Cambrdge Pubs – Champion of the Thames

Summed up in a sentence by a 1970s pub guide which says simply “Beautiful old pub. Ask for draught Abbot Ale”.

Back then it was served straight from the cask on a stillage behind the bar, but still today this pub is regarded as serving the best Abbot Ale in the city. Naturally, that’s what I go straight for. A pint is poured and held up to the light. “It’s the end of the barrel – have a taste and see what you think, and if it’s not to your liking I can get you a pint of any of these” says the barman, gesturing to the IPA, Westerham Bulldog, TT Boltmaker, and Hadrian Border Tyneside Blonde. Can’t say fairer than that, but in any case, it tastes fine to me and I stick with it. But then it gets good throughput here – I know at least one local who on his own could probably get through a cask every few days. On keg, alongside the usual suspects, was Leffe Blonde and a Punk IPA about as good as I’ve ever had it.

Champion of the Thames

Time must have stood still here for decades, because another 1970s pub guide comments “the pub has obvious connections with rowing, but on our visit the trade was almost entirely local and tended to be mature”, which was true on this evening too. An old gentleman, dressed like a sea dog in a thick cable knit jumper, was sat as close to one side of the fire as the coal scuttle was on the other, his beard within singeing distance – at one point he got so warm he even took his cap off.

A grade II listed building with a tiled mansard roof, the interior has a low ceiling, probably chiefly responsible for its reputation as one of the smokiest pubs before the ban, oak panelling, rowing memorabilia, a tiled floor in the public bar and floorboards in the snug or lounge bar, and is on the National Inventory as having an historic pub interior of regional importance.

Both small bars are wood-panelled with Victorian counters and bar backs, fixed benches (with modern leather upholstery in the right hand bar) and rare part glazed partition wall between the two rooms. On the right a former fireplace has been converted into a tiny seating alcove. The etched windows, showing the Champion in action, are marvellous but not original having been smashed and replaced a number of times (the pub lies on the notorious “King Street Run”) but the ‘Public Bar’ one is old.

There’s also a nice small triangular walled courtyard at the rear that will seat three at a push, and which WhatPub amusingly flags as a Pub Garden. “Well, there is a tree” a woman says, pointing to the potted plant.

There are three doors leading into the public bar, although only one, the front door, is in use. The other two are either side of the fire – one at the corner of the building leading onto the street, and another that leads out into the side alley. To me that bears the hallmarks of having once served a small ‘bottle and jug’ off-sales room – similarly, from the alley down the side of the nearby Free Press pub, a blocked up doorway can be seen that would formerly have been the entrance for off-sales.

Champion of the Thames

A sign on the corner of the pub bears the description (complete with the capitalisation)

This HOUSE is dedicated to those splendid FELLOWS who make DRINKING a pleasure who reach CONTENTMENT before CAPACITY and who, whatever the DRINK, can take it, hold it, enjoy it and STILL remain GENTLEMEN

This is typified by the following overheard exchange between a couple of such gents:

“Do you want another gin?”
“Yeah, go on, I’ll have another”
“Good, it’s your fucking round”


8 responses to “Cambrdge Pubs – Champion of the Thames

  1. Reading a number of your previous posts on this blog I have sometimes struggled to remember the pub, such are the changes over the years (and many for the better, to be fair, recalling some of the dreadful pubs in the Kite particularly).
    However the Champ remains a great tribute to the endearing appeal of a proper (drinkers’) pub.
    Given the beer range, I assume GK sold it off, but it’s value for alternative use must be high. Presumably its listed status will preserve it for years to come.
    BTW, I wonder if it is only on reaching a certain age that you come to appreciate its charms?

    • I wonder if it is only on reaching a certain age that you come to appreciate its charms?

      I think that might well be true. It’s still a Greene King pub by the way, along with the Free Press two of the best pubs in the city despite the tie – the guest ales list can be quite good at times. There’s always the Abbot! (the Press still has XX Mild on permanent).

      Regarding closed Kite pubs, I’ve heard the Foresters was pretty rough but no idea what the original Ancient Druids was like?

  2. Unlike pintsandpubs, I did go into the old Ancient Druids a few times (and even the Old English Gentleman). When I first knew the Druids in the early 1970s, it was pretty quiet but livened up on Saturdays when they turned all the lights on, including in the Saloon Bar. Later a new landlady (Mary who was later at the Geldart?) brightened it up a bit before it closed for redevelopment. It was a Charlie Wells pub but the Elm Tree nearby was too, with reliable Eagle Bitter.

  3. There was a particularly ghastly Tolly pub just the far side of the East Road roundabout, I think called the Five Bells. It wasn’t rough, just grim and virtually empty most of the time,

    • The Five Bells has been closed and boarded up for over ten years, it always looked a grim place, no chance of it ever reopening now.

  4. Have you noticed how many of the decent pubs in Cambridge are decorated with roughly the same line in slightly tatty exposed wood? I once tried to write a blog post with an overview / pub-guide thing and gave up when I ran out of synonyms for “brown” and “pleasantly shabby”.

    • Ha! I’ve had similar struggles, trying to find alternatives to “lived-in” and “well-worn” that don’t imply “scruffy”

  5. Why do you think that is? It suggests to me that Cambridge is a sufficiently affluent and middle class place that a) backstreet pubs have tended to get enough trade over the years that they’ve never felt the need to reinvent themselves out of desperation and b) there is an old-fashioned gentile poor element of middle classness that is particularly prevalent in the academic sector that tends to have an irrational level of affection for old, shabby, traditional things that the working classes would never put up with, kind of like how you see rich people driving these old tatty cars.

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