Cambridge Pubs – Corner House

Corner House

A pub that in the 1970s had “numerous diversions, including an electronic tennis machine”, and in the 90s “the Twin Electric Quiz Game”, now has “free to play consoles and games, 3 stations permanently set up to play on over 35 consoles and thousands of games including Megadrive, N64, NES” etc. Once an electronic games pub, always an electronic games pub. That said, it no longer has the “excellent bar-billiards table”, nor the “comic seaside postcards” or “red leatherette chairs lined in a neat row against the wall”, which apparently gave the impression “one has accidentally stepped into a dentist’s waiting-room” in the 70s.

It’s more appealing inside than its location might suggest – worn wooden floorboards and benches, a fireplace in the public bar, a refurbished lounge the brighter of the two rooms. Part of the public bar is set up for live music, and I’ve come here a few times to see bands. I suppose that’s when I’m most likely to return, when it’s busier, because it wasn’t at its best late afternoon, with just three other drinkers, who I’m guessing were regulars, sitting mostly in silence.

Corner House

Despite the pub looking spruced up, it’s on possibly the most dismal road in Cambridge, a stretch of industrial units and a ‘leisure park’, concrete as far as the eye can see. The Corner House was built c.1930s, before the south side of Newmarket road was largely purged of residents, on the site of an older pub, the Butchers Arms. At one time, on the opposite corner of River Lane stood the Brickmakers Arms, and on the opposite side of Newmarket Road, the King William. Now the opposite corner of River Lane is the site of a demolished Renault showroom, while on the opposite side of the road, a Travelodge and a Premier Inn tower over the busy road junction. Still, at least they provide more trade for the pub.

Corner House

Anyway, what this pub’s electronic games collection really needs – what every pub really needs – is Barrel Pong.

Barrel-pong

Credit: The International Arcade Museum

Cambridge Pubs – The Wrestlers

Wrestlers

Every previous visit to the Wrestlers has been primarily for the great Thai food (though no tofu in the veggie dishes sadly), and this time I was the only person not eating, and it is hard to resist when sitting enveloped in the aroma of lemongrass and spices. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant pub to sit with a pint, and the Adnams Broadside I had was superb, as good as I’ve had it anywhere. This being a Charles Wells pub, it had the usual keg stout, dry-hopped lager and triple-hopped IPA, with cask Bombardier and Double Chocolate Stout (for which I should have stayed for a pint) plus guest beer Robinsons Pint of Thrones.

This must be the oldest Thai food place in Cambridge; I think Sala Thong restaurant opened in 1999, whereas the Wrestlers started serving it perhaps in the late 80s; “authentic homemade Thai food” is mentioned in a 1991 guide, along with a log fire, jukebox, and pool table. The 1994 Good Beer Guide also mentions the Thai food, describing it then as a “boisterous town pub with live music twice a week”, and a “notable collection of bottles”. It’s a much calmer place these days, clean and comfortable too, and I enjoyed relaxing with a pint.

Wrestlers

The Wrestlers was rebuilt in the 1930s, one of the few pubs to have survived on this side of the city. The walk back into the centre, along the dismal Newmarket Road, passes a handful of pubs that have closed relatively recently; at one time, this road had more pubs and breweries than any other in Cambridge; now, just three pubs survive – the Wrestlers, the Corner House and the Burleigh Arms (not counting the bars at the new Travelodge and Premier Inn).

Newmarket Road Closed Pubs

Clockwise from top left – Five Bells, Seven Stars, Rose & Crown, Bird In Hand, Zebra

Even the underpass at the East Road/Elizabeth Way junction has a mural depicting scenes of the pop-up pubs at Stourbridge Fair, which took place nearby for hundreds of years until its demise in 1933. My guess is that the Wrestlers pub takes its name from the wrestling and boxing competitions that were a common feature of the Stourbridge and Midsummer Fairs; a Wrestlers Inn, reputed to be one of the finest buildings in the city, stood on Petty Cury in the town centre until it was demolished in 1885.

Stourbridge Fair

Cambridge Pubs – Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton

I arrived just as some of the final football matches of the season were being played out – there were plenty of people in; it’s a ‘sports pub’ with 5 or 6 screens. I briefly sat watching Hartlepool end their 96-year stay in the Football League, and Doncaster Rover’s hopes of the League Two title, while Barcelona vs. Villarreal match was playing on another TV a few feet away – the blend of match commentary surely the only time Taylor-Sinclair will find himself mentioned alongside Messi. I had a pint of Pravha but should really have had one of the ales; it’s a Greene King pub with the typical range.

Sir Isaac Newton

A beerhouse dating back to at least 1851, although it was completely rebuilt in 1930. In the early 1980s the ‘snug’ and ‘cosy’ pub made the Good Beer Guide, but the pub and neighbouring buildings faced demolition when a new office development took place around it. It escaped the bulldozer, and in 1987 was extended to around three times its original size; although part of the old building was demolished, you can still clearly see the facade of the older part of the pub. It’s now quite a large pub with a high ceiling in the extension, the mezzanine level added later, featuring a mural of an apple tree – there’s also a brick apple ‘sculpture’ on an exterior wall. It’s a few years since I last visited, and it’s obviously had a refurb since as it’s noticeably improved, especially the room with the pool table, which had looked neglected previously. The whole place was clean and airy, another pub that seems well looked after, which would give me confidence if I was having a meal; there are of course some themed dishes, including a Gravity Burger and, naturally, Apple Pie.

Sir Isaac Newton

Unfortunately the pictorial inn sign has been replaced by a bland, generic Greene King one, albeit with an apple in the corner (one that doesn’t look very much like the ‘Flower of Kent’ variety that supposedly inspired Newton – apparently a descendant of that tree can be found in the Botanic Garden). The previous sign closely resembled a portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller, when much to Newton’s chagrin, the artist said “Alright Ike, now let’s try one with an apple on your head”.

Sir Isaac Newton

Cambridge Pubs – the Grapes

Grapes

I’d never set foot in the Grapes before, I’d only occasionally even gone past it, not having much reason to go along Histon Road on the outskirts of Cambridge. Like the British Queen, the only other pub on Histon Road during my time here, it never looked very appealing to me. In 2012 the British Queen, latterly the Ranch, closed down and has since been demolished, the site redeveloped as student housing. Occasionally I’d get the bus that stops right outside the Grapes, and see what just seemed like a large, empty, featureless pub. Nevertheless, the Grapes was one of the pubs I had in mind when I decided to visit every pub in Cambridge this year, but I can’t say I was enthusiastic about visiting. I expected to want to finish my drink quickly and be on my way, but I was wrong. The Grapes is a great community pub, and I wished I hadn’t waited so long to find that out.

Grapes

What’s great about it?

“Aaawright buddy, what would you like?”*

That welcome from the barman was a big part of it, putting me at ease in an unfamiliar place.

A girl ahead of me asked if there was any cider. “I’ve got Cloudy Apple” he answered. “I don’t know what that’s like” she said. “It’s laaarverly” he replied.*

“You’re alright mate” said one of locals, as I went to move when he returned to the barstool I was blocking as I waited for my beer. In some pubs, locals can get quite territorial about things like that, but not here.

A few locals sat further around, tucking into a box of Dunkin Donuts on the bar, one expressing his delight at choosing a donut which tasted like a Bakewell Tart. In the large lounge room, some sort of event was going on, a buffet laid out and a party of girls chatting, everyone very relaxed.

“Another Strongbow John? Alright for another Sam?”

I took my Guinness to the public bar and sat next to the stove which looked like it recently had some use. There are a few empty whisky bottles on the windowsill, copper plates and faded paintings of old racing cars above the bar, a few old bottles of beer and pottery jugs on shelves, the dark wood panelling mentioned in a 1970s guide obviously since painted over in lighter colours, no sign of the “fascinating Victorian clothes-hangers” the “wooden spoon harking back to the days when this pub had a skittles team” or the “unusual beer taps at the rear of the bar” described in the 70s guide, nor the trelliswork giving a “slightly Spanish feel” in the 80s, no “Eunice at the organ” either for that matter. It’s not cluttered, everywhere looks clean and tidy and looked after. A large pub, opened out but with the public and lounge bars divided by an archway, the pool table moved just the other side of the arch in the lounge, darts in a large room which obviously hosts the regular live music, with a raised seating area by the window, a few fruit machines out of the way in the corridor leading to a small but well maintained beer garden, with real grass – a rarity in Cambridge.

Grapes

A couple walked in and took a seat, speaking in Polish to each other. The man went to the bar, ordered a glass of wine, then asked the barman –

“Have you got green tea?”

“No…” (thinks) “I’ve got Stella”

“Oh, I don’t drink alcohol”

“I’ve got English tea”

“Okay, can I have that with a slice of lemon?”

“Lemon? In English Tea? I can put a slice in a Stella!”

I decided to stay for another, and in the abscence of green tea, chose a Stella, without the lemon (I couldn’t see anyone drinking the three real ales – GK IPA, Abbot, and Wadworth St George & the Dragon).

Apparently, Scottish Cup Winning footballer Jackie McGugan ran this place for a while after he wound down his playing days at Cambridge City – he also had stints running the Alma and the Ship. The Grapes had a major refurb in 1995 when Douglas and Marion Robb took over, at that time serving a seasonal ale direct from the cask behind the bar, Douglas being one of the first publicans to be awarded Cask Marque accreditation when the scheme was launched in 1998. Under his stewardship it got into the Good Beer Guide in 2002 and 2003, before he retired in 2008. It was refurbished again in 2014 and has obviously been kept in good shape. In truth, I’m still unlikely to visit this place very often, it’s on the other side of town, but I’d be happy enough if I ended up living nearby and had this as my local.

* This isn’t meant to suggest a cockney dialect, just trying to capture his drawl

Cambridge Pubs – Fort St George

It used to be named the Fort St George In England, but dropped the ending, and as a result tourists who ask for directions to a riverside pub in Cambridge often find themselves in Madras.

Fort St George

People who love orderly queues will love this pub, because you can choose to join the queue to the bar or sit outside on the courtyard and watch as it grows, stretching outside and down the side of the building. Until the 1830s the pub stood on an island in the river, with locks on one side, but this limited the length the queue could grow to so the locks were filled in and it was joined to the mainland – the bridge over the river was built to extend the queue to Chesterton.

Fort St George queue

Needless to say I queued orderly, in single file, for my beer here, but it was worth it to glimpse the elusive Greene King London Glory, a beer rarely seen outside the capital, along with brother Abbot and the style-defining IPA. Drawing on all my strength of willpower, I resisted the cask offerings and had the Pilsner Urquell, one of a range of continental lagers representing the Czech Republic, Italy, and the Netherlands. On each occasion I eventually made it to the bar, the girl who poured the drink couldn’t reach the pint glasses and one of the locals was encouraged to come over and get one down. It’s the kind of intimated obligation that must make the locals feel useful and keep them coming back – other pubs with glassware more easily to hand, take note!

Returning for another drink, the queue became less than orderly when an irate woman called out a couple of lads for attempting to get a drink by the usual means of going to the bar. “Theres a system, don’t you know?!”. And of course, they didn’t know, since this is THE ONLY PUB IN THE WORLD where there’s a queuing system. Later, she spotted some people open a box of crackers at a table outside – naturally, she quickly reported this to a member of the bar staff, who was obliged to tell the group they had to clear up their ‘picnic’ or leave. You’ve got to have rules! Still, you can’t blame them for bringing their own food, it can take an age for food orders to arrive.

Fort St George

The pub itself still retains some of its 16th century charm, timber-framed with tiled floor and roof, a snug with herringbone parquet floors, oak beams and an open fire, and some of the most envious views of any Cambridge pub; on one side the river, on the other the large open space of Midsummer Common, giving the impression of an extensive beer garden. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had a meal here during their first official visit to Cambridge in 2012, following which a framed picture commemorating the occasion was hung above their table, with a plaque reserving a seat for Prince George, should he ever want a Balmoral Chicken or a Dirty Burger. But the biggest draw is the phenomenon of the organically-forming, serpentine, orderly/disorderly, single file queue. Join it.

Cambridge Pubs – Live and Let Live

Live and Let Live

For all the innovation and convenience of digital music, nothing can match the experience of handling a gatefold album cover, sliding a vinyl record out, with a pull of static from the sleeve, carefully placing it on the turntable then clumsily dropping the needle on the groove, the expectant hiss and crackle before a note has even played. To me the Live and Let Live is like a classic vinyl LP in a gatefold sleeve; an experience unmatched by MP3 gastropubs and streamed modern bars, but one I don’t get around to often enough.

Live and Let Live

As unassuming as the Beatles White Album from the outside, as characterful, rewarding and often entertaining as the music inside, it harks back to a time of worn wood over brushed steel, quality over quantity, conversation over wi-fi connection. A wet-led backstreet beerhouse, almost 150 years old, with a few pieces of breweriana, railway memorabilia and defunct gas lights on the walls, locals at the bar, smokers in the terraced street outside, and amongst the five real ales and three ciders, the best-kept Oakham Citra and Green Devil anywhere.

Live and Let Live

A seemingly changeless pub that has of course changed a lot over time, originally a smaller beerhouse that expanded into a neighbouring property and extended into the yard, the snug once a storage space, only becoming a free house in the late 1980s. Visitors now might struggle to picture the pub in the 70s, described as having an “unspectacular interior.. not the sort of room one can feel very at home in”, sporting “an original collection of China heads on the wall”, and including “café-like furniture… a particularly boring selection of piped music… and a temperamental fruit machine”; more recognisable is the description of how, “on the way to the toilets, one is confronted by a bewildering array of doors”! Likewise, it’s hard to imagine how in the 80s one drawback called out was its “sometimes high yuppie quota among the customers”, although more familiar might be the description of the plentiful use of wood “giving something of the atmosphere of a large log cabin” (someone once suggested it’s like drinking in a ‘Finnish sauna’, but I wouldn’t know)

Live and Let Live

The pub sign is based on a sign for The Man Loaded with Mischief, a pub which stood out of town on Madingley Road – that sign, inspired by one attributed to Hogarth, was painted in the 1830s by local artist and inn sign painter Richard Hopkins Leach, and can be seen in the former White Horse Inn, now the Cambridge Museum on Castle Street.

Live and Let Live

Whenever someone finishes their drink and heads for the door, the barman, one of the two licensees – no transient bar staff here – breaks his conversation to say “cheers”. On a previous occasion, I mentioned I was visiting all 90 or so pubs and bars in Cambridge this year and he looked puzzled, suggesting a better plan would have been 90 or more visits to the Live and Let Live. He’s not wrong.

Live and Let Live

Cambridge Pubs – Cambridge Blue

Cambridge Blue

The Cambridge Blue was originally a beerhouse called the Dew Drop Inn, thanks to those hilarious punning Victorians (do drop in), then one of a handful of pubs on the street, built in the early 1870s as Gwydir Street was being developed. Like most of the streets in this area, many of the residents worked on the nearby railway; in 1879 a railway servant and a carpenter lived either side of the pub. It’s one of the few mid-terrace pubs from that time to have survived. It gained a full license in 1950, as recorded in the Cambridge news:

“I feel that beerhouses are an anachronism” said the Cambridge chief constable at the Borough licensing meeting. “They were invented in the days when spirits were very cheap and was done to prevent people from imbibing too much gin. Nowadays people can’t afford too much spirits. I now see little difference between a full licence and a beer licence”. The committee considered an application for a full licence by the licensee of the “Dew Drop” beer house, Gwydir Street. He said members of visiting darts teams asked for “shorts”

The darts, and table football, have long gone, as have the “attractive gold wallpaper” of the lounge and “garish purple wallpaper” and “warm gas fire” of the public bar described in a 1970s guide.

Dewdrop

It was only renamed as the Cambridge Blue relatively recently, in the mid 1980s, when a former Cambridge University rower became landlord; Cambridge Blue being the colour of Cambridge University sports teams. The sign then showed a Welsh Dragon and American Eagle, the nationalities of owners Chris and Debbie Lloyd – they left in 2007, and with them went the brief link to university colours.

Cambridge Blue sign - before

Under their ownership the pub was leased first to Banks and Taylor and then Nethergate brewery. That was when I first started drinking here, when parliamentary candidate for the Monster Raving Looney Party Nick Winnington (previously at the Alma) and his wife were running the pub, there for ten years having taken over in 1989. Back then it was a two bar pub, a coal fire in each, with a snug, a conservatory, and a fine collection of hats which could be added to for a free pint. The large beer garden was one of its biggest draws, with chickens pecking about, a model railway running around the outside, and a pétanque pitch. The grass has since been replaced by astro-turf and paving (campaign for real grass beer gardens, anyone? There can’t be many Cambridge pubs that still have one) but it’s still one of the best outdoor pub spaces, backing onto the cemetery and so giving a large open view of trees and sky you wouldn’t expect to find in a terraced street.

Cambridge Blue

Image from Best Inns & Pubs in East Anglia (1988)

It’s now almost ten years since Jethro and Terri took over, during which time they’ve turned it into one of the best all-rounders – always plenty of good real ales, some served by gravity from the tap room, ‘speciality keg’ (nice avoidance of the debated ‘craft’ term there), regular beer festivals, and hearty food to soak it up. There were further improvements when Ben & Becky joined them in 2014, after being coaxed away from the White Lion in Norwich, and although Becky has since moved to the Old Bicycle Shop, they’ve played a part in its recent successes – current CURAS Pub of the Year, last year branch Cider PotY.

Cambridge Blue

The pub was dramatically altered and extended in 2011 to accommodate the growing trade – it’s so well known and popular it can still be hard to find a seat at times, especially during the frequent beer festivals – on the plus side you can now choose to sit where the gents urinal used to be! It’s generally a mixed crowd, from old regulars in their favourite seats, to first-timers bewildered by the choice of beer. It’s also packed with breweriana, including old Cambridge Beer Festival posters, and signs from former Cambridge breweries, including Dale’s which once brewed further along the street. Simply, still one of Cambridge’s finest pubs.

Cambridge Blue

Sources:
Lawrence, J. (1988), Best Inns and Pubs in East Anglia
Petty, M. (1997-2015) Looking Back, Cambridge Evening News