yeah, wonderful. Thanks again. And that’s all folks for this episode. Thanks as always to our headline sponsor and specialist insurance provider Allied Westminster for making our podcast possible, and whose services you can discover more about at And to online booking system provider Hallmaster, who also sponsor our podcast and can be found at You’ve been listening to The Village Halls podcast, a unique listening community for Britain’s village, church and community halls, and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. We’ll be back again soon with another episode. So if you haven’t already, visit to subscribe, sign up for updates, link through to our social media pages and to find out more. Until the next time. Goodbye for now.