Hail to the Halls – 40 years at the Rose & Crown

Dave Richardson pays tribute to Oxford’s longest serving landlords

Even when a journalist is writing about a subject he or she is passionate about, it still usually feels like work and a job that has to be done. Occasionally, though, something of the spirit of the people and places involved seeps in and it becomes a pure pleasure, yet you try extra hard to make every word count.

So it is with me and the Hall family at the Rose & Crown, and what happier occasion than the 40th anniversary this week of Andrew and Debbie arriving at this small Victorian pub in North Parade Avenue, North Oxford. Andrew and Debbie are not only the longest serving landlords in Oxford but surely the most welcoming and urbane, with Debbie – who runs the kitchen – playing an equal role in making the pub a success. After leaving university son Adam joined the business, and now plays a major role including all the cellar work, ordering supplies, staffing and accounting. Even daughter Annabel is seen here occasionally away from her role as a wedding planner. Andrew, in his own words, “oversees and entertains”!

The Halls have helped brew a special “40 Years Bitter” (deliberately at 4.0%) at Hook Norton Brewery, one of its permanent suppliers, to celebrate the anniversary. This slightly ruby coloured beer uses Fuggles, Challenger and British Chinook hops, the latter variety being first used for brewing in 1983 in the year they first took on the pub.   

Andrew and Debbie soon after their arrival in 1983. Photo: Oxford Mail archive

When I asked what had been the best of times and the worst of times, I didn’t get the answers I expected. The best of times have simply been too numerous to mention, as they just love running the pub and the wide cross-section of regular customers coming in. The worst of times I expected to be the onset of Covid and the lockdowns, but no – they enjoyed the enforced break, and Government financial support covered most of their costs as they have owned the building since 2009 when the Rose & Crown first became a free house. But the Government hasn’t always been their friend, and at one time Andrew became an active lobbyist at Westminster.

“The worst time was when the Government passed legislation that came to be known as the Beer Orders, and one day Debbie took a call from the company that had taken over telling us the rent was going up from £12,500 to £36,000 a year,” recalls Andrew. “We were crying with worry. We had a young son – how were we going to pay the rent, let alone make any money? Two of the bosses came in and saw a notice I’d put up telling customers prices had increased because of them. One of them said this was quite correct. They had no shame about it.”

The Beer Orders became law in 1989, after concerns that the big brewing groups controlled too much of the market. They were allowed to keep a maximum of 2,000 pubs each, but instead of the flourishing of small private operators that many pubgoers hoped to see, the Beer Orders gave rise to a new generation of huge pub-owning companies (pubcos) who weren’t breweries but often had close links to them. Andrew calls them “propcos” rather than pubcos as they were in effect property companies with no interest in running pubs, and many were sold off in the years to come as the pubcos gained a very bad reputation for how they treated their tenants.

Before 1983 Andrew had already been licensee at two pubs, the Rotunda Tavern in Cheltenham (where he met Debbie, who worked for him) and the Old Contemptibles in Birmingham. Born in Oxford, he took a course in hotel and catering management and worked at local pubs including the Fair Rosamund in Botley and Scholar Gipsy in Kennington (both long gone), so was already a seasoned publican when they took on the Rose & Crown. It was then owned by Ind Coope, part of Allied Breweries, which also owned the Halls of Oxford name originating with a brewery that continued to run pubs long after brewing ceased. The “Halls Hare” plaque can still be seen to this day on many of them, and – appropriately – the Halls of Oxford name re-appeared when Andrew and Debbie bought their pub.

It’s a family affair…. seen here with son Adam, Andrew and Debbie are Oxford’s longest serving landlords. Photo: Phil Gammon

Tough years were to follow after the Beer Orders, as their beloved pub and home – which they had started to restore to its Victorian splendour – passed between pubcos including Sycamore, Inn Business and finally, in 1997, Punch Taverns. Andrew found Punch particularly difficult to deal with, and he kept detailed notes of his meetings with them.  A friend in the trade advised him to become a nuisance, but a polite nuisance, as he set about persuading Punch to sell, while becoming a high-profile lobbyist for pub tenants. Eventually it agreed, but he had to pay the full asking price and also all of Punch’s costs.

“If we hadn’t become a free house, we wouldn’t have survived as it was absolutely disgraceful how pubcos treated their tenants,” says Andrew. “When we first arrived we paid a low rent and paid a reasonable price for our beer, but then along came these property companies talking about ‘commercial rents’. The Beer Orders created an utter farce.”

Debbie adds: “For me, buying the freehold from Punch in 2009 was the best of times. Both Adam and Annabel were born while we lived here, and we’ve had so many enjoyable times including wedding parties, wedding anniversaries and wakes.”

Free of tie since then, Andrew and then Adam have continued to focus on real ale among an eclectic choice of drinks (wine sells at up to £75 a bottle!) and no-nonsense food ranging from the famous pint of sausages (served in a beer tankard) and pickled eggs, to Pieminster pies and Sunday roasts. Back in 1983 the Rose & Crown served Burton Ale and Ind Coope bitter among some pretty awful keg brands, but as a free house it has settled down with Adnams Southwold Bitter, Hook Norton Old Hooky and Oxford Brewery (formerly Shotover) Trinity, with the fourth pump reserved for a guest ale which ranges from local beers by Loose Cannon, Turpin and others, to Titanic’s ever-popular Plum Porter. This dedication has been rewarded as the Rose & Crown has featured in every edition bar one of the Good Beer Guide from 1997 to 2023.

Adam now runs many aspects of the pub. Photo: Phil Gammon

“Real ale has always been important to me and I love looking after it,” says Andrew, “and my promise is that every pint will taste as the brewer intended. I’m also a great supporter of CAMRA and I love the Oxford Drinker, especially the online version.

“I don’t really regard 40 years here as a great achievement, as it’s such a wonderful place to work full of such wonderful people.”

The Rose & Crown is a pub you come to meet people – not just those who are already friends – and for conversation. It has no TV, no piped music, no slot machines or distractions of any kind. Andrew – who is usually in a suit and tie and likes to sit in the passageway running alongside the two small rooms and leading to the covered courtyard – often introduces people who might have something in common. What really makes this pub so special is its wide cross-section of customers, from professors to bus drivers (!) and from sports celebrities in Rugby, ice hockey, Formula 1 racing, horse racing and football to, as he puts it, “the girl on the knickers counter at Debenhams”.

“Here it doesn’t matter who you are,” he says. “You’ll see a wealthy person buy a drink for the girl from Debenhams, and the girl from Debenhams will then buy a drink for the wealthy person.”

Sports teams mean it can be boisterous at times, and the Sunday evening jazz sessions in the courtyard (which doubles the available seating and allowed it to open during the ban on inside trading) are always popular. So how did the Halls feel when lockdown came and everything ground to a halt?

“I loved it, because we spent three months sitting in our flat relaxing,” says Debbie.

But the family didn’t have a total rest, as Adam and Annabel were soon organising home deliveries not only of cask ale in four-pint containers (usually Trinity) but also food. This meant they forged even stronger links not only with locals but over a wide area, and home delivery customers, me included, could support a local pub and a local brewery. Did Andrew and Debbie ever consider retirement? Fortunately not!

Photo: Phil Gammon

“We both work six 12-hour days a week, Debbie always in the kitchen while I have more variety,” says Andrew. “As we have to work we have no chance to spend, but we have 10-14 days’ holiday a year plus Christmas Day and Boxing Day when we close. We don’t know any other way of life and if Adam wanted to take over eventually we’d be very pleased, but my main aim is to ensure this will always remain a pub.

“Running the Rose & Crown is truly a team effort, and wouldn’t have been possible without Debbie, Adam and all the wonderful staff we’ve known over the years.”

We look forward to their 50th anniversary, as it just wouldn’t be the same place without all the family’s hard work and with Andrew – wit, raconteur, and all-round conversationalist – making everyone welcome. It’s the pub where I take our frequent visitors from abroad, and on a recent visit I told him that I’d brought a Mexican friend to see a traditional, old-fashioned English pub with an eccentric landlord.

“Oh really?” said Andrew, quick as a flash. “Where are you going to take him then?”

Where else!