Spot the Difference
Swan and Castle (#27)
Four of Oxford’s pubs took advantage of the traditionally quiet post New Year period to carry out some refurbishments. So once they’d reopened, I went along to see what had changed.
The newer of the two city centre Wetherspoons, the Swan and Castle was opened at the end of 2009 as part of the Castle Quarter, and it’s about the only place that has managed to survive there. As the tumbleweed blows through the courtyard behind, a road frontage facing the new Westgate has clearly been the Swan and Castle’s saviour.
It was closed for only a week, so I wasn’t expecting anything significant to have changed, but you’ll struggle to see much difference – there’s a new food servery but everything else seems the same. Maybe they haven’t quite finished as there were a lot of tradesmen hanging around pointing at things, and one area is still cordoned off behind orange plastic barriers.
There were three potentially interesting beers alongside the Greene King and Doom Bar standards: two Scottish beers, one from Harviestoun and the other from Strathaven, and the one I chose, from Hadrian Border, who are from Newcastle upon Tyne. Maybe one of the tradesmen will come back to adjust the cellar cooler, as the beer was served far too cold.
All Bar One (#28)
There was a time in the dim and distant past when All Bar One boasted a handpump, but predictably the recent refurbishment has not reinstated any real ale. The interior retains a contemporary feel and look, though you can still make out parts of the old building behind the light fittings and ventilation ducts. Perhaps the one new thing that hits you instantly is the wallpaper, an in-your-face, black and white geometric pattern that makes your eyes go funny looking at it.
When I was finally able to focus on the bar, I noted a lot of keg taps with little of interest; Camden Hells probably the best of the draught. Thankfully there are a few bottles and cans in the fridge to make your stay worthwhile – I plumped for a can of Beavertown Gamma Ray, though I could have had the same brewery’s Neck Oil, a St Stephanus Belgian Blonde, a honey beer or a choice of two bottled ales from Adnams. The beer was good, but out of a can, you’d expect nothing less, and I can report that KuPP’s “most expensive beer (by volume) of the tour” record was broken after standing for just eight days.
Red Lion (#29)
The refurbishment here was just three days old, and already it seemed to have attracted a good crowd. Lots of black, whites and greys feature, subdued lighting, a plastic marble-topped bar and a strange alcove with a pink neon sign that casts its hue over much of the room.
It’s fair to say dining is the main business here, and there was a strong smell of fish; I do hope the two are connected. The private dining room at first floor looked very smart, and I’ve heard on the grapevine that the food lives up to the billing.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was discovering Five Points Citrus Pale as one of the three real ales. It wasn’t on sparklingly top form, but was a cut above the Doom Bar and Tribute alternatives.
Four Candles (#30)
For those that don’t know, Ronnie Barker, the larger half of the Two Ronnies, was educated at the High School for Boys a few doors down from here, and so the pub took on the name of one of his more famous sketches when it was opened by JD Wetherspoon in 2008. I’ve always thought the pub sign should have “Four Candles” on one side, and “Fork Handles” (‘andles for forks) on the other, just to push home the joke, but I seem to be in a minority of one on this. In truth, it would probably confuse the tourists. T.E. Lawrence, of Arabia fame, was also an alumni, but he only merits a commemorative plaque in the old school building, rather than having a pub named after him.
Having bumped into the Fork Handles’ management team of Leo and Johnny at our St Aldates shindig the previous week, both were very keen we should stop by to see for ourselves what’s going on at their pub, the city centre’s other ‘spoons.
This was refurbished the week before the Swan and Castle, and once again, to the untrained eye the refurbishment appears to have changed little. It has been generally tidied up, toilets refurbished, and a lot of work done behind the scenes, but this still retains much more of a pub feel than its younger sibling and is all the better for it.
Pride of place from our perspective is the policy of supporting local breweries, something close to the hearts of Leo and Johnny and something that have fought hard and jumped through many hoops to achieve. The result of their persistence is a bank of six handpumps that dispense locally-brewed beers, a lot of White Horse, Chadlington and Hook Norton with promises of more to follow. Johnny kindly took a few minutes out from a busy night to have a chat, and his enthusiasm for the beer shone through. Fittingly, the White Horse Porter was by far and away the best beer of the night, and one of the best I’ve had during my mammoth pub crawl to date. It was also the cheapest, which is a bonus too.
The success of any pub is largely down to who’s in charge, and it shows here. Hopefully word will spread, and drinkers will come here not for the price, but for the choice and quality of the ale instead.