A short walk brought me to Argyle Street and The Duke of Argyle. This is another ex-Tolly pub and in the mid-80s was the only one in their local estate not selling real ale. I remember mentioning this to their Regional Manager and he said he'd get handpumps there the next week - which he duly did. They survived the sale to Pubmaster and one licencee was so keen on his cask beer that he erected a large sign proclaiming its presence. This outlived his departure and, sadly, the real ale too. It's gone now though. The Duke has a single simply furnished room with an island bar creating a U-shaped layout. There's a pool table, dartboard, piano and, a rare sight nowadays, a skittles table. On the bar was an array of keg pumps but few of them seemed to be operational - the choice was limited to Guinness (another half for me), Carling and cider. Again there was a friendly welcome from the landlord and the locals were chatty. I suspect that this is a pub which will suffer when the smoking ban comes.
Over the Mill Road railway bridge now and my mission reaches a critical phase. This part of Cambridge is stuffed with superb real ale pubs - The Kingston Arms, The Live and Let Live, The Cambridge Blue, The Salisbury Arms - but I steel myself and head instead down Devonshire Road to The Devonshire Arms. A sign outside, which seems to have been there for ages, proclaims the nightly entertainments - Monday, Roots Reggae; Tuesday, African; Friday Reggae, Calypso etc. If these activities still take place then I assume they don't start until late because when I arrived just after 8pm the only other occupant was the landlord watching a quiz show on the telly. I got my Guinness and surveyed the smallish front bar; the walls are adorned with bright murals of equatorial scenes while a pool table fills the centre of the room. The bigger back room was in darkness but I could make out a large sound system and not much furniture so this must be where the music and dancing happens.
Down Station Road to Hills Road now and yet another ex-Tolly, now Punch pub, The Osborne Arms. Here I found two other customers, playing on the inevitable pool table, and a very loud TV showing some American sit-com - even more annoying than loud music. There's a handpump on the bar but a request for real ale was met with "no, just John Smith Smooth". I opted for Guinness yet again. Despite a chalked "under new management" notice outside there was no sign of a new broom (or any broom for that matter). The whole place felt shabby and down at heel. The worn coverings on the bench seating have elephant motifs, presumably a relic of the days when the pub sold Thai food (no grub at all these days). Why anyone would come in here rather than the excellent Flying Pig next door is mystery to me. It's been reported that The Osborne is to be converted into a hotel as part of the forthcoming redevelopment of the area so it may be that we have just a holding operation here.
I head right into the city centre for pub number five, The Cow in Corn Exchange Street. This used to be the Red Cow, an Allied Breweries pub which sold handpumped Tetleys and Burton Ale in desultory fashion for many years; I don't ever remember having a good pint here. A few years back it jumped on the cafe/bar bandwagon, dropped the Red, chucked the handpumps and became another anonymous, noisy, yoof-oriented city centre circuit stop. The ground floor is really quite small but there's also a gloomy cellar bar where I decided not to venture. As would be hoped for such a central location the place was busy enough though the music level was approaching the threshold of pain so how folk managed to talk to each other I don't know. Fed up with Guinness, I chose a half of keg Tetley. It's always salutary to have the occasional drop of fizz just to remind yourself whey CAMRA was and still is needed (and yes, it was awful).
By now I desperately needed some proper beer so decided to leave the final stop on the tortured trail until the following lunchtime. This is perhaps the saddest tale of them all because, in its previous guise, The Graduate on Chesterton Road even used to brew its own real ale. The building first became a pub about 12 years ago when it was the Fresher and Firkin, part of a chain of student-oriented brew pubs. For whatever reason (mainly location I think) it never took off and was converted into one of the dreaded "It's a Scream" chain and renamed. I don't know how much trade it normally does at lunchtimes but the only other customers on my visit were two slightly bemused American tourists having lunch (the burger-dominated menu did actually look good value though I suspect the cuisine isn't haute). What strikes you especially about the cavernous interior is the enormous number of diversions - three pool tables, table football, fruit machines, games machines and numerous TV screens showing pop videos. As a change from Guinness I had a half of draught Grolsch thinking that this place could support at least one real ale - particularly now that the upstairs bar has opened as a live music venue called The Loft.
So there we have it unless some other pub has given up on real ale without us knowing it. In CAMRA's ideal world every pub would sell real ale or, rather, well-kept real ale. However, if a licencee isn't interested in the stuff then it's much better that they don't sell it, given that the worst advert for real ale is a poor pint of it. I dare say some of these pubs will see cask beer again if and when they change hands whilst existing outlets will no doubt be lost here and there. The most important thing for local drinkers is that you're never that far from a decent drop of the real article in our area and long may that continue.