How the Shorts saved historic country inn
Added: Sunday, April 15th 2012
The phone was answered and a voice said: “Queen’s Head, Newton.” “Is that Mr Short?” I asked. “Well, it’s one of them,” was the reply.
It was a good response, for the Shorts are a family institution. This autumn they will celebrate 50 years as landlords of the Cambridgeshire pub. The Queen’s Head has been in every edition of the Good Beer Guide and if it’s selected for the 2013 volume that will mean 40 uninterrupted years in the real ale drinkers’ bible.
Newton is a few miles from Cambridge but it’s not a suburb. It’s a flourishing village with the red-brick pub and its imposing chimneys at its centre. It stands opposite the village green, at the junction of five roads known locally as the Five Wentways.
The Queen’s Head is ancient and venerable. It dates from 1729 and it was originally a coaching inn on the road from Cambridge to Kings Lynn, with stables and accommodation.
But by the 1960s, when the Short family arrived on the scene, the pub was rundown and had been on the market for three years. As a tied house, it had changed owners several times as a result of takeovers and had ended up in the unloving hands of Whitbread. It was in such a bad state of repair that the local council was threatening to knock it down.
Then Clifford Short, his wife and their son David arrived, fell in love with the pub and agreed to buy it on the spot. A member of the council assured them it would be safe from demolition in their hands.
“Now it’s a listed building,” David Short says, “and no one can touch it. We paid £4,000 for it – and we had to pay in cash. No cheques in those days. We had to pay an extra £40 for the stock.
“Suddenly, with no experience of the pub trade – I’d never poured a pint in my life -- we found ourselves standing behind the bar and serving the former landlord.”
David, who now runs the pub with his son (pictured above) – it was Robert Short who had answered my phone call – describes the Queen’s Head when they bought it as “primitive”. It had no inside sanitation, just two power points and outside Ladies and Gents with buckets under the seats. The family lived on the premises “but we had the good fortune to be in a charming village where people let us use their bathrooms.”
The Shorts came from London. Clifford, better known as Harry, had been a civil servant with the Ministry of Food while David was an accountant. Harry retired at 60 but, in David’s words, “didn’t want to vegetate.” They had a plan to buy an old building and restore it and a friend suggested getting a pub. The Shorts went to see a broker in Bloomsbury who said he had a rundown pub in Cambridgeshire on his books.
It’s not rundown any more. The Shorts have been at pains to maintain the heritage of the building but they have carefully improved it. When they moved in, it had just one bar. Now the public bar has been joined by a warm, spacious saloon that was once a store room while the family living room at the back was formerly where beer casks were kept.
The public bar has old settles, wooden benches and tables, with a warming stove. Old photos, sketches and cartoons decorate the walls, with pride of place given to a stuffed goose called Belinda, who used to patrol the small car park alongside the pub. There’s also a list of the 18 landlords that have run the pub since the early 18th century. A room leading off the bar has a darts board and the old English table game, Devil Among the Tailors.
The saloon has a large inglenook, a separate log-burning fireplace, heavy beams and half-timbered walls. A central serving area, topped by a frieze of hops, looks after both bars, with beer from casks in full view of the customers. The Queen’s Head has never had handpumps and David Short, a charming and soft-spoken man, only shows signs of irritation if customers have the temerity to suggest he should install pumps and tight sparklers. “Beer from the cask – that’s the way it’s meant to be served,” he insists. “No lines and beer on gravity.”
When the family took over, the pub sold Flowers Bitter. When Whitbread bought Flowers, a rep from the national brewery arrived one day and said he’d come to change the beer to Whitbread Tankard, a major keg brand of the time.
“You’re not changing anything,” Harry Short told the rep. “This is a free house and I’ll serve what I want.” He switched to Truman’s Bitter but when Truman’s closed he was offered another keg beer, Ind Coope Double Diamond. That was rejected and he turned instead to Adnams, in those days a small brewery in Suffolk serving just its tied estate.
“We’d never heard of Adnams but a customer recommended them,” David Short says. “We made contact with them just when their directors were debating whether they should expand their trading area. They sent us a free cask and it went down well.
“At first they would deliver beer to Newmarket, where we had to pick it up. Now they deliver direct. When we first started to sell their beer, there’d be a queue outside the pub at six in the evening.”
There’s only space for three casks behind the bar. Adnams’ Bitter and Broadside are regulars, with the third cask reserved for one of the Southwold brewery’s seasonals.
Just three years after taking over the Queen’s Head, the Shorts found themselves in the full glare of national publicity when the Shah of Persia and his wife dropped in. They were making a state visit to Britain in 1965 at the invitation of Prime Minister Harold Wilson. One of Wilson’s ministers, the peer Lord Walston, who lived in Newton, invited the Shah and his wife to stay at his place. When the royal couple dropped in to the pub they played their first and probably only game of darts.
Then in the early 1970s the Queen’s Head was discovered by the newly-formed Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). David Short says the four founding members visited the pub when the first edition of the Good Beer Guide was being planned and the Queen’s Head soon became a beacon for cask beer when keg was in the ascendancy.
CAMRA members from Cambridge were not only regular visitors but worked behind the bar. They included John Bishopp, who helped run the campaign’s first national beer festival in London’s Covent Garden in 1975, and Chris Bruton and Tony Millns, who both went on to become national chairmen of the organisation.
Robert Short has an even closer relationship with the Queen’s Head: he was born there – “born under the barrels,” he says. David Short adds: “My wife Juliet was in labour upstairs when the brewery turned up to drop off beer. I called down: ‘There’s a more important delivery going on up here’.”
Robert is a skilled cabinet maker by profession but now runs the pub full time with his father. They are joint licensees but he will take over completely with his wife Caroline when David and Juliet retire to a cottage over the road and the younger Shorts move into the pub.
The dynasty will continue and it will continue without any noise. “We don’t do events,” David Short says. “Every day’s an event. We don’t need to advertise. People know if there’s a good pub in the area. We don’t have music or TV – the pub is for conversation.
“The joy for us is when the door opens and a new face comes in.”
The Queen’s Head dates from 1729. It became a tied house of Phillip’s of Royston, Hertfordshire, which was taken over by Green’s of Luton. Green’s bought Flowers Brewery in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1954 and busily promoted one of the first national processed beers, Flower’s Keg. Both Green’s and Flowers were taken over by the national Whitbread group and the Newton pub became part of the Whitbread estate.
It’s been a free house – and proudly proclaims the fact in large white letters on the outside wall – since the Short family arrived in 1962.
The pub sign displays the image of Anne of Cleves (1515-1557) who was the fourth wife of Henry VIII and survived him. The sign is based on a portrait of her by the artist Holbein.
“She has no connection with the area whatsoever,” David Short says. “When Flowers owned the pub, they had a collection of inn signs and they put that one up here.”
Wet sales – Adnams cask beers, Bitburger German lager and wine – account for two-thirds of the business. “That hasn’t changed since we bought the pub,” David Short says.
He doesn’t disclose the pub’s income: “It’s enough to keep me.”
The Queen’s Head, in common with most pubs in the 1960s, sold no food apart from crisps. One day, when David was working behind the bar, his mother brought him some homemade soup to keep him going. One customer said: “That smells good – if you had that on every day, I’d buy it.”
“As he drank Gold Label barley wine and drove a sports car, I thought he should be encouraged to eat,” David says, “and we’ve been doing soup ever since.”
The Queen’s Head soup is now an institution and is made by David’s wife Juliet, with the rest of the staff chipping in. It’s never the same from one day to the next – the ingredients depend on what is available from the local butcher and greengrocer. Robert Short has designed a Soup of the Day list, like a Dulux paint chart, for customers.
The choice includes Dark Brown, Red Brown, Medium Brown, Light Brown, Yellowish and Green. The chart says “Green may include peas”.
Soup and sandwiches are available at lunchtime – the pub shuts in the afternoon – with cold meats during the evening. The sandwiches are made to order with meat from the local butcher.
Queen’s Head, Fowlmere Road, Newton, Cambridgeshire, CB22 7PG. 01223 870436. Open 11.30-2.30 and 6-11; 7-10.30 Sunday.
*First published in the Publican's Morning Advertiser.