Memories of the Wharf House

Rob Walters pens a memoir of an infamous Oxford pub

Editor’s introduction:

I only went in there once, although I must have driven past it thousands of times on my way along Oxpens Road towards Folly Bridge. My abiding memory, having gone in with two friends, is of a really run-down pub where the locals eyed strangers with all the suspicion of a Wild West saloon.

Rob paints a portrait of the Wharf House below, but the facts are fairly straightforward. Once part of the inner suburb of St Ebbe’s, which was all but swept away by redevelopment in the 1960s, it was built around 1830 and took its name from a previous pub on the river bank nearby. Once a Halls pub, it was run latterly as a free house by Tony Flatman and Simon Hosking, concentrating on real ales. The modernised building survives as a rather posh holiday let surrounded by modern development, but we wonder if visitors staying here are ever troubled by ghosts?

After this article was first published, reader John Mackie got in touch to say that the former landlord Tony Flatman had retired to Abertillery in Wales where, with Julian Meek, he set up a “Private Eye”-style free newspaper, the Abertillery Dynamic. A programme about it has been shown on BBC TV and you can view a video clip here.

Here then are Rob’s “Reminiscences of the Wharf House…..”

There once was a pub in Oxford called the Wharf House, at the fork of Thames Street and Speedwell Street. It was a place which has gained almost mythical reverence from fans since it closed. It ceased to be a pub in 2006 much to the chagrin of many real ale drinkers and the despair of its true regulars: the down and outs of the area. There are many tales about the place, but one that captures the ambience has Tony Flatman, the last landlord, calling time, then, when no-one left, crying, “Haven’t you lot got homes to go to?” This was usually met with a resounding “No”.

Tony is probably one of the few landlords to leave their own pub through the front window. I was not present at the event, but was told of it many times. Apparently there was a take-over bid one night. Some of the more enterprising regulars became drunker than usual, probably one of the regular celebrations when one of them gained that much sought government hand-out: the Disability Living Allowance. In their exuberance they took over the bar and in response to Tony’s not unreasonable objections, they threw him out. Yes, through the window! It remained boarded up for many months.

Few pubs have songs written about them, but I am proud to say that I have a friend who did just that for the Wharf. It’s called The Gentleman’s Bar and you can hear the composer Pete Madams singing it here:

My own instincts are toward the written word rather than music, and I think the following cropped and edited piece about my last night at this dubious boozer may capture a little of the ambience of the characterful place. Names are changed to protect the guilty.

The Wharf House just after closure in 2007. Photo: Steve Wheeler/Oxford Mail

On entering the pub I admit to myself that it did smell, just a little. An indefinable smell, slightly unpleasant, but not retchingly so, and certainly not enough to put you off your beer. And then there are the flies. Some regulars claim that they are of a unique species — diptera wharfhouse perhaps. This is possible. Unlike other flies they are not seasonal. Their numbers seem constant throughout the year. It is probable that they live on spilt beer. They are lugubrious in flight and easily caught by a gradually extended shaking hand. This, it seems, maintains a strange balance, as there are always about the same number present.

Tonight there is a stool at some distance from the bar, near to the entrance door. On it slumps a small figure, comatose or sleeping, arms folded and chin buried deeply in his chest. Blue denim jeans plainly display an accident: an inability to alight from the stool and visit the nearby toilet perhaps.

“He’s pissed himself again,” states Dick indelicately, but not unkindly. Dick is a regular; he sees all and comments on all. He completes his observation by saying, “Silly sod.”

Tony gets me a beer. He knows what I like and makes a selection from his constantly changing selection of real ales. He vanishes into the backroom which serves as a cellar. There are hand pumps on the bar, but they are a mere decoration and I have never seen them used. Here the beer is dispensed straight from the barrel, as it saves cleaning the pipes.

I am standing, rather uncomfortably, between Dick and the stooled figure, let’s call him Nigel. Nigel is relatively young, relative that is to an average age in this place which fluctuates rapidly and accelerates alarmingly. There may be something in the air that causes rapid ageing. I notice that Nigel’s head is bleeding. Not a lot, but a definite trickle. On my left Dick is being categorical. As usual he is making some claim about a musical attribution. I am not really listening, and his real target is behind the bar rather than in front of it – Tony. On my right, Nigel is wobbling dangerously on the stool. If he falls he will fall at my feet or on my feet and, as usual, I am wearing sandals. Dick is exasperated, angry; flecks of spittle appear at the corner of his mouth. “Tell him, Rob,” he entreats me, “tell him that it was Mick Soper that played drums with the Skints in their 1963 recording of Love Lights,” or something to that effect. Bravely I confess that I have never heard of the Skints, which draws Dick’s fire and exasperation towards me. He looks my way in disbelief; it as if I had said that I had not heard of the Beatles!

The Wharf House today: now a posh holiday let

Fortunately Nigel provides a diversion by falling off the stool. It is an impressive dive – head first from a three-foot bar stool. His head hits the wooden floor with a horrifying sound. A dull thud accompanied by a crack as if something, floor or head, has broken. He rolls over. I am grateful that he managed to avoid my feet, though I rather doubt that he is capable of choices. I am concerned that he might now be dead or injured, yet am frozen to the spot.

Someone of a more sympathetic nature decides that Nigel should be put back on the stool. It is not an easy task. He has rolled himself into a pain-racked ball and wants to stay that way. The kind helper is also trying to avoid contact with the urine soaked bottom half of Nigel – which is difficult. Each attempt to re-sit the little man causes the bar stool to topple over. At last someone courageously grabs his feet and he is re-installed on his precarious and dangerous perch. Quite why, I do not know. However, he looks much the same and all is in order.

Tony has consulted a hefty manual held always in readiness behind the bar, and reads a section aloud. It offers clear proof that it was not Mick Soper who played drums with the Skints in 1963. Dick then disputes the veracity of the book and it is now Tony’s turn to look exasperated.

However, his attention is deflected by a middle-aged woman, a member of the homeless contingent who gather at the tables most distant from the bar. She has taken it into her head to clean the place up. She is emptying ashtrays and collecting litter. Tony is perplexed and asks her what has stimulated this need to clean. After all, it is not that usual to see women in the Wharf – and most unusual to see one who is in the least concerned about cleanliness. She smiles vaguely and stumbles on in her self-appointed role. Her name is Annie.

I am then joined by Phil, who kindly places himself between Nigel’s stool and me. But he is obviously concerned about the wobbly man and moves off to talk to Tony at a more distant part of the bar. I am hoping that he will make Tony laugh. This is always a great event and certainly part of the Wharf’s entertainment; he has a very loud and unique laugh. Phil is replaced by Phillip. He’s a much sturdier fellow who more than adequately fills the dangerous space to my right, but whose presence seems to destabilise Nigel who performs another full scale nose-dive. Phillip endeavours to restore Nigel to his perch, but he is no more successful than the previous good soul and is blissfully unaware of the urine soaked nether regions. However, with help, Nigel is once again established on the stool, preparatory to the next dive.

The Halls of Oxford “hare” is still proudly on display

Meanwhile Annie has returned, presumably having completed her tasks as self-appointed cleaner and now feeling she must administer to the needs of Nigel. But there is little reward in administering to the wounded comatose, who doesn’t respond to her kind words at all. Fast losing interest she gives him an undeserved hug, then uses his immobility to launch herself back towards the homeless section of the Wharf.

As in a space capsule where there is a reaction to every action, Nigel falls off his perch again, another nose-dive. This time the dive is sourced in an act of charity by a tipsy woman – but the result is just the same, another knock on the head for Nigel. Perhaps everyone has begun to tire of this cycle, perhaps Nigel has exhausted the bar of its kindly persons. In any event no-one rushes to replace him on the stool. He is left lying next to the bar, his knees raised to his chest, his arm over his face. I think that he is safer there; he is now as low as he can get.