“New Normal” in the city centre

Those who haven’t yet ventured into our top city centre watering holes will be pleased to hear that all six are alive and well, although St Aldates Tavern was one of the last pubs in Oxford to re-open, towards the end of September. This article was researched one Saturday evening earlier in the month, before collecting Track and Trace data became mandatory, with a visit to SAT added later.

First stop was the Lamb and Flag, which took its time to re-open as it’s very popular with students, academics and tourists, all of whom were mainly absent during July/August. You are asked for Track and Trace details at the door and then shown to a vacant table, where staff ask you apologetically to stay seated and not move between tables.

Lamb and Flag in St Giles

The real ale range was much reduced with only Lamb and Flag Gold (actually Palmers Gold), Skinner’s Betty Stogs and Animal/XT’s Yak available, and no sign of the once staple Old Peculier from Theakstons. It’s

usually first stop in the city for lovers of real cider, but the Heck’s had just gone off and this was the only one. We would expect more of the nine hand pumps to be back in use soon.

Moving on to the White Rabbit, we found a pub that could really be struggling now if not for happy coincidence that it opened a large outdoor space, in what was previously a car park, only last year. There are now tables under awnings and patio heaters right up to the stage door of the Playhouse, itself now closed.

To get in you must pass a temperature check at the door, with Track and Trace mainly by barcode which I find all too easy to forget. The patio was fully booked and inside space is very limited, but we had temporary use of a table to enjoy a choice of West Berkshire Good Old Boy, Luna Citra from White Horse and my choice, Rude Not To by micro-brewery Amwell Springs, from near Wallingford. Bearing in mind that the White Rabbit is mainly a lively young people’s pub very popular for its pizzas, it’s good to see this choice of local real ales whose quality justifies its inclusion in the GBG.

On then to the Chequers which, like its sister Nicholson’s pub the Crown, has a rope across the entrance where you must leave Track and Trace details. This is a large pub with a fair number of outside tables too, and it can become very crowded with students. How it copes when term time starts will be interesting.

As in most pubs the beer range was reduced in September, extending only to Nicholson’s Pale Ale (actually St Austell’s Tribute), Sharp’s Doom Bar and my choice, the ever popular but rather strong Jaipur by Thornbridge (5.9%) – and yes, I did regret this the next morning!

Next stop was the Bear Inn, which made a welcome return to the 2020 GBG after several years’ absence. The Fuller’s house is a tiny, historic inn with a claim to be Oxford’s oldest pub, although that title actually belongs to the Mitre on the High Street. But the downside of being a small, historic inn is that it now has only two tables available inside to respect social distancing.

The Bear’s saviour in these awful times is its extensive outdoor space, mostly under cover, which more than doubled the pub’s seating capacity even long before lockdown. Let’s hope it continues to attract people in the colder weather, as patio heaters are provided.

It was busy outside, but we were the only customers inside. The “New Normal” is well policed here with Track and Trace, mainly by barcode but also on paper, and you must remain seated while drinks are brought to you. In-house beers on hand pump were London Pride, HSB and Dark Star Hophead – all well-kept as we would expect.

Final stop was Oxford CAMRA’s current Pub of the Year, the Royal Blenheim, now in the capable hands of manager Steven Lyne, following the departure of Steve Hay for pastures new. Not only does it have (usually) the largest range of real ales in Oxford, but some of the lowest prices.

A rope also guards the entrance here, where you write down your details or can scan a QR code, with exit through another door. I visited here on re-opening day and was pleased to see a decent range again, mainly from the

The Royal Blenheim — our current City Pub of the Year

White Horse and Titanic breweries which lease the pub from Everards. Guest beers from other independent suppliers, always available previously, are expected to return.

The range today was White Horse Bitter and Village Idiot, Everards Tiger and two Titanic beers – the ever wonderful Plum Porter, and my choice, Iceberg, a 4.1% beer with a high wheat content. The staff here wear visors but smile on regardless, and plastic screens between tables help keep you safe. The Royal Blenheim has no outside space at all, but is large enough to cope – a fitting end to a very enjoyable night out.

Tony Goulding adds:

St Aldates Tavern was one of the last pubs to re-open, not welcoming customers again until September 24 after over six months of closure. Only two real ales were on offer on re-opening day, these being St Austell Tribute and Adnams Southwold Bitter. But as with all GBG pubs surveyed here, we hope the range will soon improve.