Nightlife in Oxford: a pub crawl

by adrian.mourby

Adrian Mourby explains how to get the best of Oxford's historic pubs on foot and by bicycle

Before I came to Oxford I avoided pub crawls. They seemed to be nothing more than an opportunity to lurch from one unpleasant, overcrowded, smoke-filled dive to another. Restarting the sequence of rounds each time only meant that you were even more drunk at the end of the evening than if you’d stayed in one pub until bored.

Fortunately, in the centre of Oxford they do things differently. Recently we had a visit from a young American relative and thought he should be shown the town. We began in The White Horse where my wife and I used to meet friends before we were married. There is one secluded table at the back that is much coveted. Our friend Creavy (Oxford’s Pub-Crawl Guru) had already appropriated it in the company of a bearded graphic artist known as Tim. Stepping down into a pub was something new for our guest, but street levels were much lower when the White Horse was built.

Forty minutes later we squeezed our way out and down towards the King’s Arms (40 Holywell Street, Oxford, Oxfordshire. OX1 3SP; + 44 1865 242369; www.youngs.co.uk/pub-detail.asp?PubID=420) a coaching inn that opened in 1607 and which operated Oxford’s last “men only” bar until 1973. At the last moment we diverted because the “KA” tends to be packed out with students on Saturday nights. Instead we headed into Bath Place to find the Turf Tavern (4-5 Bath Place, Oxford, OX1 3SU; + 44 1865 243 235; www.theturftavern.co.uk) which dates from the 13th century.

I say “find” because until recently you had to know the Tavern was there or you’d never stumble upon it. In true, jumbled mediaeval fashion the Turf Tavern lies down winding passages between two streets. To get there from Holywell Street you walk down Bath Place and disappear underneath the hotel’s arches into a narrow tunnel that emerges in the garden of the Turf Tavern. You can leave via another equally unpromising passage way that emerges in New College Lane, not far from the inaptly-named Bridge of Sighs. Unfortunately, someone has recently put up a sign up indicating that the Turf Tavern is to be found down here. There has to be some cachet in being a local!

The Turf was packed out so we sat in the garden under large heaters with the rain sizzling above us. Tim had to go after a while and so Creavy led us to the Jericho Tavern (56 Walton Street, Jericho, Oxford, OX2 6AE; +44 1865 311 775; www.thejerichooxford.co.uk). It was a cycle ride away on Walton Street.

The Jericho has a spacious dark interior that is good for reading the papers in the morning. It also has daily anagrams above the bar, which is not your average pub entertainment. Our guest had not cycled since he was 11 and as an American was not entirely au fait with roundabouts, or staying on the left side of the road even, but he arrived in one piece and Creavy led the charge to bar for another round.

An hour later it was a choice between the Bookbinders (17-18 Victor Street, Oxford, OX2 6BT; + 44 1865 553549; www.oldbookbinders.co.uk) which rather sweetly has stacks of board games on its window ledges, in case you fancy playing Monopoly or Cluedo as you nurse your pint, or The Bombay Restaurant for an Indian meal. Seeing our guest looking wan I suggested that we gave the “Bookies” a miss and we piled into the Bombay, which is bike-wheeling distance from the Jericho. We lost Creavy en route but picked up two other friends. I was reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s description of Paris as a “moveable feast”.

It wasn’t a cheap evening (alcohol is heavily taxed in the UK) but we enjoyed each others’ company and saw some lovely buildings in the process. I think our guest enjoyed himself too and I began to see the point of a pub crawl after all.

More expert advice on Oxford

For suggestions on where to stay in Oxford, see my Oxford Hotels – Award winning expert hotel reviews, from cheap to luxury hotels in Oxford page.

Read my nightlife overview on my Oxford nightlife page.

adrian.mourby

I have written on travel and cultural travel for most of the UK daily newspapers and also for numerous in-flight magazines. I've also written two guide books (published by AA) and contributed to the Michelin Singapore guide and Rough Guide's Make The Most of Your Time on Earth. I also write on music, opera and culture for the magazines Opera Now, Classic FM, BBC Music Magazine and Classic Music. In 2007 I received, quite unexpectedly, an Italian award for my opera journalism. I also write programme essays for Covent Garden, English National Opera, Welsh National Opera, Opera North, Scottish Opera and Norske in Oslo.

As well as writing on cultural travel I have had three novels published We Think The World of Him, The Four of Us and Wishdaughter and a book of humour Whatever Happened To...? based on the award-winning Radio 4 comedy series. I broadcast occasionally on both Radios 3 and 4 and recently contributed to Radio 3's ABC of Opera series.

I have known Oxford for years but only moved to live here in 2002. Getting to know this city is an ongoing adventure. Oxford is a very easy place to to visit. Getting below the surface however takes time. Nevertheless it is a hugely rewarding endeavour. At the moment I can think of nowhere I'd rather live. Coming home is always a delight. I took on the Simon Seeks project because I want to share what I've found out - and what I will continue to discover - about Oxford. 

You can find out more about my travels and writing at www.adrianmourby.com .