Oxford: Wednesday

February 10, 2016 • 11:30 am

My book event at Blackwell’s last night—a conversation about Faith versus Fact and the five science-vs-religion books I picked for the Five Books site—went very well, I thought. The moderator was Sophie Roell, editor of Five Books, who interviewed me on my quintet of good anti-faith books as well as on five popular evolution books when Why Evolution is True appeared earlier. (Do read the latest selections by Tim Radford on science writing and James Randi on skepticism.) Although Sophie and I had two long telephone interviews and intervening correspondence over the years, I hadn’t met her till yesterday, when she treated me to a pint and fish and chips (with mushy peas) at one of my favorite Oxford pubs, the Turf Tavern. Sophie is of Dutch ancestry, so she’s tall:


The audience, being British, was not very religious, so I didn’t get a lot of pushback, but did get many good questions, and the audience seemed interested.

This morning, after working in the Oxford University Press library (and learning that they’re reissuing WEIT in October with a new cover as part of their “classic science” series, my editor Latha and I went for lunch at The Royal Oak, a pub that has been on that site since 1670. It’s a lovely place, with fires, wooden beams, and NO televisions or “fruit machines” (slot machines to us Yanks). If you see a t.v. or a fruit machine, it’s a bogus pub.


A rabbit-themed ale tile on the outside:


Now this is a pub. The critical item is the rank of gravity pumps on the bar, denoting real ale.


There is no equivalent to the pub in America. There are fake pubs, but the beer you get will be served at refrigerator temperature, and there will probably be televisions. The pub is perhaps my favorite British institution, and began as a warm place for bibulous people to congregate, for the average person’s home was small, dark, cold, and dirty. I’ve also visited what is said to be the oldest existing pub in England, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham, reportedly founded in 1189 though the current building dates to the late 17th century.

Only three of the four ales were on at The Royal Oak; I had Sharp’s Doom Bar, a just-okay session pint, though not nearly as good as Landlord. I should have tried the Harviestoun (I allow myself only one pint at lunch):


Lunch was a lot better than my pint. A three-course lunch for £13 started off with a crock of duck rillettes with toasted bread and chutney. The layer on top is congealed fat, which you can remove as a solid disk.


Main course: sausage and mash with gravy and a perfunctory watercress topping:

Dessert: sticky toffee pudding with dates and vanilla bean ice cream. A good meal! Sticky toffee pudding is one of the great delights of England.


A postprandial walk through Oggsford (the name comes from Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby) revealed several architectural treasures. This is the Radcliffe Observatory, Oxvford’s astronomical observatory from 1773 until 1934:


Right next door is the huge new Andrew Wiles building of Oxford’s Mathematical Institute, one of the largest mathematics groups in Europe.


The Institute is well known for its space-filling “Penrose tiles”, named of course after Roger Penrose. Here’s a movie of the tiling:

Near the Royal Oak is perhaps Oxford’s most famous pub, the Eagle and Child. Its fame comes from its being the local of the “Inklings,” a group of Oxford literari who met there for drink and high-powered Brain Talk. The Inklings included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. The group also met at a pub across the street that I like better, the Lamb and Flag. But the Eagle and Child is most famous now as “the Tolkien pub.”


The facade of St John’s College (founded 1555), which happens to own the Lamb and Flag.


The famous Oxford “Martyr’s Memorial”, built in 1843, memorializes the three Oxford Martyrs (Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury), burnt at the stake in 1555 for heresy and treason. They were Anglicans, and when Mary I, a Catholic, became queen, the three became heretics. Nicholas Ridley is a distant relative of both Mark and Matt Ridley, two distantly related biologists who wrote popular books on evolution.


And finally, a lovely medieval house in downtown Oggsford, now converted into a Pret a Manger (oy!):


52 thoughts on “Oxford: Wednesday

  1. I’ve walked past that martyrs’ memorial umpteen times without having the faintest idea what it was. Seems somehow indicative of the modern world that I find out what it is from a Chicago biologist.

    The Royal Oak is indeed very nice, although unfortunately Green college over the road is now Green Templeton college. Double oy.

  2. I’ll be in Oxford this time next month for my daughter’s graduation ceremony. She’s getting a Masters in Sustainable Design, or something like that. Degrees are so specialized now.

    I’m bookmarking these posts for food ideas.

    1. I’d recommend the Turf for both food and beer; the Royal Oak has better food and a lesser selection of beer, but great ambiance, while the Lamb and Flag has both good food and good beer, but is a bit more crowded than the Royal Oak. There’s also the White Horse near the Bodelian, which I haven’t tried in a while.

  3. “he treated me to a pint and fish and chips (with mushy peas) at one of my favorite Oxford pubs, the Turf Tavern”

    YES! YES!

    Just did that this past summer, loved it! (I limit myself to one pint with lunch as well!)

    I’d post photos; but I don’t want to compete with you.

    This was my first trip to Oxford, and, despite the crowds, we loved it. We found it significantly more crowded with pedestrians than London.

      1. Clearly some of the Oxford “streets” date from long before automobiles:

        That looks wide enough to get a horse down. I hear that some people are trying to get personal transportation which is self-guiding and automatic. sort of like a plastic sterilised horse. With the unpredictable wilfulness and erratic navigation.

  4. Watercress! You actually got a vegetable! 😉 (Hard to do at some of these pubs.)

    Also, “Royal Oak” is a chain here in Ottawa and I can’t get that out of my head when I see that place …

    1. An increasing number will also sell you a taster of each in 1/4-pint glasses, to help you decide what you want to concentrate on.

      Interestingly, the first time I came across this excellent custom was in San Diego in about 1982.

        1. Most pubs that are serious about their ale will pull you a small taster. I think that it’s bad form to try everything, but if you have a couple in mind a good pub will be happy to help you choose!

  5. Pret a Manger is a vegetarian’s delight/haven/rescue. Enjoyed its sandwiches and yogurt during my visit to London. Sad we don’t have an equivalent in North America.

      1. We had no trouble eating out of Tesco Express and the corner shops at the tube stations (lamb samosas! – also veggie ones). They always had plenty of good: Bread, cheese, olives, etc.

  6. Always go with the most local pint – that’s my rule. Your pub lunch looks delicious, and I’m envious of the visit to the Eagle and Child and the in-person view of the Penrose tiles!

  7. It used to be the pastime of irresponsible undergraduates to try to persuade gullible tourists that the Martyrs’ Memorial was the spire of an underground church, which could be accessed via the adjacent ladies’ convenience.

    I am sure that such reprehensible behaviour is not acceptable in these more enlightened days.

    1. The Guiness Book of Records says so, but Wp notes that the evidence is not conclusive and others make the same claim.

      But it does have an Oxford connection; it was featured in an episode of Morse.


    2. There are three or four contenders for the title of oldest pub in England. The cocks doesnt seem the best claim personally although that might be biased by it trading too much on that rather than being a good pub.
      As an aside and linking up the pint and St Albans. The founders of the Brakspear brewery were related to the first and only English pope who was from St Albans.

      1. Yes, my one visit to the Fighting Cocks did leave me feeling that they were pleading too much.

        Nice. I didn’t know about the Brakspear connection. I had to look up Adrian IV and had never seen his pre-papal name.

  8. I remember the Pubs in the smaller towns were the hang out of the neighborhood. So if you were new in town, especially a foreigner, the pub was where you needed to go, and go again to meet the neighborhood. Sometimes the whole family would be there and sometimes just the adults. You kind of became a member without any membership.

  9. I’ve just worked out what is wrong with that sausage and mash (apart from the ‘cheffy’ presentation). No fried onions.

    Growing up in the sixties and seventies Saturday lunch was always sausage and mash with fried onions and baked beans before dad and I went off to football.

    Since I’m now on a near zero salt diet bangers and mash is a thing of the past.

  10. The SF Bay area has at least 3 phoney baloney English pubs. (Or is that phoney bangers?) There is one almost authentic one, the Pelican Inn. Rightly or wrongly Marin County would not exempt them from the building code mandating a minimal ceiling height. They wanted a low ceiling just like the old pubs built when most folks were much shorter. Oddly, one of the dorkier ones was a fave hangout of Irish actor Pierce Brosnan.

    JACs talk was right on Ash Wednesday but I foresee little penance for the perfidies discussed inhis book resulting from same.

  11. Ha! During my years in Oxford I lived in the Jesus College rooms located just behind the ancient corner building in the last photo. The corner building and I think my rooms were part of the oldest domestic architecture in Oxford, dating back to something like 1387. There were no right angles in my room, and the floor sloped at about an 8% grade. Not a safe space for loaded semi-trailer trucks.

    We used to go to the Royal Oak Pub once a week to have an informal research lecture by students and visitors to the Oxford Department of Earth Sciences.

    One of my favorite pubs to visit was called, I think, the Turf Tavern, simply because to get to it you took a sudden right turn off of Holywell Street down a narrow, unpromising alley. After a short distance the alley suddenly opened up to reveal a very lively pub. It’s been 28 years since I’ve been there, so I can’t vouch for the food or drink. Leaving the Turf you could get to Queen’s Lane, which winds past the backside of several colleges, which I thought was a cool way to down a good distance down the High Street without fighting the crowds.

  12. I quite like the warm feeling of drinking to promote education which you get in these college owned pubs. The Lamb and Flag profits I believe support PhDs

  13. You’re right about the fake pubs. There’s plenty of them all around San Antonio, and most of them are part of big chains like “Lion & Rose” and “Fox & Hound.” They’re just ordinary bars dressed up to look like English pubs. They’re not bad as far as bars go–one even has cask-pulled ales–but pubs they are not.

    1. I went in to check one out recently. I noticed they had beers like Budweiser and Miller’s on tap. That was as long as I stayed.

    2. I’ve drunk in “plastic Irish bars” from Seoul to Port Gentil via Baku. They’re all pathetic imitations, but some of them are magnificently bad.

      1. There is (or was, it’s 15 years ago since I went) an Irish bar in Bratislava that served a surprisingly good pint of Guinness… I was impressed!

  14. I don’t know if it still exists, but in my childhood, the best restaurant in Oxford was The Boar’s Head, where they served the best English cuisine, and the dessert trolley was full of the most tempting dishes. My favourite was their trifle which was divine.

    My father was a University Lecturer at Brasenose College (languages), and my mother graduated at St Anne’s College.

  15. It would have been funnier if the picture of Sophie was taken looking up at her to emphasize the tallness but I suppose smartassness was not your goal.

  16. I’m happy your favourite pub is the Turf Tavern. It was my “lab local” when I was a student back in the 80s. It’s the first place I go when back in Oxford.

  17. Sadly pubs are in decline in England with many closing. There are two major strategies that have been followed to achieve financial viability: ‘gastro-pubs’ which seek to attract an upmarket clientele with fine food and ‘sports’ pubs that introduce big screen TVs and show big-game football matches and other major sporting events.
    The gastro pubs vary from those supplying really high-end quality food to the rather poor, serving up re-heated meals that are prepared elsewhere.
    It is hard to avoid TVs and fruit/slot machines in most pubs I’m sad to say.

  18. Sticky Toffee Pudding the only Dessert i ever haved wonderful.! I remember the Last Trip to Jurusalem, built into the Rock on which stands Nottingham Castle, to get to the upstairs Bar you had to go sideways the stairs were so narrow, and there is a Hole above the Bar that leads into the bowels of the Castle, its called Mortimers Hole. You can’t beat a good old English Pub, you can copy it, but there is always something not quite right, similar to the ersatz Irish Pubs, if you’ve ever been to a real Irish Pub, you’ll know what I mean.

  19. Darn and blast. I don’t check the blog for a week, and learn you’ve just been down the road at Blackwells. Another vote for Brakspear.

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