First up was The Bull, a generally well-appointed GK pub with some questionable upholstery. Featured on the bar was Bull Best Bitter (3.9%) made, apparently, especially for the pub and quite tasty. According to our mole at the Westgate Brewery this is a beer brewed for selected GK houses and is badged for the particular pub; like Gandalf, it has many names. Best received was the Golden Hen (4.1%): why do GK bother with IPA Gold (4.1%)? A pleasant place for a drink; the courtyard is well worth a look.

Next was The Golden Lion, a Wetherspoon's with, for once, a good range of beers (is it just us or are GK starting to crowd the pumps in many of these establishments?). Bunkerhill Bitter (5%), a strong brown beer from Summerskills Brewery, Devon went down well but star of the show and the generally agreed Beer of the Day was Icarus (4.5%) from Somerset's Blindman Brewery; it reminded some of us of an old fashioned Mild & Bitter. The real surprise, however, was hidden at the bottom of a fridge: Gwynt y Ddraig's Black Dragon Cider (6.5%)! Perhaps they think there's no demand for it - come on Wetherspoons, flaunt it for God's sake! Overall, a pretty good 'Spoons that is, at least in our guides' opinion, the most improved pub in Newmarket over the last couple of years.

On down the High Street to The White Hart, a rather swish looking Marston's house. The long bar is nice to see but you couldn't call it traditional looking. The crew enjoyed lunch here while finding the Pedigree (4.5%) was disappointing, we suspect due more to nostalgia for the 1970s version reasons than the actual quality of the pint served. The Hobgoblin (5.2%) was certainly in good nick and was duly gobbled.

At this point our hosts played their joker and off we taxied on a side trip to Exning, a small village a few minutes out of town. First stop here was The White Swan, a spacious pub with a lovely beer garden and a telly not showing the racing. Scotland 0, Serbia 0 - perhaps the gee-gees aren't so bad. Two of our number took refuge at the dart board. On the bar we had Caledonian Flying Scotsman (4%) and Up the Swanny (4.3% - at least on this occasion). The variable ABV is due to the non-existence of an actual beer called Up the Swanny, the house mystery beers rotate to keep the regulars alert. We're still guessing and Matt isn't telling. Either way, good beer, nice pub.

Just up the road we found The White Horse, a Punch Tavern and the only pub on our itinerary in the GBG. Shepherd Neame Spitfire (4.5%), Timothy Taylor Landlord (4.3%) and Woodforde Wherry (3.8%) greeted us; we can vouch for the first two. Sitting outside on what looked like an abandoned (but wonderfully comfortable) leather sofa there was a real risk of being woken up by the crisp dawn air. Worse things could have happened. We really wouldn't want to have to choose between The Horse and Swan; in fact "we don't see how you could go to one without going to the other".

Back into Newmarket and The Wagon and Horses for a quick one before the Transporter Station closed. The usual GK house offerings were available and generally well received although the beer temperature made us all realise just how right The Swan had got it.

So, at the Bar Base debriefing, what did we conclude? Paradise regained? Well, no, but certainly not the beer wasteland of Bury St Edmunds mythology. We didn't have a bad pint all day and found some very pleasant watering holes. As regards the town, it must be said that Wetherspoon's is doing the most to put Newmarket on the map; they also provided the day's only real cider. If you are guilty, as we all certainly were, of writing off Newmarket without a look, then perhaps it's time to take the trip. Over to you.

Many thanks to Matt and Sam for a splendid day out, and, of course, to Chris for his networking.

ALE September-October 2012 No. 358 : Next section
Cambridge & District CAMRA : ALE