Seeing the Sights
Oxford is a tourist hotspot. Now there’s a revelation. The pessimists amongst us might say that Oxford is veering alarmingly towards becoming only a tourist hotspot, a university campus-cum-Harry Potter World souvenir shop theme park rather than a thriving business and commercial centre. See the empty shops, witness the high rents and rates, admire the LTN bollards and marvel at the plans for bus gates. A city centre dead to business and commerce, landlords unwilling to lower rents and happier to drive businesses away and have empty premises than compromise for the benefit of everybody, not least the city itself.
Still want to come here? Well, yes, it still has a lot going for it. And for many, what better way to see it than an open-top bus tour, with a commentary in your native language; it’s a great way of introduction and orientation to a new city. For seventeen pounds you get a day of hopping on and off the bus with a walking tour thrown in for good measure. The buses run a set route allowing you ample opportunity to visit all the important sights. So, setting aside all the negatives, I happily decided to jump on the tourist bandwagon to see the sights of Oxford for myself.
Naturally I declined to pay the bus fare and opted to walk the route instead, to answer the question that every tourist wants to know the answer to: which is the closest pub every time I get off the bus?
There are twenty stops, and a twenty-pub crawl would be, quite frankly, silly but excellent in equal measure, so I picked nine off the route, as nine pubs in one afternoon should be on every visitor’s itinerary. So here’s your guide to the route.
Stop 1: Oxford Railway Station
The bus starts from here. Oxford station is sadly lacking a pub where one can sit and drink and miss a few trains whilst staring hopefully at the departures board. Whenever the station is redeveloped, can we have a Head of Steam or similar, please?
Stop 2: Park End Street
Alight here for the Jam Factory. I know it’s quicker to walk, but this is a bus trip. The JF is café-bar housed in the outbuildings of Mr Cooper’s fine Edwardian marmalade factory. I like this place, even though the sole handpump hasn’t seen a real ale for a while. It’s a multi-roomed interior, bright and airy, mildly eccentric, the white walls with displays of artworks could fool you into thinking you’re drinking beer in an art gallery. Note the fleece-covered seats in the small courtyard, which nestles between the pub and the newly-restored brick factory building. There are twelve keg fonts offering a good range of beers from local and international breweries. I turn down an old favourite, Yabba Dabba Do, and take a small Kwak in its proper glass and stand. It is as good a way as any to start a day of sightseeing, if a little expensive.
Stop 3: Gloucester Green
The nearest here is the Oxo Bar, which I reviewed on the George Street tour. No offence, but nothing here for the beer drinker; stay on the bus!
Stop 4: New Road
Onto the next stop, which is opposite the castle mound (now open again https://www.beerymoose.co.uk/post/visiting-the-castle-ruins), and to The Lighthouse. You could go to the Slug and Lettuce, but this is the better call for a beer. It advertises itself as a Cocktail Lounge and Tapas Bar but is as pubby as most pubs and more than ten years ago, don’t you know, featured on the front cover of the best-selling Oxford, Witney and Abingdon Pub Guide. This was during its days as the Duke’s Cut – the Oxford canal basin was once adjacent; it has also been a pseudo-Irish bar and a few other things besides. The interior is a traditional layout with modern décor, and we happily found seats at high tables in the old ‘front’ room, which still boasts an impressive range, a display of sewing machines and a steam punk clock. There’s only one beer, Brakspear Oxford Gold, which was a little cloudy but very drinkable.
Stop 5: Westgate
Not a lot to see here; there are three bars on the roof of Westgate, none of which really excite me beer-wise but for completeness will merit a separate visit.
Stop 6: Speedwell Street
Do you remember the Wharf House? Another Oxford institution that is no more. Nothing to see here either nowadays.
Stop 7: St Aldates
The bus stops opposite the main entrance to Christ Church, Tom Gate, which leads to Tom Quad. Above this gate is Christopher Wren’s Tom Tower, which houses a bell called Great Tom, Oxford’s biggest and loudest bell. The bell strikes 101 times at 9.05 pm every night as it has done for around four hundred years as the signal for the College to lock its gates. The clock keeps Oxford Time, which is five minutes behind GMT, and was used until the arrival of the railways unified timings across the country. There seem to be lots of Toms around here but quite who Old Tom is I don’t know, but that is the name of the pub, a small, narrow former Morrell’s house just up the hill, with a nice depiction of Tom Tower on its hanging sign. There’s a lovely, secluded garden to the rear for a warm day, and the front bar is cosy and welcoming if sitting outside isn’t your thing. Three real ales included an excellent and unusual Black Sheep Pale, alongside the more common Abbot and Landlord. The pub offers Thai food too if you’re feeling peckish.
Stop 8: High Street
On the day of our crawl, All Bar One was only serving those who had booked due to staff shortages, so I had to make a return visit during the week. I didn’t take the bus. There’s no real ale here, so the best beer option was Goose Island’s Today’s Haze, a hazy pale ale on draught. The other draught offering was Neck Oil, and the bottled collection included St Stephanus. Don’t stare at the wallpaper for too long as it will make you dizzy.
Stop 9: Queen’s Lane
Stop 10: The Plain
Don’t get off at Queen’s Lane – it only has a coffee house – and alight instead at the Plain for The Cape of Good Hope. This handsome pub, by HW Drinkwater in 1893, stands prominently at the junction of the Cowley and Iffley roads, its shape in plan being similar to the tip of South Africa, hence the name. The interior is airy with high ceilings, though it has been subjected to the grey paint over everything treatment that for some unfathomable reason seems to be today’s fashion. Sit outside on the corner to people and vehicle watch if you can. There were two beers on this particular day, Reverend James, which ran out quickly, and a rare one, Northern Monk Hat Trick, which thankfully didn’t, though it wasn’t on tip-top form it certainly quenched my thirst.
Stop 11: University Parks
Stop 12: Science Area
As the bus turns round the Plain roundabout and re-crosses Magdalen Bridge and then takes a right turn onto Longwall Street. Famous as the location for William Morris’ first garage, but not for its pubs. The Parks and the Science area are a bit of a pub desert. There is the University Club on Mansfield Road, which used to be a great destination, but less so now. Not sure if one can even walk in any more without a University swipe-card.
Stop 13: Clarendon Building
Your bus will soon arrive in Broad Street, the heart of Oxford’s historic centre, so take a trip to the equally as historic Kings Arms. The KA is an Oxford institution; it’s been serving the city since 1605 and retains its multi-roomed interior, including the fine back bar, which is my favourite place to sit. No chance of this today, as it’s busy (which is good, as on previous visits it has been eerily quiet). Still a Young’s pub, the beer range has expanded recently, and in addition to St Austell’s Proper Job you can now get, at a price, beers from Lister’s brewery, including the American Pale Ale, and IPA and a Porter. Nothing better than a pint and a pork pie here, even if I didn’t get my favourite seat.
Stop 14: Broad Street
Stop 15: Keble College
Stop 16: Banbury Road
The bus now loops around in Broad Street and stops outside Trinity College, where you can of course visit the White Horse (see the Morse Crawl). Heading northwards, there is little near Keble College, but the Banbury Road stop is convenient for North Parade, which I will visit another day.
Stop 17: Woodstock Road
Get off on Woodstock Road and walk up the lovely narrow lane that is Plantation Road to the Gardener’s Arms. This is an excellent pub selling two beers, Plain Innocence and Loddon Gorgeous George today. It’s table service only, which isn’t my thing I have to admit, but licensee Paul feels it works best here, so who am I to argue? On a fine day you can sit in the walled garden, but despite the sunshine we sat indoors near the bar; the two rooms at the front have been knocked into one, and there is another room to the back on the way to the garden. The pub has a fully vegetarian and vegan menu too, the first in the city to do this.
Stop 18: Radcliffe Infirmary
The Radcliffe has ceased to be a hospital, but the stop still bears its name. Opposite the grand Palladian building, the site of the first use of Penicillin in 1941, and now part of the University estate, is the Royal Oak, hemmed in somewhat by recent additions to Keble College. The pub has many rooms served by a central bar, with some interesting old bits though it always seems boisterous and busy, but despite the low ceilings and wood panelling, lacks cosiness. The beer too can be a bit haphazard; sometimes you’ll find a gem and other times a rake of national brands. Today is closer to the latter, though the Titanic Plum Porter is a draw for some, the best of the rest is Landlord. Definitely worth seeking out.
Stop 19: Magdalen Street East
Stop 20: Beaumont Street
Looping around St Mary Magdalen church, the bus passes the Randolph and into Beaumont Street. Alight here at the Playhouse, behind which sits the White Rabbit. Once famous as the Gloucester Arms for its black walls, biker and goth clientele and legendary juke box, its now a lot brighter inside and has become one of the city’s best pubs, though there were many who thought that in its previous guise. The addition of an external covered patio area has improved the pub (and presumably its viability) greatly and it is deservedly popular. There are five real ales, mostly from local breweries, featuring a lot of Siren, XT, North Cotswold and White Horse which cannot be a bad thing. Siren Yulu seems to feature a lot, and it was my beer of choice today. The interior, though liberally coated in grey paint (lighter than that in the Cape) retains some historic features; there is small front room, a ‘snug’ alcove off the corridor serving area which leads down (mind the step!) to a larger back room. The fixed benches in the garden are heated which makes them useable all year round. If you’re doing this crawl in the order as printed (I confess we didn’t), then soak up some of the beer here with one or two of their excellent pizzas. And then stay for another pint, because the next stop on the bus is the Railway Station and there’s nothing to drink there.
With that, ladies and gentlemen, we have reached the end of the tour. Thank you for your custom and enjoy your visit to Oxford. All tips and gratuities gratefully received.