I can’t remember who it was who told me that Oxford once had 365 pubs, ‘one for every day of the year’, because firstly it was almost certainly an exaggeration, and secondly I’ve heard the same said about several other places – not least Norwich – which implies that civic pride in its drinking taverns and calendar awareness often go hand in hand.
Nonetheless, the city of the dreaming spires is suffused with places to go and have a pint. Some of these (the Turf, the Eagle and Child, the King’s Arms) are famous for their historical and literary associations, but might perhaps verge on the tourist trap. Others lurk down little-known corners of suburban streets but can often beguile and surprise in their own way. And then there is the Head of the River.
We made good time getting down to the land of plenty, thanks to the ever-speedy GWR service, that runs both regular direct trains between Paddington and Oxford and even more that change at Reading. If you’re lucky enough to travel first class, then you can expect at-seat refreshments, hugely comfortable seats and a variety of power points, meaning that one arrives suitably refreshed for one’s relaxation, which comes in the lovely form of the ‘River, as nobody has ever called it before.
Situated a literal stone’s throw away from Christ Church, to the south of Oxford, this more than agreeable institution has often been at its busiest in the summer, thanks to its splendidly situated outdoor terrace at – where else? – the mouth of the Thames (or the Isis, if you want to use the local parlance). Between April and September, getting a seat at a weekend is a nigh-on impossible task. Yet no pub can be an entirely seasonal operation, and so, under the charismatic aegis of its new Gallic manager Marc, there is now as much emphasis on this being a place to enjoy autumn, winter and spring in as well.
As with its much-loved Winchester stablemate the Wykeham Arms, the estimable Fuller’s brewery have waved a decidedly non-alcoholic wand over the accommodation (bar the bottle of London Pride which awaits you in each room) and the bedrooms here would do any stylish boutique hotel justice.
In a city notably low on memorable places to stay, it comes as a pleasure to walk into the smartly decorated (we suspected Farrow & Ball) and very comfortable rooms, complete with invigorating showers and vintage radios; a particularly nice touch in the Cardinal Wolseley chamber that we were in was that a bunk bed was provided for an excited small child to clamber up and down into, and eventually to fall into a mercifully deep sleep after a fine repast at dinner downstairs.
The food here represents an evolution from the pub grub that I remembered from previous visits. Although there are still the likes of fish and chips and bacon and cheese burgers lurking on the menu for the traditionalists, head chef Thomas Berry has grander ideas in mind. Thus one might start with salted aubergine gremolata with Laverstoke mozzarella or slow cooked striploin with turnips and chimichurri, before taking a daring leap into rack of lamb with pickled radish and truffle aioli or (excellent) sea bass with grilled artichokes.
There are some very good wines available by the glass, but I took the attitude ‘when in Rome’ and sampled some of the more interesting craft beers; I especially enjoyed the ‘Bibble’, from Wild Beer Co, which is a light four-percenter and therefore the perfect option to go with a dessert of apple crumble and vanilla ice cream.
We slept as well as our daughter, which was just as well as we awoke on a gloriously sunny and warm day; an anomaly for October, perhaps, but we wasted little time in heading off to the Botanic Gardens. Not, of course, that we neglected a trencherman’s breakfast, which mixes the usual delights of bacon, sausage and egg with more unorthodox pleasures, such as the London porter cured smoked salmon, or the ‘Eggs Oxford’, an academic name for a variant on the much-beloved combination of smashed avocado, poached eggs and a muffin. And then our stay is over, and it is not without regret that we bid Marc our adieus. ‘Did you enjoy yourself?’, he asks, twinklingly. ‘More than we could say’, was the response, and it was an entirely sincere one.
The Head of the River, Folly Bridge, St. Aldates, Oxford OX1 4LB. For more information, visit headoftheriveroxford.co.uk.
Advance single fares between Paddington and Oxford are available from £5.40 each way. For the best value tickets buy before you board at www.gwr.com.