Dave Richardson chats to Graham Baker about pubs around where he grew up
Some parts of Oxford have suffered more than others from pub closures over the last couple of decades, and with things as they are who’s to say that there won’t be more in the months and years ahead? Marston is one area where the axe has fallen on more than its fair share of pubs, and here we look back at some of them.
Marston is not one place but two – the village of Old Marston, between Marston Ferry Road and the Northern Bypass; and what is often referred to as New Marston, which was mainly developed in the 1920s and 1930s. Also close by is the Northway estate, generally considered to be part of New Marston.
While Old Marston retains two pubs, New Marston was left completely without pubs for several years after closure of the Somerset, on the main Marston Road leading out of the city, about 10 years ago. That was finally rectified in April 2019 when the local, go-ahead Dodo Pub Co re-opened it as the Up in Arms, the new name recalling the local community’s fight to re-open their last hostelry.
Better known of the two remaining pubs in Old Marston is the Victoria (or “Vicky”) Arms, on the banks of the River Cherwell, a former Wadworth pub that was taken over by Butcombe brewery a couple of years ago, following its sale to Liberation Group, the owner of Butcombe. This means there is now a guaranteed outlet for Butcombe’s fine beers in Oxford, including the dark, malty Original. Also in New Marston is the Red Lion, a historic Greene King pub. But Graham Baker remembers three other Old Marston pubs: the Bricklayers Arms, the Three Horseshoes and Morrells’ White Hart.
“The White Hart used to have a lovely garden, but that is now covered by housing,” he said. “The Three Horseshoes was a lovely, rough old pub, where you could never tell what beers they would have on. The Bricklayers Arms survives as a house and had a sign showing Winston Churchill in overalls laying bricks – you could have a great pint of Ind Coope Burton Ale here. Old Marston was always a small, rather up-market village, but it also had plenty of farm workers.”
Graham – who orders the beers for the upcoming Oxford Beer and Cider Festival – has many photos of old pubs and pub signs collected by himself and his late father. The White Hart had a particularly fine sign showing a white hart (male deer) with an untethered chain around its neck. White Hart is a particularly common pub name, including the still thriving pubs in Headington and Marston, and was the heraldic symbol of King Richard II (crowned 1377), used by inns to show their allegiance.
“The Red Lion today is fairly unchanged, but the Victoria Arms has changed a lot,” adds Graham. “It used to be very small, with a landlord who had a pathological hatred of students. They would arrive by punting up the Cherwell, and would be served only when he felt like it from a small hatch. He would not allow them in the bar upsetting his regulars, and delighted in making them wait!”
You certainly couldn’t say that about the Victoria Arms today as this much enlarged pub appeals to a wide cross-section. The emphasis is on food while it makes the most of its Inspector Morse links, featuring in three episodes including the last one, The Remorseful Day. The building is actually owned by Oxford Preservation Trust, and the earliest part of it dates from the 17th century.
Old Marston may be genteel, but you wouldn’t say that about New Marston or Northway where Graham remembers some of the pubs as being notorious: “The nearest pub to me was the Cavalier on Copse Lane in Northway, and Copse Lane was known as ‘Beirut’. Their off-licence would sell cider to a 12-year-old, and when I was a kid I used to hear the players shouting while they played Aunt Sally. It was very territorial in the 1960s and 1970s, and if you lived in Marston you didn’t go to Northway and vice versa. But I had cousins in Marston, and they were big boys!”
Another long-gone pub was the Friar, on the corner of Marston Road and Oxford Road, which Graham describes as “very much an estate pub” run by Swindon brewery Arkell’s. It was knocked down and replaced by student nurses’ accommodation, whereas a pub demolished more recently was the Jack Russell, on Salford Road on the New Marston estate. It is said to be named after a local vicar who, in 1819, developed this new breed of dog after buying a fox terrier. The pub was built as recently as 1963 and run by Greene King; a determined campaign to save it came to nothing.
Returning towards the city centre along Marston Road you come to the Up in Arms, so at least there is one pub within walking distance for the thirsty folk of New Marston. It is open throughout the day serving breakfasts and coffees, and although Dodo’s other pubs are tied to Arkell’s, this is a free house while serving some Arkell’s beers. Dodo is a very “young” pub company in more ways than one, with a lively programme of events at the Up in Arms which is very much a community hub – a transformation from the derelict shell of the Somerset a few years ago. The former Banks’s and Ind Coope pub operated as a Chinese restaurant and cocktail bar for a while, but has now, thankfully, “come home”.
At the very beginning of Marston Road, beside Headington Hill Park and close to the junction with Headington Road, you’ll see a small block of flats. This is where a Morrells pub called the Plasterer’s Arms had stood since 1827, although the building demolished early in this century dated from the 1930s. “It used to be full of Oxford Polytechnic (now Brookes) students, but also had a small side bar known as Little Ireland,” said Graham. It’s easy to guess why!
So these are some of the lost pubs of Marston, and sad to say that more have closed than remain open to pull pints. Whether you live in the area or not, try to support the remaining pubs as we wouldn’t want to see any of them also consigned to history.
All photos courtesy of Graham Baker. If you have particular memories of closed pubs in Oxford or the surrounding area, please contact the editor.