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The Madness of ‘king George

Just like there was a time when we bought videos and used payphones, there was a time when for a night out in Oxford, George Street was the place to go. Throngs of people flocked to its bars and pubs, restaurants, the cinema, the New Theatre. It was busy, noisy, vibrant, and as long as you dodged the fights and the pools of vomit, it could be something approaching fun.


The cinema and theatre are still here, but what of the pubs and bars? Is it still a good night out? Perhaps a Tuesday night post-pandemic and at the height of the cost of living crisis is not the best time to assess its current credentials, but even taking those things into consideration, it’s clearly taken a turn for the worse. To illustrate this, just look at the Cornmarket end of the street: the scaffolded Boswell’s, the empty and abandoned Nat West Bank and similarly shuttered Debenhams. Add to this the first two drinking establishments which are no longer trading: Black Sheep Coffee have closed their basement bar, which did serve beers as well as cocktails, and of course the Grapes is still empty following West Berkshire’s troubled departure.



So the first place you’ll find to get a drink is the cavernous Wig and Pen, which was once the Irish Linen stores but has stopped selling towels and doilies and is now a Greene King pub. Set over two levels, it’s on a grand scale and the impressive bar used to sell a decent range of ales. But no more. The six hand pumps, with their ludicrous swan-neck dispense system, had four beers at the time of my visit: four selling IPA and Abbot, and the others the ubiquitous St Austell Tribute and Wadworth 6X. The Tribute was a more than a bit wishy washy, even soapy, having had all the life squeezed out of it by that ridiculous beer tap, and the temperature of it suggested it had sat in that silly curvy pipe for a while. Which is a shame, because a couple of years ago this pub had really threatened to put itself on the guest beer and local beer map.


That wasn’t a great start, and things weren’t destined to get much better. Next on the route is O’Neill’s, on the corner of New Inn Hall Street, a modern ‘Irish’ bar with the typical top-o’th’-morning, gimmicky-Guinness, all-about-the-craic sort of way, with more than a hint of Americana thrown in for good measure. I’m annoyed that the two handpumps and the real ale have been removed form here, as I can find little now in its favour. The draught beers are all mainstream rather than craft; Brewdog’s Punk IPA at £3.20 for a half was very cold and fizzy; it was either this or Camden. O’dear. If this is the big pubcos’ future vision for beer and pubs, count me out.



George Street Social was mysteriously closed on the night of my crawl, so I returned the following day to complete the set. It’s a laid-back, relaxed café bar with a small menu where most people seem to come to use their laptops whilst supping a latte of a green tea. There are five keg taps with again mainstream beers, the Beavertown Neck Oil the only non-lager. It turns more into a cocktail bar later (when it’s open) so is not really beer destination. I can recommend the nachos though; the small portion was unexpectedly huge.



Oxford’s best Wetherspoons is the Four Candles, and with the competition setting a very low bar, it takes the crown as the best pub on George Street too. It’s not in the same league as it was under the stewardship of Johnny Roberts a few years ago, the twelve handpumps now offering six beers duplicated on each bank of six, but there is a choice of real ales including some most welcome guests: Butcombe Mahi, Elgood’s Plum Porter and Liberation Jester. The Butcombe, a New Zealand Pale Ale, was by a country mile the best beer of the night, and in truth would have stood out amongst much more illustrious fare than the rest of the street had to offer. The pub itself is typical Wetherspoon, plenty of seating, corporate décor, cheap food and cheap beer. A big bonus is that you don’t have to walk half a mile to the toilets.


My final calling point was OXO Bar, known in the dim and distant past as the Welsh Pony, latterly the EuroBar and many more things besides over the intervening years. This is a cocktail bar set over two levels in a nice Victorian building next to Gloucester Green; as such I didn’t expect any draught beers and I didn’t find any. My only beer option was a bottle of, you’ve probably guessed it, Punk IPA, at an even greater price than O’Neill’s was extracting from me. However, the bottled version was at a better temperature and was less gassy than the draught version and was altogether better for it, though a night on the beer here would be an expensive one.


A remnant of the Welsh Pony

And that’s where George Street ends. So, is it still worth a night out? It’s till got a good number of restaurants and the theatre and cinema, so it’s always going to be busy. But for beer? No. Wetherspoon’s aside, if you’re coming here for a decent pint, that would be silly. Madness.

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