Pubs are an essential part of Oxford’s culture, student or otherwise, here are 4 of my historic favourites.
Last week I was summoned to Oxford for a friend’s 30th birthday pub-crawl. Oxford is a perfect place to do this. Remember that for nearly one thousand years the students of these beautiful colleges have been quaffing and burping their way through their qualifications to positions of supreme power in England, and for a while, the world. This is not an authoritative list but it is got to be a very strong sample of the best Oxford has to offer in taverns. Apologies for the lack of photography – I had a camera but inexplicably refused to use it even once… Click the links in each section to have a look at their websites.
The Grapes, on George Street
This is exactly the kind of pub I want to see survive on a busy thoroughfare. There are a couple of trashy chain venues around here but The Grapes is a little slice of class. A nice lack of any pale pine furniture is an instant relief as you enter, as are the tiled walls. This place has obviously been refurbished quite recently as there’s a silky smooth bar surface, missing the dints and scrapes of centuries of pint jars being rubbed around. There are now glistening chrome taps, and the back bar display is definitely focused on quality over quantity – with my favourite single malt whisky, Talisker, and my favourite gin, Hendricks, taking pride of place. The tap beers are from the Bath Ales Company, who runs The Grapes, and were a welcome new discovery for me. Highly recommended as a stop off to or from the train station. Or, as we used it, to start a crawl.
The Bear Inn, on Blue Boar Street
A quick search on our smartphones led us to The Bear Inn, a Fuller’s brewery owned pub on a side road off of St. Aldate’s. This place has eccentricity AND age as its best selling points so it’s pretty much perfect in my reckoning. Step through the door and, at 6’3″ tall I was unable to stand up completely straight. The tobacco-yellow ceiling sagged deeper on one side of the room than the other, and brushed my hair. The Bear Inn apparently dates from 1242 and is therefore much older than several other institutions that you may have heard of such as the ‘USA’, ‘Spain’, ‘Russia’, ‘Britain’, ‘Italy’, and ‘JD Wetherspoons’. The walls are weirdly covered with display cases of severed neck-ties. Rumour has it that a previous landlord used to simply snip off a person’s tie if he liked the pattern, and then frame it. Whether this is true or not I simply don’t care – Go British Eccentricity! On my visit the tap room was full of the gorgeous wintry aroma of mulled cider and wine. It’s the single greatest smell possible in any drinking establishment. Sadly the mulled cider heater was being naughty so I settled for a pint of strong and creamy Fuller’s Indian Pale Ale. I drank it under the patio heaters outside and watched idiotic crane flies trying to embrace the columns of flame which were carefully and successfully positioned to warm us all up. A must-see drinking hole by anyone’s reckoning!
St. Aldates Tavern, on, surprisingly, St. Aldate’s
At the western end of the road containing the Bear Inn you’ll see the pretty facade of the recently re-opened St. Aldates Tavern. Dodge the buses and reward yourself with another wide range of excellent ales, or a spirits cabinet to die for. The Hobgoblin chain rescued this place and there’s all kinds of loveliness to be had here. It’s not, in my opinion, the prettiest of venues inside (give it time) but it doesn’t need to be when it’s all about quality behind the bar. And while I think about it there’s a lot of quality over the bar too as the snacks are to die for. We had a platter of sliced battered pig’s ears and it was absolutely amazing melt-in-your-mouth stuff. None of this chewy, cold, slightly nauseating crap I tried in Xi’an, China.
Turf Tavern, just off Holywell Street
This one’s a higgledy-piggledy gem from the distant past. The original pub on the site was built in the 13th Century but the current bar is from at least the 17th Century, when it was called the Spotted Cow (thank ye Wikipedia – it’s gotta be a renowned boozer if it has its own Wiki!). It is fairly hard to find the Turf Tavern if you don’t know where you’re going because it’s down a series of alleyways behind the Bodleian Library and Radcliffe Camera. Stick with it though, find it, it is worth the search. It bills itself as a ‘Real Ale Pub’ so you know there’s going to be plenty on offer. It was pretty busy when I visited but there are two bars so you’ll probably find one of them less busy than the other. The patio area was nice and comfy too, a good place to soak up a bit of Oxford’s past.
There are over 100 pubs in the Oxford area so you’ll be spoilt for choice if you don’t try to be a little bit selective. I hope these four can help your day out in this beautiful city pass in happy haze. They did for me.