The first thing you need to know about visiting BirdFair is that it is not really about bird watching. Pretty much all of the birding events we have in the US are all about the field trips, afternoon workshops, interesting keynotes and maybe a small vendor area (maybe). Even though BirdFair is held at Rutland Water--a great little place to go birding in and of itself, people are there to shop.
The optics areas are set up the facing water so you can test out binoculars and scopes on waterfowl and shorebirds, but if this is a first time trip to Europe or the UK and you need to get some lifers, plan on arriving a few days before BirdFair and get your birding out of your system ahead of time. Sure, there are opportunities to do some birding there, but this event is so huge and so jam packed, don't waste your time hunting down what might be lifer blue tit when those are pretty much everywhere.
I mentioned earlier that I used the new Collins app for my trip. I also downloaded a Bird Song app for Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Since my travel has exploded the last couple of years (I was in Europe twice last year and will be doing at least two trips this year and chances are good I'll be in Israel again next spring) this seemed like a good way to go because it covers so many countries.
It's an expensive app at about $79 but if you consider all the area it covers and that each bird in at has several calls, a sonogram to help you remember the call and comparisons to similar species--it is the most comprehensive bird song app I've ever seen. Pricey, but worth it if you are going to be in both Europe and northern Africa (consider how much you spend on field guides).
The BirdFair website is very helpful for locating accommodations. I didn't have huge amounts of money to spend in the UK but I found the Oakham boarding school fine for my needs. They were nice, clean and comfortable dorm style rooms with decent wifi. There's a shared shower and toilet (just like in dorms). The doors to the dorm buildings are locked with a code that you have to use whether you are entering the building or leaving. Dorm rooms themselves do not have locks, but you have the option of renting the locks. Most people I know opted not to rent the locks, feeling that birders are a trustworthy group. I chose not to have a lock and on my last day found a very..."interesting" card in my room. No writing, but strange little smiling creatures pasted on it. I asked the staff if maybe it came from the cleaning person but they were as perplexed by it as I was by it. Was it from a fellow guest and meant as a bit fun? Who can say, but finding it placed next to my laptop did make me think twice about getting a lock next time I stay in Oakham.
The school provides a light breakfast of breads, cereal and milk in the morning and appeared to have a coffee and tea service running all day. The staff was very kind and helpful if you needed advice on travel and food around the area. Oakham is very close to Rutland, I think it was about a 5 minute shuttle ride to and from the fair.
I chose not to drive in the UK. I just didn't think my jet lagged brain could handle a steering wheel on the right side of a car as well as navigating driving in the opposite lane. I relied on friends driving me rides to and from bus stations to Rutland. It is possible to travel to BirdFair via train for bus and Google maps is helpful in revealing the route (though not always clarifying the prices). But getting around the town itself is quite easy and if you are really hard pressed for a lift, there are affordable taxis. All of the taxis I took in the UK were cash only affairs--make sure to have pounds (not Euros) on hand and don't rely that everyone takes credit cards like they do on the US.
A tip I picked up from Nature Travel Network is that if it rains at BirdFair--things get muddy. It's on a wetland after all. Really comfortable shoes are a must for all the walking, but if it rains, you want to be prepared for muddy conditions and puddles. Locals appeared to be wearing their best Wellingtons. I opted for Keens and they worked just fine.
When I visited, the temps were very cool--in the 50s and 60s. But the tents were warm. Be prepared for a continual shift in temperature based in you are inside or outside a tent--wear layers.
Thanks to the encouragement of UK birder Drunk Birder, we gave a Birds and Beers a go in Oakham. We chose The Three Crowns, a Steamin' Billy pub. There had been some confusion in the emails as I made arrangements and I was sad to discover that the pub didn't have menu (out side of chips aka crisps). The manager felt bad about the confusion and went away to purchase us something called a huntsman's pie that was delish:
Huntsman's pie isn't vegetarian or gluten free, but for an omnivore--it's fantastic. The pastry is full of pork with a poultry later and then then stuffing. I discovered that I think piccalilli (a yellow mustard pickle combo) is the best thing ever. I had only ever heard of it from the "I'm a Little Weenie Lookin' for a Bun" song.
But I loved hanging out in a small pub in Oakham. Locals came in with their dogs! I love that there were about four or five dogs chasing and playing in the pub (and sneaking up for a nibble of food). I chatted with some of the locals and met one who said he'd been to BirdFair in the past but didn't go every year. No one was viewed as a "birder" in the UK, birding is just part of the culture. OK, maybe extreme twitchers get a look, but people who watch birds from time to time are viewed about the same as hunters or a football fan is over here.
A local brewery provides a BirdFair Bitter during the event, make sure to have some time to grab one of those--a very bold and flavorful ale.
One last thing, a pro tip from a local--leave your own binoculars at home or at the very least, in your hotel room when visiting BirdFair. People who wear their gear around the fair are viewed as "posers." A well seasoned BirdFair attendee told me, "You can tell who the serious birders are at BirdFair, they don't wear their binoculars to show off. They are here to look at products."