Delighted in Didcot?

Although this article was written before lockdown, we can confirm that all these pubs have re-opened with the exception of the Mulberry, due to maintenance work. The beer range and opening hours at all these pubs may have been reduced.

Over the last few years the Oxford Drinker magazine has reported on the pubs in every part of Oxford and every town in Oxfordshire….. with one exception, Didcot. Wise heads were shaken sadly whenever Didcot was mentioned, warning that the pubs here were, well, crap. The town did, after all, appear in the first edition of the book Crap Towns and has struggled to throw off that image.

Did I believe this? Of course not! I know for sure that pubs reflect society, and Didcot has been growing rapidly with several new housing estates and a large new shopping complex, the Orchard Centre, with the usual household names. The chimney and last three cooling towers of its former coal-fired power station were demolished recently, symbolic of a past era.

I have pleasant memories of Didcot because of my interest in railways, and I continue to visit the Great Western Society’s Didcot Railway Centre adjacent to Parkway station. Didcot was only a village until the Great Western railway opened here in 1839, becoming the junction of the Oxford and Swindon lines.

I remember supping pints in the old Great Western pub opposite the station, demolished many years ago and now the site of a car park. This is one of several pubs the town has lost, but there is still another pub opposite the station, one of eight remaining.

Didcot isn’t the easiest town to do a crawl, so thanks to Tony Goulding for providing the transport. We started by venturing out to the Ladygrove estate north of the railway lines, expecting our first pub, the Ladygrove, to be a typical uninspiring estate pub.

It might be typical in trying to appeal to a wide range of customers, but they clearly have a taste for real ale as this Marston’s house has six hand pumps with five being in use on the day. All were from the Marston’s range and these were Pedigree, Bombardier, Directors, Hobgoblin Gold and 61 Deep, the latter being described as a New World Pale Ale. A half of this proved to be average, the bar lady advising that Pedigree and Hobgoblin Gold are the regular beers, with the original Hobgoblin (now branded Ruby) often available too.

The Ladygrove

This range of beer might not excite a CAMRA regular, but a choice of five ales is pretty impressive for a non-specialist pub and there was a range of styles too. The Ladygrove has a captive audience being the only pub on this large estate, and is the first I have visited with Marston’s Generous George branding. Apparently there are around 25 of these, claiming to be “famous for making people feel good inside”.

At one end of this enormous, modern pub is an over-18s bar with pool tables, but the other end is aimed at families with young children including an ice-cream bar and a microwave for warming up kiddies’ bottles. I’ve never seen that before in a pub. Sports TV is all over and the menu is mainly pub food with the emphasis on burgers and pizzas.

It offers a better choice of ale than you might expect, but is hardly cosy and typical of the large, food-led pubs that large brewers such as Marston’s and Greene King want to run rather than back street locals. Generous George meets Hungry Horse…..

So we now moved on to the town centre and, to quote an old Irish song, we took a stroll down Broadway. Didcot’s main drag has the neglected feel of many high streets, but the main shopping centre is just behind it rather than out of town, meaning there’s hope for the town centre yet.

First stop was the Broadways, a solid, imposing looking but run-down pub whose former name, the White Hart, can still be made out on the wall. An Enterprise (EI Group) pub, its drinks and food are keenly priced with main meals costing £7.95 or less. Even in the middle of a Friday afternoon it was quite raucous, with some unforgiving looking characters at the bar. My eye was drawn by a boxing machine – yes, machine – adorned by the picture of a scantily clad woman. Maybe throwing a decent punch is a worthwhile skill to have around here!

The Broadways

But again, the Broadways offers a better choice of real ale than you might expect in this sort of cheap and cheerful pub. Four real ales were available, these being the regular St Austell Tribute (which tasted average), Sharp’s Doom Bar, Wadworth 6X and a surprise, local-ish guest, the seasonal Tackle Grabber from Wiltshire brewery Box Steam. As an English Rugby Union player did indeed grab a Welsh opponent’s “tackle” the next day, I remembered this pub with a laugh. The Broadways is a throwback to a rougher, tougher Didcot, out of step with the posh shops around the corner – but the locals seem to love it.

On we went to the far (western) end of Broadway and the Mulberry, formerly the Wallingford or Wally Arms, which had quite a reputation for being a rough house in its previous incarnation. In complete contrast to the previous pub, this hostelry tries hard to appeal to the Didcot resident who populates the new estates, many of whom are commuters.

The Greene King sign on the wall suggested that the beer range would be utterly predictable, but this is not so as although the building is leased from the brewer, the operating company Farley and Peterson has freedom of choice on real ales and these proved to be great range. All were local, including Abingdon Bridge by Loose Cannon, Good Old Boy and Full Circle by West Berkshire, and a very welcome, very local ale – Rude Not To, a session IPA from micro-brewery Amwell Springs, situated just down the road near Cholsey.

The Mulberry

Any pub prepared to support local micro-breweries gets my support, and a half of Rude Not To slipped down nicely as we looked around this modern, comfortable pub that re-opened under new ownership in September 2018, having been closed for around five years. Separate areas are provided for drinking and dining, with a wood-fired pizza oven in an open kitchen providing delicacies such as Didcot Devil as well as innovative dishes including sticky ginger chicken and teriyaki salmon stir-fry.

Let’s hope that the Mulberry re-opens soon, as its prolonged closure has left a gap in the Didcot pub scene. The same company runs the Blueberry pub in the nearby village of Blewbury, so adopting the name Mulberry seemed a good fit, and this is a free house which might explain why it has re-opened whereas the Mulberry has not.

We now drove down Park Road to the Royal Oak, a large Greene King pub on the way out of town. This former Morlands house had a rather predictable real ale roster of IPA, Abbot, Morland Original and the Rugby-themed Scrum Down. Pool tables, darts, sports TV and cheap food make for a typical pub atmosphere, but I decided to give this one a miss and didn’t sample the beer here – although a choice of four ales is still to be welcomed.

Ushers plaque

We now proceeded down Wantage Road to what looked, from the Whatpub website, to offer the best choice of real ale in Didcot. Up to five real ales are available at the Wheatsheaf free house, which has a plaque outside revealing it was once an Ushers house. But only three were available today and oddly, they had no pump clips but names chalked up on a blackboard. The barman said ales often came without pump clips, but even small breweries usually supply them.

The choice here was certain eclectic, including ‘Fraid Not from Exeter Brewery (a 4% golden hoppy ale) and Laines House beer from Laine’s brewery of Brighton. Young’s Cityscape was the third choice, the only beer from a national brewer (part of the Marston’s empire). Apparently the choice rotates constantly, and if the first two are anything to go by, here you could find almost anything.

The Wheatsheaf

A half of the ‘Fraid Not was much to my taste although I favour amber or darker beers, but I wasn’t sure about the Wheatsheaf as a pub. It was very noisy with music blaring away, and lots of slot machines – and is probably even noisier in the evening. Pool, darts and sports TV all add to the lively scene, but it’s not the sort of pub for a quiet drink. Breakfast and lunch are served, but not evening meals – take the breakfast challenge and eat the two plates (well, not literally!) in 30 minutes, and you get your £15.95 back.

We now ventured onto the edge of the enormous Great Western housing estate to the Station Garden pub, owned by Marston’s. First of all it must be said that it’s good to see a pub included in a new housing estate, when so many of these developments have no such thing. It’s just the kind of large, modern, food-led pub that Marston’s wants more of, but as with the Ladygrove, the choice of real ale is better than you might expect.

There are six hand pumps at the Station Garden with two of these serving Pedigree, two serving Hobgoblin and the others serving Brakspear Oxford Gold and Forty Niner from Ringwood, also from the Marston’s range. Four real ales represent a decent choice for this kind of pub, which is so family oriented that there are even play stations for young kids. I’ve never seen that in a pub before either, whereas the mini-playground outside is a regular feature of the family-friendly. Food is again family oriented, including a Little Monsters menu.

The Station Garden

It’s not my kind of pub so I didn’t stay for a drink, but I did ask staff why it’s called the Station Garden and met with a blank response. It’s nowhere near the station, and doesn’t have much of a garden. According to the pub’s website, it’s “named in recognition of Didcot’s proud and established history in the locomotive industry”, which rather gives the impression that locomotives were built here rather than simply serviced, although the Great Western Society has done some major rebuilds recently. The website goes on to mention the Flying Scotsman which was most definitely not a Great Western loco; rather like the descriptions of the names of some Wetherspoon pubs, it doesn’t seem to have been researched properly.

Perhaps I’ve spent too long drinking in the old Great Western pub, but before laying that ghost there were two more pubs to visit near the station starting with the Queens Arms in Manor Road which is the closest you’ll get to “old Didcot”, with some buildings that appear to be 19th century and crooked streets to match. This ex-Morlands, wet-only pub is another Greene King house with only one real ale, Morlands Original, so I didn’t stay. The locals seem to like it but the smell of disinfectant put me off.

The Prince of Wales

Our last stop, opposite the station, was Greene King’s Prince of Wales which must do a roaring trade with commuters, and was absolutely packed at about 5.30pm on a Friday afternoon. Alongside the ever-present IPA and Abbot were two locally sourced guest ales which made it worth a visit – the Rugby-themed 6 Pack session blond from Loddon (4.2%), and a tasty Belapur IPA from Ramsbury brewery in Wiltshire, at 5.5%. The Prince of Wales accepts CAMRA 50p discount vouchers – a good move – and the Belapur was a nice pint to finish on. But I felt the pub lacked character, being neither one thing nor another.

No review of Didcot should overlook that just outside town are some super village pubs, including the Fleur de Lys at East Hagbourne (Oxfordshire Pub of the Year 2019) and the Plum Pudding at Milton. In Didcot itself the much missed Mulberry was my top choice, followed by the Wheatsheaf. With around 25 different real ales on offer, don’t let anyone tell you that Didcot is a crap town for drinking, even if it can’t live up to the standards of Wantage or Abingdon.