Last week the Old Spring, this week just along the road to a pub formerly known as the New Spring, Spring or Spring Hotel, next to which the Spring Brewery operated in the nineteenth century on the site now partly occupied by the former Tivoli pub. After a period as “a dreary affair called the Rob Roy”, presumably named after the town rowing club that once used the pub as its headquarters (oddly, as the club was started by the Church Temperance Society), the pub was refitted and extended in the mid-eighties, emerging as the Boathouse, “probably the best of Cambridge’s riverside pubs” according to Protz in 1989, a debatable accolade even then; at least five riverside pubs had made appearances in the Good Beer Guide by then, but not the Boathouse (to the best of my knowledge). Several riverside pubs have since closed – the Spade and Becket (aka George and Dragon/Rat and Parrot/Waterside) in 2004, the Penny Ferry in 2008, and the neighbouring Tivoli in March 2015 – leaving only seven*; I wouldn’t say the Boathouse topped the list now, if it ever did.
The best feature of the pub is the south-facing, multi-level outdoor terrace overlooking the river, which catches the sun most of the day. The 80s pub extension leading to the terrace is also light and airy, while shade-lovers can find plenty in the main part of the pub facing Chesterton Road. It’s quite a large, multi-levelled pub, opened out but with a booth style seat in the main bar offering the closest thing to a snug. There’s also a large adjoining function room with its own bar.
The beer choice is as bog standard as it gets, even for a Greene King pub; on keg only the usual lagers and Guinness – even £6 won’t get a Punk IPA here – while the real ales were GK IPA, London Glory and Abbot, with Evan Evans Britannia a guest. For penance I had a GK IPA, as dull and far from cold as I’d dreaded, and a £4 bottle of Greene King’s latest attempt at ‘craft’, from their ‘Craft Academy’, which offers apprentices the opportunity to learn from the “experienced mentors” at the Westgate brewery. On this evidence, Over Easy, a drinkable session IPA amusingly described as having “rotating hops”, the “fresh talent” have made the best attempt yet to “channel creativity” into the brewery, and maybe given more control they could let the beer speak for itself for once.
As the best seats by the river fell into shade late in the afternoon, the group there made for a table at the upper terrace where we were still enjoying the sun. Most people were smoking (no vaping, I note), one woman frantically patting the back pockets of her jeans and exclaiming “my tobacco’s dropped out – thirteen quid that cost me!”, before her middle-aged daughter offered her a pacifying cigarette. As some people asked those with phones tuned to the radio for updates on the Grand National, there was suddenly more horseplay when three ponies and traps arrived in the car park, one of the travellers running into the pub for bottles of beer. After much neighing and shouting, they trotted off in the direction of Fen Road. Calm restored, we sat looking at the roofless, boarded up, burnt out shell of the former Tivoli cinema, latterly a Wetherspoon pub, one whose future they’ve gone shamefully quiet about since the fire two years ago. Luckily the flames didn’t spread to the Boathouse, but sadly neither did its much better beer offering. Ach well, as Rob Roy might have said.
* I’m defining ‘riverside pub’ as somewhere you can sit outside and see the river, which rules out the Pickerel (although you can just about see the river from inside, there isn’t a clear view of the river from the outdoor yard), but does include the Anchor, Boathouse, Fort St George, Granta, Green Dragon, Mill, and Punt Yard (just about).
Protz, R. (1989) The Best Pubs in East Anglia