Fight for Lamb & Flag goes global

News spreads worldwide as St John’s college announces “project on hold”

When St John’s College announced that the Lamb & Flag would not re-open after lockdown as it weighs up its options, it could hardly have anticipated that the pub would become a cause celebre all over the world. But that’s exactly what has happened, as a story in the Oxford Mail – following a tip-off from CAMRA – was taken up by national media in the UK and then international news bureaux.

Reuters and Agence France-Presse (AFP), another news bureau that operates globally, sent reporters and film crews to Oxford soon after the story broke, with Australian TV Channel 9 also joining the party. The news bureau coverage literally spread worldwide in titles ranging from the New York Post, Straits Times in Singapore and Hindustan Times in India, to the Times of Malta and The AFP coverage is particularly interesting as it features not only CAMRA but input from Oxford pubs the White Horse, Gardeners Arms (Plantation Road) and the White Hart in Wytham.

Watch video shot by AFP (used with permission):

The Hindustan Times takes up a story put out by Agence France-Presse

Why, you might ask, are all these diverse media so interested in an Oxford pub, and how will it help secure the Lamb & Flag’s future? The answer to the first is that a centuries-old pub in an old university city is seen as somehow symbolic of “Olde England”, with some outlets using it as an example of how Covid-19 threatens their future. The answer to the second is that while St John’s might not be swayed by something that comes out in India or Malta, graduates of the university live all over the world and the college will have a PR disaster on its hands if it decides to keep the pub closed. It may wish to use the Grade II listed building for something else, its upper floors already being student lodging.

At least four experienced people who currently run pubs have told us that they are interested in taking on the Lamb & Flag, but that has to remain confidential. The pub has been advertised on property company Savill’s website, as it was two years ago, but this now states “this project is currently on hold”. Those enquiring have been met with a bland response, but it is looking likely that St John’s would favour leasing it to a larger pub company, which could change its character altogether. That would be a sad fate for a pub that has featured in the Good Beer Guide every year since 2001and regular winner of our City Pub of the Year award, but the limitations of a smallish kitchen and a listed building may preclude turning it into “yet another” bland dining pub. Another question is – will the deal on offer be realistic, at a time when medium term trading conditions for any kind of pub are so uncertain?

The Lamb & Flag’s history, and association with famous writers, is one reason why the story went global – although this was over-exaggerated. CAMRA’s approach was to portray it, rightly, as the sort of traditional English pub that is very much under threat – concentrating on beer and cider rather than food, with no piped music, no TVs and no noisy machines or jukebox: a place, simply, for talking and good company.

This hit a chord with interviewers, who also played on the pub’s associations with a group led by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis known as the Inklings, although they were more associated with the Eagle and Child on the other side of St Giles. The Lamb & Flag is mentioned in Thomas Hardy’s book Jude the Obscure, and also by Graham Greene in his memoirs. Inspector Morse and his younger incarnation Endeavour also used the pub, and all publicity is to the good.

Henry Ford once said history was “bunk”, and it’s tempting to agree when various dates are mentioned in relation to pubs. Having written the (mainly) historical book Oxford Pubs myself I am well aware of the need for accuracy, and fortunately I had two previous books to draw upon, by authors who had pored through the records. Oxford Pubs Past & Present by Paul J. Marriott dates from 1978 and An Encyclopaedia of Oxford Pubs, Inns and Taverns, by Derek Honey, from 1998. Both list all pubs known to have existed with key dates, whereas my own features over 40 existing pubs, describing how they are today as well as their history.

The earliest date for the Lamb & Flag that all these books agree on is 1695 when the building was bought by St John’s from Godstow Abbey. However, in its statement announcing closure, St John’s states: “The Lamb & Flag has been operating since at least 1566, when it was opened just south of St John’s College. In 1613, the College moved the pub to its current site which is a Grade II listed building.” This is a welcome update/correction, you might think, but it was again described as a 17th century pub in the Savills “to let” notice – “built in 1883”. Henry Ford, were you right?

Doubt over dates doesn’t trouble the media, however, which were happy to go with the 17th century dates while claiming that while the pub survived the Great Plague, it couldn’t survive Covid-19. While portraying the pub as a piece of Olde England in danger of disappearing, some of the coverage was very useful in highlighting the plight of pubs wrestling with closures and restrictions for nearly 12 months now.

We will keep you posted with developments, but as the media coverage and protests by students, university alumni, locals and CAMRA have proven, the Lamb & Flag is held dear and will be defended come what may. We can’t determine what kind of pub it might be in future, but we can fight to save it as a pub and you can guarantee the media will want to hear more.