Wallingford pub voted best in county in four-way vote

Dave Richardson visits the four pubs vying for CAMRA’s Oxfordshire Pub of the Year (POTY) title

The Cross Keys in Wallingford came out top in a vote by CAMRA members, and is now competing against Berkshire winner the Bell at Aldworth and Buckinghamshire winner the Kings Arms at Tring to become the regional champion.

We had fun visiting all four top pubs in Oxfordshire, as decided by the various CAMRA branches. Voting in the regional round closes on July 14, with the winner becoming one of 16 in with a chance of becoming National Pub of the Year 2024.

The Royal Blenheim is once again Oxford branch’s City Pub of the Year

Royal Blenheim — Oxford branch

The decision taken a few years ago not to continue offering food but to concentrate on beer, beer and more beer (plus a range of other drinks, of course) has certainly paid off, as this is one of the essential stops in the city centre. It’s kept on its toes by more competition with re-opening of the Lamb & Flag and the Grapes.

With nine hand pumps and a good range of craft keg too, it maintains a range of styles throughout the year. But you’re not guaranteed to find a local beer here at present, as the apparent demise of White Horse brewery in the New Year (which used to run the pub) led to an increase in beers from Titanic. An Everards beer still features as Titanic sub-leases the pub from Everards, and the three guest beers could be from anywhere. Titanic’s hugely popular Plum Porter is a permanent feature.

Sports are important – especially Rugby – but don’t dominate. Wednesday quiz nights are very popular and impromptu music is a regular feature, including folk. It attracts a varied clientele including plenty of students and tourists, and a steady stream of beer enthusiasts who can often be found at the rear of L-shaped bar.

The White Horse is Banbury’s top real ale pub. Image: Steve Thompson

White Horse, Banbury – North Oxfordshire branch

For long regarded as Banbury’s top real ale pub, the White Horse is also sub-leased from Leicestershire brewery Everards but without the direct involvement of a brewery, as at the Royal Blenheim. On the edge of the town centre by the main north-south road, it is a large, comfortable pub with separate lounge areas and a small patio.

It normally has five real ales on but had six on this occasion, as it had just celebrated winning POTY when CAMRA members were treated to free pints. Two of the ales were from Mighty Oak in Essex – Oscar Wilde and Captain Bob – while another came from 4Ts brewery in Cheshire, Azacca, with “explosive hops”. Local brewers were represented by Little Ox, with Wipeout, while two Everards beers, Tiger and Nemesis Session IPA, completed the range. A real cider, Stan’s Big Apple, was also available.

The White Horse has a very enthusiastic bar and cellar manager, Lou Hamilton, and it was a pleasure to meet someone who so clearly enjoys her job. She was even invited to Everards to brew her own (keg) beer, Lou’s Belgian Blonde, at 7.3%.

The pub has a very strong community focus with a noticeboard promoting local businesses, charity bookstall and canine “hall of fame”.

The Kings Arms challenged the previous top two in Wantage.

Kings Arms, Wantage – White Horse branch

This pub was totally transformed when taken over by Oak Taverns a few years ago, as before that two pubs in the town – the Shoulder of Mutton and the Royal Oak – dominated the real ale scene. POTY winner for a second time, it now offers an ever-changing range of up to six real ales, with no regular ales at all. Six real ciders were dispensed from boxes, and these have helped the pub win the branch Cider POTY award.

You’re almost certain to find something new here, and I had never before seen a beer from West Acre of Norfolk (Another Day Done) or Anarchy Brew Co of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Midnight Metro). I was pleased to try another beer from Marble brewery in Manchester (Atlas) and Vocation brewery of Yorkshire (Naughty but Nice chocolate stout), while local breweries were represented by LoveBeer with Wookie.

The Kings Arms is a fairly basic drinkers’ pub but unless you visit in the warmer months (or at least in daylight) you won’t fully appreciate it. It has a substantial heated patio are and also a large grassed garden, quite a revelation for a town centre pub.

Oxfordshire’s Pub of the Year 2024, the Cross Keys in Wallingford

Cross Keys, Wallingford – South Oxfordshire branch

The success Oak Taverns has achieved in revitalising pubs has been proven again at the Cross Keys, acquired from Brakspear two years ago, and now a thriving community pub on the edge of the town centre. It immediately became the top real ale pub in the town, and on this sunny Friday evening it was very busy with a big crowd enjoying the extensive garden. A garden bar is planned.

Inside it has a lot of old-fashioned charm, with three small rooms, and feels just the sort of place you’d be welcome any time for a quiet chat. The house bitter, branded as Cross Keys, is in fact XT4, and the other three beers included local brew Chilling Me Softly by Loose Cannon (badged as a Californian Common Beer and very tasty), a collaboration badged “Vocation and Friends” with an experimental hop, and Aussie Aussie Aussie, by Mad Squirrel of Hertfordshire.

Landlord Dave Howse comes from a family that runs pubs, but this is in fact his first and he’s a perfect fit for the role. He said that Oak Taverns’ philosophy was that if you get the beer right, everything else will follow – and we couldn’t argue with that.

A big part of the pub’s appeal at weekends is the eclectic range of food vans coming from near and far – in this case, Punjabi street food from Coventry. Many Oak Taverns pubs welcome food vans despite some licensing issues with local authorities.

So, how do you choose a winner from these four wonderful pubs? All the beers tried were in great or good condition, with a wide range for all tastes. It was a difficult choice but the winner is the Cross Keys, so let’s see how it fares in the regional round. Watch this space!