Let’s look forward to when these great pubs are allowed to re-open
Abingdon has become a fine place to enjoy real ale in recent years, with five entries in the 2021 Good Beer Guide and its own brewery, Loose Cannon, which re-established brewing here in 2010 a few years after the demise of Morlands following take-over by Greene King.
Morlands was on our minds as we made our way to the Brewery Tap, which won our Town and Village Pub of the Year award for the third successive year in 2020. But as a pub the premises are not very old, as three Grade II town houses were converted into a tap room in 1993 and the main buildings of the brewery stood behind it.
This is a large, stone-flagged pub with three distinct areas – the main bar, a lounge up a couple of steps, and a small snug at the rear. It has a fine reputation for food as well as real ale, and has guest accommodation and regular music events in normal times. The Brewery Tap has been run by the Heritage family since it opened.
Despite these difficult times there were still five real ales on when we visited one Friday, one of the regulars being Abingdon Bridge from Loose Cannon just up the road. The others were also all local, these being Purdy Peculiar from LoveBeer at Milton; Rude Not To from Amwell Springs at Cholsey; Maggs Magnificent Mild from West Berkshire Brewery; and Lode Star from Hop Kettle in Swindon.
With a menu of 32 keg beers, bottled and canned beers and ciders also to choose from, this is indeed a beer drinkers’ paradise and a place you could spend several hours in during normal times. I had halves of Rude Not To (well it is, isn’t it?) and Maggs before my favourite, the Purdy Peculiar, a dark and smoky stout at 5.4% — pity it was so early in the day or I’d have had another.
But duty called, so it was on to the Nag’s Head on the Thames, a past Pub of the Year winner, to see how it was faring not only after virus restrictions but after a substantial investment by pub company Brakspear, which took over a couple of years ago. This is a pub that really comes into its own in summer, with its large riverside terrace and outdoor bar, a godsend in this very difficult year. The bar at the front has been opened out and feels more attractive, while down a couple of stairs is the extensive dining area with views out towards the Thames beyond.
This was previously another real ale mecca, but Brakspear has brought change and not for the better, as far as the beer range is concerned. It still has four hand pumps at each end of the bar, but they now offer the same four beers with only occasional guest beers, and no real cider. The four real ales were Brakspear’s Oxford Gold and Brakspear Gravity (keeping alive the name of the old brewery but now brewed by Wychwood in Witney), Loose Cannon Abingdon Bridge and Timothy Taylor Landlord.
The days of at least six real ales from a variety of suppliers are clearly over, but the beer is kept well and it’s an attractive place to eat and spend some time. But the Nag’s Head is no longer an essential stop in Abingdon, especially as its real ales are widely available elsewhere.
Almost next door is the Broad Face, which I had enjoyed on my last visit but which was now even more of a revelation. It really is the most attractive place to walk into, as a woman’s touch is very much in evidence with a lovely display of lilies alongside the regulation hand sanitiser, and fresh flowers on the tables too. The Christmas floral displays are also very appealing.
Manageress Kealey Hitchings leads a mainly female team here, but they know their real ales and what a good range they had – Crop Circle from Hop Back in Wiltshire; Citra IPA from Hanlons of Devon; Hill Climb from Prescott in Gloucestershire; Good Old Boy from West Berkshire; Green Devil IPA from Oakham Brewery (careful – 6%!); and the Broad Face house bitter, Prison Break, so-called because the town’s former jail, now flats, is just across the road.
Prison Break is in fact Greene King’s “landlord” bitter that can be branded by individual pubs, and this was the only obvious sign that this is a Greene King tenancy. Licensee Joshua Khan has negotiated a deal giving the Broad Face a lot of freedom on the real ales, and he also runs the King Charles Tavern in Newbury and the Great Shefford (formerly the Swan), also in Berkshire. I enjoyed halves of the Crop Circle (a best bitter) and Citra IPA while chatting with Kealey, who kindly put up a poster to promote the online Oxford Drinker. I haven’t eaten there yet, but I will.
We then moved on to a pub that’s back in the Good Beer Guide for 2021, the King’s Head and Bell. This very old former coaching inn has some interesting historic rooms upstairs, normally available for meetings, and a character snug as well as the main bar. In 2019 it roofed over part of the courtyard to provide a much bigger dining area in a conservatory, which can still be opened out in summer. A pizza over was installed but the food menu is wide ranging including sharing boards and pub classics.
The King’s Head and Bell was serving only Loose Cannon beers but it served them very well, and the choice today included a red beer, You’ve Got Ale; the ever reliable Abingdon Bridge; and my choice, 42 Pounder, a malty beer at 4.2%. Landlady Jordan Probert was very pleased with her Good Beer Guide certificate, explaining that owning company Urban Village Pub Co had spent over £500,000 on the revamp to provide a modern atmosphere alongside its traditional charm. Regular events continue including a weekly quiz.
My final stop was at Wetherspoon’s The Narrows, the only ’Spoons pub in our branch currently in the Good Beer Guide. Its Fish Friday promotion was in full swing with fish and chips proving very popular, and the guest beers on this occasion were Shepherd Neame Spitfire, Soul Train by Box Steam brewery and JHB by Oakham Brewery, plus house ales Ruddles and Abbot from Greene King, and Sharp’s Doom Bar. A half of Soul Train was quite enough for me, and it was good to see Wetherspoon supporting guest ales despite reduced demand.
I didn’t visit it myself, but other members of our party also visited the White Horse on the western fringe of Abingdon which is another Greene King house with a good choice of guest ales. It can have up to eight real ales but on this occasion still had four – guest ales West Berkshire’s Good Old Boy and Goffs’ Cheltenham Gold joining regulars Morlands Original and IPA from GK. The pub offers a 10% CAMRA discount and is worth giving a try.
My verdict, after visiting the five GBG entries in Abingdon, is that the Broad Face and Brewery Tap are the top choices. When we get around to choosing a Pub of the Year again, the Broad Face could give the Brewery Tap a run for its money!