One of my favourite pubs and amongst the most frequently visited over the past twenty-five years in Cambridge, during which time it’s gone through several changes, though its many incarnations remind me of John Peel’s description of The Fall as being “always different, always the same”.
Never in better health than it is now, the Elm Tree specialises in bottled Belgian beer, the menu updated with a selection of the best Christmas beers each winter. No Rocking Rudolph or Wherry Christmas here then, but up to ten cask ales regularly feature the likes of Edwin Taylor’s Extra Stout, and all that lacks is a flashing pump clip.
The Elm Tree was in the first three Good Beer Guides in the 1970s, but my 1976 copy has a poignant amendment – a line through the name of the pub, which in that year suffered a tragic fire from which the landlord didn’t escape. The book Firefighters of Cambridge (David Bennett, 2009) dedicates a chapter to the event, and records in detail the pub and landlord as it was before the fire, describing the “open fireplace and Britannia tables, round, three-legged cast iron tables with wooden tops, often a century old”, capturing a comment that landlord Peter Gowing, “fond of the vod”, must have “gone up like a torch, all that alcohol inside him”.
At that point in the 70s, the nearby Free Press was boarded up awaiting demolition; hard now to imagine that for a time just over forty years ago, those two cherished pubs were closed and completely gutted. Thankfully, the Elm reopened after a refurbishment, the Free Press a couple of years later. A student guide from 1977 mentions the Elm Tree “recently reopened after inferno tragedy”, suggesting it’s “worth going to if only to admire the threatened beauties of the Kite”, while others suggests the “somewhat gentrified” Elm Tree had become “a shadow of its former self.”
Nevertheless a resilient pub, having already survived the 1928 application for the removal of its licence so it might be replaced by a new build out of town on Milton Road (which later opened as the Golden Hind). Reopened after the fire, 1970s guides refer to the small one-room pub as bisected by a well-used darts range, and managing also to include a piano, fruit machines, and walls adorned with a glut of cigarette machines. In the early 90s I remember it accommodated a bar billiards table and a fish tank, and hosted thrice-weekly live modern jazz, and it somehow still manages to squeeze entire bands, including drum kits, on the small raised area at the front of the pub used for frequent live music. It’s also the pub the Cambridge Ukulele group bring their more appropriately sized instruments for their fortnightly meet on Sunday afternoons.
The pub even had its inn sign returned after it was stolen during a refurb in 2006, discovered shortly afterwards in a nearby alley. As for the name, perhaps it was in honour of a large elm tree that stood less than 300 metres away on the pavement near the junction of Drummer Street and Emmanuel Road. That particular specimen must have been an impressive local landmark, estimated to be at least 250 years old, over 70 feet in height and sixteen feet in circumference, when in the 1950s it began rotting away and was removed. Some young branches were apparently grafted onto elms at the Botanic Garden, but the entire elm collection was felled in the 1970s when it became infected by Dutch elm disease.
But perhaps the most important event in the pub’s recent history occurred almost ten years ago, when owners Charles Wells let it to the B&T Brewery of Shefford, Bedfordshire, who tempted manager Rob Wain from the Hobgoblin pub in Reading. The pub has since become one of the most laid back places I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking, with plenty of breweriana and miscellanea covering the walls and ceiling of the one long but cosy room – witches hats, bats and other decorations surviving Halloween, candles on the tables, books and board games lying about, and the kind of laid back locals a pub like this would attract. The tables down the side alley are a favourite place for summer drinking too. A pub that makes running pubs seem easy; no fruit machines, food or fuss, just good beer and a relaxing atmosphere. The Elm Tree – one of the best in the branch (sorry).