Lamb & Flag to re-open at last

First cask ales for re-opening on October 6 are revealed

The Lamb & Flag is set to become one of the very few genuine free-of-tie houses in the centre of Oxford, according to XT Brewing which has kitted out its new cellar. It will have eight cask lines for beer and cider, the same number as before, and the Inklings Community Interest Society that is running it says it will try to source local products whenever possible.

The starting line-up includes Prospect from Oxford Brewery, Hop Kitty from XT’s Animal range, Yulu from Siren Craft, Rude Not To from Amwell Springs and Hook Norton’s Hooky Mild — rarely seen in Oxford and at just 2.8% — plus a real cider, Cotswold Cider Co’s Yellow Hammer. Next up cask beers will include Ferryman’s Gold from Loddon, Easy Geez from Amwell Springs and Flagship by Hook Norton, while Peeler by Wild Weather, described as a “banana milkshake IPA”, will join the keg lines. The 12 keg lines at launch include beers from Tap Social, Little Ox, XT, Cotswold, Siren Craft, White Horse and Wild Weather, again from local breweries or neighbouring counties.

What constitutes a free-of-tie pub or free house is to some extent open to question, as many pubs which can control who they buy their beer from have formal or informal arrangements with particular breweries whose beers will nearly always be on offer. Certainly the White Rabbit and Jolly Farmers would claim to be free-of-tie, with Wetherspoon also proclaiming itself a free house as independent ales are usually on offer alongside its regular Greene King and Doom Bar range.

Re-opening soon: the pub has been closed since December 2020

But many other renowned real ale pubs in the city centre are tied to particular breweries or deals, although the Royal Blenheim – run by Titanic brewery and its associate, White Horse Brewery – always commits to a range of independent beers too. The Bear Inn is run by Fuller’s, the King’s Arms by Young’s and the Castle by Hook Norton, while the Chequers, Crown and White Horse are run by M&B and can only order beers from the M&B list.

The Lamb & Flag has been named Oxford CAMRA City Pub of the Year on numerous occasions, and it has featured in every edition of the Good Beer Guide from 2001 until closure. It can’t be included in the 2023 edition which will soon be published, but if beer quality is consistently good it stands a chance of making it back in for 2024.

Russ Taylor

XT Brewing director Russ Taylor said: “We have installed all the cellar kit, including carefully renovating and replacing the original hand pulls. There will be eight cask lines, the same number as previously. They wanted no tie and are planning on mainly local beers, and a few independent guest beers. Not even Guinness will be served, and instead they are having a local keg stout. I have high hopes as it will be the only fully free-of-tie pub in town.”

The Inklings have appointed Dylan Dudbridge-Hay, who started his career in the industry with a short stint at XT in 2018-19, as manager, who will run the pub with his wife Alice. He has four years’ experience in the hospitality trade, most recently with local pub chain Dodo including its Caffeine and Cake brand operating at the Part and Parcel in Witney, and is clearly relishing the challenge of running one of Oxford’s top independent pubs.

Announcement of a firm re-opening date has come as a relief after hopes were dashed previously that the Lamb & Flag would re-open by last Christmas, by Easter, and some time over the summer. Renovation of the Grade II-listed building took much longer than expected, with the city council also vetting the work done as the pub is in a conservation area. This has included removing the front bar looking out over St Giles to create more space, a total revamp of the cellar, new Gents toilets and a revamp of the kitchen, although this remains small and the food offering will be modest. The most historic part of the pub is at the rear, the front bar being a relatively recent addition. It is expected that the nooks and crannies that characterise the main part of the pub will be retained.

Joint managers Dylan and Alice Dudbridge-Hay

The re-opening date is significant as it is during Freshers’ Week, the start of the university term and academic year. The Inklings are named after the original group led by fantasy writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who used the Lamb & Flag but are more closely associated with the Eagle and Child across the road (see separate story for the latest on plans to re-open this), both pubs being owned by St John’s College. When St John’s announced that the Lamb & Flag would remain closed after the second Covid lockdown (it actually closed in December 2020) this generated publicity all over the world as students past and present lamented the loss of the “Tolkien pub”.

The Inklings’ Dave Norwood wrote to members of the group last week: “In 1911 a young man arrived at Exeter College, Oxford to read classics. A couple of years later, he changed courses to read English language and literature, which turned out to be quite significant.  So we will re-open our pub at 6pm on Thursday, October 6 2022, which is possibly, or exactly, 111 years to the day that J.R.R. Tolkien arrived in Oxford.  

“Thanks again for all your support and patience. It was a harder undertaking than we first envisaged, but all worthwhile journeys are. The extra work and time delays would have depleted our funds, but these extras have been covered by an incredibly generous donation from an anonymous Inkling. So we can still re-open the pub with a healthy bank balance. As a Community Interest Company our ambition remains the same: to ensure the pub remains open to Oxford and the world for the next 1,000 years. 

“We all felt it was imperative to open for Freshers’ Week. The kitchen will not be operational so we will have to make do with crisps for the first couple of weeks or so. That’s all I can remember eating there anyway! And expect to see some ongoing painting, decorating etc.”

Lamb & Flag Passage, alongside the pub, in the 1950s. Photo: Oxford Mail archive