Carry on campaigning - 50 years of CAMRA
- Credit: Roger Protz
Why St Albans? CAMRA – the Campaign for Real Ale – will celebrate its 50th anniversary this month, cementing its close links with the city. The head office is based here and the local branch stages one of the country’s major beer festivals.
The reason why St Albans is the movement’s home base is because one of its founding members, Graham Lees, was a journalist who in the early 1970s ran the local office of the Evening Post Echo, published in Hemel Hempstead. Graham was CAMRA’s voluntary membership secretary and when the Guardian ran a piece about the new movement he was so overwhelmed with people begging to join that the group had to rent a room above a bike shop in Victoria Street.
It employed John Green to handle the flood of requests. John was a passionate real ale lover who was also active on the local pub scene. He helped organise a meeting in the Farriers Arms in Lower Dagnall Street where a CAMRA branch was formed in November 1972 and remains the oldest surviving branch in Britain.
Steve Bury joined at that time and he recalls that a plaque was mounted outside the Farriers to celebrate the fact that the branch was formed there. The plaque wasn’t well made, Steve said, and after a few years most of the letters had fallen off. Fortunately McMullen, the Hertford brewery that owned the pub, came to the rescue and erected a better quality plaque that has survived to this day.
At national level, CAMRA, which soon had 30,000 members, outgrew the room in Victoria Street and moved to a house in Alma Road. It stayed there until 1995 when it transferred to former car show rooms in Hatfield Road between Morrisons and Fleetville School. It published a monthly newspaper for its members along with the annual Good Beer Guide that lists the best real ale pubs in the country.
And, as a showcase for cask ale, it organised the annual Great British Beer Festival that was held at Alexandra Palace before touring the country and then settling at London Olympia.
The South Herts members were also active on the festival front. In 1974 they staged a Beer Exhibition at the Market Hall behind British Home Stores. Brewers had never experienced such an event before and they donated free beer. A director of Charrington’s Brewery in East London personally delivered beer in his sports car, saying he didn’t want to miss out on this promotion for cask ale.
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When the hall was demolished, the festival moved to a number of venues, including Hemel Hempstead, Potters Bar and Knebworth. In addition, from 1977 to 1980 the branch helped run a beer festival at Hatfield Polytechnic with the enthusiastic support of the students’ union.
In 1996 the festival returned to St Albans. Geoff Harrison and Alan Ross of the local Lions Club helped South Herts branch cut a deal with the Alban Arena to stage the event and it has remained there ever since. It has become one of CAMRA’s leading festivals, attracting around 10,000 people every year with close to 350 real ales from as far away as Scotland. The next festival will be the landmark 25th.
When the local branched was formed only 90 pubs in the whole of Hertfordshire sold real ale. Today 80 per cent of the county’s pubs offer cask beer to drinkers. This success reflects the tireless work of the branch, which now numbers 2,400 members. Since 1976 it has published a newsletter, Pints of View, available free in pubs and with a circulation of 8,750 copies. It holds annual Pub of the Year and Cider Pub of the Year awards and has published 12 editions of the Herts Real Ale Guide with other branches in the county.
Today the campaign has 170,000 members and is a power in the land but its members know they will have redouble their efforts to save pubs when the pandemic and lockdowns are over. Pubs are closing at an alarming rate and without them draught cask beer loses its lifeline. After 50 years, the message is clear: carry on campaigning.