Dave Richardson catches up with one of Oxford’s top real ale pubs
When owner St John’s College announced closure of the Lamb & Flag in January 2021, the shockwaves went around the world. It had in fact been closed since December 2020, having re-opened for just a few months after the first Covid lockdown, and the closure was blamed on difficult trading conditions.
Why all this interest in the Lamb & Flag, however historic and well-known it might be? News soon spread beyond Oxford via international news agencies Reuters and Agence France Presse, and the BBC, with headlines about it appearing as far away as Chile and Australia. It seemed the world’s media saw in its closure a vital piece of “Olde Englande” under threat, and the thousands of people around Britain and around the world who remembered it from their student days expressed their regret.
But some did more than that, as a group of former students, some very wealthy, got together and mounted a rescue bid by a Community Interest Company, calling themselves the Inklings after the group of famous writers, led by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who met here from the 1940s to the 1960s – and their links with the pub also fuelled media interest. In reality the original Inklings were more associated with the Eagle and Child, another pub owned by St John’s, which had a display about them on the walls. A former long-serving landlady at the Eagle and Child once told the Oxford Drinker that she asked them to leave as they bought very little and wanted one room of the pub to themselves – maybe that was when they moved to the Lamb & Flag?
The Eagle and Child, which is directly opposite across St Giles, shut for the first Covid lockdown and has remained closed for over three years, although St John’s has been trying to re-let it. But despite worldwide concern over the Lamb & Flag’s closure, there was never any doubt that it would re-open – it was simply a question of when, and whether it would be much changed. The pub remained closed until October 2022, after a long refurbishment which was complicated by its status as a listed building. A new cellar, toilets, bar and a lighter interior (while retaining its nooks and crannies) were installed, but the most obvious change to visitors was the removal of the bar at the front of the pub to create more table space. This is sometimes now used for functions.
It still looks shabby from the outside, especially the fascia and sign, but this is the responsibility of St John’s – as are the upper floors which are used as student accommodation. The college claims that as a charity, it can’t spend on anything which is not of direct educational value – with the Inklings funding much of the revamp work.
They pledged to create a pub where the emphasis would be on local beers and other local drinks, and have been true to their word. It has eight hand pumps, the same number as before, and although there is now only one real cider (Yellow Hammer) compared to two before, the range of real ales is currently rivalled only by the Royal Blenheim in the city centre. All these are from local breweries, some from Buckinghamshire or Berkshire, and the same is true of most of the keg lines. The regular cask ales are Prospect by Oxford Brewery (formerly Shotover) and Hop Kitty by Animal/XT, while the others can come from any local brewery such as Hook Norton, Little Ox, North Cotswold, White Horse, Loose Cannon or Siren. In future it will be a contender for the Good Beer Guide and City Pub of the Year award, as many times in the past.
Management team is led by Dylan Dudbridge-Hay and his wife Alice, with Dylan having previously worked for XT and the small, Oxford-based Dodo Pubs group. So how is the Lamb & Flag doing, six months after re-opening? It always seems to be very busy, being right in the heart of student Oxford, but on my recent visit on a Wednesday afternoon jut after Easter – out of term time – it was still fairly busy even at 3pm. I caught up with Dylan over a pint of Ox Blood from Little Ox.
“We certainly have a lot of students, many of whom never knew the old pub, but it doesn’t feel very different out of term time,” he said. “We see the same volume, but a different mix. We still get a lot of CAMRA people, mainly in the daytime, whereas students come mainly in the evenings when we sell more keg beer. But I don’t think the audience for cask and keg is split by age, although people who are less versed in beer will go for keg. Our highest seller of all is Oxford Brewery’s Prospect.”
When the pub was closed, the fear was that it could be taken over by a large company which would impose more of a corporate feel – as at the Eagle and Child, which was run by Nicholson’s (an M&B brand) before closure, although the lease had been due to pass to Young’s, who later pulled out. The Lamb & Flag remains proudly a free house in charge of its own destiny, and one reason why it didn’t attract a large pub company was the restricted size of its kitchen with no room for expansion.
“We keep our food offering to really simple bar snacks – things that go well with beer,” said Dylan. “In the old Lamb & Flag beer was always the big seller, and we didn’t want to lose sight of that. People come in to drink, not for food, but if you’re hungry we offer something to nibble on. We’re still finding local breweries we haven’t had before – Wriggly Monkey, for example. Pale ales are definitely popular, but we also have dark ales such as Broken Dream by Siren, a breakfast stout. Only two cask ales and five kegs are regulars, and we try to keep it local with Tap Social and Renegade (the successor to West Berkshire) among the keg suppliers. People will come in and ask for Guinness, but are happy with a local stout. It’s the same with lager – we offer them one from Renegade.”
Dylan added that it would be good to see the Eagle and Child re-open, although there is little prospect of that in the short term as a great deal of work would be needed to bring the run-down pub up to scratch, even without converting the upper rooms into a boutique hotel as originally intended. He would also welcome re-opening of the Grapes, where Alice used to work, saying: “Most city centre pubs are run by big chains, and I find more interesting pints in Jericho or the Cowley Road.”
Price inflation has taken its toll on all pubs, but the Lamb & Flag has kept its lowest cask ale price at £4.50 a pint and lager at £4.60, although other ales typically cost £5-£5.50. The priority now is to steer the pub through the summer months, when it has no outside space except only three tables and six chairs allowed by its pavement licence.
“We’ve settled down after re-opening, and found out what works and what doesn’t,” said Dylan. “We’ve bridged the gap between the old Lamb & Flag and the pub we have today, and want to create a space that works for everyone.”