27 September 2022

Spies, floods, pub crawls
and drink-laden claims for
so many in the King’s Arms

A prime location by the River Ouse makes the King’s Arms (left) an attractive venue in York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

The King Street Run is one of the adventurous – if misguided – pub crawls in Cambridge, a bi-annual combined run and pub crawl that takes place along King Street, and involves having a drink in every pub on King Street.

When the King Street Run began in Cambridge in the 1950s, it involved having a pint in every one of the seven pubs on King Street.

King Street runs from the back of Sidney Sussex College to the Four Lamps roundabout and is parallel to Jesus Lane. At one point it had over a dozen pubs. The King Street Run at No 84 takes its name from this escapade. But many pubs have disappeared in recent decades, including the King’s Arms at No 1, once the first pub on the street and now the site of a modern block that includes the Cambridge Brew House.

In the past, I have enjoyed the welcome in most of the surviving pubs on King Street, including the Cambridge Brew House or former King’s Arms at No 1, the Champion of the Thames at No 68, the King Street Run at No 86, and St Radegund at No 129.

The Cambridge Brew House (left) is the site of the former King’s Arms at No 1 King Street, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I share with many the habit of comparing lists when I think of Cambridge and Oxford: which has the most elegant or the oldest Pembroke or Saint John’s?

Is it Magdalene or Magdalen? – an easy way to remember is that Cambridge end with an E, Oxford does not. Queen’s College or Queens’ College?

Why is there a King Street but no King’s College in Oxford? – Oriel College holds the answer to that question.

Why is there no cathedral in Cambridge?

Once again, I found myself making silly comparisons such as these when I found myself outside the King’s Arms in Oxford recently.

The King’s Arms claims not only that it is the oldest pub in Oxford, but that it is ‘Oxford’s most lively local pub’ and also, not only that it is one of the main student pubs in Oxford but that it is the brainiest pub in Oxford too, with the highest IQ per square foot of any pub or any bar anywhere.

But then, they are inclined to make claims like that in Oxford.

The King’s Arms claims it is the brainiest pub in Oxford, with the highest IQ per square foot of any pub or any bar anywhere (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The King’s Arms – known locally as the KA – stands on a prominent position on the corner of Parks Road and Holywell Street, opposite the new Bodleian Library building. The King's Arms pub is owned by Wadham College, just to the north.

The site was originally occupied by buildings erected by Augustinian friars in 1268. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, the land passed to the City of Oxford.

A new pub opened on 18 September 1607, and the new licensee, Thomas Franklyn, named his inn after King James I (1603-1625), who was involved with Wadham College.

The King’s Arms was a popular venue for plays in the 17th century. Later, it was both a coaching inn and an hotel.

But it has been a nest of spies too – the Cambridge spies, of course.

Graham Greene, who went to Baliol College, Oxford, worked with both Kim Philby and John Cairncross, and his novels may have inspired naming the ‘Cambridge Three’ and the ‘Cambridge Five.’

In his interviews with his biographer Norman Sherry, Graham Greene identified the King’s Arms as the pub where he drank with Kim Philby and other intelligence officers around 1944.

Philby’s recollections indicate Greene was a practical joker in the comfortable confines of the King’s Arms. Philby wanted to promote Greene, but the writer rejected promotion and resigned.

It is said that some dons held tutorials in the back bar as late as the 1970s. Until 1973, the back bar, known as the Don’s Bar, was not open to women, the last such bar in Oxford.

These stories of spies, misogynists and boozy tutorials in Oxford and of the King Street Run in Cambridge, came to mind again a few ago as I was walking along the banks of the River Ouse in the centre of York and came across the King’s Arms, on the corner with King Street.

The King’s Arms in York is the only surviving building to form part of First Water Lane, a mediaeval street that was demolished in a slum clearance programme in 1852 and was rebuilt as King Street.

The King’s Arms was built in the early 17th century, with the upper floor and north and east walls timber framed. The south and west walls are particularly thick, to provide some protection against flooding, and built of brick and stone, some of which is reused from mediaeval buildings.

The building originally had no fireplaces or internal walls, and so is believed to have been built as a warehouse or custom house from trade coming up the River Ouse. A legend claims that the bodies of executed criminals were laid out in the building, before being hanged from Ouse Bridge.

The ‘King’s Arms’ was renamed as the ‘Ouse Bridge Inn’ in 1867. However, the ‘King’s Arms’ name was reinstated when the pub was renovated in 1973, and the King’s Arms was Grade II listed in 1983.

The King’s Arms is known nationally as ‘The Pub that Floods.’ The pub floods, on average, four times a year, it does not hold flood insurance, and the plugs and sockets are fitted have halfway up the wall. In the past, it stayed open for regulars even when it was flooded. But this is no longer allowed, as the river water may be contaminated.

The brewery put a new flood protocol in place in 1982. A flood gate is put across the front door, and customers are served in the back bar. Once the flood waters reach the back door, the pub is closed, and all the fixtures and fittings can be dismantled and stored upstairs.

The beer and electrics are all upstairs and so are not damaged even by floodwaters 4.5 metres above usual river levels. A chart on the wall marks historic flood heights, the highest being 2000, when floodwater nearly reached the ceiling of the bar.

And yet, the prime riverside location makes the King’s Arms an attractive venue for local people and tourists alike, and it can be very busy on warm sunny days.

The pub sign depicts Richard III. How many customers at the King’s Arms, waiting in dread or in anticipation for the winter floods or in pleasure watching boats on the Ouse in summer, find themselves under that sign and saying:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York.

The pub sign at the King’s Arms in York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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