When considering Oxford’s literary greats – Tolkein, Lewis, BeeryMoose (only joking!) - we must include another: Colin Dexter. Dexter created the characters of Inspector Endeavour Morse and his trusty Sergeant side-kick Robbie Lewis in a series of thirteen novels published between 1975 to 1999, and immortalised in 33 television episodes, starting in 1987 and running until 2000. You don’t have to be Einstein to realise that the majority of the TV episodes were not based on Dexter’s novels, but they were produced with his full blessing, and apart from John Thaw (Morse), Dexter was the only person to appear in all 33 programmes - Kevin Whately, who played Lewis, missed one episode when away filming elsewhere. Now there’s some pub quiz trivia for you.
Dexter, who sadly died in 2017 at the age of 86, was a lover and frequenter of pubs, and it’s no surprise that his literary creation was also a beer drinker, and quite a picky one at that. Pubs feature regularly in the novels, though in earlier days Dexter would often invent new names, as he did with his Oxford Colleges, to avoid any establishment becoming associated with death, murder or scandal. When ITV came to televise the series, the backdrop of Oxford was a major selling point, and several of the pubs Morse (and Dexter) frequented became regular filming locations, albeit that s lot of the pubs featured were not in Oxford at all.
Absolute Conviction; Death is now my Neighbour
Some may claim The Bear is Oxford’s smallest pub, or its oldest, but it is almost definitely neither. The date of 1242 displayed outside refers to another hostelry on the High, whose licence was transferred to the current seventeenth-century building, the original inn’s ostler’s lodgings, in 1801. Nevertheless, it is small, and it has a fabulous interior, comprising three small oak-panelled rooms including a four-seater snug. Note too the rare pewter-topped bar. You’ll also notice that most available wall space and some of the ceiling is covered with display cabinets showing a collection of nearly 5,000 snippets of neckties. The collection was started by landlord Alan Course in 1954; customers exchanged the end of their tie (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not) for a pint of beer. Most of the ties are of clubs, regiments and schools, and small square of white card affixed to each gives the provenance and description, and generally the signature of the donor.
In Dexter’s novel Death is Now my Neighbour, Morse calls before opening time on Steven and Sonya Lowbridge, the landlords of the Bear, armed with a photograph of a man wearing a maroon tie with a narrow white stripe, hoping to learn which school or club the man had once attended. Morse turns down Sonya’s offer of a coffee in favour of a pint of Burton Ale (and then another) before her recognition of the tie bought brief hope to Morse, only to be dashed when she informed him, "You’ll find one just like that in the tie rack at Marks & Spencer’s."
This scene didn’t feature in the adaptation of the book, and Morse didn’t drink here in its only other TV appearance. Nevertheless, it deserves a place on our crawl for having a full chapter dedicated to it. If you can get a seat inside it’s worth it, even on a sunny day, as this is one of the city’s finest drinking places. If you can’t, there’s a huge marquee and outside seating in Blue Boar Street behind. The pub was bought by Fuller’s about twenty years ago, so there’s no longer any Burton Ale; current ales are from Fuller’s, including Gale’s and Dark Star, and there’s often a local guest beer.
Sadly the Mitre is still closed and I hope somebody will take it on again soon. Not that Morse would miss it: "Morse once drank quite regularly at The Mitre, a little way down the High Street. Not any more, at least not since its new owners converted it into a restaurant. Beer, he regularly informed Lewis, was ’pure food’. It didn’t need adulterating with real stuff."
The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn; Service of All the Dead; The Settling of the Sun: Dead on Time; Absolute Conviction
The Turf Tavern has featured in a number of episodes, as The Green Man in one, but mostly undisguised, possibly because it was one of Dexter’s favourites. It has plenty of outdoor space for the film crew and all the entourage. I understand Dexter was later barred from here for an unpaid bar tab, but we won’t dwell on that. Presumably he didn’t have his own Sergeant Lewis to pay it for him.
The Turf claims to be difficult to find, and it became more so for a while when some selfish idiot student stole the old painted brick sign from the St Helens Passage entrance. Despite this, on a sunny late-spring afternoon enough people had found their way there to ensure it was packed to the rafters. The Turf blows hot and cold; the beer range has been better but it’s also been a lot worse. The old bar layout is quaint but inefficient, and serving a crowd quickly has often been a problem, but despite the crowds the queuing system seemed to work on this particular afternoon and we were rapidly in fortunate occupation of a garden table with handle glasses of Taylor Landlord. Other beers are from White Horse and a glut of Greene King, including two house-branded ales. A better beer choice would punt this place right back up into the top echelons of Oxford’s pubs.
The Secret of Bay 5B; The Wench is Dead; The Daughters of Cain
Surprisingly, Morse didn’t actually drink or even visit here; it merely gets a mention in two of the novels. For that reason alone, we walked past; to be visited another time.
Dead of Jericho; Last Seen Wearing and others
Probably the most iconic of the Morse locations (and of the spin-off series Lewis too) is the White Horse, squeezed in beside Blackwell’s Bookshop, down a few steps off Broad Street, opposite the Clarendon Building and the Sheldonian Theatre. The fact that it sits amongst Oxford’s finest architecture made it pure eye candy for the ITV directors, and Morse visits here many times.
It's a small pub again, but as a lover of ‘great places to sit and drink’, this place boasts three: the first bar stool inside the door, the table beside the front sash windows, and the ‘pulpit’ snug at the rear. We occupied the snug, and as the group had grown throughout the afternoon, several other tables besides. A fairly standard beer range here, but the Dark Star Hophead was more than acceptable.
Randolph Hotel (Morse Bar)
The Wolvercote Tongue, The Wench is Dead
The Randolph was also a regular Dexter haunt and not surprisingly features regularly in the TV series; indeed, in The Wolvercote Tongue the murder victim is one of the hotel’s own guests. Opened in 1866, it was designed by local architect William Wilkinson (whose office was conveniently next door on Beaumont Street) in the gothic revival style; it was named after a University benefactor. The hotel suffered a major fire in 2015 when a chef attempting to flambee a steak succeeded in flambeeing most of the hotel, but it has been superbly restored by its new owners, Graduate Hotels, and is back to its former glory. The bar area just to the left of the main entrance is the “Morse Bar”, the panelled walls adorned with black and white photos of Morse and his Mk II Jaguar.
The only thing not really befitting of Morse is the beer. Two draught taps serve Guinness and Camden Pale, neither to get very excited about. The choice of whiskies and rums looks far more interesting. I think Sir Rowley Birkin QC would be more at home here.
The Lamb & Flag and the Eagle & Child both featured in the novels and on TV, but as both are unfortunately still closed, were headed on into Jericho.
The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn
The Jericho Tavern made just one appearance in the TV series, but as it’s a long walk from town, that’s enough of a qualification to allow us to call in here. It’s more famed for its live music than it is for Morse (Radiohead, amongst others, debuted in the upstairs room), but offers a good range of beers including three real ales. A big find here was Eternal, a pale ale from Northern Monk, which was definitely the best beer of the day.
Dead of Jericho
In the very first episode of Morse, we meet the Inspector at the scene of a suspicious death on a terraced street called Canal Reach (in reality Combe Road) in Jericho. At the end of the street is the Bookbinders, then a basic Morrell’s pub, which immediately attracts the attention of Morse and he and Lewis go in for a drink. The interior used in the TV series is very basic, but is not that of the pub – whether it is a real pub or a studio set is unclear – but the real outside features prominently during the episode. The Old Bookbinders, as it is now known, is of course no longer Morrell’s, nor would you call the décor basic. When Morrell’s shut, this was one of a handful of pubs retained by Michael Cannon, and it was converted to an ‘Ale House’ modelled on the pub of that name in Truro, complete with bric-a-brac décor and free monkey nuts. For a while it was one of the city’s finest beer pubs, a former Pub of the Year winner, but now in Greene King ownership the choice of beer has progressively dwindled. My choice of beer was to be anything but GK, so I picked Black Sheep Bitter, but to my horror, it even tasted like a Greene King beer, which was alarming and most unsatisfactory. No free monkey nuts any more either.
Victoria Arms, Marston
The Remorseful Day
The other Morse pubs within the Oxford ring road are too distant to be included on this crawl. If you’re feeling energetic, you could cross the Oxford Canal to get to the Thames and Port Meadow to take in the Perch at Binsey, and the Trout at Godstow, but I’ve saved these for another sunny day when we shall walk the Thames path. One I have included in this crawl, however, is the Victoria Arms in old Marston village.
It’s a long walk from Jericho, but you can take a bus, or walk (or punt) along the Cherwell. The Vicky Arms has an illustrious history, allegedly the staging point of Oliver Cromwell before he entered the city of Oxford towards the end of the Civil War. The pub became derelict during the last century and was rescued by the Oxford Preservation Trust who restored it and let it out to Wadworth Brewery. More recently it has passed into the ownership of Butcombe Brewery.
And why would you make this extra, mildly inconvenient detour? Well, the Victoria Arms is significant in the Morse TV series as the last Oxford pub that Morse is seen drinking in (or at least drinking outside); in The Remorseful Day, Morse and Lewis share some time in the pub’s garden enjoying the sunset and the view of the river over a pint and an orange juice (respectively). You can sit in the very same spot today and enjoy the Butcombe beers – Original, Gold and my choice, Rare Breed; a new barrel was served cloudy due to not being pulled through properly. Annoying, as it’s a good beer; Moose or Morse, we both demand the best.
Morse has a drink later in that final episode at another ‘Oxford’ pub (actually the Queen’s Head, in Little Marlow, Buckinghamshire) before returning to the real Oxford where – spoiler alert! – he finally breathes his last (in the TV series at least) in a moving scene in the quad at Exeter College to the soundtrack of Faure’s In Paradisum. Prior to the launch of the final book, when asked why he had finally killed off his main character, Dexter told the Daily Mail: "I think that Morse has made a bit of a mess of his life. He has ended up alone, ungracious, mean and curmudgeonly." Strange, I consider these to be some of my achievements.