1. Norwich Every time you think this place can't get better for the real ale drinker, another multi-handpumped free house opens up. The choice is astonishing and quality is generally high. The city also boasts what many would agree is the best real ale pub in the country - the Fat Cat, twice CAMRA's national pub of the year.

  2. Stamford For a relatively small town, Stamford offers an impressive range of pubs, many of which have four or more cask beers. The Green Man on Scotgate remains the doyen but a wander through the delightful streets of this unspoilt Georgian town will bring you to many a fine hostelry. The recently opened Tobie Norris in St Paul's Street is now officially my favourite pub in the world. Like Norwich, Stamford is easily reached from Cambridge by train so makes a great day out.

  3. York Somewhere else where history and real ale blend beautifully together. From the rail station the starting place has to be the legendary Maltings with its ever-changing selection of both local and exotic ales. York also has three pubs on CAMRA's National Inventory of historic or architecturally important pub interiors, all of which also sell great cask beer. One of them, the Bluebell, is right in the city centre and epitomises the cliche, a little gem.

  4. Manchester This buzzing city has so much going for it these days. On the real ale front, the four local regional brewers (Hydes, Holts, Robinsons and Lees) continue to supply good value, high quality ales and there are plenty of free houses as well. The "northern quarter" still has the best concentration of outlets and though some go (recently the Beer House), others come on board (the excellent Crown and Kettle). The number of bars, as against pubs, selling interesting real ales is notable.

  5. Liverpool Another revitalised city and one which can claim to have the best selection of gorgeous historic interiors, including the Philharmonic, our finest high-Victorian pub, even better for a recent deep clean. Of the many first-class real ale pubs I particularly recommend the NI-listed Lion and, down at the waterfront, the Baltic Fleet, which also brews its own ales.

  6. Derby Arriving here by train, you get off to a great start with the Brunswick and Alexandra just a hop, skip and a jump from the station; the former has its own brewery too. There's an amazingly good Wetherspoons, the Babington Arms, which specialises in local ales plus other corking freehouses like the Flowerpot, the Smithfield and the N.I. - listed Dolphin.

  7. Edinburgh Although I prefer Glasgow as a city, Edinburgh undeniably has the edge when it comes to real ale - the city centre is awash with the stuff, albeit at a price (Cambridge pub-goers will feel at home). You can also drink it in hugely attractive surroundings, from N.I. pubs like the Cafe Royal and Bennet's Bar, convincing "Victorian" fakes like the Guildford and more recently designed bars such as the Bow and Cumberland.

  8. Sheffield The place to go here is the "valley of beer", down by the Don, and hopefully recovered from the summer floods. The Fat Cat and the Kelham Island Tavern really do the business. A stroll up the banks towards Hilsborough brings further rewards from the Cask and Cutler and the Hilsborough Hotel. Some promising newcomers in the centre as well e.g. the Devonshire Cat.

  9. Bath Near neighbour Bristol also argues a good case but I reckon Bath edges it as so many good pubs are concentrated in the city centre, itself a lovely place to be. It also helps that two of the best drinking pubs, the Green Tree and the Star, are also on the National Inventory so you can drink top-notch beer in classic surroundings.

  10. Lewes This charming Sussex town is home to Harveys brewery, whose wonderful beers can be found in many of the local pubs. Famously these once again include the Greene King-owned Lewes Arms, where the customers campaigned successfully for the return of their favourite brew, as chronicled in recent ALEs. Down near the brewery, the Gardener's Arms is an excellent free house.
Other towns and cities with a strong claim would include Leeds, Portsmouth, Newcastle, St Albans and Brighton. London is perhaps the most obvious absentee but whilst there are excellent pubs scattered across the city there's still too much over-priced and/or rubbish quality real ale around. Birmingham has, in the Wellington, one of the country's finest real ale pubs; however, in the city centre at least, precious little else can be found. In Wales, both Swansea and Cardiff have their merits and Cormathen is very good for its size but nowhere quite makes it. Northern Ireland is largely a cask ale desert. Belfast is a lovely city but there's only a handful of real ale pubs, most offering just Whitewater Belfast Ale.

So, what about Cambridge, you ask. Well, a look through the city's entries in the Good Beer Guide (new edition out now, folks) shows that we're blessed with some seriously good pubs. In fact, in my 27 years of drinking here, I haven't known choice and quality to be better. However this article is more aimed at pointing ALE readers, who will know the city well, to places they may not have tried so you'll have to guess at its place in my pantheon. And if you feel I've ignored somewhere that deserves recognition, please let me know.

Paul Ainsworth