Turf Tavern revamp puts focus on real ale

One of Oxford’s most famous hostelries has a new look indoors while keeping its historic feel

After I moved to Oxford over 40 years ago and started to get visitors, one of the first places I took them was the Turf Tavern, a pub that calls to mind images of “Olde England” for many people. As soon as you stoop to go through that low doorway, probably banging your head in the process, you realise you are in a very old and special place, that has been held dear by generations of students, residents and visitors.

Its proud boast is to offer “an education in intoxication”, and the list of famous people who have been spotted here continues to grow to include the present as well as many past Prime Ministers. Even more renowned are former US president Bill Clinton, actors such as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, rock icon David Bowie and physicist Stephen Hawking. The Turf has to be one of the most famous pubs in Britain, but sadly it has slipped down the rankings for real ale and does not currently feature in the Good Beer Guide. That could soon change if landlord Alex Kecojevic gets his way – and he’s made a good start on that campaign.

Alex Kecojevic pulls a pint of White Horse Dark Blue Oxford University Ale

Although this is a Greene King managed pub, Alex has a deal meaning he can serve up to seven guest real ales as long as he serves two from Greene King. The £250,000 revamp of the pub’s interior, which concentrates on the larger rooms at the back of the pub while leaving the characterful front bar as it is, makes it the first Greene King pub in the country to get a “Heritage” makeover, reserved for the most historic of its properties.

Alex not only stocks a wider range of well-kept real ales, but he has also written his own guide to how real ale is produced which is available on tables. Many local and some national breweries will feature in the coming months, with the selection when it re-opened in mid-June including beers from Loose Cannon, Little Ox, Oxford Brewery (formerly Shotover) and White Horse in addition to St Austell Tribute and GK’s own beers.

Alex arrived in the UK from Montenegro – now and independent country but then part of Yugoslavia – in the 1980s, becoming one of the youngest licensees in London when working for Courage. Before moving to the Turf in 2010 he worked at Copa bar in Reading, but when he arrived here he instantly felt at home and has created the kind of pub that he would want to spend time in.

“We are the first pub in the GK Heritage brand in the country, with the freedom to source our own real ales, ciders, gins etc,” he explained. “The ethos of the company is changing and a lot depends on the manager. This is a beautiful pub It has an amazing history, and I don’t want to spoil it — so food is typical pub meals, such as pies, fish and chips and so on. There is no music, TV or football. That means we are quiet during the European championship, but ladies love it. We are trying to give the pub a more feminine touch.”

This is reflected in the creative interior design, with soft colours, low lighting and murals which range from horses (the pub is so-called because turf accountants, or bookmakers, used to meet here) to a giant portrait of Jane Burden (1839-1914) which was previously part of an exhibition in the Ashmolean Museum. A poor but beautiful woman who became a celebrity after marrying the painter William Morris, she was born in St Helen’s Passage which is one of two narrow entrances to the pub.

With a total capacity of about 200 in its indoor and extensive outdoor spaces, the Turf is well placed to recover from the pandemic – while its unique history will always attract people in. Its claim to be Oxford’s oldest pub may be open to question, but there is no doubt that the high stone wall that forms its boundary is the most significant remaining portion of the city wall that ringed the city in medieval times.

So there is much to ponder as you sip a pint or two, and if you like real cider there’s a great choice of this too courtesy of 25 boxed ciders supplied by Lilley’s. “I love this pub, and we have real diversity here with students, graduates, locals, dons and a whole range of other people,” said Alex. “Many famous people do come here, and I must admit that when I met Stephen Hawking, and he was so pleased to see his name on a board of famous people, I was star-struck for the first time in my life. This summer will be OK, as although we will be down on a normal summer, we need fewer staff. Real ale is important, and I plan to bring in people for ‘meet the brewer’ events starting soon. And I would just love to have a micro-brewery on the premises.”

A portrait of Jane Burden keeps watch in the rear lounge

It’s good to see the Turf Tavern aiming to reclaim its place as one of Oxford’s premier drinking pubs. Make a point of visiting, and you could be pleasantly surprised.