The 30th November saw the reopening of the Alexandra Arms on Gwydir Street.
The Alexandra Arms dates from c.1870 and was one of the earlier buildings on Gwydir Street, the houses at the north end being the earliest. It’s a Greene King pub but was formerly owned by Hudson’s Cambridge and Pampisford Breweries Ltd from at least 1882-1930. It was later owned by Wells & Winch brewery until that was amalgamated with Greene King in 1961.
“By 1874, there were about 120 houses in Gwydir Street, only about one third of which were numbered. There were five pubs – the Brewer’s Arms, the Dewdrop, the Gwydir Arms, the Alexandra Arms, and the Prince of Wales on the corner of Norfolk Street”
Only the Alexandra Arms and the Dewdrop (now the Cambridge Blue) remain. Pitson and Newman’s Gwydir Brewery existed at the other end of Gwydir Street at that time, later the site of Dales Brewery. From at least 1888 the Beaconsfield Club stood on the corner of Milford Street opposite the Alexandra Arms, serving alcohol until it lost its licence and was replaced by flats in 1984. Also in 1874, at the other end of Milford street, just round the corner on Sturton Street stood William Worboys Sturton Brewery and off-licence.
The pub is named after Alexandra of Denmark, wife of Edward VII. Alexandra would have been Princess of Wales at the time the pub was built. Further up Gwydir Street, on the corner of Norfolk Street stood the slightly earlier pub (c. late 1860s) the Prince of Wales – Edward was an undergraduate at Trinity College in 1861. The princess outlived Edward, and the Alexandra Arms has outlived the Prince of Wales which had closed by 1963.
A new pub sign shows an image of Alexandra on a stamp issued in Newfoundland in 1911 as part of the King George V coronation issue, a set of eleven stamps portraying members of the British Royal Family. The previous pub sign showed the coat of arms of Alexandra of Denmark “the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom impaled with the coat of arms of her father, Christian IX of Denmark” complete with a wild man holding a club. Arms and the man, and various beasts has photos of the old sign.
The Sturton Town development was an area of railway workers from the nearby railway and skilled artisans. Amongst the bakers, bricklayers, carpenters, engine drivers, firemen, millwrights, railway servants, stonemasons and tailors living nearby, street directories from 1878 and 1881 record a cellarman and a brewer (William Douglas Brown from the Paradise Brewery on Paradise Street) living next to the Alexandra Arms.
A 1975 pub guide mentions ‘congestion round the entrance owing to the narrowness of the room’ but that ‘at the other end there is more space, and it is there that the dartboard is situated’. About 10 years ago the pub had a major refurbishment that turned that space into a seated dining area and the pub into more of a gastropub. It then became ‘The Alex’, but the modernised interior of pale wood, soft furnishings, pastel colours and spotlights didn’t really provide the welcoming atmosphere of what had once been a traditional two-room backstreet pub. The latest refurb has replaced the spotlights with more traditional lighting, returned the dark painted wood and given the whole place a more welcoming feel – it’s the Alexandra Arms again, no longer ‘the Alex’. There are some great additions including two small snugs each side of the stairs near the bar, a log burning stove and various old pictures and maps of the local area including a wall covered with a late nineteenth century OS map.
A 1993 CAMRA guide reviews the Alexandra in three words – ‘No real ale’. It was one of the last keg-only pubs in Cambridge until handpumps were installed in 1999 (Cambridge CAMRA). Now there are eight handpumps with four Greene King beers including XX Mild and four free of tie guests. On the opening night these included the excellent Buntingford Oatmeal Stout, St Austell Proper Job, Green Jack Trawlerboys and Grain Oak – all in great nick and served in lined oversized pint glasses.
Craig and Jenna, who also run the Free Press pub nearby, are now the tennants giving a new lease of life to the pub. Although there have been several licencees in the past 10 years, prior to that it had some long-serving landlords including William Russell for over 30 years from the mid 1930s, and Graham and Mary O’Hare who in 1996 were celebrating 23 years as tennants – in 1973 the pub bitter cost 11p a pint, in 1996 a pint of best was £1.64. It was around this time in the mid 90s that I first visited the pub, entering the lounge bar via the door on Milford Street that’s now in private use. It was still a traditional two room pub back then. The lounge bar once had a snooker table according to a local and a bar served both rooms if I remember correctly. You could enter the main bar through a doorway, bricked up during a previous refurb, at the north end of the room by the existing bar.
This part of Cambridge is not short of good pubs selling good beer, but the reopened Alexandra Arms is well worth a visit.