Plough at 38 changes hands

City Pub Company to operate its third outlet in Oxford and 44th overall

Oxford’s “newest oldest” pub, the Plough at 38 on Cornmarket Street, is to re-open in a few weeks’ time under a different operator, after the business was acquired from local entrepreneur Chris Mulhall.

Historical records show that it was first recorded as an inn in 1656 but it closed as a pub in the 1920s, later becoming a branch of tailor Austin Reed. When that closed in 2016, the building became derelict until a “soft” re-opening in December 2018 under its original name, the Plough, with “at 38” added as the number on the street. Full trading started the following month.

Chris, a real ale fan who at that time also ran the 1855 Bar at Oxford Castle, was keen to engage with CAMRA and honour the heritage of the pub. Original features were restored and a list of landlords through the centuries was produced, and XT Brewing became its regular supplier. Unusually, some of its beers continued to mature in large tanks above the bar, but these fell into disuse some time ago.

This is in stark contrast to what would happen a few years later when another centuries-old Oxford pub, the Mitre, re-opened as the Gusto Italian restaurant. Go in there today and there is no acknowledgement at all of its history, and no indication that it had a major claim to be the oldest pub in Oxford.

The Plough at 38 made a successful start, with a pub/café atmosphere on the ground floor and a restaurant upstairs. But the first Covid lockdown came in little more than a year after its opening, and all pubs struggled during 2020-21 with lockdowns and restrictions, although the Plough was able to add some pavement seating. It caused some controversy by introducing an optional service charge on drinks as well as meals, but the quality of its ale resulted in inclusion in the 2022 Good Beer Guide. By 2023 its opening hours were restricted, as Chris negotiated with companies wanting to take on the lease.

“One can never envisage how the narrative turns out, but we were delighted when City Pub Group came in and offered to take on the Plough in April this year with completion of the purchase taking place in early October,” said Chris. “City Pub Company has the corporate power and resources to elevate the Plough’s operations several fold.

“We wish them every success with their new venture. City Pub Group is a great fit and very good brand, and will maintain the Plough as a pub serving great food and importantly real ale, including many local breweries along the way.”

The publicly quoted group, already operating 43 pubs in southern England, has run St Aldates Tavern in Oxford for many years, serving up to six real ales and sometimes in the Good Beer Guide. It also operates café-bar the George Street Social in central Oxford (not a real ale venue), and briefly operated a shop conversion pub in Summertown, the Bicycle Shed, which didn’t re-open after Covid. The group’s strong focus on real ale bodes well for the Plough, which was also attracting interest from a national brewery and pub chain.

Photo: Steve Thompson

Chris retains an interest in the Fox at Boars Hill, but takes no part in running the pub. With the 1855 bar closing when the lease expired at the end of 2020 he is no longer involved in hospitality on a day-to-day level, but has other interests being a consultant to the nuclear industry.

“I am happy because City Pub Group will respect the heritage of the building, and it’s a beer drinkers’ set of pubs,” he added. “Since Covid we haven’t been able to spend money on the building, but they will put their mark on it. They have the financial horsepower to be a strong player on the High Street in these very testing times.

“I’m very proud of what we achieved restoring a derelict building into the pub it had been for centuries. Maybe I will return to this business when times are more certain, but inflationary pressures are making it very difficult when you’re on tight margins.

“Drinking culture has changed even since we re-opened the Plough in 2018, and many of Generation Z don’t drink at all. It’s great to see the Lamb & Flag, Grapes and Gardeners Arms re-open, and they are all doing something different. I’m a great supporter of CAMRA and of locally sourced drinks and food, and that will continue. My door is always open for advice about setting up a business from scratch.”

The Plough is currently closed, with a notice on the door saying this will be “for a short while”.