That 221 editions had appeared before 1983 reflects the amazing fact that for its first four years from its birth in 1976, ALE came out weekly! Although it comprised just a double- sided A4 sheet, that's quite an achievement and one which commemorates the manic excitement of those early campaigning years. By the time I came along, publication was monthly but the size had grown to eight A4 pages, which still took a lot of filling. We did, admittedly, have more pubs to write about as our Branch area included the territory now covered by Ely Branch plus, sadly, there were many more pubs anyway - by my reckoning, 104 pubs in the current Branch area have closed since 1983, which is nearly a third of the stock.

ALE back then was a resolutely low-tech operation. All the written material was typed in columns, then cut up and pasted onto boards along with any illustrations. Titles and headings were laboriously constructed using letraset (younger readers, ask your parents). The boards were taken to the long-defunct Pembgate Press in Kingston Street and the one-colour printing was in whichever shade of ink they wanted to use up (the lime green edition was especially gruesome)

Some things don't change and then, as now, I ended up writing much of the mag myself - but there was a regular column by Bob Flood, using the name John Bickerdyke Junior (JB himself being the Victorian author of "Curiosities of Ale and Beer", the first ever book about beer). Early on, Nigel Watson contributed the self-explanatory Wat's On In Pubs which sadly didn't last. Nigel got me into trouble over my second edition by submitting a pseudonymous piece called "A Millns-tone Around Our Necks", a scurrilous diatribe against our then-Chairman, Tony Millns. Although Tony had his moments of self- importance, he was altogether a good egg who did a great deal for CAMRA both locally and Beyond (he later became national Chairman) and I should never have published the article. If you read this Tony, sorry!

At this time, only 65% of local pubs sold real ale and I started an occasional feature called the Hit List, where I highlighted the ten pubs I most wanted to convert to cask beer. The first one concentrated on Cambridge and included the likes of the Clarendon, Hopbine, Wrestlers and Baron of Beef, all now top-drawer real ale pubs. A Hit List article today would comprise just a single pub - the Cow in Corn Exchange Street, Cambridge and even that is rumoured to be installing handpumps.

However, the biggest change concerning real ale since 1983 hasn't been its quantity but its quality. Thirty years back, the vast majority of local pubs belonged to Greene King, Tolly Cobbold and Whitbread, none of whom did guest beers. Tolly beers were quite difficult to love, ditto Whitbread and in most GK pubs, the choice was confined to IPA and Abbot. The Salisbury Arms was the only "proper" free house in Cambridge and just a handful existed in the villages. Nowadays, the variety of tasty, distinctive real ales in the area's pubs is almost overwhelming. Cambridge itself may not be able to boast the 256 different beers recently found in a census of Norwich pubs but I reckon that on a per capita basis the city has as good a choice as anywhere. Much of this is, of course, down to the rise of the micro-breweries. The first to arrive in our area, in 1984, was the short- lived in-house plant at the now-closed Ancient Druids near the Grafton Centre. City of Cambridge Brewery came along in 1997, followed a couple of years later by Milton. More recently, Fellows, Lord Conrad's, Devil's Dyke and Black Bar have joined the throng, all producing lovely local ales.

So - local real ale drinkers have never had it so good in many ways, even if there are increasingly few pubs for them to use. The scene in my new home town of Barnsley is considerably less healthy though steadily improving and it's good to know that our new house is an easy walk from Acorn Brewery's superb Old No.7 pub. My best wishes both to Will, my successor as ALE editor, and to all you real ale drinkers out there - please carry on supporting cask beer and local pubs.


Paul Ainsworth