Oxford’s history is a gloriously prismatic thing, full of the characters and creative minds that have called the city and its colleges home. Its older pubs, as a result, are places with more personality than most – wherever you drink, stories appear. So where to go in search of an atmospheric pint or two? Here are five of the best Oxford pubs.
Thirty seconds’ walk (but a world away) from the High Street, this wood-panelled, fire-warmed snug is Oxford through and through: on our last visit, the conversation by the bar centred on biodiversity genomics. The current building dates back to the 1700s, although there’s been an inn of some form on the site since 1242, and over the centuries its tucked-away charm has made it the bolt hole of choice for everyone from judges to royal commissioners. It’s decidedly small, which adds to the slightly eccentric appeal, but manages to keep on display more than 4,500 neck-ties, on the walls, by the bar, even on the ceiling. On a similarly unconventional note, the story has it that the pub’s name came about as the result of a pet bear owned by an early landlord.
6 Alfred Street bearoxford.co.uk
For somewhere so well hidden, the Turf draws a lot of drinkers. It’s concealed down a couple of narrow, pedestrian-only alleys, although its not-so-subtle marketing line – “An Education In Intoxication” – hints at the fact that it’s long been championed as one of Oxford’s top alehouses. Its historical location just outside the old city walls (and therefore outside of jurisdiction) made it a magnet for cock-fighting and other vices in earlier times – more recently, it’s widely been accepted as the place Bill Clinton famously smoked pot but “didn’t inhale”. The low-beamed bar, where former Australian PM Bob Hawke entered the Guinness Book of Records in 1963 for downing a yard of ale in 11 seconds, remains an enjoyable hideout. There are 11 cask ales on offer at any one time.
4-5 Bath Place theturftavern.co.uk
JRR Tolkien wrote The Hobbit while living in Oxford, and this is the pub most closely associated with the long-term university don. A literary discussion group known as the Inklings, comprising Tolkien and CS Lewis among others, used the venue for regular weekly meetings – the “Rabbit Room” sign beyond the bar marks the private lounge they occupied before the pub’s extension in the 1960s. Among the more colourful tales doing the rounds is that a young Tolkien once found himself so inebriated here that he was beset by hallucinations of goblins trying to steal his wedding ring (and lo, a saga was born...). It’s still somewhere suitably adept at stirring the imagination, with a timbered, nookish feel and a history marching back to the Civil War, when it was used a royalist base.
49 St Giles, nicholsonspubs.co.uk/theeagleandchildoxford
The “KA” has been standing on the corner of Holywell Street and Parks Road since 1607, its name dedicated to the monarch of the day, King James I. It’s just a dawdle away from Radcliffe Square and the Bodleian Library, meaning plenty of passing tourist trade, and time hasn’t dimmed its claim that it has the highest IQ per square foot of any pub in the world. Only cynics, of course, would suggest the assertion has anything to do with how crowded it can get at peak times – if you want to see it at its softly bubbling best, come along for a mid-afternoon drink and occupy one of the alcoves in the back bar. The food’s worthy of closer attention (rabbit and cider pie, award-winning sausages etc), as are the staff’s tales of the four resident ghosts.
40 Holywell Street kingsarmsoxford.co.uk
It’s a pleasing quirk of Oxford life that having a few pints here helps fund yearly DPhil (PHD) studentships at nearby St John’s College, which purchased the building in the late seventeenth century, opened it up as a tavern and still retains a share of the profits. It’s a failsafe bet for a drink – there’s a strong range of well-kept ales – and at times the place still retains an air of dust-me-down academia. Belief holds that Thomas Hardy wrote large parts of his novel Jude The Obscure within its walls, although it’s easier to confirm is the fact that Tony Blair, a former St John’s student, was a regular here in his university days. The lamb and flag in the pub’s name also hark back to the college, being the two symbols of St John The Baptist.
12 St Giles