The first pub on our crawl of the area is The Carlton in Carlton Way. Back in the mid-seventies, when it was The Carlton Arms it was pretty grim, the sort of place where you might expect them to clean out the bar with a hosepipe at the end of the evening, and where keg reigned supreme. It is immeasurably smarter now, the lounge in particular being quite pleasant in an anonymous, big-brewery managed house style (it is a Whitbread pub). The public is largely given over to games. Two handpumps in the lounge were recently dispensing Castle Eden and Wadworth 6X, but real ale availability is somewhat sporadic early in the week.
Next stop is Arbury Road where The Snowcat squats next to the Arbury Centre. Until recently this had been described as the last unspoilt pub in Cambridge as it retained its original 1959 layout and fittings. Of particular note were the glass tubes leading down from the upstairs cellar to the bar counter, enabling you to watch your beer en route to its glass. There was also a selection of framed photographs of Vivien Fuchs 57/58 Antarctic Expedition, including shots of the caterpillar tractors named "snowcats" after which the pub was named.
Alas this was all swept away last year and there is now a single bar, with one area slightly raised to accommodate a brace of pool tables. The four handpumps can only manage Greene King IPA between them. Decor is again "managed house" tasteful/predictable. The "Friar Tuck" menu offers cheap and cheerful grub with no pretence at home cooking.
Heading north into Kings Hedges, along Northfield Rd, you come to The Ship, a very boxy Charles Wells pub with an equally functional interior - one large room with a tiled games area at one end and a raised darts area at the other. The decor is uninspiring, but fades into the background as the friendly welcome of the licensets shines through. One cask beer, Wells Eagle, is also sold in its nitrokeg version. On asking for Eagle in most pubs there is an automatic lunge for the smooth version; here at least they ask which you would like.
Work sideways through snickets and alleys to St. Kilda's Avenue and The Jenny Wren Hungry Horse is revealed. Greene King recently bought The Magic Pub Company which had developed a chain of Hungry Horse pubs; Greene King has now set about converting some of its old estate into additions to the concept. The exterior of the pub has been painted a garish combination of cream, green and red but the large model horse which was installed outside had been horsenapped recently. The interior is exactly the same as every other Hungry Horse. The former two-bar layout has been opened out into a single L-shaped room. Decor is from the chuck-it-all-in school of design - a ghastly mish-mash of ornaments, nick-nacks, baskets, lamps, stuffed birds, signposts pointing to obscure places, blackboards with permanent handwriting, mirrors etc. Miraculously the skittles and bar billiard table have survived albeit consigned to the farthest corner. Food is cheap, apparently plentiful, but entirely standardised.
What is most annoying about the place however is having the brass neck to call itself a Free House. If it really is, then the Manager would have access to the likes of Nethergate and City of Cambridge beers. Instead the selection is confined to Greene King and a few big brewery beers. Recently only GK IPA and Abbot were on, though the IPA is considered to be better than average.
The contrast with the poor old Jenny Wren couldn't be starker as SC have made an excellent job of the place. Those original features which remained - the colonnaded arches in the conservatory, the glazed oval dome, the oak panelling in the old lounge - have been highlighted, whilst wooden screens with engraved glass have been installed to break up the space. No expense has been spared in terms of materials quality and there is none of the pathetic tat which clutters up the Jenny Wren. The food is again from a largely standard menu supplemented by specials, quality is recommended and portions generous. On the real ale front Theakstons Best Bitter and XB plus Websters Yorkshire Bitter are joined by a changing guest beer - recently Nethergate Umbel Ale.
A good place to end then after a largely uninspiring crawl. However every pub is potentially a good pub and with a little imagination and investment could be made more attractive and interesting.
Psst. Anyone want to buy a large model horse?