I assumed the ‘Six Bells’ would have been named after the number of bells in a nearby church, but so far as I can tell the pub predates many of the nearby churches, none of which seem to have had six bells, and churches in the city centre that do have are unlikely to be commemorated by a pub in the backstreets off Mill Road. Perhaps there’s a tenuous link to the church at what was once Barnwell Priory; the site of the Six Bells pub was once part of the Barnwell parish, and the Abbey church apparently once had six bells. Most likely the name isn’t linked to any specific church, and instead was intended to encourage handbell ringers to come to the pub to practice, which must have been a more appealing place than any cold church on a winter evening.
A pub since at least the 1830s, when the publican was one Israel Haggis, a surname that might sound familiar to current co-licensee of the Live and Live pub less than 200 metres away. Hopefully he’ll have better luck than Israel Haggis, who after short spells at other Cambridge pubs found himself a prisoner in the Cambridge County Gaol by 1847.
The landlord of the pub in 1912 was retired policeman George William Scott, pictured above outside the pub with his daughter Emily. She was there for sixty years, working in the pub and then taking over running the pub in 1949 after her mother died, eventually pulling her last pint there in 1972 before retiring to a bungalow owned by the Licensed Victuallers Association in Norwich – no doubt such provisions are still made for retiring publicans.
In the early 1990s tenant Mike Paliczka-Telford renovated the pub, which became the first in Cambridge (if not the country?) to “join the internet” when Cambridge Cable and tech firm Cityscape, based in a building opposite, helped provide a free public internet access point in April 1995. Customers could read about the impressive range of whiskies available at the bar. The internet access point is sadly no longer there, and neither are the Cityscape offices or cable company, but the web pages for the Six Bells are thankfully preserved and well worth a look to remind oneself what a pub website looked like over twenty years ago (“try clicking on these blue words” it says pointing to the links!).
Despite that flirtation with technology, it has the feel of an untouched backstreet community pub, competing with the nearby Live and Let Live for the highest density of wood in a Cambridge pub – such that in the event of a biblical flood, this part of Cambridge would probably remain bouyant. I’ve visited the Six Bells quite a few times but seem to pick a quiet afternoon/early evening each time, and get the feeling I leave before it’s at its best, which would probably be one of the frequent evenings live music is hosted. There’s a separate conservatory, pool room and an outdoor patio, the door to which was locked (either that or I didn’t give it enough welly).
On this occasion I had a pint of Betty Stogs from the choice of five cask ales that included GK IPA, Landlord’s Choice (surely another of GK’s IPA clones) and Golden Hen. A man at the bar tried to engage the girl behind the bar in conversation:
“This used to be my local. They called me ‘Peanut Man’ because when I gave up smoking I’d get through about three packs of them for every pint of beer I had”
The girl didn’t respond. Two students in the corner sniggered and made snide comments. The man finished his drink and went, at least getting a ‘cheers’ from the girl as he left.
It’s a friendly pub, and I doubt the students meant for him to feel dejected, but it was a poignant moment; seeing someone return to a place they once called their local, where they knew people and people knew them and were fond of their foibles, but where they were now anonymous. I reflected how one day I might leave and later revisit pubs I now think of as my locals, and might not recognise anyone, and be just a stranger nobody knows what drink to pour without asking.
Later, I overheard a snippet of the students’ conversation:
“It would be sad to be in a famous band and yet nobody knows your name” suggested one, “I mean, everyone knows Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, but who can name the others?” he continued, with perhaps not the best example to support his proposition.
Well, I don’t know those students from Charlie and Ronnie, but I will remember Peanut Man.
Mike Petty – Looking Back