Discovering that he could at last ‘be himself’ behind the bar, he had great fun, and soon concluded that he had found his vocation – one year later he packed in the day job and, along with his first wife, started working full time at the pub, running a ‘progressive rock disco’ in the cellar bar at the hotel, known as The Hold. (The sign now hangs on the wall of the Waggon & Horses.) Six months later he declined an offer of a pub of his own from Hall & Woodhouse because he was enjoying being just a barman, but 12 months after that he was offered, via a customer, managership of the Barn Club, a night club housed in a 14th-century thatched barn attached to the Crown Inn, Pishill, near Henley on Thames. Here he stayed for 18 months, living on the premises in accommodation that would struggle to be called even basic. And it was in a nearby Brakespeares pub (the Three Horseshoes, Maidenstone) that he bought a copy of the very first edition of the Good Beer Guide (which he still has – it’s a very interesting historical document!). With that, the seeds of interest in real ale and CAMRA were planted, although it would be a further couple of years before they took proper hold. He left the Barn Club when his former boss, John Fisher, asked him to return to the Londesborough Hotel as assistant manager, a role which Nick describes as being ‘chief cook and bottle washer’. It was a valuable introduction to all those other aspects of the licensed trade, beyond serving beer and keeping customers happy, and Nick learnt a lot as a result. John Fisher then left to take on a tenancy in Dorset, and Nick didn’t get on with the new manager, so he found his way to the Royal Oak in Dorchester, which he managed for the tenant. It was here that he had his first proper introduction to real ale, when Dorset brewer Eldridge Pope launched Royal Oak in the pub. Up till then all beers had been keg or served under pressure, but as a result of this epiphany Nick managed to persuade the powers that be to invest in a handpump.
Here, too, began his active involvement in CAMRA, thanks to a deputation comprising Joe Goodwin and Paul Whitehead about forming a South West Dorset branch. As a result he became a founder member. And the pub found its way into the next edition of the Good Beer Guide. The breakup of his first marriage led to Nick leaving the Royal Oak, and he went through a nomadic period, working briefly in a succession of establishments on the south coast: back again with John Fisher at the Drax Arms, Spetisbury (GBG); then a short spell as manager of the Roundhouse, Bournemouth, followed by the Portland Railway, Weymouth (GBG), before being offered the managership of Winston’s Bar, Weatherbury Hotel (GBG), also in Weymouth. Here he formed RALF – the Real Ale Liberation Front. A year later he was on the move again when the owner of the hotel sold up. Luckily for Nick, Devonish Brewery had his name down and he was offered his first licence of his very own: the Royal Adelaide, Weymouth. This was a cider house worthy of the name, turning over more than 200 gallons a week of Taunton rough cider. ‘Boy was it a rough house,’ Nick recalls. ‘What an experience!’
After around 18 months of this experience, Nick responded to an advert by CAMRA Investments for a manager for The Old Fox, Bristol, but was unsuccessful. However, a few months later he got a straight offer for the Village Blacksmith, Woolwich (GBG), which he ‘leapt at’. Here he had a completely free hand: a genuine freehouse with 15 handpumps! Even today that is an impressive number, but back in 1979/80 it was almost unheard of. Regular beers included Simon’s Tower Bridge Bitter, Godson’s Black Horse Bitter and Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter. Such was Nick’s success at the Village Blacksmith that two years later, in 1982, he was offered the Alma Brewery in Cambridge, then a CAMRA Investments pub, and soon got it promoted to the Good Beer Guide – despite the reputation of Tolly beers at the time. (And it was here, a couple of years later, that I first encountered Nick, and he has been a significant figure in my Cambridge pub-going ever since.) A second marriage breakup in the late 1980s sent Nick, now with Mandy, on his travels again, this time for an unhappy six months in Clacton on Sea. But his feelers were out and when Banks & Taylor offered him the Cambridge Blue, he and Mandy returned to Cambridge. Here he enjoyed a very happy ten years (during which time his son, Sam, was born in 1991), under both Banks & Taylor and later Nethergate, establishing it as a regular in the Good Beer Guide, as well as Branch Pub of the Year in 1995 – the same year that he and Mandy got married. He managed to chalk up 500 different beers in 4 years, and 1000 in 9 – that may not sound impressive by today’s standards, but back then the freedom of even a single guest handpump (which was all the licence he enjoyed) was a rarity, there weren’t anywhere near as many brewers to source beers from, and those that there were didn’t produce anything like the wide range, number of seasonal specials and one-offs that they do now, so it was a remarkable achievement for its day. When his lease came up for renewal, Nick found the proposed new terms unacceptable and he faced another period of uncertainly. But by happy coincidence, Wisbech-based brewer Elgoods, looking to expand into the south of Cambridgeshire, were buying the Waggon & Horses, Milton, and needed a tenant. And he and Mandy have been there ever since, securing its place in the Good Beer Guide. It was voted both Branch and County Pub of the Year in 2007. And as if all that weren’t enough, he has also done a couple of stints as Branch Chairman and was both licensee and beer-orderer for the Cambridge Winter Ale Festival for several years. Oh, and stood as candidate for the Monster Raving Loony Party in the 1992 General Election.
So with a track record such as that, with so many Good Beer Guide-listed pubs to his name, it’s hard to think of a more deserving recipient of our Real Ale Champion Award.