Circular Pub Walks: City of Dreaming Spires

During our travels over the past year Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer have discovered a number of places where the full spectrum of pub and brewery types can be experienced in a single day by incorporating a pub crawl and a walk and dine. Perhaps our favorite Fueled by Beer trip so far is Oxford by train…

After leaving Oxford Railway Station follow the map along Hythe Bridge St to George St where we reach our first stop, The Four Candles.

 

The Four Candles – a JD Wetherspoon Pub

This is a typical Spoons pub – seating on two levels, large open standing area in front of bar, a broad selection of cask ales from national, regional and local breweries. The standard Wetherspoon pub grub menu serving early til late. Over several visits we’ve seen a typical Spoons demographic: wide range of ages and cultures.

One thing we experienced here that we haven’t encountered elsewhere: after a certain time in the evening anyone wearing a hat is politely asked to remove it – apparently so the CCTV can see everyone. Mr Fueled by Beer was asked to remove his ball cap – which pissed him off initially – until another customer who was wearing a fully brimmed hat was asked to remove his too. Maybe it’s just an Oxford thing. We’ve been in this pub during busy times and found service pretty efficient.

It’s a Spoons – when you’re done here we move on to one of our favorite pubs.

The Grapes – a Bath Ales Pub

West country microbrewery Bath Ales took over this traditional Victorian pub in Oxford city centre early in 2012 and they’ve done a really nice job renovating it. It serves as Bath Ales’ furthest distant brewery tap. It’s vibe, a tasteful mix of Victoriana and contemporary, is 180 degrees different from the chain identikit pubs along George St such as O’Neils and the Spoons pub mentioned above.

Bath Ales’ Oxford tap: The Grapes

The pub is a traditional city centre boozer – it’s all about the beer, which of course is Bath Ales so it’s going to be good. Food is good too – the menu isn’t huge but the meals are of high quality, freshly prepared, and not horribly expensive.

Being directly across from the New Theatre the pub does get very busy before and after shows but if you time it right the pub is a very comfortable place to hang out and chat with other customers.

If you can catch the pub during one of its periodic beer festivals, even better. That’s when around 2 dozen firkins are racked up at the back of the pub dispensing real ale from breweries all around the country. This is addition to the 6-8 Bath Ales on the bar.

Now head out along George St and Broad St to our next stop.

The Kings Arms – a Young’s Pub

Claims to be Oxford’s oldest pub – at this site since 1605. The pub oozes character from its several different rooms. At the bar six hand pumps dispense ales from the Wells & Young’s Brewery along with a guest or two. Food is top notch, although a little pricey, but it’s worth it.

While some Oxford pubs clearly appeal to tourists this doesn’t appear to be one of them. The clientele during our visit looked strictly local – a mix of University types – both student and faculty. The pub, which sits across from the New Bodleian Library at the corner of Holywell St and Parks Rd, is owned by Wadham College, so this makes perfect sense. Apparently some of the Wadham student dorms are located on the upper floors of the pub.

Now we move on to a pub that is very definitely a tourist haunt – but a must-see on any trip to Oxford. Head along Catte St, turn left on New College Lane, then immediately after you pass under the Bridge of Sighs look for the very narrow St Helens Passage on the left.

The Turf Tavern – a Greene King Pub

Turf Tavern: hidden away

Turf Tavern: hidden away

Hidden away down the narrow winding alley is “The Turf” as it is known locally, a perfect example of a medieval ale house. Standing on 13th century foundations, the low beamed ceiling of the front bar is 17th century while the more spacious back bar is more recent – maybe late 18th/early 19th.

Turf Tavern: the 17th C. front bar

Turf Tavern: the 17th C. front bar

This pub is very tight for space therefore its always jammed. However once inside you’ll find six pumps dispensing a surprisingly diverse range of cask ales, especially considering this is a Greene-King pub. If you duck your head and go exploring through the nooks and crannies of this amazing little pub it is possible to find somewhere to sit otherwise most of the space is outside; in external drinking courtyards.

In addition to a pretty good cask ale offer the Turf has a pretty good food menu too – and with quite reasonable prices. It’s no wonder this pub is so popular – be prepared for hoards of tourists – they like this one.

After The Turf there’s a pretty good walk to our next pub. Follow the map along Catte St, High St and then finally St Aldates. The pub sits back off the road beside the river just before you reach to bridge.

The Head of the River – a Fullers Pub

For Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer the Head of the River is a special place. Just before we were married we had occasion to be in Oxford and this was the watering hole we chose for rest and rejuvenation (and some damn fine Fullers ale).  Mrs Fueled by Beer fondly remembers it as the place where she “used funny English money for the first time all by herself.”

A special place for Mr & Mrs FBB

A special place for Mr & Mrs FBB

During one of our recent Fueled by Beer train trips to Oxford we returned to the Head of the River after an absence of more than 25 years. We were not disappointed. This pub is very much an Inn in the traditional sense – a watering hole in a prime location beside the river where the old Abingdon road crosses the Thames. 

Like the Kings Arms described above, this pub caters to drinkers in the pub’s various downstairs rooms – lots of nooks, crannies and alcoves for quiet conversation; this is not a chain identikit pub with sports blaring from LCD screens. In the bar area are cozy high-backed armchairs and sofas surrounding a huge fireplace. Naturally a roaring fire will be burning during the cold winter months. Upstairs there are a dozen bedrooms you can book if you want to stay overnight.

Outside the expansive beer garden is ever popular regardless of the season. During our most recent visit – in winter – outdoor heaters blasted and even during a drizzly rain shower the outside tables remained packed while customers huddled under the large patio umbrellas until the shower passed – they then filed back into the bar, ordered another round, and filed back outside again. Oh, mad dogs and Englishmen (or Oxford college students).

One thing that seems to distinguish Fullers pubs from the crowd (besides their excellent ales) is the standard of food on offer. We have eaten at our local in Theale; The Volunteer, at The Parcel Yard in London, and here at The Head of the River in Oxford: these are all Fullers pubs. In our experience the menus at all of them offered high quality bar snacks; a full menu of starters, mains & desserts; a nice wine list; coffee, tea, etc. Everything is freshly prepared by a creative chef and locally sourced. To get the full Fullers picture (pun intended) we still need to visit one of their more downscale town pubs, such as the canal-side Fisherman’s Cottage in Reading.

OK, onward to our next stop, and it’s another fairly lengthy walk. Outide the Head of the River, cross the busy Abingdon road and head up Thames St, turn right on Norfolk St, then continue on to Castle St.

The Swan & Castle – a JD Wetherspoon Pub

Another ‘Spoons pub – I could stop right here. According to CAMRA’s Whatpub website this pub’s “overall ambience is that of a hotel lounge.” In fairness to JD Wetherspoon, this type of pub is the exception rather than the rule – we’ve visited many other Spoons pubs in various places and only once did we encounter one that is similar to the Swan & Castle (in Maidenhead – if you’re there you’ll know which one).

Anyway, this pub has been included in this collection because if you’re anything like Mr Fueled by Beer then that last pint, the one that wasn’t ready to exit at the Head of the River, is now wanting out. So this pub may be treated as a pit-stop pub, and if one of the cask ales on when you visit takes your fancy, then go ahead and inbibe.

If not, then it’s onward to our last port of call. Continue on Castle St to New Rd where you turn left.

The Duke’s Cut – a Marston’s Pub

The Duke’s Cut – Wychwood Brewery Tap

As a sign painted on the wall of the pub still proudly declares, The Duke’s Cut was originally a brewery tap for the Wychwood Brewery located 11 miles to the west in Witney. And although Wychwood is now part of Marston’s national brewing operation, it seems the Duke’s Cut still sources it’s real ales mostly from the Witney brewery, as evidenced by the pub’s continuing LocAle accreditation by Oxford CAMRA.

This means the four handpumps will usually be dispensing some combination of Wychwood: usually Hobgoblin; one or two Brakspear ales; and maybe a Marston’s brew like Pedigree. In any case, Marston’s, who is one of England’s classic Burton-on-Trent brewers, has been very picky about the breweries it brings to its portfolio; in addition to Wychwood and Brakspear there’s also Ringwood and Banks, just to name two, and they’re all highly respected brewers in their own right.

Simple yet cozy

The Duke’s Cut is a nice traditional watering hole offering quality real ales, simple yet decent food offerings, and a nice casual vibe. Be warned though: there is a large screen TV in the main bar area and Rugby seems to be the thing that draws a rowdy crowd (quite a few Ireland rugby fans during one of our visits). But in most instances, as everyone should know, an inebriated Irishman is usually good-natured and rarely causes trouble.

The pub actually has two rooms so it should be possible to find a quiet spot if the TV is blaring, plus there’s the outside patio/deck that overlooks the pub’s namesake – the actual Duke’s Cut – perfect for fine weather days.

The Duke’s Cut is the last pub in this Oxford Fueled by Beer crawl but there are a couple of others that have not yet been explored. Once we get round to them, and if they’re worthy, they’ll bet added to the itinerary and map updated accordingly.

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