ALE No. 310: 30th Cambridge Beer Festival Programme

[Logo : Birth of Venus in a pearl]

Festivals Past

It all started at the first meeting of the Cambridge & District Branch of CAMRA in November 1973. A certain Peter Pearce mentioned that there had been a disastrous attempt by a local catering firm to run a beer festival as part of the 1973 Cambridge Festival. He went on to suggest that CAMRA could do much better and should tender to run a real ale festival for the 1974 Cambridge Festival.

Everyone agreed with him and the festival was on its way, not that anyone had the first idea of what was involved. There had not been any CAMRA beer festivals before, anywhere (one or two beer exhibitions, rather than festivals, were subsequently organised and actually took place before the Cambridge Festival). We had no experience of negotiating with local councils or the Cambridge Festival organisers, no contacts with breweries, no site, no licence, no idea if sufficient people would volunteer as staff, only the supreme confidence that comes with total ignorance. Others were less confident: the City Council thought we were mad, the Cambridge Festival organisers reckoned we were a financial risk, the brewers didn't believe we could look after their beers...

David Short, landlord of the Queen's Head at Newton and a CAMRA member, agreed to hold the licence for us. He is still the beer festival licensee and the success of all the festivals has depended upon him - although his hair did start to go noticeably grey at about this time. The Cambridge Festival organisers gave their qualified approval, the brewers accepted that we had cellarmen who knew what they were doing and things were under way. At around this stage the organisers discovered that a club in Norwich had been running their own private beer festival for several years, and when contacted were able to provide a lot of helpful advice.

The intention was to provide beers that could be found within 20 miles or so of Cambridge, showing the range of good real ales that were available when most pubs sold only keg or top-pressure beers. The line-up included virtual unknowns such as Adnams, Batemans, Ruddles, Elgoods and Ridleys!!!. The total order added up to something over 600, an amount which appalled everyone! One of the organisers admitted he had ordered six firkins of Ruddles instead of the four agreed, and had to promise to pay for the excess if unsold.

With the beer ordered and only about six weeks to go, all that was needed was a site. The Corn Exchange was offered, and accepted with considerable doubts. "Far too big and too ugly" was one view expressed at the time, and proved to be wrong on both counts.

Everything was ready. Mountains of cheese stood ready to feed the hungry drinkers, if there were any. The reserve stocks of beer were stored in the vaults of Barclays Bank in Bene't Street. The staff were ready - all 18 of them, with two to serve beer at any one time.

The Mayor made a short speech, the doors were opened and all hell broke loose. The hall was full in minutes, reserve staff, friends, relatives and branch members who had turned up as customers were grabbed off the floor and pressed into service behind the bars. Half the beer supply for the whole event went on the first day. Phone lines to breweries glowed red hot, daily forays were made to the nearest breweries, it was found that you could get six firkins in the back of a Maxi, and that Batemans & Elgoods could be reached in half a day. The festival was a success, and it wasn't going to be the last.

The initial formula of good beer and good food clearly worked, the experience gained meant that we were able to improve things over the years, and we're still learning. The festival grew in size, from one bar part of the way down one side of the hall it was extended round the hall with bars on three sides, a single row of casks became two. As the number of pubs selling real ale in Cambridge increased, the emphasis of the festival gradually changed from showing how good local beers could be to exhibiting the great range of different beers that were produced throughout the country. The number of beers steadily increased from the dozen or so in 1974 to around 50 in the early 1980s and 70 or so in recent years.

It seemed that the beer festival would continue in the same way for many years, until in 1982 the whole pattern was wrecked by the decision to close the Corn Exchange for conversion to a concert hall. The proposed date of closure meant that the beer festival had to be held in April that year, severing all links with the Cambridge Festival, of which it had always been part.

As the Corn Exchange was only expected to be closed for 18 months, it was decided not to hold a festival elsewhere in 1983 but to wait for the reopening in 1984. In retrospect this was a mistake. The conversion wasn't complete in 1984 so in that year the beer festival was held in the Guildhall. It was the 10th festival, but called "Not the Tenth" because it wasn't in the true home of the beer festival, the Corn Exchange. The 1985 festival was also held in the Guildhall, but for many reasons the site was unpopular with both staff and customers and alternatives began to be sought.

Something completely different happened at the beginning of 1986: a Winter Ale Festival was held at Coleridge School [although still called the Cambridge Beer Festival]. In spite of bad weather, people walked, biked or hired taxis to get to the site - and thoroughly enjoyed the winter ales, old ales and mulled ales available. The Winter Ale Festival was largely the brainchild of Peter Pearce, who had suggested the original beer festival. Tragically Peter was killed in a climbing accident in 1988, but the beer festivals will remain as a tribute to his ideas.

There were teething troubles but basically it was a success and we always intended to organise similar events. The problem was that work on the main festival was always well under way at the time a Winter Ale Festival would be held, and people don't have the time to organise and work at both summer and winter festivals. What was needed was a separate organising team for the winter ale festivals - this finally appeared to run another Winter Ale Festival in January 1997, this time at Anglia Polytechnic University. This was to be the first of a continuing series of such festivals.

Another innovation was the 1986 Festival, held under canvas on Midsummer Common. Most people have fond memories of this event, and ask why we don't go back there. It was, however, a less happy experience for the staff and organisers, expensive and with many problems, not something we would willingly try again.

1987 saw, at last, the reopening of the Corn Exchange and the beer festival was able to return home. There were losses: the size of the hall had been reduced, so the amount of beer had to be reduced from around 240 kils to about 170 kils, fewer people were allowed in the hall, the light and airiness had been lost, it was much more expensive; but it was still the Corn Exchange and the place the beer festival belonged - or so everyone thought. But all was not well: staff and customers became unhappy with the oppressive feel of the much more enclosed space, and the limited size and capacity of the hall restricted sales which with soaring hire costs made it almost impossible to run a profitable festival.

Unhappiness with the Corn Exchange as a site grew, and so in 1992 a move was made to a new site, under canvas on the Cambridge City Football Club's ground in Milton Road, and a new date - May. There were teething problems, not least the confusion between the City ground and Cambridge United's Abbey Stadium a couple of miles away. These have been overcome and the festival is growing and recovering the glory of the early days.

The early 1980s saw considerable rivalry between the three large regional festivals, Peterborough, Norwich and Cambridge, with each vying for the most beers, the greatest volume of beers, the most customers... Nowadays attitudes are more mature, with the realisation that these are not necessarily the most important aspects of a festival. For the record, although probably none are records, the Cambridge figures are greatest number of beers at a single festival (83), most beer at a single festival (280 kils). The attendance records were at the 1986 Midsummer Common festival but the actual figures are unknown as there was no way of counting people on or off the site. Police estimates were that there were over 6,000 people present at any one time during the Friday evening session, and guestimates are around 35-38,000 for the whole festival.

The first commemorative beer festival glasses appeared in 1976, and the first festival T-shirts in 1977. How many people have complete sets? Special festival draught beers have been brewed on a number of occasions, and in 1986 a commemorative bottled beer was produced.

In 1976 the festival was opened by Clement Freud with the words "I declare this Festival open, and God Bless all who drown in her". A year later, the licensee, David Short, opened the festival, and was served with the first pint by Miss Sheila Hancock, who was appearing in "The Deep Blue Sea" at the Arts Theatre at the time - as well as behind the bar at the beer festival.

People travel from far and wide to come to the beer festival, or work at it, and not only from the length and breadth of this country. It is not unusual to get phone calls from America asking the dates of the beer festival so that people can take their holidays over here to coincide with it. We have even had someone come from the Philippines to work at the festival. More recently, mentions of the festival on the Internet have brought enquiries, and visitors, from around the world.

All sorts of transport have been used to get to the festival. In Cambridge it is not surprising that bikes are used by some of the short distance travellers, from Norwich, Peterborough, Bedford; but people have also cycled from as far as Manchester, and on a tandem from Devon. The least happy cyclist was probably the gentleman at the Midsummer Common festival who rode off in the wrong direction and was still pedalling furiously as he sank in the Cam. Dragging himself out of the river, he hurled his bike onto the bank, muttered that he might as well walk home, and strode off towards Elizabeth Way.

A more normal form of water transport was used by the two lads from Merseyside who travelled down using the inland waterways system. They complained bitterly about the distance to walk from Jesus Green Lock. One year the police asked us to make an announcement asking the owner of the horse to remove it from the front of the Corn Exchange. The young lady finished her beer, retrieved her horse and rode off down Bene't Street into the sunset.

Those who would like music at the festival should have been around when two Swiss students decided to entertain everyone with tunes on an Alpenhorn. The whole building actually shook and the event was probably recorded on seismographs in the University laboratories as a minor earthquake.

Sometimes we have to wonder about customers. On a number of occasions people were found wandering around the Corn Exchange or Guildhall with an empty glass asking plaintively where the beer was. Most years someone turns up on Sunday, surveys the piles of scaffolding, heaps of empty casks, knackered staff and other debris, and politely enquires "Is there a beer festival in here?" (For some reason they are usually American.) Then there was the gentleman who complained that in only stocking T-shirts in sizes up to XXL we weren't catering for the serious drinker.

I have considerable sympathy with the two elderly ladies who one year berated the festival organiser over the provision of straight glasses. In no uncertain terms they pointed out to him that civilised people drank draught beer out of tankards, straight glasses were for bottled beer drinkers, Northerners and lager drinkers. In some contrast were the two punks whose description of Marston's Owd Roger is still quoted in beer festival programmes across the country - "just like coke but it blows your head off".

One year a Cambridge Evening News reporter decided to interview the first customer in the festival. After several attempts he decided to settle for the first person, several places down the queue, who wasn't a CEN employee. The organisers of one of the early festivals enquired of the police as to whether there ought to be a police presence at the festival, they were politely informed that there was - the control room was contacting the Corn Exchange if they needed any CID officers, but they were trying not to interrupt their drinking. Maybe this isn't the place to go into the Police Benevolent Fund saga.

Over the years the festival has produced its share of characters and some memorable people who've worked at it. Sadly some are no longer with us: Peter Pearce who started it all, Dora Miller and Reg Rodaway who were also involved from the beginning and who continued to travel down from Birmingham to work at the festival until they were well into their 70s, Dennis Moore, Terry Storer who always biked over from Norwich to the festival and all too often had his bike stolen, Peter Brinton. Somehow they will always be part of the festival.

Perhaps somewhat incredibly the 30th Cambridge Beer Festival is fast approaching, I wonder if those people who organised the first one back in 1974 realised just what they were starting.

Robert Flood


Footnotes


ALE No. 310: 30th Cambridge Beer Festival Programme
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