A Brief History

... of CAMRA Beer Festivals held in Chelmsford

Since July 1977 when the branch held its first real ale festival we have now held 35 Summer and 14 Winter Beer Festivals.

The first festival was held in the function room behind the Lion and Lamb ('the Animals') later to become Dukes. The following year, for one year only, it was held at the Chancellor Hall and was known as the CAMRA Essex Beer Exhibition when 34 beers from 16 breweries were on sale. In 1979 it returned to the Lion and Lamb for the last time.

There was no festival in 1980 when we were unable to find a suitable venue, so the next festival was in 1981 in the Students Union Bar at the Anglia Polytechnic College (later to become the APU). Again in 1982 there was no festival as we were unable to obtain a licence because the police and a few antagonist landlords objected. Fortunately these objections were overcome so that we were able to again hold a festival the following year, 1983, when 55 beers from 26 breweries, but no ciders, were on sale. Since then the festival had taken place on an annual basis and remained at the APU up to and including 2005.

Although some snacks including locally made real ale sausages were available in the Student Union Bar, it was when we moved the festival to the larger sports hall on the ground floor that the burger and hot dog concession which also sold home made curries was introduced. This was accompanied by the now famous Podge's pickled eggs and even a cheese stall.

It was at that time that cider and foreign beers were first sold at the festival. It was when the Summer Festival outgrew the Students Union Bar in 2000 that the Branch held its first Winter Beer Festival in that venue.

Both festivals continued to gain in popularity to such an extent that for one year the Branch experimented by making the winter beer festival ticket only, which, perhaps due to a lack of publicity, was not a success. We were fortunate that with the summer festival there was ample space for people to stand or sit on the grass outside, and we were even more fortunate that for the latter years when the summer festival was in the sports hall, the weather, especially on the Friday night, was good as there would have been little chance of accommodating all the customers in the sports hall in the event of a thunderstorm.

With rumours of the imminent closure of the APU in the town centre on it being relocated to the Bishops Hall Lane area (the old Hoffman's factory site), in 2004/5 the branch looked for other suitable venues in Chelmsford town centre. However as no such venue was considered suitable, bearing in mind how popular the summer festival had become, as in the case of Peterborough and Cambridge, the Branch decide to take a quantum leap and organise an outdoor summer festival in a marquee within easy proximity of Chelmsford town centre.

In this respect, as it was not being used in the summer, we were fortunate in managing to hire the football ground adjacent to Moulsham Mill, by the Army & Navy roundabout. So in 2006 a dedicated team of volunteers set about the daunting task of planning our first outdoor summer festival. We were very fortunate in having members who had been closely involved in the organisation, set up and operation of Chelmsford's Cathedral Festival as well as a number of large scouting events including the European Scout Jamboree in Hyland's Park and they were more than willing to volunteer and organise this aspect of the festival. Also as we now had more space, we could stock beer from more breweries and for the first time sold more than 300 different brands of beer. We also had a dedicated cider bar and for the first time we asked a brewery (Woodforde's) if they would like to run a bar at the festival as well as a local vineyard (Felstar) for the sale of some locally produced wines.

However, our biggest success, apart from getting the summer festival up and running, was the idea of the family fun day on the Saturday afternoon, when we had a bouncy castle, an inflatable slide, face painting and an ice cream van for the children. We were also extremely fortunate that that year the sun shone for the entire festival and it was a delight to see whole groups of families having picnics and enjoying the wide selection of beverages on offer whilst their children ate ice creams or drank the free soft drinks. Although it was very hard work for the volunteers with long hours, the festival was a resounding success, and as a result of this all our subsequent summer festivals have been outdoor events in a marquee.

As a result of the possible redevelopment of the area surrounding the Army & Navy, and because we felt the summer festival could again run out of space, after unsuccessful negotiations with the local authority to relocate the festival to Central Park in Chelmsford, in 2008 we relocated to its present location in Admiral's Park. With the gift of hind-sight we now feel this is a better location than would have been the case had the festival been held in Central Park.