A new pub has opened on Regent Street, sprung like a mushroom from the fallen trunk of what must be, I suppose, Cambridge’s oldest working shop, and was certainly the oldest cycle shop in the country if not the world, Howes Cycles.
When Howes closed three years ago, it had been established on the street for an impressive 173 years, run all that time by the same family. John Howes established the business in 1840, initially as a coachbuilder and wheel-wright, and from 1869 as a bicycle specialist. It proudly counts Charles Darwin as a customer (although since Darwin finished his studies in Cambridge in 1831 and was only sporadically resident in the years after his return from South America, and after 1840 so far as I can make out not at all, this might be hard to justify).
It was not, truth be told, the most prepossessing shop, towards the end of its time. Like other Cambridge institutions – Sam Smiley, Fitzbillies, Martins, Colin Lunn – it had fallen on rather lugubrious times. Newer, sharper businesses have stepped in, and that is probably as well. The site of Howes Cycles, for example, has been taken over by the City Pub Company, which runs The Mill and the Cambridge Brew House, both very fine pubs – although 50% of the business of the latter, and an estimated 60% of the business of the new establishment, will be food rather than beer, so perhaps pub is the wrong word.
The new beer-house/eatery, then, will be called The Old Bicycle Shop, which must be singularly depressing for the former owner, Michael Howe, whose family history is now marketable heritage (there is an old delivery bike hanging over the door, and, if you steel yourself, it isn’t hard to imagine what the inside will look like). However, businesses have their life cycle, and must embrace death and decay just as they welcome growth. 173 years, when all is said and done, is probably long enough.