Why don’t we have a day out in Oxford, asked someone on the Beer & Pubs Forum. It sounded right up my street, with a great selection of characterful pubs full of historical and literary associations, in a city I hadn’t visited for thirty years. The only problem was that, while entirely feasible as a day trip by train from Stockport, Oxford is 143 miles away, and the standard return fare was a rather eyewatering £78. However, trainsplit.com came to the rescue and, taking advantage of split ticketing, I was able to get the price down to a much more reasonable £42, albeit at the cost of having a wad of thirteen tickets and reservations, as shown below.
So the tickets were duly booked, and the appointed day dawned very cold but sunny. I was able to get a through train in each direction and both trains were on time, which doesn’t always happen. I didn’t make any detailed notes, but here are some brief impressions of the pubs we visited.
- Castle – recently acquired by Hook Norton, but rather tucked away on the “wrong” side of the Westgate Centre. Outwardly attractive but internally rather ordinary. A perhaps over-ambitious range of both Hook Norton and guest beers, but my Hooky Bitter was very good, and others were impressed with the Double Stout.
- St Aldate’s Tavern – situated on one of the main streets just south of Carfax, this long, narrow pub was much busier. We were able to find seats in an upstairs room where tables had been reserved for the rugby from 2 pm onwards. One of those cases where you’re confronted by a row of beers you’ve never heard of before and have to make a snap decision in a crowded pub, I ended up with some Siren Undercurrent which didn’t really make much of an impression.
- Chequers – located down a narrow passageway off High Street, this is a historic building dating back to the 16th century, with characterful drinking areas on several levels. You have to cross the courtyard form the main part of the pub to reach the toilets. Those of us who wanted to eat were well fed at reasonable prices for a city-centre location. Thornbridge Jaipur was OK, but not the best example I have ever encountered. Now under the wing of M&B offshoot Nicholsons, the plaque in the doorway reflects its former ownership by Halls Brewery. While largely forgotten nowadays, in past decades Allied Breweries through their Halls subsidiary were the biggest pub owners in Oxford, and a 1983 Oxfordside Beer Guide shows many pubs serving Halls Harvest Bitter.
- Turf Tavern – tucked away down a couple of narrow passageways in the heart of the university, this is perhaps the most famous pub in Oxford. It has a extensive drinking courtyard, not surprisingly little used on such a cold day, and a warren of small, characterful rooms. It is now owned by Greene King, but also offered a choice of guest beers, although some felt the range was a little BBB-heavy. Nevertheless, I thought the Wadworth’s 6X was excellent, bursting with flavour and condition. Martin Taylor’s photo shows me looking suitably pleased with myself. For me, this was both the beer and the pub of the day.
- King’s Arms – very close to the Turf Tavern, but much easier to find as it is prominently situated on a street corner. Today it was covered with scaffolding, but still very much in business. I’d been here a couple of times in the distant past, but had only been in the two more spacious front rooms, and hadn’t realised there were a couple of small, cosy snugs at the rear. It’s a Young’s pub, but most people went for St Austell Tribute, a new cask of which had just been put on. I had Young’s Special, a beer we hardly ever see around here, which was pretty decent.
- Lamb & Flag – on the east wide of the broad, handsome St Giles, this is a free house owned by St John’s College. Like many in Oxford, it’s a narrow pub running a long way back from the street. One of its claims to fame is serving Palmers beers from Bridport in Dorset, and I wasn’t disappointed by the Palmers IPA, although there were the inevitable complaints that this rather malty beer wasn’t really representative of modern IPAs. There were also a number of beers from other breweries. I was saddened to read on Twitter of the death of comedy actress Emma Chambers, who played Alice in “The Vicar of Dibley”, at the age of only 53.
- We took a brief look inside the Eagle & Child, situated opposite the Lamb & Flag, and famous for its links with Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, to see its small front snugs, before heading on to the Three Goats Heads, Sam Smith’s only pub in Oxford. Trusting to navigation from memory, maybe not the best idea at this stage of a pub crawl, we ended up heading down the wrong street before finally consulting Google Maps. This has a characterful interior on two levels and, right in the heart of the city centre, attracts a much younger and more upmarket crowd than typical of Sam’s pubs in the North. You also get to pay Sam’s southern rather than northern prices, so it isn’t quite such a bargain, although still well below the Oxford average. I went for the 5% ABV keg India Ale, never seen in my local Sam’s pubs, but the verdict on the cask Old Brewery Bitter was good too.
- We finished up in the Pint Shop, a recent shop conversion belonging to a chain which also has a branch in Cambridge. Martin Taylor wanted to call in here is it was a possible “pre-emptive” tick for future Good Beer Guides. It was very busy, but I have to say not really my kind of place. There was a long blackboard list of craft keg beers, some at eyewatering prices, with three cask beers at the bottom. I didn’t note which brewery produced Maharaja - served in a straight-sided half-pint tankard, it was a fairly reasonable £3.50 a pint, but was to be honest somewhat forgettable.
In summary, it was an excellent day out, with plenty of good beer and stimulating conversation. It was good to see familiar faces again and also meet for the first time Tim Thomas from West Berks CAMRA and local resident Tim Hampson, who is currently the Acting Editor of What’s Brewing and BEER. Martin Taylor has been doing a pub-by-pub write-up of the day on his blog, starting here.
It was noticeable how busy almost all the pubs were, and how many younger people were amongst the clientele. However, this is only to be expected in such a major student and tourist city, and it would be rash to draw any lessons for estate pubs in Oldham or Oswaldtwistle. The return train was also virtually full all the way to Manchester, which shows how much times have changed since the days when, after 8 pm, you could often virtually have a carriage to yourself.
Unfortunately, it meant I had to miss my local CAMRA branch’s Pub of the Year presentation at Sam Smith’s excellent Blue Bell in Levenshulme, but the Oxford trip had been arranged, booked and paid for well in advance, and realistically you can’t have everything.