Backlash after plans indicate it will no longer be a pub
What is sometimes considered to be Oxford’s oldest pub, the Mitre on High Street, is set to become an Italian restaurant according to a planning application to Oxford City Council. Although functioning mainly as a restaurant for many years prior to closure in 2019, it retained a bar selling real ale where you could go just for a drink – although the original Turl Bar, at the rear of the building, became part of student accommodation around 20 years ago.
Owner Lincoln College – whose bishop’s mitre crest gives the building its name – has been criticised by tour guide Rob Walters for offering the lease to a restaurant chain, feeling that Lincoln is not respecting the building’s heritage and in effect allowing only diners to enjoy it. The Grade II-listed Mitre has a more credible claim to be Oxford’s oldest pub than the Bear Inn, which claims the title based on a former coaching inn which used to stretch all the way from High Street to the present building, which dates from 1606. The Mitre has a 13th century cellar and used to display a list of landlords dating back to 1230, although the building you see today dates from the 17th century.
“As a badged city guide in Oxford for many years and as a keen pub goer I have started many a pub tour from the Mitre,” says Rob. “So, not surprisingly, I am appalled and saddened to hear that this Oxford establishment may become an Italian restaurant. I can hardly believe that the owners would countenance such a change to what is the oldest pub in our city.
“Four city centre pubs have closed over the past few years and three of those are owned by colleges (the Lamb & Flag and Eagle and Child are owned by St John’s). Visitors are, quite rightly, puzzled by this. They assume that the colleges are careful caretakers of our heritage, and so they should be. Visitors do not come to Oxford to visit Italian restaurants, and even if they did a restaurant can only be visited for a meal. A pub meanwhile is a place of community and heritage. It can be visited time and time again just for the price of a pint. Its atmosphere can be savoured, its architecture admired, its history discussed and exaggerated, the long list of former drinkers toasted and recalled.
“The Mitre is a very special place. There’s its wonderful vaulted cellar room, formerly a jazz hang-out, its two-tier beer cellar with hints of the famous tunnel that linked it across the High Street to the Chequers, the reports of monks chanting who apparently died in that sealed tunnel, the ghost of Mrs Lazenby who died of fright when threatened by anti-Catholic scholars, the priest’s hole beside the cellar staircase, and more. Tell that to someone scoffing an Italian meal.
“So come on Lincoln College, respect the legacy that you have cherished since the 15th century. Find a tenant who can run the place as the pub it should be. Give the people of Oxford, town and gown, the right to visit that historic building for a drink, not just to eat – surely there are already enough restaurants in Oxford to satisfy all tastes and culinary styles. Do not deny the millions of visitors to our city the opportunity and pleasure of drinking in one of its most historic pubs.”
A Berni Inn since 1967 and later a Beefeater, the Mitre had been leased by Marston’s when closed in 2019 and since then has become increasingly dilapidated while Lincoln has spent a lot of money on student accommodation on the upper floors. It is thought unlikely that Gusto would retain a bar. The 13-strong chain, which started in 2005, is unknown in southern England and operates mainly in the North and Midlands. “We continue to do what we’ve done since day one: Make A Difference, Do The Right Thing, Look For The Good, and Share Our Passion & Knowledge,” it states on its website.
Curiously, it would not be the first Italian-themed restaurant to take over an ancient pub as Pizza Express occupies part of the site of the Golden Cross Inn, which faces you as you enter the Covered Market from Cornmarket Street. An inn was first recorded here in 1193, but the present building dates from the 15th century. Some 16th century wall paintings are displayed behind glass on the restaurant’s upper floor.
Plans for the Mitre are out for public consultation, closing on June 24 – view the documents here.