Cowley Road pubs past and present

Branch chairman and chief reporter Tony Goulding gets out and about

Please note: This is an amended version of the article which appeared in the August-September 2022 edition of Oxford Drinker magazine, with additional comments by Theo Dunnet

It was time to look at the Cowley Road scene, at the pubs that survived and what those that didn’t are now used for. Starting up at the city end of Oxford’s most cosmopolitan area, the Star in Rectory Road was first established in 1876 as the Star Royal and appeals predominantly to students and locals. It has been a free house for many years now, and has one large bar and a very popular large garden at the rear.

The former pool table which was in the centre of the bar is sadly now part of the inside seating area. Two ever changing beers are served, and on the evening of visiting these were West Berkshire Golden Ale along with Siren’s Memento Best Bitter, and for myself a very tasty Oxford Cider. No food is served at the Star but customers are more than welcome to bring their own.

The couple who took over the pub in October 2020 have been successfully running it ever since, and landlord Gus Rogers is the son of Oxfordshire brewing legend Ian Rogers, joint owner of Wychwood Brewery in the 1990s. The West Berkshire beer is a pointer as Ian is now running the reborn West Berkshire Brewery.

Back on the Cowley Road you will notice a Nando’s chicken restaurant, and this was formerly a Morrells house called the Prince of Wales which closed some 20 years ago. Across the road is the former Elm Tree, which was also a Morrells house, and was run by the legendary Joe Ryan who went from there to the Friar, Marston Road (now demolished) – see post Lost Pubs of Marston, and from there to the Half Moon, St. Clement’s.

The Big Society is much changed since it was the Elm Tree

The former Elm Tree is now very popular as the Big Society, and a big surprise here was being informed by the staff that it is now known more as a cocktail bar. Students now dominate this end of the Cowley Road and their taste seems to be changing from ales and lagers to cocktails. No cask ale is sold here and there are only six kegs, these being beers by Siren and Meantime plus two lagers and one cider. Food is dominated by burgers, hot dogs and chicken wings. Table tennis and table football are played in a spacious bar area, and it also has a very spacious patio at the rear and seating at the front. The pub is leased by a small independent company from Greene King.

Just off the Cowley Road in James Street is the James Street Tavern, formerly the Red White and Blue and a former Morland House now owned by Greene King. From its days of being a cask ale house with up to nine beers on the bar about 10 years ago, how things have changed. On the evening of visiting there was only Wadworth 6X although a guest ale is sometimes available, in a very spacious but spartan bar area. Again this pub is very popular for cocktails, and it’s a very popular music venue on Fridays and Saturdays especially in the new covered James Street pavilion. We felt out of place as we were at least double the age of those in there.

The James Street Tavern, formerly the Red White and Blue

Just around the corner in Temple Street is the Temple Lounge, now a wine bar but formerly the Temple Bar, an old Victorian coaching inn. It was run by Ind Coope-Halls until 1980 when it became Wadworth’s only tied house in Oxford. Finally 15 years ago it became what it is today.

Back on the Cowley Road we entered the Oxford branch of craft keg giant BrewDog, this being previously the New Inn and later the Corridor, built in late 1890s for Halls Oxford Brewery. We met Archie Meeson who was serving behind the bar, Chris Meeson’s very capable son from the Masons Arms in Headington Quarry. No cask ale is served here but lots of kegs, bottles and cans, along with quirky food.

Just off the main road in Crown Street is the Black Swan, a former Morrells back street boozer which is now a Greene King house. Cask ale has not been served for years and Dave was seen with a half of Fosters lager!! Having been a very popular Irish pub, a lot of Guinness was sold. What a shock for me is that it’s now more like a cocktail bar with students and a few locals. Sports are shown on the big TVs inside and outside in the big garden.

The second part of our Cowley Road wander, a couple of weeks later, started at the University and City Arms, now just the City Arms, mainly because there are now no pubs surviving beyond this point until you get into Cowley itself. Built new for Ind Coope in 1938, this imposing corner building remained unchanged for many years. Two cask beers were being served, Sharp’s Doom Bar and Adnams’ Ghost Ship, in the noisy mainly student environment. It reflects the new fad for cocktail bars on this road, and also has a pool table and many slot machines. Since Covid it has developed a large outside seating area, but the only thing of importance to me were the clean toilets with original Gents urinals. The City Arms is now owned by Stonegate Pub Co.

Dave had never been to the Donnington Arms just off the main road down Howard Street, but this is an interesting building to visit. Built in the early 1930s for Ind Coope, it was acquired by Greene King in 1990 and sold on to become a Nepalese restaurant, Everest, while retaining a separate bar. This is also an impressive corner pub with many original features including, above the front entrance, a wrought iron Halls Oxford Brewery sign plus a very early Greene King motif almost carved into the brickwork. The bar is as built along with all the doors and windows, and a very friendly welcome came our way. Despite the Fuller’s London Pride pump clips, it has not served cask ale for many years.

The Everest Nepalese restaurant was formerly the Donnington Arms

We then decided to have a quick look at the very successful Rusty Bicycle, formerly the Eagle Tavern, on Magdalen Road, part of the Dodo pubs group along with the Rickety Press and Up in Arms in other parts of Oxford.  This is an Arkells house with 3B and Liberation IPA on the bar, plus a cider. In Dave’s words it was like a kindergarten, with many families eating and lots of young children early on a Saturday evening. It would certainly be for older clientele later.

Back on the Cowley Road we arrived at the Library, previously the Brickworks and before that the Crown, built in 1871 and one of the smallest pubs in the city. At one time it was known as the “Rat Hole” with the downstairs bar below street level. After many years as the Crown the pub was renamed the Brickworks in 2000, this daft name giving way in 2010 to the present Library. Over the years the small yard by the toilets has been covered over and a very inviting rear garden developed. Again, as with most of this road, students are the main customers with a good few kegs and cocktails. One ever-changing cask beer is served, and today this was a very tasty Marathon Runner from Vale brewery. As for food, well! Pizza.

A few yards away is a large street corner house, the Cowley Retreat, built in 1850 for Halls as the Ampney Cottage. In the mid-1990s it became the second pub in the small Hobgoblin chain, the first being the Cape of Good Hope on The Plain(at one time known as It’s a Scream!), and the third being St Aldates Tavern in the city centre. It was not until 2016 that it became the Cowley Retreat. Back in the 1960s milk and ice-cream were served here, but today Sharp’s Doom Bar and St Austell Tribute are the cask beers served in the very spacious single bar and large covered rear garden. Among the staff is Maxx Hocker, latterly of the now closed Grapes on George Street.

Our final pub of the evening was the Bullingdon, the Arms part of the name being lost 40 years ago. Looking more like a shop conversion it was actually built as it looks today in 1890, and was for many years until 1980, as described in an early beer guide, a working man’s local opposite Tesco. At one time both those very tasty beers Ind Coope Burton Ale and Draught Bass were served, but as the music scene got more popular and continues to be so, real ale slowly disappeared and from 2000 there was nothing. The building is now dark and forbidding except for music fans, but in its previous form had served the city’s Irish community very well.

The Library is larger inside than it looks

Cowley Road was a disappointment for real ale, with the Vale beer at the Library and West Berkshire beer at the Star being the only local beers available. But it’s good to remember the old days, and the previous identities of many of these pubs.

Theo Dunnet adds:

“The Bullingdon Arms was a two-bar pub with a later covered area out the back (done by Joe Ryan). Some time after he left the whole interior was ripped out and rebuilt into the car park/covered area to make it the music venue it is now. It was an Irish/working man’s pub but when Noel Reilly had it the clientele slowly changed, with a mix of Irish, workers, students and professionals. As far as my memory goes Draught Bass was never served as it was an Ind Coope house. I remember the Black Swan when it was a two-bar pub, entrance from what is the corner/flattened end in the 1960s. I believe it was run by someone called Beasley (?) who was in his late 80s or early 90s.

“Moving to the city centre, I remember the Bear Inn when there was a Gents urinal where the Ladies is now (upstairs), and if you were a woman or male and needed the WC you had to walk along Blue Boar Street to the public toilets. The Grapes where the door is now had a long corridor to the end where there was a Gents. The bar was on the left and there were individual drinking areas along the left with a larger drinking area at the end. Again, as at the Bear, if you were a woman you had to walk to the public toilets, in this case Gloucester Green.

“I have fond memories of White’s, by Carfax, when Dennis Sheahan (?) had it. Beer cost 1s/10d a pint, less than 10p.

“All of the Halls Oxford Brewery pubs built in the 1930s had the letters HOB in a lattice above the doors and all were built in a similar style, with the Gents toilet generally by the public bar entrance and the Ladies by the lounge entrance. On the Silver Road entrance to the Donnington Arms/Everest restaurant you will notice where the old Ladies was. I think that at one time, at least 50 years ago, it was a three-bar pub.”

For more on East Oxford, read about Tony’s Travels around St Clement’s and down the Iffley Road.

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