Tony Goulding rediscovers the pubs along this East Oxford thoroughfare
This interesting tour along the city end of Oxford’s Iffley Road commenced in Charles Street, behind the row of shops, at the Prince of Wales – or what’s left of it, not to be confused with the Prince of Wales in Iffley village which is still very much open. Now converted into four flats but with the pub sign still affixed to the building, the Charles Street pub was built by Ind Coope in 1934 and later run by Halls before it closed in 1984. Despite living close by in the 1980s, I only ever visited a couple of times. Joe Hill, present landlord of the Fir Tree, used to live a few doors away.
Derek Honey’s book An Encyclopaedia of Oxford Pubs, Inns and Taverns, published in 1998, offers some interesting background – noting that it was dedicated to Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936. “During World War II the pub was a favourite meeting place for American servicemen and the girls who lived locally, and there were frequent fights between the ‘Yanks’ and the local men, usually over the women,” it says. It became a music pub in the 1950s, first jazz and later rock, but by the 1980s it had a reputation for unruliness, and was raided for drugs several times.
On the main road is the Magdalen Arms, another new build for Halls. It has been through several identity changes over the years with periods of no cask beer and the Arms being dropped from the name, but I think it’s at its best right now. One big spacious room with a quirky professional feeling and a covered rear and side patio make for a mostly up-market dining pub. Drinkers are still treated to the only regular pint of Deuchars IPA in the city, Timothy Taylor Landlord and a guest, plus a flat cider for myself.
If you stroll down Chester Street to the Chester (the “Arms” was dropped from the name some years ago), you will find another very well run dining pub. One large room and a sprawling garden serve the mostly local clientele. Another former Halls house built in the late 1890s, it was renamed the Royal Green Jackets into which the former Ox and Bucks Light Infantry was absorbed. When in the care of Punch Taverns (what care!) the pub was closed and sold to a developer, and a long battle took place with the locals finally getting the pub back with the loss of the car park, where a couple of houses were built. The present team have done a splendid job over the six years they have been here. Drinkers still have a choice of up to three mainly Loose Cannon beers, and on the bar were Abingdon Bridge and Bombshell plus up to six changing kegs. A rather thin Purity Cider was my choice.
Back on Iffley Road itself was the pub of the night, a real, split-level Victorian boozer with just the basics of food, not currently being served although it is seeking a chef to run his or her own show. The Fir Tree was for years a Morrells pub and is now a Greene King house, which has been run very well by Joe Hill for the past 14 years. It’s been difficult for the pub in recent times having been closed since March 2020 until May this year, but it is now fully open, and the locals and regulars are back supporting this great street corner boozer. Joe has worked for years in bars including the Old Fire Station and the Tandem pub in Kennington in its better days, but he has come home in the Fir Tree. A good cider was had with three cask ales available – Timothy Taylor Landlord, a house beer called One For The Road, and a collaboration beer with Welsh brewery Tiny Rebel called Birra Colada Pale. What a great treat for the evening.
The Fir Tree and the Oxford Blue, just off Iffley Road in Marston Street, had the dubious honour of having been closed for the longest period following the March 2020 lockdown, with the latter only re-opening on July 23 this year. Ushers beers were served at the Marston Street pub until the mid-1980s, when it was known as the Swan. A very warm welcome was received here from the new tenants James Roves and Victoria Bennett, who have a great deal of previous experience in the pub trade with James having run the Lamb at Little Milton and Victoria joining him at Fuller’s pub the Cross Keys at Great Missenden, Bucks.
As it’s a Wells & Co (formerly Charles Wells) house, it was good to see two of the brewery’s small batch brews on the bar – DNA, a tasty 4.3% amber beer; and Origin, a 3.7% American Pale. These are produced at its new brewery in Bedford, called Brewpoint, which was completed last year. The original brewery, which the businessman Charles Wells acquired in 1876, was replaced exactly 100 years later by a new brewery in Bedford, producing well-known beers such as Bombardier. This brewery and the brands were sold to Marston’s in 2017, but the £14 million Brewpoint brewery and tap room marks a new beginning for the old family firm, now with a fifth generation in charge.
A novelty at the Oxford Blue is the serving of a guest ale by gravity, this being from the Marston’s range, on this occasion being Courage Directors, poured from a jug with great aplomb by barman Bryn Davis. A further cask ale will be added when demand increases, and a good choice of food is served here including speciality pizzas from a genuine pizza oven, as at Wells’ other pub in Oxford, the Hollybush just off Botley Road.
The former superb Cricketers Arms, also on Iffley Road, is now the Mad Hatter cocktail bar. Once my favourite pub, this busy two-bar Morland local has been ruined in my opinion. The stone-carved image of a cricketer on the wall is said to be of the great Australian Sir Donald Bradman, who played in the cricket ground opposite in the 1930s.
And don’t forget the two pubs in Iffley village, off to the right at the country end of this road. The Prince of Wales is run by Wadworth while the independent Tree Hotel, where you can normally find XT cask beers, has a large garden with live music and food service provided by Aziz, a well-known name on the Indian curry scene.