“An unconventional pub for unconventional people”

Oxford’s only LGBT+ pub has increased its choice of real ale to include Otter Bitter

June 2020 was not the ideal time to take over a pub, but that’s exactly what happened at the Jolly Farmers in Oxford during the first lockdown. Little did the new team know that ahead was more than a year with three lockdowns interspersed with periods of restricted trading, but the historic pub has weathered the storm well – helped by a rear garden which allowed it to re-open in April.

One year on, landlord Spike Greenwood has no regrets but is looking forward to July 19 when, hopefully, all trading restrictions will be eased and staff can start talking more to customers. He runs the pub with his husband, Rob Jordan, and Tom Fudge, and the team has plenty of experience. Spike learned about real ale while at the King’s Arms in Oxford with long-term former landlord David Kyffin, while Tom has worked for the Peach Pubs group and at the Bear and Ragged Staff in Cumnor, and Greyhound at Besselsleigh..

Spike Greenwood (right) and Tom Fudge behind the bar

The Jolly Farmers has been an LGBT+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) pub since 1982 and is the only one of its kind in Oxford, although there is also an LGBT+ nightclub, Plush. That makes it one of the longest running LGBT+ pubs in the country, with only the Vauxhall Tavern in London and Queen’s Head in Brighton being longer established. For many years its near neighbour the Castle was also LGBT+, but this changed when re-opened by Hook Norton. So for a time was the long closed Brewery Tap, near the old Morrells brewery. According to a recent post in trade portal the Morning Advertiser, LGBT+ venues are in steep decline at a time when lockdown has made many people more isolated than ever.

The pub is on Paradise Street, close to the Westgate Shopping Centre, being so-called because farmers used to bring their produce to a market here. The front of the building dates from the 16th century when part of it was a cottage and part a wigmaker, with a pub being first recorded here in 1829 and gaining its present name in 1842 when run by Halls brewery. Inside the Jolly Farmers is charming but small, so the garden gives it a major increase in capacity and the ability to run events on a small stage. Owned by the city council, it is leased by an independent company, Rapscallion, and run as a free house.

“The beauty of being independent is that we can try different cask ales, but Otter bitter (from Otter brewery in Devon) has become so popular that it is now our house beer,” said Spike. “Our second hand pump has changing beers that we get from a wholesaler, and these have included Capability Brown (from Yorkshire brewery Rooster), Trinity (Oxford Brewery) and beers from Two Cocks. We will never be a huge real ale pub, but what we do we want to do well. We will look at other local beers, but there would be no point having Hook Norton beers with the Castle nearby, or White Horse beers because of the Royal Blenheim.”

Spike aims to provide a pub appealing to many different types of customers, not all of whom are LGBT+. Its three main demographics are LGBT+, students and tourists, and recent changes in the area mean it can broaden its appeal. Not only is it one of the closest pubs to the Westgate centre, but a large Premier Inn is nearing completion on Castle Street with its rear wall backing on to the pub’s garden. So what would Spike say to anyone hesitating over going in?

“Give us a try, as we are a community pub like many others and we get everyone from Oxford dons to road sweepers in here,” he said. “We are a happy place for the LGBT+ tribe, and we have regulars who met in here back in the 1980s and are still together today. We see ourselves as custodians of that history, but we are also a happy place for students, tourists and others. We now live in an open society, especially in Oxford which is a very open and welcoming city. Gay people walk through that door and know they will be with their tribe, but everyone is welcome. Our tribe is incredibly loyal, as long as you treat them with respect.”

The Jolly Farmers is a major supporter of Oxford Pride, describing itself as “an unconventional pub for unconventional people” and adding, in homage to its history, “not even the walls are straight”! It is open daily from 12 noon until late, and although it doesn’t serve food, customers are welcome to order takeaway from Deliveroo, Just Eat etc to be delivered to the door.

  • Writing in the Morning Advertiser, Greene King head of media Scott Frankham reiterates “the need for safe spaces” for the LGBT+ community. It has created support packages to help any of its 1,600 pubs to run LGBT+ events and operates some dedicated venues, including the City of Quebec in London.