“This could be Cambridge’s most unchanged pub”, suggests @NHS_Martin, and I think he’s probably right. It has hardly changed since a refurb over twenty years ago, and not many Cambridge pubs can claim that. It’s also one of the most architecturally interesting buildings on King Street, the north side of the street having suffered badly from the blight of 20th century redevelopment. The pub is grade II listed as a late C18/early C19 building, with Corinthian pilasters either side of the main entrance, and a balustraded parapet along the roof edge.
Formerly named the Horse and Groom, an advert from the 1880s boasted large and well-fitted billiards rooms; it still has a billiard table, along with two pool tables, in a large room on the first floor.
in the 1970s it was described as a two bar pub, with a “cheerful, lively” public bar “the venue of the older generation”, and a “remarkably clean” saloon “where the young people seem to gather”; evidently this wasn’t a view shared by all, with the Varsity student handbook claiming “the beer is foul, the bar dirty and the landlord unpleasant”. By the mid 1980s it had been refurbished by Whitbread and renamed in honour of the drinking contest that took in the six pubs that existed in King Street in the 50s, along with a couple of others just around the corner (neither of which still exist as pubs, while one of the King Street pubs, the Earl Grey, has since closed and is now an Indian Restaurant). It was described as “extensively demodernised with simple furnishings” and two coal fires, served excellent ‘English’ food, and hosted a popular weekly folk club where guests apparently included Ewan MacColl and his wife Peggy Seeger.
By 1994 it had briefly reverted to its original name, the Horse and Groom, but still retained its “pleasingly simple” decor, with the ominous comment that a new licensee had just taken over and was “planning some changes”. This is when, behind the elegant facade, a “Tut ‘n’ Shive” alehouse with “intentionally gimmicky decor and fittings” transformed the traditional pub into one “packed with young people drinking real ale”. I was one of them, and although I’d been in Cambridge a few years by then, I only remember the King Street Run as that “fun pub”, so no doubt the transformation was what first enticed me, and a packed house of other young drinkers, to gather there.
And yes, those gimmicks – the rope bridge (since removed) to the ladies toilets, the doors that opened the wrong way, upside down tables (and a wheelbarrow, if I remember correctly) on the ceiling, a whisky still display, a large first floor overlooking the ground floor bar through netting – these things did distinguish it from the “old men’s pubs”, as did the newly opened Fresher and Firkin on Mitchams Corner (latterly the Tivoli, since burned down).
That it had the best jukebox was also a major draw, and it was known as a grunge pub; it’s still referred to as grungy, though for reasons other than music. It was just along the street from the Cambridge Arms (now d’Arrys), another pub packed with young drinkers, and too-young-to-drink-ers, back then.
Quotes written on the wall, such as “Woof bark… donkey”, date the refurb for anyone that remembers Charlie Chuck from the early 90s.
It’s years since I last came in here, and perhaps over a decade since I’d been upstairs, so I took the opportunity to have a good look round while it was almost empty. It was quite a nostalgic trip to find it so unchanged, and remember the crowds of people drinking to a soundtrack of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Brit-pop. Meanwhile, on this occasion the jukebox played Teenage Fanclub and Supergrass. It was like stepping back in time.
We drank up our Guinness Extra Cold (I couldn’t see anyone on the cask Trooper or Doom Bar, and didn’t fancy a lager), and walked outside. A woman was standing in front of the pub with her kids, posing for a photograph. “This is where me and your dad met” she told them as they smiled for dad’s photo. We weren’t the only ones tripping on nostalgia it seems. This pub might be considered grungy, in the grimy sense, to some, and I’ve walked past it hundreds of times the past few years and thought the same. But now I realise what a unique pub we have here in Cambridge, and was surprised how fondly I felt about it. This really “could be Cambridge’s most unchanged pub”. Visit it before it changes.