I finally picked up a copy of Boak & Bailey’s 20th Century Pub in Heffers Cambridge on Sunday, displayed alongside another classic publication (which I can’t write about until the 14th).
I’m a slow reader, so you may have to wait for anything approaching a review (see here and here for those). Already it’s clear that it’s beautifully written. and worth buying for the Viz “Flat Pack cartoon” alone.
But it’s the pages on Stevenage New Town that pulled me in, a reminder that the Pied Piper once hosted her Majesty (and I thought it was just Topsham with that honour).
Boak and Bailey note the variety of customers in that pub on their recent visit, including school children and mums in mid-afternoon. Some of you won’t approve of children and babes in pubs, but let me tell you it was only the pubs around Stevenage that kept me sane when I went part-time to “look after” our eldest son James back in 1999.
James is off to Sheffield University this weekend, clearly unharmed by trips in infancy to the Fisherman and Crooked Billet to watch his dad drink Tetley and 6X, though perhaps the chicken dinosaurs were misjudged.
I don’t remember dragging him to the Dun Cow in Letchmore, but then I’d never heard of it until it was “recommended” to me as a place to try.
Letchmore feels a typical tight-knit Stevenage estate, but is only five minutes’ walk from the Old Town and its startling run of pubs (as seen on WhatPub).
Letchmore is only noticeably defined as a separate entity by the schools and a small parcel of village green alongside the Dun Cow, which is clearly a pub on an estate rather than an estate pub.
Oh, and a couple of shops and takeaways. You’ll be pleased to know that Fisherman’s Wharf delivered a retiredmartin standard Chinese pancake roll for £1.60. Proper pancake rolls are a rarity these days.
I know people who would have snuck their snack into the pub, but not me.
You’re never quite sure what reception you’re going to get in an estate pub, even an 18th century model like this, but it’s nearly always better than you expect. As it was here, where in my mildly scruffy but functional dress I fitted in perfectly with a wider mix of locals than you might expect at 5.30pm. Tradesmen of all ages, of course, a lot of polo shirts, and a table playing cards.
You can trust a pub where people still tip up to play cards. Let’s face it, you won’t see folk playing cards in the Harvester. Or the Spoons. A sign of a proper pub.
A worryingly large range of cask (by Stevenage standards), almost as if someone has been encouraging them to put more pumps on.
Panicking, I picked the one closest to my eye-line, my usual fallback.
The Proper Job was near nectar (NBSS 4 +), just as it had been in a Woking estate pub running on similar principles and commitment to clean lines. The light poured in, the beer was cool and rich, I was very happy.
And there was a lot going on.
The music was totally unrecognisable, which I quite like, but I don’t think it was Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Whatever, it was the perfect accompaniment to Armenia v Denmark on the telly, and a rather more energetic game of pool behind me.
Without a train to catch, I’d have stayed for another (same again), and possibly popped back for another pancake roll.
As with similar “recommended” estate pubs in Bracknell and Peterborough and Reading, this is a giant find for the local CAMRA branch, though I doubt the Dun Cow will be seeing coachloads of beer tourists visiting from Cambridge or York.