The Elm

On seeing the opportunity to write articles about pubs in Cambridge pop up in Varsity’s commissions list, I leapt at it. My exams had been sat, my bursary was in, and the sun was out. There seemed no better way to spend Easter Term than wandering in and out of Cambridge’s finest independent pubs, chatting to staff and customers, and really, you know, getting to grips with the town outside the college bar bubble.

What I could not predict, doe-eyed commission newbie that I was, was that much like the wonderful beer suppliers to these charming public houses, I would absolutely bottle it. I had promised to chat. Usually, I love to chat. Faced with the necessity to chat and the horrifying spectres of editor, deadline, and readers, I was utterly without chat. The trout of no chat, as some might say. Reactions to this amongst my biddable co-drinkers were mixed.

On my first trip to the Elm Tree, the lad I was with affected to find the whole situation, and my discomfort, hilarious. “Are you not going to crack out the little notebook? How’s your shorthand?” On my second attempt at this article, a different friend accompanying me, my nerves were met with something more like disgust “Jesus fucking Christ, d’you want a fucking Xanax do you?” Well, quite.

“It was Sunday evening. I was already late for my deadline. But Jesus, this time I would chat”

By my third trip to the Elm Tree, I was finally feeling confident. It was Sunday evening. I was already late for my deadline. But Jesus, this time I would chat. Dragging a third friend along this time, I wandered up past Christ’s, and across the park, moseying slowly towards the Elm Tree. When we got there, however, our plan was foiled. There was not, and I promise you this, a single opportunity for chat in the pub that night. Every customer was sitting silent, in the thrall of an elderly woman stood in the corner, holding cardboard props, and story-telling. Article or no article, if there was a time not to throw loud Irish charm at an eager audience, it was then.

They were utterly captive, paying close attention to what seemed to be tales of the English past. There were knights. People fell in love, and couldn’t raise their eyes from the hem of a dress. It was sweet, and old fashioned, and we didn’t interrupt any more than was necessary to buy a drink.

The bar was covered, not in the slick, plasticky, non-soak bar runners of most new establishments, but in soft, almost tea-towel like branded cloths. Hanging on hooks near the till were bags of home-made pork scratchings. The woman serving was lovely and incredibly helpful. Overhearing the words ‘gin and tonic’ in our discussion about what we might order, however, she looked at my friend in disgust. “We have over 50 Belgian beers.” she said. “Would you not be interested in a. . . well a Belgian beer?”.

Leah agreed to consider a Belgian beer. She was asked a couple of expert questions, and served a light red drink that promised to taste of crushed strawberries. It tasted, and I promise you this, exactly like crushed strawberries. Not like strawberry ice-cream or strawberry jam, or even strawberry Ribena, it tasted just precisely like someone had filled a beer glass with fresh berries from their garden, battered them about a bit with a spoon, waved a magic wand to remove seeds, pulp, and lack of alcohol, and served it, refreshing and beautifully sweet, in The Elm Tree.

We took our drinks outside, away from the knights and princesses, whose story we had half interrupted, and sat at the picnic tables in the lane. I had sat exactly here on the Thursday I came, and it had been a picnic row of twenty year olds,

“I just um, I just don’t know if I want to go into academia, you know?”

. . .

“Yeah so, after graduation, we actually went to Cambodia. . .”

On a Sunday evening, however, there are a lot of old men with pony-tails, their hair even bushier, and further into the greying process than my own. “Cambridge,” one says, “is never what it was.” A woman and a man are discussing upholstery, and the possibilities of running an upholstery business online – where are the customers, they wonder, where are the upholsterers? I miss the answer to these questions, but later overhear its vehement conclusion “There is no way on God’s earth,” the woman asserts loudly, “I am ever moving to London”.

After a visit to The Elm Tree, it’s easy to see why not. It feels like home, like somewhere you could spend a summer, then a winter, then the rest of your life. There are picnic tables so one can sit outside, and when the night chill came the yellow lights of the pub gave us a warm welcome back in. There are posters, not just on the walls, but on the ceiling too. There are photographs, of customers or staff it is impossible to tell. It feels familial – like the kind of place you could meet your elderly hill-walking uncle, or your brother’s edgy new girlfriend. Or they’d both be there, and they’d be chatting