What are our best village pubs?

Minibus tour identifies Good Beer Guide contenders for 2023

What makes a great village pub? Many people would say good food, log fires, a homely or rustic atmosphere, and maybe nice views from a garden or patio. When the main consideration is quality of real ale, however, many of the obvious names fall by the wayside. Establishing a reputation for quality real ale in a village environment isn’t easy, with the probability of many patrons having to drive there another reason for being cautious in what you offer.

But some pubs achieve this balance, and our first minibus tour since 2019 set out to survey and provide beer scores for pubs which are either in the current Good Beer Guide or have been included in past editions. We have to put forward all our suggestions for 2023 in April this year, so this was an opportunity to visit pubs which otherwise may be hard to reach.

Seven Stars, Marsh Baldon

Seven Stars’ house ale

Situated in a village one mile from Nuneham Courtenay on the A4074 Oxford to Reading road, this pub will celebrate 10 years in community ownership next year. But in 2021 it went through a change as the Community-Owned society in charge appointed a small pub group to run it. The Seven Stars is now one of five pubs in the Free Spirit group which also includes the Sun Inn in Hook Norton and Castle at Edgehill, both near Banbury.

Three real ales are usually on offer, with Timothy Taylor Landlord being a regular and the others rotating, but today’s choice extended to four including Young’s Original, Purity’s Mad Goose and an own-branded beer produced for Free Spirit. This comes from Lakeland Brewhouse of Cumbria, formerly known as Stringers, and is branded On the Green – Marsh Baldon having one of the largest village greens in England.

The absence of anything brewed locally didn’t go un-noticed, but I was happy to pay £5 for a “paddle” of three one-third pints. All tasted good, and I got talking to landlord Kevin Bloomfield who arrived last year. He said his first year’s trading had of course been impacted by Covid restrictions, and although trade was now picking up it was felt necessary to change the menu to a more informal style rather than the “fine but casual” model used before. Although three typical pub dishes remain – fish and chips is £15.95 – the rest of the menu is made up of smaller “sharing plates” including braised pig cheeks (£14), roasted pollock fillet and tandoori cauliflower. With a price range of £6-£14 for the sharing plates and £4 for the sides, it could be quite expensive.

But this is still a country pub where you are not pressured to eat, with plenty of space for drinkers too and a large garden. It could make a return to the GBG for 2023 – let’s see!

The Cricketers Arms has outside space as well as a cosy bar

Cricketers Arms, Littleworth

Situated on the outskirts of the small town of Wheatley, this pub was also a GBG regular but had to drop out due to a change of ownership which happened jut before the first lockdown. The business was acquired by a regular at the pub, David Nelms, from previous owner Stuart Bull, but little has changed. It is still an unpretentious pub, a little rough around the edges but none the worse for it, with a decent amount of outside space. Beer festivals have made a comeback and the pub seems to be doing well, when it could easily have closed for good if no-one had come forward.

Only two real ales were available on this occasion, being March, but it expects to have three or four on for the summer. It’s the kind of pub where almost anything can turn up, and today’s beers were Wherry from Norfolk brewery Woodforde’s (which has a great following) and City of Love from Bristol Beer Factory, “made with ESB Fuller’s yeast” according to the pump clip. Both were unusual finds for Oxfordshire, but as in all pubs where most if not all beers are rotated, you may not see them again for a long time, if ever.

Both tasted good, and there was time to see what else the pub offered including the garden. Food is served (mainly evenings) with steaks a speciality and also theme nights. Look out for upcoming festivals although the nearest public transport is about a mile away.

Abingdon Arms, Beckley

The beer buying policy is very different at this Community-Owned pub in a village to the north-east of Oxford, off the B4027 Wheatley to Islip road. All the beers are usually from small local breweries and today was no exception, with Yabba Dabba Doo from Little Ox, Oxford Blue from Chadlington Brewery, and Vale Best from Vale Brewery all on offer. At the tail end of a Saturday lunchtime the pub was busy with diners, pizza being one of its specialities. It’s a pub where pre-booking is advised if you want to eat, with most of the tables laid out for dining. One of its big plus points is the garden, with fine views over Otmoor.

The Abingdon Arms in Beckley is one of four Community-Owned pubs visited

With stone walls, exposed beams and polished floorboards this is the quintessential village pub although, by necessity perhaps, it feels more devoted to dining than to drinking. As a true village pub it aims to be at the heart of this small community, with events such as quiz nights and talks on local history. Some local produce is on sale including Beckley honey, and paintings by local artists adorn the walls.

It’s easy to forget that this was once a failing pub, and could easily have been lost to private housing. The community share offer is still open if you want to join the original shareholders, who saved the pub in 2016.

King’s Arms, Kidlington

Kidlington has been described as “England largest village” but in reality is a small town, with much new building in recent years. It supports several pubs including three on the main A4260 road from Oxford towards Banbury, and two in the back streets of which the King’s Arms is one. “Unpretentious” is the word that came to mind at the Cricketers in Littleworth and the same could definitely be said of this free house, which is very much a traditional pub with only a limited, but good value, food offer.

It retains two separate bars, a rarity in a small pub nowadays, and also has function and outside space. Four real ales were on offer and these came from far and wide – Chadlington’s Oxford Heritage being a local beer. Ringwood’s Razor Back is a regular, while the others were new to me – Rampant Ruby from Mauldons Brewery in Suffolk, and Eastgate from Weetwood Brewery in Cheshire. The Rampant Ruby was exceptional and my best beer of the day, and all of them cost £3.90 a pint which is low for the Oxford area. Food was also competitively priced with roast of the day being £6.95 and fish and chips £7.50 – less than half what some pubs charge. The only fault I could find is that our newly elected (again!) chairman Tony Goulding is a regular, but we’ll let that pass. Out of the GBG for a few years, it must surely be in contention.

White House, Bladon

We wouldn’t normally be visiting this pub for GBG purposes, but it has asked CAMRA if it can transfer from North Oxfordshire branch to Oxford CAMRA as its main catchment area is Oxford. Both branches agree so we await a CAMRA decision on this, but whatever happens we can score the pub and it could get into the GBG 2023 on merit, if enough scores are high enough.

The White House is yet another Community-Owned success story, re-opening in October 2020 in what proved to be the brief period of trading between Covid-imposed lockdowns. Despite that difficult first year it has gone from strength to strength and has now re-established itself as the only pub in this wealthy village near Woodstock, helped by tourists and passing traffic on the A4095 road to Witney. One other advantage is its links with Sir Winston Churchill, who allegedly “learned to drink” here. He learned his lesson well!

The White House, Bladon — where Churchill learned to drink?

We had high hopes for the beer quality as landlord is Johnny Roberts, previously assistant manager at Wetherspoon’s Four Candles pub in Oxford, who developed the real ales and forged links with local breweries while there. Although only two real ales were available we weren’t disappointed, as Easy Pale Citra from Berkshire brewery Stardust was joined by an unusual local beer, Darkstar Black IPA from Luna, part of the White Horse brewery range. Other local breweries including Chadlington are often represented.

The pub was filling up with people watching England play in the Four Nations Rugby tournament, and it was clearly very popular among locals. It also has a crib team (a rarity these days) and supports social clubs and other good causes, including Stonesfield Owl Rescue. It has a growing reputation for food and a large patio, outside space being very advantageous these days. How on earth could previous owner Greene King not have made money out of this pub, you wonder?

Red Lion, Northmoor

It was now time to head out to the “Wild West” and a small village off the A415 Witney-Abingdon road, reachable only along single track country lanes. A real gem of a pub awaits those who take the trouble, as this – our fourth Community-Owned pub of the day – is a great pub for beer and for dining, with three “shepherds’ huts” for overnight accommodation adjoining its large market garden, where rare breed hens roam.

A trip to Northmoor is worth it for the Red Lion

Four real ales, all from local breweries, were on the bar – with Loose Cannon’s Abingdon Bridge, and Brakspear’s Gravity (brewed by Wychwood in Witney) being regulars. Guests today were Red Kite from Vale Brewery and Shepherd’s Delight, a “lemon citrus floral ale” from Cotswold Lion, of Gloucestershire. The beer quality here never fails to satisfy and my Red Kite went down very nicely indeed.

The Red Lion is something of a gourmet’s pub as chef Ian Neale (whose wie Lisa runs the bar) has a great reputation for fresh and seasonal dishes cooked with flair, but pub classics and snacks are always available. A garden and marquee are available, and it attracts walkers from the nearby Thames Path and has won various awards. The pub’s only drawback is its remoteness, but when you get there you feel one of the privileged few. Once again, how could previous owner Greene King have not made money out of this pub?

Morris Clown, Bampton

This pub, out of GBG for a few years, is a rarity and something of a throwback – a traditional pub that doesn’t sell any food. It’s in a small country town rather than a village so there are alternatives nearby, including two other pubs, and opening hours are limited (from 5pm weekdays, 3pm Saturdays, 2pm Sundays). But it has very good support from regulars, and landlord Steve Mace performed heroics during the lockdowns by delivering beer by bicycle, come rain or shine.

It’s a free house, and as trade hasn’t yet returned to pre-Covid levels, only two real ales were available. These represented two ends of the spectrum, however, being Green Man IPA from North Cotswold Brewery, and Luna’s Darkstar, which we had already seen at the White House. I sampled it again and can vouch for its quality, although black IPA is not to my taste.

After the Rugby had finished in defeat for England we chatted to Steve, who was pleased to see a CAMRA party again and updated us about trading conditions. This free house is well worth a look, and with bus services operating to Bampton you don’t have to drive. With its quirky interior murals, stone walls and cheery atmosphere, it’s the kind of pub that has almost disappeared and a suitable place to end our day.

Please get out and visit these pubs if you can, and entering beer scores is easy and a possible route to inclusion in the GBG. Remember it’s beer quality, not the number of beers, that is all-important. Celebrate the fact that all these pubs are still with us when most of them could so easily have been lost.

Pause for a photo outside the King’s Arms, Kidlington