Wednesday, 14 August 2013

A farewell to Oxford


Better than any travel guide you'd care to read, one anecdote sums up Oxford perfectly. Visiting our local one afternoon, I found Bill Clinton sat in the back room, dressed in white, eating fish and chips, and flanked by no less than fifteen bodyguards. After finishing a pint of Fuller's London Pride (4.1%), charming a few old ladies, and exchanging banter with the locals, Bill left and pushed his way outside through a gaggle of American tourist to a waiting car. A typical weekday in Oxford.

It's ironic that the Mini was designed and built in Oxford. This is a city in tiny form. Everything is here within a single square mile: from China Town, to the West End, to 'ethnic town'. It makes a pub crawl near impossible, as you can drink five pints in the same number of metres. 

A cliche, but Oxford is a city of contrasts. The ancient buildings of possibly the most famous university in the world freeze tourists to the spot in awe; residents barely give them a second glance. Some of those same residents have the accent of a West Country farm hand; others that of a West Country landowner. That same university has an almost ancient Christian heritage; yet May Day is still the biggest festival of the year. The west of the city is one giant cow filled meadow; the south, one giant housing estate. The Cowley car plant is a state-of-the-art German owned facility producing mile after mile of Mini Coopers; the local brewers could probably run their delivers from a single mini.  

Oxford has spawned a disproportionately high number of artists: Lewis Carroll, Tolkein, Philip Pullman, Radiohead, Supergrass, to name a few. And they keep coming, with Foals, Stornoway, and others. The same can be said for brewing, where you have the established brands of Hook Norton, Wychwood, and Brakspear, alongside the new comers: Oxfordshire Ales, The Shotover Brewing Company, and Compass Brewery.

Aside from drinking a pint three feet from a former president, whilst in Oxford I've had Pimm's with monks on the lawn of Trinity College, a beer or two with a former CIA director, blacktie dinner at Blenheim, and meals at countless colleges. My employers have sent me from Oxford to The Hague, Istanbul, and New York. I've been up early running with the cows in Port Meadow and up late drinking in the Jamaican bar. For all my friends - residents and non-residents alike - criticise Oxford for being provincial, it's certainly provides some interesting experiences.

Sitting in the White Rabbit one lunchtime I was asked, if you could take one pub from Oxford with you, which would it be.

The Victoria immediately sprang to mind, with it's brilliant pies, ever changing ales, chilled glasses, and attentive staff. It probably just about edges it, but the more I thought, the more pubs flooded my mind, each the best for different occasions.

On a sunny day avoid The Trout like the plague and instead head to the benches at the front of The Plough in Upper Wolvercote. Alternatively, walk along The Thames to the lawn of The Isis Tavern, a quiet drink at the back of The Gardeners Arms in Jericho, or join the students in the garden of Cafe Tariffa on Cowley Road. 

If you're looking for a tourist's taste of Oxford, you can't go wrong with The Turf Tavern, The King's Arms, The Head of the River, or The Bear Inn. At each you will have to fight for a seat; although, in the dead of winter, the cold scares the tourists from The Turf Tavern, and you can sit outside with mulled wine and marshmallows in front of a roaring brazier. 

For a night out, definitely steer clear of George Street (except for a trip to The Grapes) and the west of the city. Instead, Duke of Cambridge in Jericho offers up great cocktails, and Raul's in Jericho offers up exceptional cocktails, albeit with limited space. Cowley Road is really the only option for a late night; there are enough Moroccan bars to shake a fez at, a couple of unremarkable clubs, and a Jamaican bar which never seems to close.

Oxford is possibly bucking the national trend for declining pubs. Pubs close and re-open weeks later in a much better state. The St Aldates Tavern, The Library, The Rickety Press, The Magdalen Arms, and The White Rabbit all replaced mainly hideous pubs which were never going to last much longer. And they keep coming, with Jacob's Inn in Wolvercote possibly the latest new food and drinking hotspot within the ring road.

All-in-all, I'll miss Oxford's many, many drinking and culinary options. London, of course, surpasses Oxford with number and range, but being a small town (city) of only 150,000 people, there is a hell of a lot on offer.