I ventured out to judge the candidates put forward by the other Branches for the competition. First up, the two from Huntingdonshire Branch beginning with the excellent Chequers at Little Grandsden. Run by the same family for the last 56 years, and currently in the hands of Bob and Wendy Mitchell, this is a classic, unspoilt village local which deserves its place in CAMRA's regional inventory of pub interiors of historic interest - the public bar with its bench seating and roaring fire is a gem. Three changing guest beers are currently served but Bob is in the process of constructing his own brewery so home - brewed ales aren't far away. The Chequers enjoys strong support from the small village it serves and is where the local clubs and societies tend to meet.
Down the road into St Neots next where the local Lord John Russell can be found, perhaps with some difficulty, in Russell Street. Owned by Bateman's, the Lincolnshire brewery, the pub's back street, out of town centre location makes it very much part of the surrounding community. The present licensees have only been there a year or so and recently won a "Most Improved Pub" award from the local CAMRA Branch. I was struck by the wide age range of the clientele and the very friendly welcome. Lots of charity fund-raising events happen here along with social activities like bands, quizzes and karaoke. Six real ales are served, some on handpump and some on gravity, with a mixture of Bateman's own and guests.
On to the Ely nominations now, starting with an old favourite of mine, the Prince Albert in Ely. Run for many years now by Mike and Ann, this is another back-street local with a very loyal following, though strangers are also made immediately welcome. The pub has won many CAMRA awards over the years and is a fixture in the Good Beer Guide for its corking Greene King ales, including the rare XX Mild. It's another pub where lots of money is raised for charity - over £3000 last year. Any noise in the pub derives not from music or gaming machines but the buzz of conversation; it's one of those pubs where you quickly get drawn into the chat with the locals, who seem to be experts on every subject under the sun!
The other Ely Branch pub, the Red Lion at Stretham, was unfortunately in the process of changing hands when I visited so obviously had to be discounted from the contest. The temporary manager was friendly enough but the place was clearly in transition and the real ale was poor in both selection and quality.
The first of the Peterborough pubs I visited was the Blue Bell, Maxey, up near Stamford. And what a belter of a village local it is. I'd visited some years back when the pub had reopened after a long spell of closure. The new landlord had stripped away all the accumulated tat to reveal lots of original features, and it still looks a picture with low beams, flagstones and old wooden benches. On a Sunday lunchtime, the place was very lively and the customers were both friendly and from a wide age range (always a good sign). The current licensees, Ron and Kathleen Cook, clearly go out of their way to place the pub at the fulcrum of this small village, organising lots of social and fund-raising events. These include the Maxey Classic Car Show in August where proud owners bring along their cars and over 1000 people turn up to admire them (and raise £1500 for local charities). On the real ale front, six were on offer including Oakham JHB and delicious Abbeydale ales from Sheffield.
Final port of call was the Palmerston Arms in Peterborough itself. This is another Batemans- owned pub though it sells a very wide variety of beers from other brewers as well, all served direct from casks in the cellar. Although it's a smashing little pub, I felt it didn't really meet the criteria for this competition as the community which it is aimed at is very much the real ale drinking one, so the client mix is restricted accordingly.
After the votes from the other Branches had been counted, it was very close between the Prince Albert, the Carlton and the Blue Bell, but the last just came out on top. Congratulations to it and the other pubs. Their communities would be very much the poorer without them, as would a host of others throughout the county. Support your local now!