Suffolk Branch of CAMRA
Early Beginnings

By Rob Walters, Founder Chairman

Some time in 2007 my friend Mervyn Lamacraft in Suffolk sent me a copy of the local CAMRA magazine. He sent it because it had an article on the early days of CAMRA in Suffolk, sort of commemorating its 33 and third year anniversary. We were both there at the time so I knocked up the following and sent it to the branch. Not sure whether it appeared in the mag, but here it is, as I wrote it.

I can remember the very day that the branch was born. I had read something about the formation of the campaign in a paper called Labour Weekly (guess my affiliation at the time!) The article related the goals of CAMRA and the fact that it was soon to hold it’s first AGM. At that time I had two serious drinking friends: Mike and Jim. We all liked Tolly bitter but faced with the growing use of carbon dioxide pressure in pub after pub we had all found some technique for getting rid of the stuff. I twirled my glass around rapidly to release some of the gas, Mike demanded a cocktail stirrer and twirled that around in his pint and Jim, very cleverly, ordered an extra glass and poured his beer from one glass to another. But we all knew that this was not the solution. We wanted the real stuff back, real ale from the handpump or direct from the barrel – and CAMRA offered a way of getting that.

So Mike Bennett and I set off by train from Ipswich to London, I had called Labour Weekly and they told me that the AGM was at the Press Club and specified its start time. Part the way through the journey we realised that we were travelling on a presumption. I had not checked that the meeting was to be in the Press Club, London. It could have been in any city in the land! Fortunately it was in London – phew.

It was not a big affair – I reckon that there were fifty or so of us present. We just happened to sit next to a chap from Ipswich – the only other person from Suffolk. His name was Ron Booth and he worked for the local paper, the East Anglian Times, as a sub editor.

The meeting was great, good campaigning stuff together with some much-needed information about the topic that was so close to hearts and stomachs – real ale. We knew so little in those days, just that we liked the stuff, that keg was awful and that pressurisation made the real stuff taste like keg. Enthused and thirsty we went off to the Marquess of Anglesey to check that we really did like our ale real and then, in our cups, the three of us vowed to start a branch of CAMRA in Suffolk. Ron left early and Mike and I continued to check the ale and then missed the last train home and so had to stay in London.

Our vows to start a branch could so easily have been forgotten in the sober light of the following days, but they weren’t. With the zeal of people robbed of a decent pint we set up our inaugural meeting at the Rose and Crown in the Norwich Road – one of the best Adnams pubs in Ipswich at that time - and the branch began.

Mike and I worked for BT in those days and consequently the core membership was initially from there and the East Anglian Daily Times - but it soon spread with early members such as Keith Froom, a solicitor and Graham Hudson, a teacher. We also had good support from a group of students from Essex University who joined us because there was no Essex branch at that time. Soon we were having protest meeting with Tolly Cobbold. The chief brewer at the time told me that the ‘product’ (i.e. beer) was best delivered to the consumer (i.e. the drinker) via gas pressure to ensure consistent ‘quality’ (i.e. it didn’t go off as quickly). Patrick Cobbold then took us to the Pin Mill, plied us with drinks and fed us on jugged hare. This little bit of appeasement didn’t work, we still wanted our beer back. And of course we won. Through publicity, protests, letters to the press, beer walks and regular trips to outlying pubs that kept the faith we, as part of the national group, managed to reverse a sad and pernicious trend. And we proved that consumer power can work.

I am still a member of CAMRA, though not an active one. I am better at campaigning for lost causes than maintaining a victory. I have lost touch with Ron Booth but recognise the essential role that he played in the early days of the branch – we had excellent press coverage due predominantly to his connections. Mike Bennett sadly died a few years ago. We used to meet at the Oxford Beer Festival every year and I miss him.

Oxford is my home city now, I am a tour guide here (yes, I do lead pub tours) and an author. I look back at those early days of CAMRA with a sense of pride and pleasure. As chairman one of my roles was to ensure that we did not become an Adnams appreciation society – Greene King and Tolly Cobbold were the real enemy then. Nowadays I feel that the main problems lie in the changing nature of pubs and increasing government legislation and corporate gerrymandering that diminishes their essential independence. Of course maintaining the variety and quality of real ale is still essential, but I am saddened by the decline in good pubs with both character and characters in the Oxford area. The turnover of licensees is ridiculously high and many good pubs have closed in the decade that I have lived here. We have also lost the only remaining brewery of any size (Morrells) and the neighbouring Morlands.

Enough of the moaning. Well done for keeping the branch going so successfully for 33 years, good luck for the future and hello to any of the people that were around when we started the thing.

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