When I first knew the Cow and Calf in the early eighties it was very much an Irish pub, with rebel songs on the jukebox and a map of a united Ireland on the wall. It also had a reputation as a haunt of members of the oldest profession. Tolly Cobbold was then the leaseholder and a single handpump dispensed Original (though there was also a magnificent but unused bank of ancient handpulls).
In the summer of 1995 Les Shiret took over the tenancy; he had formerly been at the John Barleycorn, Coton (also now closed), which had been a regular in the Good Beer Guide. Before that Les had led a varied career, including time on the 'other side' as an excise man.
Les quickly expanded the range of beers and the Tolly Mild holds especially fond memories for me. As an inmate of nearby Shire Hall, this became my lunchtime local (in the days when I had time for lunch . . .). A few years later, Tolly's lease expired and Les managed to secure the next nine years leasehold. This made the Cow and Calf a true free house, a badge which Les wore with pride, as the only other pub in the city which then qualified as genuinely free (and still does) was the St Radegund.
In those days Les was a great stickler for beer quality and refused to have any truck with agencies, always insisting on buying his ales direct form the brewery. As a result the Cow and Calf never became the sort of free house where the beer menu changed daily and there was always an amount of brewery hogwash on the bar. However, quality ales from local independent brewers could also be found at all times. Les was a great supporter of Nethergate and more recently of City of Cambridge, and Mauldons and Elgoods beers were also regulars. Every now and then Les would strike a deal with a more distant brewery; the months when York Terrier was a regular are fondly remembered.
The Cow and Calf was a two-roomed pub. The large back room, dominated by a pool table, was functional but dull. The narrow, cosy front bar, on the other hand, was a delight, especially when the open fire was blazing. At least one of the pub cats was likely to be in attendance, usually in a place which would not have secured the approval of the Environmental Health Officer. However, the pub derived most of its character from the fact that it was somewhere where people gathered and talked, helped very much by Les's own loquacity. He loved to gossip about the local licensed trade (he was the local Licensed Victuallers Association Chairman for many years) and his usual greeting to me was "What's going on then, Paul?", followed by lengthy exchanges of intelligence on the Cambridge pub scene. During the years that I edited ALE, this information was invaluable.