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.
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.
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