Cambridge Pubs – Regal

A Wetherspoon by day, on the evenings of Wednesday, Friday and Saturday it loudly announces “Tonight Matthew I’m going to be a Lloyd’s No.1 Bar”, a cue for bouncers, police and paramedics to set up temporary camp on the pavement outside. I’ve only ever been inside during daylight hours, when there are plenty of families dining and groups of old men drawn here by affordable beer (£2.19 for GK IPA, £2.79 for John Smiths), but I’ve walked past (on the opposite side of the road of course) and witnessed its transformation on a Friday night. Considering how presentable St Andrew’s Street looks each morning, it must be the most jet-washed piece of pavement in Cambridge.

Regal

Once claiming to be Europe’s largest pub, it probably now has to settle with merely being the largest in Cambridge, despite the Radegund’s refurb, but anyway it’s large, as large as a cinema, which it once was. Opened in 1937 as the Regal cinema and theatre, complete with Compton organ, it closed in 1997, reopening as a Wetherspoon pub in 2000, with the Arts Picturehouse above. The Beatles performed at The Regal twice in 1963 (19/03 & 26/11), the Rolling Stones in 1965 (15/10). The acts that are more likely to be performed here now are of an entirely different nature. It shares part of the site of the former Ye Olde Castel Inn (the present Castle Bar is on the other part) which burnt down in 1934. This is now the only Wetherspoon in Cambridge, since the Tivoli also burnt down.

Regal

I’ve been here a handful of times this year and on each occasion the beer selection has been disappointingly dull – Doom Bar, GK IPA, rebranded Ruddles and the like – but it’s beer festival time so I’m spoiled for choice and end up having five different beers, only one of which turns out to be part of the beer fest. My last two choices are well below par so I return to the bar for Oakham’s Green Devil on keg, only to find the tap handle is a facade and it’s apparently now only available in bottles, which I decline. Nothing else remarkable happens, but then it’s still just about light outside – you have to go to Royston for lunchtime riots in Wetherspoons. At this point piped music suddenly booms out and I realise Jeckyll is transforming into Hyde and make a swift exit. I pass a large women who is loudly declaring she “likes men with big muscles” as she squeezes the muscles of a man who is evidently not so keen on women with high BMI. The ‘craft’ fridge glows seductively in the entrance, but the Blue Moon and Carlsberg’s Baltika 7 will have to wait for another time.

Regal

Cambridge Pubs – Novi

Novi

Another bar that keeps strangely quiet about its beers. Last week I came in and there were four from Brewdog – 5AM Saint, Elvis Juice, Dead Pony and Punk – last night these had all been replaced (well, a new Elvis Juice had gone on) with four from Alphabet, alongside Camden Hells and Adnams Mosaic. Seven good beers – the A to the K Oatmeal Pale Ale was superb – and not a mention on their social media, which is a stream of cocktails and cakes. “Most people wouldn’t know you had such a good beer selection” I said to the barman. “We’re full of surprises” he replied, unconcerned.

Novi

It’s a modern bar now, or rather an “inspirational espresso bar, cocktail bar and kitchen” as it describes itself, over three floors, although I didn’t venture upstairs. There were only two other people in the bar – two males seated on the bench by the large front window, one of them who’s jeans and jumper had parted at the posterior, a distraction like a welding arc that you know not to look directly at, but that never quite leaves the corner of your eye – but then it was only early evening and the bar is open to 3am.

Novi

I’ve found it hard to forgive the vandalism this pub suffered in 2011. Formerly the Fountain Inn, it looked like an ancient timber-framed building with a traditional dark wood interior, even though it was really a 1930s ‘Brewers Tudor’ building with an imitation Victorian style interior that only dated back to 1985. Nevertheless, when the interior was ripped out, along with the lead windows, unique pub sign and signboard detailing its history, it felt like some of Cambridge’s heritage had been lost. That was almost six years ago, and under a previous ownership (it’s been in new hands since 2015), so it’s time I moved on, but here’s another look at it’s former incarnation, lest we forget:

Fountain Inn

Fountain Inn 2008 © Steve Day, under Creative Commons Licence

Fountain Inn

Fountain Inn 2006 © Anthony_Lovesey, under Creative Commons Licence

Cambridge Pubs – Quinns

Quinns

It must have been a night of mixed emotions for the Irish on Saturday, winning a game of rugby but losing a bar. For, after 20 years providing Cambridge with a rare outlet for Guinness and the traditional Gaelic pub games of karaoke and table football, Quinns closed down at the weekend.

Quinns

We joined the closing down sale (25% off drinks – so only £7.10 for a pint and a half of Guinness, which by my reckoning means a pint would usually cost an Irish-eye-watering £6.30) and what a weird experience that was. All the tables and chairs had been moved to the sides, leaving a large empty floor looking like it was waiting for a disco to break out, complete with lazer lights and the LOUDEST, LOUSIEST music I’ve heard for a long time (I Shazzamed a couple of tracks before my phone pleaded with me to stop – ‘Sexual’ by Neiked, and the fitting ‘All Time Low’ by Jon Bellion give an idea of what we had to put up with).

Quinns

It had only just opened for the evening but there was a group of people sat awkwardly on the leather chairs against the wall facing the bar, trying to hold conversations over the noise. At the end of EVERY track, some kind of advert started loudly playing and a member of the bar staff would go over and cycle through his playlist until he found another track to torture us with. I can only imagine the bemused customers had wandered down from the adjacent Hilton Hotel, assuming this was the hotel bar (it isn’t). “Nobody here will stay for a second drink” I said, and sure enough the large group of people left soon after. That left us, here only to check it out one last time before it closed (it must have been the full 20 years since I last came here), and a family of four who came to the upstairs gallery trying in vain to escape the racket.

Quinns

Even the use of the space is strange, the downstairs snug piled up with a coat rack and chairs they’d bizarrely removed from the bar, obscuring the faux fireplace, while the various nooks leading off from the gallery are just bare, empty spaces. If ever a venue in Cambridge had untapped potential then this is it, because beyond the Vegas-Palladian frontage and tired fixtures and fittings is a bar space that could surely do well in the right hands (I’m looking at you, Brewdog).

Quinns

There were bottles of Punk IPA in the fridge, but otherwise it was Guinness, Guinness Extra Cold, Stella, Boddingtons, or Becks Vier. At one time it did at least try harder on the beer front, with real ale from City of Cambridge and Wolf brewery on draught, but the hand pumps had gone by 2004, and when it recently reduced its opening hours to just Friday and Saturday 6pm-12pm, it was hardly likely to see them return. Nor would we, even if it wasn’t the last night.

Quick Quinns

After a good look round we hastily finished our drinks and went to leave, noticing the American accents of the only other customers as we passed them, and spontaneously stopping to urge these visitors to Cambridge, who’d unknowingly found themselves in Quinns because it happened to be the nearest place they’d found after leaving the car park, to go to ANY other nearby bar – the Pint Shop, the Eagle even (come on, they loved its potted history, what with its RAF bar and associations with American airmen), anywhere but here.

Come all without, come all within
You’ll not see nothing like a night in Quinns

Cambridge Pubs – Castle

Built on the site of the former Ye Olde Castel Hotel, which burnt down in 1934 and was replaced in 1937 by the present Castle Hotel and the Regal Cinema, now a Wetherspoon. Including the Arts Picturehouse bar above the Regal, this must be the only former pub site in Cambridge now partly occupied by three separate bars. The first time I went in this pub over 20 years ago, as I approached the bar the woman behind it said “Just give me a moment”, then proceeded to walk from behind the bar across to the women’s toilets. She reappeared shortly after with a lad and a lass she’d retrieved from a cubicle, dragging each of them by the ear out to the street, shouting at the “dirty buggers” not to come back, then returned behind the bar. “Right, what can I get you?” she said, as if she’d just been to change a cask.

Castle

I thought it was bit of rough pub then, but a pub nevertheless. It sounds like it was at its most characterful during its brief incarnation as a western theme bar in the 70s, with a Klondike Bar on the ground floor, “the walls festooned with an Indian arsenal almost extensive enough for a full-scale action replay of Custer’s last stand”, a first floor Trading Post bar with furniture made from packing cases and sacks of provisions, and on the second floor a Painted Wagon* bar, arranged in the style of a high class saloon, with velvet seats, oil lamps and period prints. That sounds preferable to the series of makeovers it’s suffered since the 90s, at one time the seating reduced to squat leather-effect pouffes, more recently a bar-cum-ice cream kiosk.

So it was with some reluctance, and expectations not high (I’d read the Tripadvisor reviews), that I entered the almost empty bar at 5pm on a weekday. I was, dare I say it, pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t the beer – there’s no real ale and just the usual suspects (oh, and GK East Coast IPA) on keg, and even then the Amstel had lost most of its fizz – although the decor has improved, with a complete makeover a couple of years ago including booth style seating, new flooring and a new bar. It’s smart, if not pubby, and although it looked pimped-purple when I’ve walked past, it turns out that’s just the lighting. No, it was the friendly welcome that impressed, and I hadn’t expected that, but did appreciate it, because not everywhere does someone bother to invest the time to ask how your day’s been, what you’ve been up to, and engage in conversation. And for that reason, I’m now more likely to return to the Castle for a lifeless lager than I am to other pubs which have better beers, but whose atmospheres leave me cold. That said, a weekday afternoon is probably the optimum time for me, before the arrival of the advertised “#good music #goodpeople #goodtimes” or “the WKN”.

Castle

*It seems in the 70s there were a number of Painted Wagon bars within or adjacent to a cinema – Basildon, Bradford, Harrogate, Huddersfield, Liverpool, Preston, Purley, Southampton, Sunderland and York all had one apparently.

Cambridge Pubs – Dobblers Inn

Dobblers Inn

It’s those low, dark wood, upholstered stools again, the ones you only get in a proper pub. A pub with a pool table, dart board, table football and a cribbage league. A pub with sports memorabilia and photos of the locals framed on the wall. A pub with three pump handles all displaying the same Eagle IPA pump clip, KitKats behind the bar, well trod floorboards, a fireplace, and a Staffie pub dog that announces each local’s appearance with a bark and an excited tail wag. Everyone knows everyone else here (well, except me). There aren’t many traditional backstreet boozers like this left in Cambridge. A “community pub with real characters from all walks of life socialising here… loud, lively and friendly… A proper local’s pub”. The carpet and curtains are probably older than most millennials. This is a good thing. It means it’s one of the few Cambridge pubs yet to be gentrified or gastrofied, one that’s just been left alone to get on with being a proper pub.

Dobblers Inn

It started out as the City Arms; the date on the front says 1878, which might just refer to an extension of the pub, as its origins are a few years older – one Joseph Freestone was recorded here in 1871, when Sturton Street was first laid out. It was owned in the 1920s by Gwydir Street’s defunct Dales Brewery, and later became one of three Cambridge pubs taken on by CAMRA Investments in 1982, but like the Alma, another proper pub, was in the hands of Midsummer Inns by 1984 when it was renovated and reopened as Dobblers Inn. It got its new name after the Cambridge News ran a competition, the winning suggestion referring to “a colourful and eccentric character called Dobbler” who kept a “a rubbish strewn rag-and-bone yard” called Dobbler’s Hole (which the pub narrowly avoided being named!) down lower York Street.

It was refurbished again in 1988 when it was given “brand new carpets”. The landlord at the time, 21 year old Paul Freeman, said “we just want to keep this place as a traditional pub”. If he saw it now, no doubt he’d be happy, and I’ll bet he’d recognise the carpets.

There’s a table with two middle-aged couples who’re talking to the landlord, who’s sat at on a stool at the bar recounting the day’s events, presumably about the misfortunes of a member of the kitchen staff:

“He poured a kettle of boiling water over himself this morning, the prat. He’s down the hospital now.

I said to him, it could’ve been worse – it could’ve been me!”

Dobblers Inn Cambridge

OTB:
Charles Wells Eagle IPA, Young’s Bitter, Robinsons Trooper

Cambridge Pubs – Rock

The Rock was named after Alcatraz Island when the pub’s late night lock-ins gained a reputation for being impossible to escape from…

The Rock, originally a music venue, named to distinguish itself from nearby rival pub ‘the Mod’…

Well they might have been more captivating explanations, but the pub is actually named after the Rock Freehold Land Society which developed this area of Cambridge in the late 1890s.

Rock

It’s another Cambridge pub with links to Cambridge City Football Club – the late Johnny Gavin, who previously played for Norwich and Spurs, ended up a Cambridge City player in the early 60s, later running the Rock Hotel, where he would break records too – for the number of barrels of beer he’d sell in a week, much to Greene King’s delight.

It was a “boisterous” two bar pub when I first knew it in the 90s, a public bar with a couple of pool tables (one of which has been retained), and a lounge bar with live music three times a week, but that all stopped when it was opened out and refurbished in 2008, the lounge part becoming more of a restaurant area. No doubt this change was driven by Greene King CEO Rooney Anand who lives nearby and declared in a 2015 article for the Morning advertiser this was now his favourite pub:

“I love the Rock that’s around the corner from my house in Cambridge. Before the team changed it a few years ago it was a place my wife and I weren’t comfortable going to, certainly with the children. It was run by a select group of customers where the music was very loud. But now you see people in that pub coming together of all denomination. You see older people going in there for a glass of wine or a cup of coffee during the day, you see mums going in there with kids – it’s not a gastropub, it’s not cool hip or funky, it’s timeless, it’s classic, it’s for everyone.”

Now it’s been made more comfortable for him, I bet he’s in there all the time with his family, if he can get a seat what with all those mums and their kids. I didn’t see Mr Anand, but he’d probably just nipped out to pick up a group of interfaith pensioners and bring them back for some coffee tasting. Instead, when I went the “timeless” restaurant lounge was almost empty, while the public bar was busy with beer drinkers watching the England vs. Scotland rugby shown on 2 or 3 screens. That bar at least seemed like a real community pub; there were a few elderly gents to be fair, perched on stools at the bar, a few tables of younger lads, and the rest middle-aged couples and single blokes. Plus a guy in the corner drinking a pint of Amstel, making notes and sheepishly taking photos of anything but the busy public bar.

Rock

OTB:
Greene King IPA, Abbot and London Glory.

Cambridge Pubs – Snug Bar, Lensfield Road

I have fond memories of this place when it was the Spread Eagle. I’d not long formed an appreciation of real ale over Stella when I entered the pub for the first time, soaring across the floorboards to the long wooden bar, hovering over the line of glowing pump handles adorned with clips promising such wonders as Summer Lightning, Castle Eden and 6X. It was a sight to behold, and I can still recall how wonderful that first pint of Summer Lightning was.

Snug Lensfield Road

Well after 160 years as the Spread Eagle, it molted and reopened in 2005 as the Snug lounge bar (their first in what’s now a chain of ten, with a second Cambridge site on East Road), though the old eagle is still perched proudly above the entrance. I’ve been here several times since, so I knew roughly what to expect. That said, I was pleasantly surprised. Although its focus is cocktails and food, the one real ale, Lacons Encore (£3.60 a pint) served in ye olde dimpled mugge, was as good a pint of it as I’ve had, while one of the lagers was Sagres, I think the first time I’ve come across it in Cambridge, so at least it’s something different (but a lager that invariably tastes better in the Portuguese sun than in English drizzle). I noted there were more women, including the female bar staff, than men in the bar, and that the age range included students, a couple of middle aged women, and a couple of older men. I think that says something about the relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. The outdoor seating here is also worth a mention – there’s a choice of picnic tables, some down the alley (that I think was once called Downing Archway – the arch providing some shelter from the weather) and some streetside – most Cambridge pubs have more secluded outdoor seating, few offer such good people-watching opportunities – or more accurately, car-watching, the street being part of the busy inner ring road.

The Snug bar is active on social media, but never seems to mention the beer. Perhaps they want to keep the image firmly focussed on cocktails and comfort food, but if this is a changing beer, and they just tweeted an update when there was a new one on, I’d come here much more frequently. I’d be disappointed if one day they stopped serving real ale, as they have at their East Road venue, simply because nobody knew about it. I’m not suggesting they’re aren’t getting throughput – it was in good nick – but if bars have good ale, I wish they’d shout about it!

Snug Lensfield Road