I attended a rather special reunion on the last Friday in September, when I went along to the 40th Anniversary celebration of the Maidstone & Mid-Kent Branch of CAMRA. Although not a founder member, (I was still at university back in 1975), I joined the branch in late 1978, after moving to the county town following the purchase of my first property.
Despite having been a CAMRA member since 1974, this was the first time I had joined up with the local branch in the area I was living. MMK branch made me feel welcome, and I soon began to play an active role within the organisation, which culminated in me joining the branch committee. As well as assisting with local beer festivals, I also helped deliver the branch newsletter, “Draught Copy”, around local pubs. Eventually I would go on to edit it!
Things changed in late 1984 when I moved to Tonbridge; some 17 miles south-west of Maidstone, and said goodbye to the many good friends I had made during my stay in the town. Despite not wishing to become too involved with another CAMRA branch at the time, I was persuaded to help kick-start the then moribund Tonbridge & Tunbridge Wells Branch (now known as West Kent CAMRA) back into life. It was rather ironic then that just a few months after the latter branch celebrated 30 years since its reformation, I should receive an invite from an old friend at MMK to attend their 40th birthday celebration.
The event took place at the Dog & Gun; a Shepherd Neame pub which is just a short hop from Maidstone’s rather grim-looking Victorian prison. Even more ironic was the fact that when I lived in the town the Dog & Gun was my old local, being just five minutes walk away from my house. Friday was therefore a double reunion, as I don’t think I had been back to the pub since moving away from Maidstone.
I caught the train over from Tonbridge and arrived at the Dog & Gun shortly before 7pm. Like many pubs it had changed in the intervening 30 years, with the former public and saloon bars now knocked through into one. They hadn’t made a bad job of it, and there was a good choice of beer on the bar. All Shep’s of course, which isn’t my favourite, but the Whitstable Bay Organic Pale was in good form, as was the company’s No.18 Yard Green Hop Ale; a very quaffable 4.5% ABV Golden Ale. To make things even better, the first pint was on the house!
I soon noticed a few familiar faces; most with hair either greyer, or non-existent, but with one or two exceptions I was able to put names to most of those present. It was particularly good to meet up again with Richard and his wife Gill and with Dave and Jan. Dave was chairman when I first joined the branch, but moved down to Hampshire to run a pub in Andover, on behalf of Bourne Valley Brewery; one of the pioneering first new wave of micro-breweries. Following Dave’s departure Richard had taken over the reins of chairman.
I also met up with friends whom I have kept in touch with over the past three decades, and it was good to see them all again. Dave and Jan had brought a large display of old photos, press-clippings, newsletters and other memorabilia. The pub had laid on an impressive buffet; something I was particularly glad of as I had rushed over straight from work without having time for anything to eat. Something solid to soak up the beer was therefore especially welcome.
I chatted with numerous people that night, swapping stories and bringing ourselves up to date with what had happened in our respective lives over the years. One story which is worth repeating is that the night Maidstone CAMRA branch was formed literally went with a bang; for about half a mile down the road, on the other side of the prison, the Provisional IRA exploded a bomb outside the Hare & Hounds pub. This was at the height of the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign; the pub being targeted because it was popular with soldiers from the nearby barracks. Fortunately no-one was seriously hurt, and despite extensive damage the Hare & Hounds was eventually rebuilt. Those present at the inaugural meeting though, certainly heard, and felt, the explosion!
The other thing worth noting was the dearth of real ale pubs in Maidstone back in 1975. The real thing was only available in the town’s nine Shepherd Neame pubs, plus the odd Courage and Whitbread-Fremlins house. By the time I moved to Maidstone, the latter company, which had both roots and their former brewery in the town, had embraced cask ale in a big way, bringing back the Fremlins name for their excellent Trophy D bitter, and launching a new stronger beer called Tusker; named after Fremlins famous elephant trademark.
These improvements were thanks in no small part to the campaigning work put in both locally and nationally by CAMRA, and not long after I joined the branch a guide to all the Real Ale pubs in the local area had been published by MMK.
I left the Dog & Gun around 10.30pm and made my way back to the station; arriving in time to catch the last direct train back to Tonbridge. It had been an excellent evening, but not completely devoted to nostalgia. MMK branch has gone from strength to strength over the past four decades and is now one of the most successful of the Kent branches. I am proud to have played a part, albeit a small one, in that success.
I waited a couple of months before publishing the post, as I was expecting to see some photos of the evening’s celebrations. None seem to have appeared, and unfortunately I didn’t take any of my own. If any do surface, I will add them above.