Wednesday, 17 May 2017

CAMRA Members Weekends - a few reflections

Last month saw CAMRA holding its Member’s Weekend and Annual General Meeting. The event took place at Bournemouth, on the sunny south coast, and a few days by the sea would have been very nice and most agreable. Given  the resort’s relative proximity to where I live, I had little in the way of excuses for not turning up. I could even have gone there for the day had I so desired.

However, a number of things kept me away, not least of which was a growing disillusionment with CAMRA; certainly at national level. The much vaunted “Revitalisation Campaign” seems to have run out of steam, and there are various other shenanigans going on behind the scenes, which all point to a lack of direction within the organisation.

In the end I decided that attending the AGM would not be the best use of my time, but I have been to several of these events in the past and thoroughly enjoyed them. So as I’m feeling in a slightly reflective mood, I thought  I’d take a look back at some of  those past AGM’s and share some of my recollections of them.
According to my calculations, I have been to six Annual General Meetings of the Campaign for Real Ale, (they weren’t called Member’s Weekends in the early days). Four were back in the early 1980’s, and the other two were in much more recent times; the Isle of Man in 2010 and Norwich in 2013. What happened in the intervening period equates to a large chunk of my middle years, during which I changed partners, became a father, raised a family, had several changes of job and ran my own off-licence business.

Obviously, much else changed as well during this period; both within CAMRA and with the beer, brewing and pub scene in general. Recounting these various changes, is beyond the scope of this post, but it is worth noting that I too changed and the rather earnest twenty-something who went along to those early meetings, and listened intently to all the debates, has been replaced by a rather more cynical and laissez-faire individual, with a slightly world-weary approach to the whole thing.

Durham, in 1981, was the venue for my first CAMRA AGM, and I remember travelling up by train, with three CAMRA colleagues from Maidstone, where I was living at the time. The city’s university was hosting the meeting, with the conference debates taking place in one of the lecture halls. We had lodgings, of sorts, in the halls of residence.

The highlight of the weekend, was looking round Durham’s impressive and imposing cathedral, but we also managed to find a number of decent pubs. The beer choice was far from impressive in those days, and was limited to brews from Bass, McEwan’s, Vaux and Whitbread (Castle Eden), but we still had a good time, and for me it was good to meet and socialise with members from up and down the country.

The following year, it was Bradford’s turn to host the event. I attended with two of the colleagues who’d attended the previous year, but this time we were accompanied by our respective wives. There’s not a lot I remember from that particular AGM, apart from travelling out by bus to Keighley on the Saturday evening.

There we meet up with the girls who had spent the day in nearby Howarth, whilst us “more dedicated” men-folk were stuck in the debating hall. We visited several excellent Timothy Taylor’s pubs that evening, where Golden Best and Best Bitter ruled the roost; with not a drop of Landlord in sight.

1983 brought the AGM closer to home, with the event taking place at Reading University. My then wife and I travelled in convoy with a group of slightly younger, local branch members from Maidstone. We stopped for lunch at the Crooked Billet, a Brakspear’s pub in a woodland location,  up in the hills close to Wokingham, before carrying on into Reading itself.

There’s not a lot I can recall from that particular AGM either, apart from the memorable evening we spent at another Crooked Billet; this one a wonderfully unspoilt, rural alehouse, in the tiny hamlet of Stoke Row. Entering this basic, country pub was like stepping back in time. There was no bar as such, just a simple serving hatch in the door of the ground floor cellar. The excellent Brakspear’s beer was served straight from casks, stillaged in full view of customers. I understand the Crooked Billet has now become a restaurant; its new owner having rescued it from a state of almost total disrepair.

Conference venue IOM 2010
The AGM moved north of the border in 1984, for its first incursion into Scotland. Edinburgh’s  grandiose McEwan Hall was the setting for the conference, whilst a few friends and I, again from Maidstone, stayed in a guest house. I think that was my third visit to the Scottish capital, but I wasn’t really in the right frame of mind to appreciate all that Edinburgh had to offer, or to get into the spirit of the AGM. My marriage was on the rocks, and whilst I tried putting on a brave face, I was hurting quite badly inside, and shouldn’t really have been there. Consequently my memories of both the conference, and the city’s pubs, are rather sketchy.

A year later, I had got divorced and then re-married. My new wife, the present Mrs Bailey, wasn’t particularly into either beer or pubs, although to her credit, she did persuade me to become more engaged with CAMRA again, after a period of non-involvement.

It was to be a quarter of a century, before I next attended a CAMRA AGM, and by 2010, the event had been re-badged as the Members’ Weekend. Douglas, Isle of Man, was the venue for that particular AGM, but it’s also remembered as the weekend of the Icelandic volcano; the one with the unpronounceable name!

I was oblivious to what had been going on in the outside world, as I had arrived on the island late on Thursday evening. It was only after breakfast the following morning, when I phoned my wife, that I learned that European airspace had been closed because of the enormous ash cloud from the volcano, and that all flights had been grounded.

I was due to meet up with a couple of friends from my own branch, alter that morning, and also with a group from Maidstone CAMRA. My friends had flown over the day before, and the Maidstone contingent had, like me, travelled over by ferry. It seemed that most of the delegates had also arrived the same day, so the conference went ahead almost as though nothing had happened.

Getting back was fun; I was OK as I’d booked a return ticket, but the Sea-Cat back to Liverpool was much more crowded than it would have otherwise been, and I’m sure the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company really cleaned up that weekend. As for the AGM itself, well I enjoyed the beer exhibition and the excursions to Castletown and Port Erin in the south, and to Peel and Ramsey in the north. The pubs we visited at these destinations and points in between, were also good, although I must confess I grew a little tired of Okells’ beer. As for the IOM, well I’m glad I went, but it’s  not somewhere which features high on my list of places to return to, (sorry all you Manx people out there).

Somewhere I am always pleased to return to is Norwich; the host city for the 2013 Member’s Weekend. There were no transport problems this time, but I had arrived a day early in the city, as I had planned to visit my parents. As it happened, they were both ill at the time and asked me not to pop over, so instead I spent the day exploring Norwich and its many pubs on my own, before meeting up with friends from Maidstone CAMRA in the evening.

That meeting took place at the wonderful Fat Cat, which was bursting at the seams with AGM attendees. We adjourned later for a curry, before heading back into the city centre for yet more beer in the Golden Star. This was my last Member’s Weekend, and I can safely say that the social side was by far the best part of the event.

I would go further and say that the activities which take place outside of the conference hall are definitely the highlight of an AGM. The local branch whose job it is to host the event, will normally organise a beer exhibition, highlighting the best beers the area has to offer, and there will be various brewery visits taking place s well, over the course of the weekend.

Some people go along purely for the socialising and the pubs; as I discovered at this particular Member’s Weekend. It was Saturday morning and the first full day of the conference proper. I was walking up into the city, from the boarding house I was staying in, when I bumped into a couple from another Kent CAMRA branch. I won’t embarrass them by revealing their names, although they’re quite well known within CAMRA circles, but as we continued towards St Andrew’s Hall, where the conference was taking place, the couple suddenly turned and said goodbye.

“You’re not coming to the AGM then?” I asked, somewhat puzzled. They laughed, and both replied with a firm “No”. As one of them pointed out, “Who wants to spend a beautiful spring day, shut up in a stuffy hall, listening to a load of waffle and hot air?” They told me they were off  to explore Norwich and sample its many delights. They would, of course, be taking in the odd pub or two along the way. They wished me a pleasant day, and sauntered off in the direction of the city’s castle.

Slightly taken aback, I wished them the same, before hurrying on towards the conference hall. As I sat in the coolness of the historic surroundings, listening to the various debates, and occasionally raising my hand when there was a vote on a particular motion, I found myself thinking of this couple from the opposite end of Kent, and wishing I had done the same.

I later found out that this husband and wife team, who were regular attendees at Members’ Weekends, never went along to the actual conference; preferring instead to make the most of their time in a different part of the country. And who could blame them?

The conference adjourned for lunch, and I went along to the beer exhibition, where I bumped into several people I knew. I also enjoyed a couple of cheese rolls and several pints of local ale. We went outside into a courtyard area behind the hall. The sun was still shining and there and then I made up my mind that I would not be returning for the conference’s afternoon session. Instead I made my way out of the hall complex, and back into the real world, away from some of the  more crass and pointless motions being debated.

It was very pleasant, walking around in the mid-April sunshine, and I had a wander around the centre of Norwich. I didn’t call in at any pubs, because not only had I drank plenty at lunchtime, but I was also booked on a tour of Woodforde’s Brewery, that evening, and the coach was due to pick up outside the conference venue, shortly after  5pm.

The tour of Woodforde’s was very good, and the visit included a meal at the brewery tap next door. The Fur and Feather is an excellent pub which my wife and I had been to on a couple of previous trips up to Norfolk. As well as good food, it serves a wide range of beers from the adjacent brewery, all served by gravity, direct from the cask.

So there we have it; my own experiences of CAMRA Member’s Weekends and AGM’s, looking back over a thirty year period. If I wanted to summarise them I would say they offer an excellent opportunity to visit and explore some different parts of the country, and to meet up with members from all over the UK. You may find the debates intriguing, or more likely they will bore the socks off you, but if you are a member, and haven’t been, then why not give one a go? Who knows, you might even bump into yours truly, should I have a change of heart and decide to show my face!


Anonymous said...

Well you certainly supported pubs, rather than a members bar, on those trips Paul !
That's the way it should be. I was at Isle of Man, but didn't last very long. I wasn't built for meetings.

Paul Bailey said...

Exploring the pubs in each locality was definitely the highlight of each Members' Weekend, as far as I was concerned, Martin.

The Members Bars were usually far too crowded, and lacking in atmosphere. I also have a feeling that they weren't a feature of those early AGMs although, as we are talking three decades ago, I am not 100% certain of this.

Anonymous said...

I remember the Crooked Billet at Stoke Row from those times and was often taken there in my late teens by older work colleagues. It was run by an old boy called Nobby and as you mentioned it had no bar just two rooms. If drinking outside in the summer you risked attack by the geese which roamed the garden