Lamb & Flag: Re-opening delayed until summer

But no further news about the Eagle and Child, Mitre or Grapes

Re-opening of the many times Oxford CAMRA City Pub of the Year winner the Lamb & Flag has now been postponed to an unknown date this summer – a delay put down to the difficulties in renovating a Grade II listed building in a Conservation Area. Originally planned to re-open by last Christmas and then for around Easter, the news will disappoint many pub goers who will now have to be patient a little longer.

It was announced last autumn that owner St John’s College had reached agreement with a Community Interest Company called the Inklings to lease the pub, and the Inklings have made clear their intention to continue focusing on real ale with up to six hand pumps dispensing beers from mainly local breweries. A major revamp of the cellar and kitchen is taking place, and upgrade of the toilets, and the front bar has been removed to create more space for tables. A new manager is still being sought after Steve Jones, previously of the Plough at 38 and appointed Lamb & Flag manager last autumn, left his post in January.

Lamb & Flag Passage, from the Oxford Mail archive

The Inklings – named after the group of famous writers led by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis – have raised more than enough money to take on the lease and renovate the pub, with St John’s role in the renovations apparently limited by its status as an educational charity. The upper floors continue to be used as student living accommodation.

Inklings board member Dave Norwood wrote to shareholders this week, saying: “First of all, thanks so much to the many Inklings who attended our parties in late February, and for all the lovely feedback since. Everyone seemed to enjoy the events, and it was great to see beer flowing in the pub again (albeit from a keg on the work-in-progress bar). Not only were Inklings present, but we also welcomed friends from St John’s College, Oxford CAMRA and the Oxford Mail, all of whom have been great supporters of our mission to re-open the pub.  

“The reality is that my (and I’m using the personal because it’s me and my optimism that should take the blame) hope to open the pub soon after Easter will not be realised. I am really sorry. The renovation work required to make the pub fit for 2022 and beyond was more extensive than we initially expected, and we have learned more along the way. Everyone agrees that the toilets are a transformation, but we are still grappling with the kitchen and extraction, the electrics et al. Due to the Grade II listing of the pub, and its historical significance as an Oxford landmark, some of these improvements inevitably require listed building consent. The protections are especially high, given the pub is within the Central Oxford Conservation Area. 

“We are pleased to report that Oxford City Council have been helping and guiding us through this complex process. I think they are keen to see the pub re-open as much as we are, and seem genuinely enthused that we’ve come together as a community venture.  I’m also delighted that we have engaged Anoushka Rowland Payne as a consultant to secure all the permissions and oversee the completion of the project. Her specialism is in this period of English architecture and social history, which has been helpful in her drafting of our Listed Building Consent application.”

The Grapes, when run by Bath Ales

The pub has a 17th century fireplace, strong original beams, and a Tudor floorplan, winding along and abutting Lamb and Flag Passage. To do justice to these features by incorporating them into the restoration, every step must be documented and approved.  

Confirming plans to re-open the pub this summer, Dave Norwood added: “Trying to tempt fate and be more specific feels like asking for more trouble, and I’m already feeling guilty. So many people are giving up their time for free to get this wonderful pub up and running. Thanks to all of them, and all of you and all our other supporters for your patience.”

The Lamb & Flag is at least making good progress towards re-opening, which is more than could be said for three other historic pubs in the city centre – the Eagle and Child, the Mitre and the Grapes. The Inklings writers are more closely associated with the Eagle and Child on the opposite side of St Giles, which did not re-open after the first lockdown in March 2020 and will probably remain closed for a couple of years. It is also owned by St John’s, and had announced plans to create up to eight boutique hotel rooms on the upper floors, but a great deal of work is needed on the whole property. No news has emerged following visits by prospective leaseholders last autumn, with plans to lease it to Young’s having previously fallen through.

The Mitre – on a prominent corner site on the High Street – closed in 2019 when owner Lincoln College renovated the student accommodation on the upper floors. It has been confirmed that Marston’s is still the leaseholder of the ground floor pub/restaurant, but Marston’s has been non-committal about re-opening what has a valid claim to be Oxford’s oldest pub, with parts dating from the 13th century. Meanwhile the ground floor has become an eyesore to passers-by, and Oxford CAMRA is appealing to Lincoln College and Marston’s to make clear their intentions as the people of Oxford deserve to know.

The long-closed Mitre is an eyesore in the heart of Oxford

The 19th century Grapes did re-open after the lockdowns but closed in December after leaseholder West Berkshire Brewery got into financial difficulties. Prior to that it was run by Bath Ales, and was briefly known as Beerd. Owner Oxford City Council is now seeking a new lease holder for what is the last traditional pub on George Street, but it is likely to prove too small, with limited kitchen capacity, for a big group to take over. Rents in this area, dominated by restaurants and bars, are notoriously high.

Despite these four pubs remaining closed, Oxford pubs have done well emerging from the Covid crisis with very few other pubs in the city and surrounding area remaining closed. But further closures could well happen as pubs grapple with soaring costs and the squeeze on disposable income, at a time when many are already heavily laden with debt.