A midweek lunch spent at the College Arms in Peterborough is a weird and surreal experience, so don’t lose yourself.
Peterborough has drummed up something of a bad reputation in recent years.
It’s come first in the iLiveHere polling three out of the last five years as the worst place to live in the UK and in the two it didn’t win it came right up the top of the leaderboards, narrowly knocked off this year by Luton.
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A quick perusal of Tripadvisor tells you that there are a few candidates for the "worst pub in the city".
Both of the other leading contenders had recently closed, seemingly permanently, and so it fell to the College Arms, a JD Wetherspoons, to carry the title.
Of its 224 reviews on the site the biggest category, with a whopping 64 votes, was ‘Terrible – One star’.
One charming review read: “Seems to be understaffed tables clogged up with leftover plates & empty glasses everywhere.”
Another enraged punter simply titled their review “Awful!!” before levelling the damming verdict that the College had, “got to be the worst Wetherspoons I think I have ever visited…with the most miserable staff I have ever seen”.
The boozer is on Peterborough’s fabled nightlife street, the glamourously named Broadway – although glamorous Broadway is not.
Naturally then, dodging between gambling shops and windowless slot machine dens, I headed in for a midweek spot of lunch.
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Come Friday night the pub is the prime destination for pre-drinking, awash with the city’s finest drunkards hankering for a cheap pint before indulging in blaring music and sticky double mixers in the triple stack nightclub Embassy, Red Room and Flares directly across the road.
But today the College Arms was serving a different purpose.
On a cold lunchtime, the surprisingly busy pub was warm with big windows letting in floods of light on two sides of the building.
Like so many inner city Wetherspoons this is a vast boozer, its true size hidden from view to passers-by on the street.
At the bar, I pulled up next to a bloke with the reddest face I’ve ever seen, his skin flushed by years of heavy boozing.
Spotting him, the barkeep guessed his order. “Will it be a Carlsberg?”
This was always going to be a weird day out and I wasn’t scared of that.
Leaning into the destabilising feeling that only people who spend time in discount boozers during the daytime will know, I went for a rogue Quorn chicken nugget wrap and a pint of Guinness.
No amount of surrealism could get away from the power of this bargain – the whole thing came to just £6.67 and the Guinness was poured beautifully – on a recent pub trip in London, I picked up a terribly poured Guinness for £6.80.
The deals were everywhere. Most of the beers appeared to be around the £2.50 mark and the infamous Ruddle’s Best just £1.71.
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Taking a seat the gentle hubbub of easy chatter filled the air in the light and spacious side of the pub far away from the darkened corner where the slot machines were kept.
But one voice rose sharply above the hum.
Based on the purposeful confidence she commanded and drained world-weariness earned only through years of customer service I reckoned she must have been a manager.
She was good at her job and clearly cared, but my peaceful Guinness was thrown off by the constant barking of “James, can you refill the change in the till?” and “what was it this gentleman ordered?”
The highlight of the trip came when my wraps arrived. Ordered initially as a provocative effort to make the day as strange as possible, I tucked into a delicious feast of crisp chicken and generous helpings of elite sweet and sour sauce.
But soon the College started to get the better of me with the warm air, surreal atmosphere, heavy food and Guinness early in the day taking me off into a strange trance.
As I sunk deeper into my midweek fever dream, bits of conversations floated over.
“I don’t talk to my dad,” a girl and bloke with loud voices said seemingly almost in unison. I think it was a first date.
As the steady flow of blokes in paint-splattered hoodies went by and phrases like “welcome to Peterborough” drifted into my ear canals, I felt the College Arms pull up a big, smelly, but incredibly cosy blanket around me.
Outside it was cold and grey and Peterborugh’s clubbing district in the brutal light of day only seemed to make me feel more chilly, but in the College Arms things were warm and time passed without pain or effort.
“I could stay here all day,” I thought.
In this weird haze I saw the manager pouring sugar into an old bloke's tea for him as she told him what he was going to be ordering.
“We’ve got sausage chips and beans, would you like that, yep, ok great.”
His expression stayed exactly the same.
“My job is customer service,” she told him.
“My job is to look after the customers, no matter who they are and no matter how old they are.”
This was either heaven or prison, a strange in-between place where time stands still and everything is lovely in a terrifying way.
The sound of roughly nine quid hitting the tray of a slot machine brought me back, although by the winner’s completely unfazed expression, it looked like he was in a trance too.
Completely unsure of how long I’d been there I grabbed my coat and scurried out, time-warped and scared about what time it was I stepped back out into the real world.
Midweek this pub is pleasant and hellish in equal measure, but be careful in there because before you know it you might be the old bloke staring blankly while a stern manager tells you what’s for tea.
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