Monday, 26 February 2018

Following in the footsteps of Morse

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.
I then had to catch my train home, but a couple who were staying a bit later also called in at the Good Beer Guide-listed White Rabbit, which they reported as being extremely busy.

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.

30 comments:

  1. Well done for saying in 500 words what it's taking me 5000 words to do.

    "some felt the range was a little BBB-heavy" - I know which side I was on there !

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    1. Both reports were a lot of fun to read. Good stuff.

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    2. On the BBB-heavy thing I suspect I was on the other side.

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    3. "Both reports were a lot of fun to read. Good stuff."

      Agreed.

      Would've been better had we been there in person. :)

      Cheers

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    4. It's probably already well-covered, and if so then I apologise. However, for us ordinary, casual pub goers (rather than CAMRA members) I'd like to hear a bit more about the consensus, as to what constitutes Boring Brown Bitter.

      As it stands, I'd guess at the likes of Fuller's Pride, Adnam's, Doom Bar, Marston's Pedigree perhaps, and suchlike. On the other hand, if you asked me, then I'd probably exclude Young's, Tetley's, Brain's, and so on, being more amber in colour, and possessing enough bite to offset any cloying aspects. HH

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    5. Just like craft beer, there's no formal definition. The term was originally coined in the 1990s by the "pale'n'hoppy" movement as a derogatory description - as "boring brown beer" - of the beers they were reacting against.

      It's been taken up in an ironic sense by people such as me who want to champion those beers. But it can refer both to normal "balanced" beers like Pedigree and London Pride, and to those of a more distinctly malty character such as Bombardier and Strongarm.

      There are plenty of contemporary brewers who have produced beers in that style, such as Stonehouse Station Bitter and Weetwood Eastgate Ale. Indeed I'd argue that many mainstream drinkers tend to prefer them to one-dimensional hop bombs.

      Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy plenty of heavily-hopped beers such as Hawkshead Lakeland Gold and Marble Manchester Bitter, although I do get a bit fed up of those that taste like alcoholic grapefruit juice.

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  2. Yes, as Martin says, it's a concise summary of a good day out, and yet it did enough for me to bring back happy memories of our stays in Oxford over several years, as two of our sons passed through its colleges.

    For my money, the King's Arms is my favourite Oxford pub, but that's maybe just down to its selling Young's, which connects me with my erstwhile local the Richard I in Greenwich, from yet another life.

    Yes Mudge, you do look relaxed and comfortable, as well you might, sat there in (after Cambridge I think) the most Remain-voting part of England! (I wonder how Gina Miller would have felt in the William Jamieson in Sunderland?).

    Cheers, HH (maybe another).

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    1. Maybe I'm being thick here, but do I know who "HH" is?

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    2. No, we're not personally acquainted Mudge. If you really want to follow in Morse's footsteps though, then you'll need to hone your cryptic crossword solving skills, if you haven't already. I recommend the Guardian's Picaroon as a reliably knotty setter. (That should keep you out of trouble for an hour or so each day.) HH

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    3. I've never really got my head around cryptic crosswords. And it would involve buying the Guardian, so that's not going to happen, is it?

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    4. You can download them for free, or there's always the Times. I'd recommend the pastime. It has helped me to move away from a perhaps-too-literal understanding of language. It's also a perfect excuse to sit peacefully, to observe life around you in the pub, and to enjoy a pint or two of large-scale-produced, traditional cask ale, as one does. HH

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    5. Each to their own,naturally,but I can see from your posts why you often find yourself alone in pubs doing a crossword.

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    6. No, Syd, it's a shared relaxation with my better half, and with other like minds at some of our preferred pubs. However, if push came to shove, then yes, being alone is better than being with some types I have found (as did the fictional Inspector Morse.) I've never needed to feel safety in numbers for my points of view. You? HH

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    7. If you want to take the missus to the pub and spend your time doing a crossword instead of having a conversation that's entirely up to you old sport.
      By the way if you're stuck on Four Across - what does HH stand for - the answer is pompous arsehole.

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    8. I don't take her to the pub, sunbeam. She takes me. HH

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  3. The other Mudgie !26 February 2018 at 18:15

    The Maharaja was from the West Berks Brewery.
    The Kings Arms is perhaps Oxford's Hop Pole though different in many ways.
    Is it, and Cambridge, the most Remain-voting part of England because the populous there is educated ?
    The train "was also virtually full" in part because proper loco hauled eight or nine carriage trains have been replaced by those dreadful four or five carriage Voyager DMUs.

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    1. The frequencies have been considerably increased, though, as well. There are two trains an hour between Manchester and Birmingham now, whereas in the late 70s there was one every two hours. The total number of rail passengers has doubled in the past twenty years.

      I remember in the late 70s doing a train trip from Birmingham to Bristol, and coming back on a train that maybe left Bristol at 7.30 pm having an entire carriage to myself.

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  4. That post made me miss Oxford. The beer quality and diversity has definitely changed since I haunted it when I worked for the NHS. Oxfordshire's where it all began for me. I miss the intellectuals and the yokels

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    1. Interesting point about beer diversity; I was surprised how similar the beer ranges in the pubs we visited (Pint Shop apart) was to what I'd have seen on trips to the Manor Ground 20-odd years ago. Not complaining, the 6X, Palmers, Tribute, Pedigree, Hooky and Sam Smiths all good. Only the XT and West Berks disappointed.

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    2. There was a fair bit of modern/crafty stuff on the handpumps in the St Aldate's Tavern and Lamb & Flag in particular.

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  5. About 5 years ago I was in Oxfordshire. Had nothing particular to do before going back to London on the Sunday so went to Oxford itself. I used the park and ride as I had heard Oxford was unfriendly to cars: I think that that site is currently occupied by travellers.

    On the way in I saw the Lamb and Flag. I got off the bus and wandered back. It was lunchtime but apart from me there were only three other customers: a student having a roast lunch with her parents it seemed. I had a very decent pint of St Austell, only real ale on offer, but how does a pub survive on this level of trade?

    After a bit more outside sightseeing I went into the Ashmoleam Museum; it was winter and got dark early. It was free but I would have been prepared to pay say £2.50 for the one and a half hours I spent in there. Some museums and art galleries want to charge £7.50, often with a year’s free return. Too expensive, especially for a family: only good value if you live locally.

    After, I went into the Eagle & Child, about 5-6 pm. A few people but I don’t think that they were staying for the evening. Another perfectly acceptable pint of real ale: I don’t remember what only that I saw someone with a handle glass and asked for one too. No problem.

    These were nice pubs, good locations, decent beer even historical connections: but still few customers.

    Few visitors in the Ashmoleam Museum too, so charging would not raise much.

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    1. Both of these pubs were pretty busy on a Saturday teatime - indeed the whole city centre was busy at that time. A winter midweek may be different.

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    2. "Teatime" Mudge? I take it that you mean about six in the evening, and not three-thirty in the afternoon? Cookie might think that there's hope for you after all eh? ;-) HH

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  6. A good blog on some boozers I'd like to visit 👍 Martin shares your views and it's on my radar...not tried split train before...is it worth the hassle

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    1. It's not really any more hassle than booking normal rail tickets online. Obviously you lose flexibility by booking any rail tickets in advance, but certainly worth it for a big saving. I wouldn't bother for a few quid, though.

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    2. It really is worthwhile. I generally find that with splitting I can travel first class for the same price as steerage without splitting. Mind you that is usually Cross Country down to the southwest where fares are high and standards are low.

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  7. My recollection of the beers at the time I worked there were Morrells, Brakspears, Morlands and occasionally Wadworth.

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  8. Halls, part of Ind Coope (Allied), were big in Oxford until the late 1980's. As they disposed of pubs, we saw Youngs, Fullers, Marstons, Arkells and Wadworth gain or extend their holdings in Oxford. The other big local brewer in terms of pubs was Morrells, whilst Morland had a handful of tied houses and Brakspear has just one or two.

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  9. I have to say I was really impressed with the general, very good condition of the cask beer on the day , even the pint of Camerons Strong arm in the Turf Tavern, a beer I would normally consider BBB, was very drinkable.

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  10. The other Mudgie !1 March 2018 at 02:16

    Citra,
    I think we're all agreed about the general very good condition of the cask beer on the day.
    I commented elsewhere that "after noon it was good beer everywhere".

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