You’ll be very much aware that my 2020 170-pub campaign was rudely interrupted by Covid, and it’s fair to say the rematch two years later hasn’t gone quite to plan either. This time it was me struck down by the infamous pandemic, the aftermath of which was far worse than the virus itself.
Before the great plague struck, I had managed to tick off a few of my favourite pubs in my meanderings around the town. One whole month after the scheduled start, I headed up Headington Hill for my first (of many) crawls.
The White Hart in Old Headington is an excellent place to begin. Dan and Carole have made this one of Oxford’s beer destinations and it never fails to impress. Take in the superb garden if the weather allows – it’s the venue for their annual beer festival too, 20-22 May this year – but the pub itself has several distinct cosy spaces. I met up with the indomitable Tony Goulding and he celebrated his election as local CAMRA chair by buying me a pint of Everards Golden Hop. As befits a regular Good Beer Guide pub, this beer was tip top, as, I assume, though I cannot verify, were the other five. A perennial problem of pub crawling is starting in one of the best pubs. It’s very difficult to get away.
In the interest of research and with my 170 pub target well behind schedule, we did move on. Just round the corner is the Black Boy, a former Morrell’s house built just before the Second World War; I can remember this pub as a spit-and-sawdust place with a very basic public bar (on the Barton Lane side) selling Morrell’s Bitter and Mild to a horse racing and tobacco-loving clientele. In about 2008 the pub got a makeover and became ‘gastro’; thankfully some of the original features and details were retained although the smoky bar has been knocked into the main room and ironically is now the smartest of dining areas. The pub is inevitably food focused but sells up to three real ales. Like its neighbour, it’s run by Everards and luckily the only beer on at this time was different from that in the White Hart: Sunchaser, served efficiently and politely by the attentive staff, along with half a cider for his nibs.
We parted company here as I went off the beaten track, firstly to the Britannia. This is an odd pub, serving a good range of beers, yes, and offering a CAMRA discount, even better, but doing so in a sterile corporate environment. It uncomfortably mixes the leatherette sofas, mood lighting and modern artwork with a plethora of fruit machines, and, like me, it’s a bit of an odd shape which doesn’t help. Nevertheless, my beer, Black Sheep Twighlighter IPA, was excellent, probably the best of the night. I let the lingering hoppy bitterness keep me company as I made the short walk up London Road to the Royal Standard.
Opposite the former Manor Ground and a few doors up from the shark, but less famous than its neighbours, the Royal Standard is a smart corner pub with a terracotta façade. It’s a Greene King pub which never gets the pulses racing, and here is no exception. Only one of the four real ales was pouring, the IPA, so I restricted my order to a half and retired to a table to contemplate my surroundings. The pub is full of TV screens, gaming and fruit machines, and has a pool table, and, happily, a dart board. The beer was well served, so no complaints. “Families welcome until 9pm” the sign says; not sure this would be a family environment on a Saturday night. But each to their own, hey?
I met up with Tony again holding court in the Tile Shop. This is Headington’s first micro pub, and is, as the name suggests, formerly a shop that sold tiles. Two beers are sold from the barrel: Tring Side Pocket for a Toad and one from Rebellion. In true micro pub tradition, everyone sits together, sharing tables and stories, and ten minutes after entering you will know everybody and be involved in at least six separate conversations. Trade seems to be good, and in the short time this has been trading it seems to have established a good number of regular punters. The time bell was rung at 8pm, which was probably a good thing, as otherwise I could have sat here drinking and conversing into the early hours.