Tales from the Royal Blenheim

Landlord Steven Lyne writes his first column for the Oxford Drinker

Well, this has been a long time coming! Finally getting to sit down and write an article for the Oxford Drinker has been on my radar for a while. Editor Dave Richardson has definitely had a conversation or five with me, keen on asking me to share my experiences of running St Ebbe’s Street’s last standing pub, the Royal Blenheim. For those that know me well, I’ll keep it short…..

If you approached me when I first arrived in Oxford almost eight years ago and told me the position I’m in now, I would have asked what on earth you were drinking! Literally though, I had absolutely no idea how vast Britain’s drinking culture was. Ales were a foreign concept for me, coming from a country where Guinness flows freely and a proper cask ale was nowhere to be seen. In 2016 I spotted a part-time bar position advert in the window and well, the rest is history. 

After a few months in the trade, I started to see the complexity of all that we sometimes take for granted. The vast amount of work that goes into maintaining a cellar, how every ale needed to be treated differently and keeping up to those very high standards that patrons expect from their favourite venues to name a few. Marrying everything together to run a decent site sounded like a nice challenge, and one that I may potentially have looked at in the future.

That call came in February 2020, a fantastic time to become General Manager of a pub with a pandemic looming around the corner! Suddenly, all of those ideas and suggestions to improve the business that I had in the back of my head had to come to fruition. Thankfully, the pub didn’t need too much help. With a refurbishment by Titanic Brewery back in 2017, the Blenheim had already become a favourite pub for many. Tucked away off the main streets of Oxford, it almost felt that the pub was a locals’ secret. One of those pubs you would only find due to a friendly conversation with a local ale drinker. For those patrons, it was a frequented venue for a reason, and I didn’t want to change any of that.

Steven with assistant manager Natasha Micallef-Kelly and some of their fine array of ales

What I did realise, though, was that the pandemic was giving me the perfect opportunity for the Blenheim to go through a transition. What would happen if the pub were to become wet-led, without food? Focusing even more so on the casks and kegs that came through our doors. Stepping away from the expectations that many have of British pubs of walking in and grabbing fish and chips on a whim, to becoming a venue where you were guaranteed to be spoilt by a vast range of beers. It was something I felt that we were all missing in the city centre, and it was something I thought many of our followers would be thrilled to take part in.

The audience at the pub is an eclectic mix, courtesy of Oxford’s ability to attract people from all ends of the world. With customers being as varied as the beers we get in here, and with such a big emphasis on the revival of interest in cask ale, I spotted our niche. Sacrificing our kitchen sounded like a strange move to most, especially with the times we were facing, but we took the chance.

Flash forward to today, and I like to think that risk has paid off. The pub has thrived in its new venture, and we have seen a real capture of interest in real ales in the pub again. We are quite meticulous about our cask ales and we ensure that as much is done as possible to keep everything in tip-top shape.

In today’s times, people’s expectations of quality are higher than ever. As they should be! This is one of the key differences between pubs that are doing well and those that aren’t quite hitting the mark. It’s all well and good if you’ve plenty of beers on; however, if you can’t keep them at their best, you’re missing the whole point of having cask ales in your venue in the first place.

Thankfully, it is a relief that the Royal Blenheim doesn’t suffer from these issues – reflected in our achievement of winning Oxford CAMRA’s City Pub of the Year once again. It’s an absolute pleasure to receive the award for 2023 and something we very much don’t take for granted. We have put quite a bit of hard work into achieving what we have at the Blenheim, and it’s something we could have never achieved without our fantastic team and support from Titanic Brewery.

It gives us the perfect springboard to keep on doing what we are best at. We won’t be stopping any time soon as we have some exciting plans upcoming at the pub, so certainly watch this space. With a bustling atmosphere every day and beers flowing well, we want to make sure that the Blenheim only ever keeps getting better. It’s a pleasure to be running such a welcoming hub in the heart of Oxford and I certainly won’t be wasting any time in getting on with everything.