Sunday, 4 December 2016

A good start to December

It’s been a hectic and rather beer-fuelled start to December, with the British Guild of Beer Writers Annual Awards Dinner taking place on Thursday evening in the glitzy Art Deco opulence of the Park Lane Hotel in London’s Mayfair; whilst in complete contrast, the Annual General Meeting of West Kent CAMRA took place on Saturday afternoon in the rather more modest setting of the Tunbridge Wells Constitutional Club.

The former was my first BGBW awards dinner and I enjoyed it very much; but of more interest to readers is Saturday’s event, especially as the future of my local CAMRA branch hung in the balance.

It’s a few years now since I stepped down from the West Kent committee, but I still play a reasonably active roll within the branch. Like other ordinary members who received the invitation to the AGM, sent out a few weeks ago, I was acutely aware that for health reasons, branch chairman Iain, would be standing down. I also knew from conversations I’d had, several weeks ago, that my friend Don would also be standing down from his position as branch social secretary. With no obvious candidates to fill either role, here was a real possibility that the branch could be left rudderless and in danger of being unable to fulfil its responsibly as part of the Campaign for Real Ale.

It was therefore with a slightly heavy heart that I caught the train over to Tunbridge Wells, just after 1pm on Saturday, and made my way along to the Constitutional Club. I walked up through Calverley Grounds, stopping to take a few photos of the ice rink, whose appearance each year at the end of November heralds the start of Christmas in Tunbridge Wells.

This year is the fifth time in a row that the Constitutional Club has hosted our AGM. The club is housed in what must once have been a large private house and the Doric columns at the entrance, help give it the appearance of a stately home. The interior is well appointed with two large lounges, a snooker hall in the basement plus a number of function rooms upstairs. It was in one of these rooms that the meeting took place.

Before going on to describe what took place, mention should be made of the beer. The club stocks renowned local favourite Harvey’s Sussex Best as its regular cask ale, with up to three other changing guests. Saturday’s line-up featured Greedy Goose 4.2% from Hook Norton, Mandarina 4.5% from Kent Brewery and Natural Privileges a 5.2% Porter from Pig & Porter. I tried all three over the course of the afternoon, and can confirm that all were good.

And so to the meeting; there are 620 members on our books, but only 16 of them could be bothered to turn up! Most were people known to us, but it was good to see a couple of new faces in the room. Despite the poor attendance, the outgoing chairman was able to report on a highly successful year for the branch; the highlight being the beer festival we run in association with the Spa Valley Railway.

There were some quite lengthy reports from our Publicity and Campaigns Officers, detailing the excellent work these two individuals perform on behalf of the branch. The Social Secretary’s report highlighted the thoughtful approach taken by the departing incumbent, in trying to reach out to as many pubs as possible and to provide an interesting and varied programme of social events and activities designed to offer something for everyone. The report concluded that despite all the effort and careful planning which had gone into setting out the year’s programme of events; for, as in previous years, the attendance at many of these socials was disappointing, with few members, apart from those on the committee attending. This remains an ongoing problem for the branch and with no obvious answers of how to turn it round.

I have been involved with West Kent CAMRA for the past 30 years, in one capacity or another, and unfortunately the issue of poor attendance has been evident right from those early days. A comment from one member present on Saturday, that weekday evening socials were awkward for him, shed some light on one possible cause. His reasoning that by the time he gets home from work in the evening has his evening meal and spends a bit of time catching up with the family, the last thing he feels like doing is going back out again, especially if it involves a train journey to get to a particular pub.

I empathise completely with him, as I also have felt the same way, especially on a cold winter’s night. Basically there is no easy answer, but the meeting did agree to adopt a more flexible approach to socials, by notifying members of up and coming events, such as “tap-takeovers”, “meet the brewer evenings” etc, by means of social media, rather than relying solely on activities being advertised in “What’s Brewing”. The 21st Century demands a 21st Century approach, rather than a 19th Century one where printed notices appearing each month in the Campaign newspaper!

When it came to the election of branch officers, it was to the relief of everyone that a volunteer did step forward for the position of chairman. He is someone known to the committee as well as to some ordinary members like me. I know he will perform well in this role and will contribute much to the branch. As for the role of social secretary, it was agreed that this role be handled by a new member, who was elected to the committee, with input from other branch officials.

We adjourned for a beer break, and also to take advantage of the buffet laid on for us by the club. This was followed by nominations for the 2018 Good Beer Guide. This I an area I haven’t been involved with for a number of years, but seeing as I’d just grabbed a pint, I sat in on the meeting and even agreed to survey a pub – I must be going soft in my old age!

So the branch survives for another year, but without the influx of some younger active members this is surely nothing more than a stay of execution. I know there are other CAMRA branches in a similar predicament, who are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. It will be interesting to see what CAMRA’s Revitalisation Project comes up with, but the chances this already delayed project  will recommend more of the same. I hate to say it, but CAMRA has long since ceased to be a young persons’ organisation, and unless it attracts new blood it will wither and die.

After the meeting ended, several of us decided that more beer was in order (as if we hadn’t drank enough!). Seven of us adjourned to the George, at the top end of the town. The temperature was already falling, but a brisk walk back into the centre and then through the main shopping area, brought us to this fine old former coaching inn, which reopened back in the spring after years in the doldrums and an undeserved fate as a dodgy night-club. The new owners also run the Sussex Arms and the Ragged Trousers in the Pantiles area of the town. The George offers half-dozen or so cask ales, plus a range of “craft kegs”, all sourced from small independent brewers. I kicked off with a pint of Indian Brown 4.9% from Cornwall’s Harbour Brewing Company, followed by a pint of Larkin’s wonderful 5.2% Porter.

There was a really nice ambiance about the George that evening, helped by the welcoming warmth from the log-burner, and the way in which the pub has been divided up into several different areas. There was some good 70’s rock music emanating from the speakers, but played at a sensible volume which allowed conversation to take place at a comfortable level without the need to shout, or even raise one’s voice. It is good to see this lovely old pub restored to its former glory. I wouldn’t say it was heaving, but given its location on the edge of the common it was comfortably busy, with a good mixed crowd in the bar.

Four of those present decided to head back down to Fuggles, but the rest of us stayed put, content with the fact we were comfortable, with somewhere to sit and plenty of good beer to enjoy. Rather foolishly I rounded off the evening with a half of Zozoma Strong IPA 6.5%, from Gun Brewery. It was rather nice though! 

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retiredmartin said...

Firstly, lovely piece with the sort of detail I enjoy reading ! Your capacity is clearly not diminishing with age !

Good to hear West Kent have a Chairman and enough interest to keep going. I clearly have a particular interest in small branches being active enough to pick pubs for the Beer Guide, which I reckon is a key part of the Campaign. Beer Fests seem to me to be a side issue with so many beers available in most branches.

I have a family meal at the Imperial in Southborough this Sunday; no doubt I'll report on that in detail too.

Paul Bailey said...

Hi Martin, glad you enjoyed my post about last Saturday’s events..

I was obviously pleased that West Kent elected a new chairman on Saturday. Having put 30 years effort into the branch, I would have hated to see it fold; not that I think there was ever a serious danger of that happening. Our vice-chairman would have stepped into the breach, and we also had the area organiser for the western half of the county present at the meeting. He is a former West Kent chairman, and he told me after the meeting that he could have put arrangements in place to ensure the branch fulfilled its obligations to the Campaign; specifically with regard to the Good Beer Guide.

I too am certain that as there were enough people present, nominations, surveying and selection of pubs for the guide, would have continued as normal. With regard to Beer Festivals, it is worth noting that as well as generating significant amounts of revenue for CAMRA, they also act as an important recruiting ground for new members.

From the branch’s point of view they provide a focus point for members to become actively involved, and at this year’s Spa Valley event, we were well supported by branch members, who provided vital support in all areas of the festival. Although I moaned about the poor AGM attendance in my post, it is heartening to know that members did turn out in much larger numbers to offer their support where it really mattered.

Enjoy your meal at the Imperial on Sunday. I’m sure you are aware it is now one of the few remaining pubs in Southborough. We are heading over to the Brecknock Arms (a stone’s throw from Frant station) on Sunday, for our branch Christmas meal. Harvey’s Old and Christmas Ale, plus a heavy meal, should see us all nicely comatose for the rest of the day. Good job it only comes once a year!

RedNev said...

Don't know about you but I'm getting rather weary with CAMRA's Revitalisation Project. It seems to be never-ending, or self-perpetuating perhaps? Like you, I doubt it will come up with anything startlingly different, although I suppose that renewing our existing approach will neutralise some criticisms about CAMRA fighting campaigns determined decades ago.

Paul Bailey said...

The “Revitalisation Project” does seem rather self-perpetuating. I’m getting the impression that it’s become bogged down. It would be interesting to learn what the level of response has been from the membership, although I appreciate the work the team have put in by trying to engage as much of CAMRA’s 175,000 members as possible.