Top real ale pub to retain its character and wide choice of beers
One of Oxford’s most historic pubs – a fixture in the Good Beer Guide and many times winner of Oxford CAMRA’s City Pub of the Year award – has been saved. Owner St John’s College has signed a lease agreement with a Community Interest Company called the Inklings Group to run the Lamb & Flag on a long-term basis, with the aim of re-opening in time for the festive season.
The pub will be run by the manager currently in charge of the Plough at 38 on Cornmarket Street, Steve Jones. Several established publicans in the city expressed interest when the college started discussing its options back in February. The pub re-opened in summer 2020 after lockdown was eased, but after it closed again before Christmas the possibility of permanent closure was raised. This led to a media furore, spread around the world by international news agencies with the help of Oxford CAMRA.
The Inklings Group is named after the famous writers who met here and across St Giles at the Eagle and Child, also owned by St John’s, which has photographs inside of its members including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The Lamb & Flag is also associated with the novelist Thomas Hardy who is thought to have written some of Jude the Obscure (also the name of another Oxford pub) here, and more recently it has been frequented by winners of the Nobel Prize and witnessed advances in science such as Oxford Nanopore being first discussed.
A statement on St John’s website reads: “Several hundred people, brought together by a love of Oxford and the Lamb & Flag pub, have established the Inklings Group to secure the future of this well-loved pub. We are determined to ensure that the next 408 years of this beloved pub will be as fun, interesting and impactful as the last 408 years. Our hope and belief is that the pub will remain as a community asset at the centre of the magical Oxford scene. The funds to ensure a sustainable future for the pub have already been committed. This community project is not exclusive in any way and all are welcome to become an Inkling.
“The Inklings are grateful to St John’s College for sharing their vision and supporting the relaunch of a pub aimed at local philanthropy and positive impact rather than profit. The Inklings also wish to thank the many volunteers who have helped make this dream a reality.”
Zoe Hancock, Principal Bursar of St John’s College, added: “We are delighted to be working with the Inklings Group to reopen the Lamb & Flag pub. The Lamb & Flag is much loved by our students, staff, Fellows and the wider community, and we believe the vision of The Inkling Group will bring great benefit to all.”
The best news for CAMRA members is that the pub, as a free house, will continue to serve a range of real ales, mainly by local breweries. There had been fears that a pub chain might take over, changing its character forever, but instead St John’s will be warmly congratulated for supporting the community-owned group that is leasing it. The limitations of the kitchen in this listed building make it unsuitable for turning it into a dining pub, much to CAMRA’s relief. The pub’s character will be preserved as it undergoes “light redecoration and refurbishment” prior to re-opening.
In their prospectus for shareholders, the Inklings – like the nine existing community-owned pubs in Oxfordshire – make clear that people should not expect to profit from their investment. Shares are still available although the initial £500,000 required has already been pledged, with a minimum investment per person or couple of £1,000 and maximum of £10,000, to ensure that no individual can dominate the others. To contact the Inklings, email email@example.com
“We hope that shareholders will play an important role in shaping and creating a cultural and community movement in Oxford that will thrive for many years to come,” says the prospectus. “Whilst dividends and discounted drinks are out, the shareholders’ AGM party should be a lively and interesting affair! We will create a friendly welcoming place: simple, tasty food and good beer. We will use local suppliers as much as possible. We will be affordable for everyone, but with sufficient margin to ensure a sustainable future for the next 1,000 years.”
People often ask why St John’s, as one of the richest colleges in Oxford, needs a partner of any kind to re-open this pub or indeed the Eagle and Child, which it also owns and remains closed. The answer is that the college is actually a charity which can only spend money on activities directly related to education – the same argument used by Oriel College when asked to remove the now controversial statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes that looks down upon the High Street. Although most of the community-run pubs in Oxfordshire are owned outright by their shareholders, the White Hart in Wolvercote and Ampleforth Arms in Risinghurst are leased rather than owned by community groups.
The news that the Lamb & Flag is in safe hands has been welcomed not only by CAMRA, but by many other interested parties including St John’s Junior Common Room (JCR) which represents undergraduates. Emmet O’Leary, president of the JCR, said: “I am personally delighted that it will remain a free house. We were confident that it would reopen but I feared it would be gutted and serving chain beers. It is good to see the community interest model working yet again, but it is sad to see the Eagle and Child has been plagued with so many difficulties over the years.”
Re-opening of the Lamb & Flag later this year will mean only two city centre pubs have failed to re-open after the various lockdowns and restrictions caused by the pandemic – the Eagle and Child, and the even more historic Mitre on the High Street, owned by Lincoln College. As at the Lamb & Flag, the upper floors of the Mitre are used as student accommodation and were recently refurbished, while the Mitre pub and restaurant had been operated by Marston’s. The Eagle and Child is an empty building, but St John’s would expect a new tenant to make a start on building works having acquired the former café next door and unveiled plans for a boutique hotel above. It is on the market for an annual rent of £165,000.