One of the most pleasant walks in Cambridgeshire is the ramble upriver from Cambridge to the “lovely hamlet Grantchester“, a leisurely stroll of less than an hour, crossing the “lazy water meadow“, with four pubs to visit (well, three pubs and a restaurant-in-a-former-pub).
150 years ago the village had a population of about 550 supporting four pubs, and remarkably the same numbers are true today, although it’s often been in the balance. In 1924 objections to the renewal of the Blue Ball’s licence raised concerns that there were four licensed houses in the village and the population had fallen to 489, making 122 persons per pub, although the license was renewed. It was noted that pub trade in the village had decreased due to the decreased spending power of the agricultural labourer – the terrace of which the Blue Ball forms part was “probably occupied entirely by agricultural workers”. In addition to managing the house, the tennant John Wilson was a brick-layer’s labourer. The landlord of the Rose & Crown had not been so fortunate in the previous century – by 1840 Thomas Ellis, publican and carpenter, was recorded as insolvent and in the Gaol of Cambridge. In 1955 a Grantchester landlord told the bankruptcy court that some days there were no takings at all. The pubs, along with the Orchard Tea Rooms, are kept viable today by the large numbers of tourists who are drawn here to the tea rooms and meadows, mostly owing to the links with Rupert Brooke, Pink Floyd, and more recently the TV drama – parts of ‘Grantchester’ were filmed in the Green Man, although the Windmill in Chipperfield was used instead of the Red Lion.
The path across the meadows from Cambridge leads eventually to the foot of the Green Man beer garden, but you can leave the main path earlier at a right angle to cut across to arrive first at the Blue Ball instead – if taking the No.18 bus from Cambridge, the bus stops right outside the Blue Ball. It’s less than 500 metres distance to visit all four pubs.
The oldest purpose built pub in the village, listed on CAMRA’s National Inventory as an historic pub interior of regional importance, with a two-bar, open-plan layout, an open fire and the traditional pub game of Ring the Bull. In May 2014 it was bought from Punch Taverns by local resident Toby Joseph who wanted to “protect and cherish” the pub he had been using for over 30 years. It closed briefly for redecoration but reopened again in October this year. There are thankfully few visible changes apart from a lick of paint, but hot food and sandwiches are now available, and lager is served again for the first time since 2002.
Toby is only the 24th landlord since it opened in 1767 – the village church during this period has had 17 vicars (with the post for the 18th currently vacant), amongst them a Noel Brewster and a John Beer. The original pub dates from 1767, but it burnt down and was rebuilt in 1893, retaining the original cellar – a photograph in the bar shows the original pub and above the door the name of licensee Wilfred Bard, who must have overseen its transition from the old to the present building. There was a small brewery behind the inn in the 19th century, probably Samuel John Heffer’s Grantchester Brewery. Nowadays, at the rear of the pub is a small beer garden featuring one of the most comfortable smoking ‘shelters’ I’ve seen – a heated pavilion complete with cricketing memorabilia and a piano!
Under the new ownership this is the first time it has been a free house, having been owned by Hudson’s Cambridge and Pampisford Brewery for a period in the early 20th century, followed by Greene King and Punch Taverns. The pub gets its name from a hot air balloon said to have flown near here, or even landed opposite, in 1785.
On the bar:
Cask – Adnams Bitter, Woodforde’s Wherry
Keg – Adnams Dry Hopped Lager (although this was temporarily unavailable when we visited, having sold out on Boxing Day – not surprising as the pub was celebrating victory in both the men’s and women’s barrel race!)
Formerly the Rose and Crown, in the 1970s the name was changed to the Rupert Brooke. In the 1950s it was the landlord of the Rose & Crown who introduced the Boxing Day barrel rolling contest between teams from the four pubs, an event revived 12 years ago and which still takes place annually. The Rupert Brooke remained as a pub until it was purchased in April 2014 by Chestnut Inns who also run the Packhorse Inn in Moulton near Newmarket, reopening in October 2014 as more of a restaurant than a pub after being extensively renovated and altered. The interior is unrecognisable from the former pub, with the beams removed and the layout completely changed, the addition of a conservatory dining room, a roof terrace, and a large copper-topped bar replacing the previous bar which had been constructed from timber rescued from an old barn.
I lived almost opposite the pub one year over a decade ago when it was still primarily a pub, and its best selling regular beer was Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter. It’s no longer really a pub (as we overheard a customer being told as they walked in hoping to get food, not realising it had become a fully booked restaurant), but there are bar stools and sofas for those just wanting a drink – I had a surprisingly good half of Woodforde’s Nog (£2); also on cask was Woodforde’s Wherry (£3.60 pint), with Pilsner Urquell, Carlsberg, Estralla Damm and Guinness on keg. I’ve not yet eaten here, mainly because for me the Green Man has a more appealing choice of vegetarian food, but if you want your meal accompanied by “caviar crème frâiche” or “fois gras yoghurt” then evidently this is the place.
I tend to agree with a pub guide from the 1970’s that even then “found it somewhat lacking in character” compared to the other pubs, while E. N. Willmer (Old Grantchester, 1976) called it a “public house of no great antiquity but one notorious for a fire in 1867”.
Of the four pubs in Grantchester, the Green Man is the oldest building, originally a 17th century house. Willmer (1976) suggests the building may be 16th century, and the Green Man was first recorded as a public house in 1847, the stables and outhouses at the back pointing to its function as a coaching inn. A wonderful old timber-framed place, with a low oak beamed ceiling and an open fire. A long beer garden at the rear stretches down to the meadows, and there is also seating at the front on the verandah next to an Elm tree believed to be over 500 years old, which features on the pub sign – in 1974 gail force winds split the tree in two, although it still survives with its hollow trunk.
The Green Man closed for over a year from December 2008, before being rescued by Josh Vargo, the current landlord. Josh has improved the beer selection with 5 handpumps for cask ales on the bar, usually including one from the excellent Buntingford Brewery, and several beer festivals which have seen over 50 beers at a time, with the likes of Redemption, Summer Wine and Thornbridge alongside Cambridgeshire breweries such as Moonshine, Blackbar and Bexar County.During this most recent visit we enjoyed excellent pints of Backyard Brewhouse ‘Winter’ and Buntingford ‘Chinook’ while snacking on chunky chips and admiring the gingerbread replica of the pub, made by one of the talented regulars apparently.
Again I couldn’t agree more with the 1970s pub guide which says the Green Man is “we frankly admit, our favourite pub in Grantchester… there is something indefinable in the friendly atmosphere of this tavern which appeals to our tastes, and which we suggest that you go and sample for yourself”.
On the bar:
Cask – Backyard Brewhouse Winter, Buntingford Chinook, Oakham Citra, Tydd Steam Barn Ale, Adnams Bitter
Keg – Adnams Mosaic, Leffe Blonde, Budvar, Amstel, Guinness
The Red Lion’s foundations date back to 1777 when it was the Axe and Saw (Willmer, 1976), although the present Red Lion dates from 1936 and was designed for Greene King by the architect Basil Oliver, who also designed the Portland Arms in Cambridge. It replaced a smaller Victorian pub owned by Banks & Taylor which had a tea garden and bowling green.
It’s a pleasant enough pub, nicely decorated for Christmas when visited, and surprisingly for a pub owned by Greene King under the ‘Metropolitan’ brand, it has a decent choice of beer, with 5 cask ales and changing Redwell beers on keg.
On the bar:
Cask – Trumans Gunboat Smith Black IPA, Black Eagle (presumably brewed at Trumans) Project X Stout, Jo C’s Norfolk Kiwi, Nene Vally Bitter, Greene King IPA
Keg- Redwell Steam Lager, Amstel, Estrella Damm, Guinness
There is an hourly bus service to Grantchester from Cambridge Mon-Sat, but that misses the walk across the meadows, after which the beer always seems more rewarding.