The Great British Pub is something intrinsic to countless lives in merry old England. It’s what we look forward to, where we can relax, chat and drink copious amounts of good, hearty ale.
And Oxford is a breeding ground for some of the very best; these good, hearty ales – among their fizzier and sharper counterparts – abound, and often is the case that one finds themselves overwhelmed with choice.
During my five-week stay in the famed university town I did my best to visit as many of these watering holes as possible, in an attempt to construct some sort of definitive list. Well, turns out that that was rather difficult, so instead I picked out five of my favourites for you to salivate over. So, in no particular order, here they are:
One: The Turf Tavern
Tucked clandestinely away down a narrow alleyway beneath the famous Bridge of Sighs you’ll find ‘The Turf’. Its hidden locale seems to be the winning element; locals, students and tourists flock daily in their droves for a sample of hearty ale or cider and tend not to leave too hastily thereafter.
Low ceilings, sprightly beer gardens and dodgy steps give the place an inimitable character, and the tagline ‘An Education in Toxication’ printed in bold white beneath the sign in the alleyway is photographed almost as regularly as the Bridge of Sighs itself. Food is served daily and service is surprisingly quick given how busy the place can get. It’s a must on any Oxford pub crawl.
Top Recommendation: Ales rarely stay on for longer than a couple of days but if it’s there don’t hesitate the pale and fruity Bristol Blonde.
Two: The Old Bookbinders
A little out the way in the student abounding barrio of Jericho is The Old Bookbinders. The buzz and beverages are as good as its name (it is genuinely an old bookbinders). On Tuesday the famed pub quiz takes place, which – if you’ve the brains to compete with the numerous student crews present – is always enjoyable, yet fundamentally impossible (one of the questions depends on how well you know the day-to-day routine of a member of staff).
The décor here combines classic and quirky fittingly. On one wall, old picture frames and dusty mirrors hang crookedly beside a large, wooden panel with colourful lighters glued to it. Collector’s cards of ancient cricketers and footballers have been stuck to a beam above the bar, while on another beer mats have been curiously assembled to spell ‘The Bookies’. It’s quite the walk if you’re staying in the centre, but well worth it if you’re looking for something off the beaten track.
Top Recommendation: Old Speckled Hen or Noble if you’re on the lager.
Three: The Head Of The River
Pint and a punt anyone? Unlike most other taverns, The Head of The River, off Folly Bridge beside the River Thames, provides its customers with the opportunity to drink and drive. Well, strictly speaking, it is the neighbouring punting business which provides the latter service. But before you go drunkenly coxswaining your way through Oxford’s web of waterways, consider that ‘The Head’ happens to offer some very fine tasting ales that ought not to be rushed nor neglected. Take the ‘Honey Dew’, for example – a chilled, fizzy yet ambrosial bitter that stands up to any guestie of the day. Or keep it simple with a jar of good old London Pride, the UK’s most popular ale.
Punters can loiter in the massive beer garden out front as punters and rowers steer their way past, and if lucky enough see somebody fall in or witness a swan attacking a lary-mouthed student.
Top Recommendation: The Honey Dew (of course!)
Four: The Perch
Even further out the way but well worth the journey is The Perch, a 17th century thatched inn sited in Binsey on the outskirts of Oxford. The countryside tavern makes for welcome respite from the city, offering a variety of ales and a menu of delectable pub grub with a French twist. The pièce de résistance is its enormous and leafy beer garden, which on a summer’s day exudes a matchless ambience that keeps its loyal patronage of ramblers, dog walkers and cyclists coming back for more, despite its admittedly steep prices.
The Perch has battled through times of hardship to earn its status: in 2006 it was burnt to the ground and then flooded in 2007. Since its re-opening in 2008 though, it has evaded further disaster and is now deservedly counted among Oxford’s best watering holes.
Five: The Rusty Bicycle
This one ticks all the boxes: the bar, food, staff, décor and atmosphere are all top notch, and its east Oxford setting along Magdalen Road is convenient too. Often there are around five ales to choose from, and the burgers served have earned their own reputation, particularly the elaborate Portobello Mushroom and Halloumi veggie choice. It is delightfully unpretentious and fills up fast whatever the season: in its cosy, indoor corners in the winter and out in the lush beer garden during the summer months.
In truth there’s nothing ‘rusty’ about The Rusty Bicycle at all – it’s more of a well-oiled machine that is showing no signs of wear and tear. A great place to hang out with friends and family alike.
Top Recommendation: Arkells 3B