Five Oxford CAMRA “grandees” on the reborn pub, which opened on 6 October
A friend asked me along to the opening night on 6 October and I said no – it will be too crowded. Then, irresolute as ever, I relented and went along, alone, at about 8.30pm. As expected it was heaving – but not uncomfortably so. The bar-less and unfurnished front room was pretty full and the noise level was, to my ears, near to the threshold of pain as alcohol fuelled conversations battled for acoustic supremacy. I pressed on towards the remaining bar with a nod of appreciation at the piano now gracing the east wall.
I stood for a while taking in the space where I had spent so many happy hours chatting or just drinking alone, sharing my thoughts with an ever-changing set of hand pumps and leafing through the latest Oxford Drinker. The space was the same, yet different. The interesting alcoves were either curtained over or missing, the ceiling was now lined with wooded planks, the bar surface was much wider, and the place was jam-packed with youngish, happy people. But there were two proud sets of hand pumps just as before and they were serving up interesting beers — as before. I settled for Rude Not Tofrom Amwell Springs and stuck to it. It’s my sort of real ale at the moment: pale and a little tangy, but smooth and refreshing – I stuck to it which is unusual for me. The bar itself was a crush, but the people behind it were both pleasant and efficient and the ambience enjoyable, even though there are still renovations to be completed.
I spotted only one person that I knew, which surprised me. He was talking to one of the community group, the Inklings, that brought this place back to life. He turned out to be a newcomer to Oxford, and I shared memories of China with his wife, though the general hubbub made conversation difficult for me. I finished the evening back in the now depleted front room talking to an interesting young man from Stroud who ran a bar at weekends and thought, “great, this is how the Lamb & Flag should be: excellent ale, interesting company and a complete lack of that corporate feel so common to many city centre pubs”.
I doubt that the original Inklings could have tolerated the all-encompassing sound level but I am sure that Tolkien and Lewis would have appreciated the ale and congratulated the new Inklings on their rescue of this jewel of an Oxford pub.
What a joy to see the Lamb & Flag open once again! First impression was of a drinkers’ pub offering great beer, and plenty of it. Tremendous! It’s now the 10th Community-Owned pub in Oxfordshire and we know that’s a good business model, so things are set fair.
I went at 6pm on the opening night, and a cheerful throng was getting stuck in right from the get-go. It was lovely to see the restored figured oak panelling in the front room although, being a codger, I would have preferred some chairs on the floor and a table on which to put my drink! I think that these are coming, though, along with the handyman who is going to finish the rest of the bar and kitchen areas. It feels a bit churlish to carp, however, after the blood, sweat and tears that have gone in so far in the face of tough financial strictures and a demanding planning system. It has been a colossal labour of love, and I am happy to celebrate the success of all the “Inkling” investors and their team who made it happen, and don’t doubt that this pub will go from strength to strength.
Those of a literary turn will know that the Lamb & Flag was one of the pubs frequented by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and other Inklings (as they called themselves) when, in full beer-fuelled flow, they wanted to test out their new storylines on each other. Upon which seats their distinguished bottoms sat is not recorded, as far as I know, but Lamb & Flag drinking alumni include professors, distinguished academics, Prime Ministers and all manner of others who have helped to shape our world, for good or bad, for some hundreds of years. While some of us may move and shake a bit more or less than others, it’s still nice to feel part of a fabulous tradition, and to look around the bar and wonder who of the Freshers tucking into their drinks so enthusiastically will be the next Pope but two or indeed, the leader of the next Coup d’Etat.
After an inordinate amount of time the Lamb & Flag had announced that it was re-opening, and I was excited at the prospect of what this time honoured and much loved boozer had to offer. From the outside it still looked closed, but as I entered the dimly lit main bar, devoid of any seating, I could see it was heaving. Gone was the front bar, to be replaced with more room, whilst the private back room remained closed, further evidence that work remains to be done.
Ordering a pint I was greeted by Carl Withinshaw, erstwhile employee of Loose Cannon brewery, and someone reassuringly I knew would ensure the beer was always in tip-top form. I counted eight cask pumps and 12 keg lines, the latter protruding from a board in the wall similar to at the Royal Blenheim. Our choice was one of the range from Amwell Springs brewery, near Cholsey, tasting wonderfully hoppy. The hand pumps on the bar looked brand new and I am reliably informed that Russ Taylor (XT Brewery) installed the stillage and bar area for accommodating the cask ale selection.
This is a very different Lamb and Flag to the one of old, but I reckon that this looks very promising and a cornerstone for local cask ale availability in central Oxford.
This was never my favourite Oxford pub, so perhaps I missed it less than many. I always admired its well-kept beer though – especially the Palmer’s bitter from Dorset which was a staple and the occasional slug of Theakston’s Old Peculier. But long before Covid hit the pub was run-down and dingy, with the often surly staff hardly contributing to a welcoming atmosphere.
It clearly wasn’t finished when I visited on a Friday evening just over a week after re-opening, so we will report again when things have settled down. But I was impressed with the generally lighter and slightly more contemporary feel, and the Inklings group running it have kept their promise to offer mainly local real ales – seven, plus one real cider. My pint of Hook Norton Flagship went down very well and I was pleased to see new landlord and landlady team Dylan and Alice Dudbridge-Hay rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in on the front line of a very busy, mainly student pub.
I suspect I will get to like the “new” Lamb & Flag more than the old one. People will always say “it ain’t like it used to be” but imagine what it might have become in corporate hands – just another bland, formulaic hostelry with piped music (as at the Eagle and Child) and really neither one thing nor another. However you individually fit in or don’t, it’s still a real pub.
I was looking forward to visiting the reopened Lamb & Flag. It was a busy Friday evening, students being the main audience. It was never going to be like the old Lamb & Flag but six local beers and a cider will make for a better experience on a quieter day. It’s nice and bright with a very friendly couple in charge.