Rhymes retire after 35 years in trade

Major revamp looms for Gardeners Arms in North Parade

An era cams to an end last week with the retirement of David and Jenny Rhymes from the Gardeners Arms, after spending nearly 30 years at this much loved pub in North Oxford. Not to be confused with the Gardeners Arms in nearby Plantation Road, which is a free house, their pub in North Parade Avenue is a former Morrells pub and now a Greene King tenancy.

They made it a cosy, homely and very welcoming little pub with a broad range of clientele, although many CAMRA members have preferred to visit the Rose and Crown just across this narrow street because it is independent with a wider range of beers. But David and Jenny have made use of the guest beer allowance on their side of the street, with Castle Rock’s Harvest Pale being one of their last guests alongside the “landlord bitter” from GK and own brand cask ales such as Yardbird.

David and Jenny were well-known for their charity work. Photo: Phil Gammon

The 1872-built pub is bound to change its character in the revamp, which is expected to start early next year and will include re-siting the bar on the opposite side to now, and more dining tables. Josh Mullett-Sadones, who runs GK tenancies the Old Bookbinders in Jericho and James Street Tavern in East Oxford, will take over on a temporary basis until the revamp. Whether the pub might then change its name to avoid confusion with the other Gardeners Arms remains to be seen, although David doesn’t think this will happen.

David and Jenny Rhymes, who lived above the pub, are a fine example of utter dedication to a pub and its customers, as they have worked seven days a week, often from around 7am to midnight, for more years than they care to remember. They haven’t employed anyone for over 10 years and haven’t had a holiday for 18 years, as employing a relief manager to work such long hours has proved impossible.

David started work for the Warlands bike and motorbike shop in Botley Road – still trading – in 1963, but in 1987 the couple had the chance to work at the White Hart in Wytham. The following year Morrells asked them to take over the Westgate pub in central Oxford (now the Cow and Creek) on a temporary basis, but they ended up staying for nearly five years. Formerly called the Anchor, it was rebuilt as a modern pub in 1983.

“The Westgate was Morrells’ flagship managed house, but the previous manager couldn’t control it and it became known for stand-up fights,” recalls David. “We asked the police to keep a closer watch on it but on football days, as fans went from the railway station to the Manor Ground in Headington, there were always major problems. When we arrived there were no glasses left, and no lampshades.”

Morrells wanted to turn the Westgate into a tenancy a few years later, which David and Jenny could not afford. But then the Gardeners Arms came up, which was much more affordable, and they took up this tenancy in early 1993. North Oxford was much more genteel than the city centre, but the street was different then with two ladies’ wear shops, a post office, an off-licence and other shops – whereas today, it is mainly food outlets and flat conversions.

“Our clientele then was mainly students, and we were known as the Junior Common Room of St Hugh’s,” says David. “We have a more mixed clientele now as many students use the college bars, and as their accommodation is better they don’t use pubs so much.”

Major turning points were the closure of Morrells in 1998, bought out by an asset stripper who sold on most of its pubs to GK in 2002; and the indoor smoking ban of 2007, which hit many pubs hard.

“Morrells knew all their tenants and we knew all of them, so its closure was a tragedy,” he adds. “Our beers changed, and although some people didn’t like that, many GK pubs now sell other beers. But for me to have SIBA beers, I would need another pump which I don’t have space for.”

Supermarket beer prices were another challenge, but nothing compared to the onset of the Covid epidemic in 2020. Suddenly, with enforced closure, David and Jenny had a lot of time to think. Despite the government help available and GK cutting the rent, they still had to pay business rates and other fixed costs. They started thinking of retiring to a house they own in Yarnton, and talks with GK started only a few months ago, before the energy crisis hit.

Leaving the Gardeners means leaving their home for nearly 30 years as well as the business, but they promise to be back to visit.

“We wanted to create an atmosphere like being in someone’s front room, where everyone is welcome,” says David. “We will come back as we have many friends and neighbours, including the Halls at the Rose and Crown. We’ve made lots of friends and a couple of enemies, and I’d like to think we’ll be missed.”

They will indeed, but the traditional, old-fashioned pub that the Gardeners is now will certainly change. Oxford CAMRA presented them with a long service award and we wish them well.

The Oxford CAMRA long service award was presented by Dave Richardson