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.
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”.
*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.