So many questions in Oxford
You can call me naive and ignorant if you like but no, I hadn't realised that Oxford was a touristy place. I know better now.
The town attracts visitors of all kinds, from those following a Europe-in-twelve-days itinerary, to obsessional fans of Harry Potter and Inspector Morse, to sociologists studying the mechanisms by which the depraved British ruling class reproduces and perpetuates itself.
I am finished my business in the town by five, and the closest pub to fall into when I get back to the city centre is the Crown. A familiar beer, Five Points Railway Porter (£4.40, 2/5) is still enjoyable served much warmer than it should be.
The Royal Blenheim is more to my liking. This is what a tied pub should be like. It belongs to the White Horse brewery and offers a full range of their own beers.
I don’t know it yet, but the White Horse WHB (£3.30, 4.5/5) was the one of the best beers of my entire stay in Oxford. How do you get so much flavour into a beer of 3.8%? Huge perfumey aroma, massively sweet on the palate and then a balancing bitterness enough to leave you smacking your lips. Not quite bright but I gather that’s a feature. I had only been vaguely aware of White Horse before; this was one of those pints that makes you want to seek their beer out again.
There is some fine banter at the Royal Blenheim. Customer: Oh, imperial stout, a pint of that — Barman: It’s 12%, sir — Customer: I don’t care!
I’m hungry now. The Blenheim’s internet menu had tempted me with the promise of pies, but the kitchen is closed tonight. It’s time to make a move.
Just round the corner is the Bear, a Fuller’s pub, where I am lucky to bag the last free table. ESB feels like the right thing to order on a chilly Monday night in November. When it arrives, it costs £4.75 and is, and remains, murky (1.5/5). It tastes rich, sweet and extremely fruity.
|The room of ties|
The barman seems surprised by my paying in cash. I guess the the minimum £3 spend on a card wouldn’t really buy you anything other than a bag of crisps in here. I down my pint in the back snug, which is decorated with a framed necktie collection, and leave.
The Turf Tavern is a lovely, cosy pub but clearly trading on Morse-derived fame. The trouble with this kind of pub, the kind that is lucky enough to have a tourist trade even in November, is that the very small front bar gets clogged up with tourists who have never been in a pub before, and do not know how to keep out of the way of others who are trying to get in the door or get to the bar. Never mind, they’ll learn soon enough.
Some kind of bitter from Butcombe is on offer here and is OK (£4.50, 2.5/5). The front bar is a health and safety disaster waiting to happen, as the lanky barman constantly has to stoop to avoid hitting his head on the low beams behind the bar.
I’ve checked the menu in four previous pubs and can’t wait for food any longer. When my sausage and mash arrives, the sausages appear to have been cooked shortly after I left Wolverhampton this morning. Well, it’s food, and cibi condimentum esse famem, as Socrates said. Maybe I should have forked out for dinner in the Bear instead. But I have a strict rule that if the beer isn't good in a pub, the food won't be either. At the Bear I suspected it; The Turf kind of confirms it. What is wrong with pub companies?
It’s not far to the White Horse, a far cosier pub. As you enter there is Tribute, Doom Bar and Landlord, but go round to the front of the bar and a further three handpumps offer Brakspear Oxford Gold, White Horse and Shotover Prospect.
The last of these, from a brewery I’ve never heard of before, demonstrates that beer isn’t necessarily good just because it doesn’t come from a corporation. It’s extremely bland with a touch of caramel and aroma-free bitterness. But for once, it’s not the pub’s fault the beer is poor.
Possibly the biggest disappointment of the evening is the Eagle and Child. Who wouldn’t want a pint in J.R.R. Tolkien’s local?
Unlike almost every other pub in Oxford, it’s deserted in here tonight. A dreary range of pubco beers adorns the bar. The staff in pubco pubs are often compensated slightly for low wages, it seems, by being allowed to use the place as their personal disco, irrespective of what the customers might like to hear. Oasis blares through the nearly empty pub.
They don’t have pubcos in Middle Earth, which is why the ale in the Prancing Pony and Green Dragon is much better, I suspect, than in the Eagle and Child.
“My happiest hours are spent with three or four old friends in old clothes tramping together and putting up in small pubs,” wrote Tolkien’s friend, fellow Eagle & Child regular CS Lewis. Are there any of those pubs left?
On the way into town on foot the next morning, I spy the word “brew” on a sign across the street. I take a closer look just to check it’s not a nanobrewery. It isn’t – it’s a coffee place – but I’ve stumbled on a charming mews and found one of the pubs I was looking for.
The Gardeners Arms offers Wainwright, Rev James and its house beer from
Greene King, which is what I have. It’s a pleasant enough elevenses
beer, with some spice and a little bit of sulphur, though on the tepid
side. I am the first customer so perhaps the beer hasn't been pulled
through yet, or maybe that’s how people like it here; I have possibly
already mentioned that I get a lot of room temperature beer in Oxford.
It’s a lovely pub with a genteel, slightly Laura Ashley look, run by a couple who I have apparently interrupted having their lunch. The landlady says that the house beer is as close to the extinct Morell’s Varsity ale as Greene King can get it. As it’s the same badge brew I can drink in my Belhaven local in Glasgow, I’d be quite surprised if this were true, and it makes me wonder what Greene King’s sales people have been telling their customers. Still, Morell’s brewery is clearly fondly remembered here.
On the other side of the lane is the Rose & Crown, a much more rustic pub. A wide, half-boarded corridor leads to a front parlour with a piano and a back room where the bar is. Another White Horse beer, Village Idiot, is on offer here and it’s spectacular: pale and hoppy with citrus and a pleasing dry, bitter finish. Isn’t it awkward when you find the best beer in town as you’re about to leave? Despite the new world hops the beer feels very much at home in this gorgeous little pub.
Back in the city centre I pass The Grapes. Oh yes, that’s the West Berkshire Brewery place I read about. It looks trendy and you can‘t see any handpumps from outside. A US IPA is resiny and oily, and once again served at room temperature, even though someone else had been drinking it before me. Ironically enough I had given the mild a swerve out of fear it would have been sitting in the lines.
A group of older gentlemen are sitting opposite me at a table and one of them comes to the bar to ask for another pint in the same glass. Which he gets, despite the pumps having a swan neck which is thereby immersed in his dirty glass. Isn't that illegal?
In the famous Covered Market, after buying some cheese, I stop at the Teardrop, which is a nanopub – or in this case, a market stall with a licence. There are two other customers and it's full. I have a quick third of Ale X from the owners, Church Hanbrewery. Quick because it’s undrinkable crap and I can’t finish it. The yeast bite and lemony sourness are very unpleasant. Has it gone off, or was it shite to begin with? Why don’t they notice?
There doesn't seem to be anywhere to drink near the station so my last beer is at the Oxford Retreat, a recently refurbished, would-be upmarket place on the way. Brakspear’s Oxford Gold is copper, with a bit of spiky, orangey hop and decent bitter finish but ultimately on the bland side. Yet again, served at room temperature.
Maybe the beer will be better in London. (Spoiler: it was).