Oxfordshire - Pubs and Inns with a literary connection



Jerome K. Jerome immortalised the Barley Mow in his superb Three Men in a Boat (1889): "Round Clifton Hampden, itself a wonderfully pretty village, old-fashioned, peaceful, and dainty with flowers, the river scenery is rich and beautiful. If you stay the night on land at Clifton, you cannot do better than put up at the ‘Barley Mow’. It is, without exception, I should say, the quaintest, most old-world inn up the river. It stands on the right of the bridge, quite away from the village. Its low-pitched gables and thatched roof and latticed windows give it quite a story-book appearance, while inside it is even still more once-upon-a-timeyfied"
On 6 January 1837, Charles Dickens, Jr was born. The first child of the novelist Charles Dickens was called ‘Charley’ by family and friends. In 1869 (age 32) after a failed business venture, he was hired by Dickens Sr as sub-editor of All the Year Round. A year later, after his father's death, Charley became the magazine's editor. He wrote the introductions to many posthumous reprints of his father's books, such as Barnaby Rudge, Little Dorrit, and Sketches by Boz, providing biographical and bibliographical insights.
In 1879, Charley published the first editions of his two main dictionaries, ‘Dickens's Dictionary of London’ and ‘Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames’ in which he wrote: "On the Berkshire side, two or three minutes walk from the bridge is the ‘Barley Mow’, one of the thatched, old-fashioned resting-places which have been almost improved out of existence by the modern system of hotels. The parlour of the ‘Barley Mow’ is a queer panelled room; more like the cabin of a ship than the coffee-room of an inn, and is of so low a pitch as to still further favour the illusion. But although the house is primitive, and the entertainment unpretending, it is a capital little inn of its class, and may be recommended to boating men."
Peter Lovesey’s 1976 Sergeant Cribb novel ‘Swing Together’, is a retracing of the route taken by Jerome’s three men. There's an important scene set in the Barley Mow which plays out on pages 60 to 66. This interesting and welcoming Chef & Brewer dining pub has plenty of atmosphere with its very low ancient beams and nice dark corners. Well kept real ales include Adnams Broadside and Charles Wells Bombardier.

Barley Mow - Clifton Hampden - Oxfordshire - Jerome K. Jerome, Charles Dickens Jr., Peter Lovesey


In Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novel: ’Death is Now my Neighbour’, Morse calls on Steven and Sonya Lowbridge, the landlords of Oxford’s historic Bear Inn, hoping to pin down a snippet of evidence. Tucked away near the centre of the City, just north of Christ Church, The Bear is not the easiest of pubs to find. It stands on the corner of Alfred Street and Blue Boar Street, opposite Bear Lane.
The Bear is potentially Oxford’s smallest pub. The snug oak paneled two-roomed interior is home to a remarkable collection of nearly 5,000 snippets of gentlemans’ neckties. The collection started in the 1954, when customers, some famous, exchanged the end of their tie for a pint (or two) of beer. The ties are displayed in glass-fronted cases attached to the walls and even the (low) ceiling. A small square of white card is affixed to each exhibit giving provenance and description. They mostly indicate membership of clubs, regiments, schools - the Royal Gloucester Hussars, the Imperial Yeomanry, the Punjab Frontier Force, Lloyds of London Croquet Club etc.
In Dexter’s novel, Morse enters the pub armed with a photograph of a man wearing a maroon tie with a narrow white strip, hoping to learn which school or club the man had once attended. It was a long shot: "A bit like a farmer looking for a lost contact lens in a ploughed field;" he confessed to the landlord. But then his eyes widened with expectation only to be disappointed in an instant when, Sonya came up with the answer: "Yo’’ll find one just like that in the tie rack at Marks & Spencer."
The original Bear was a coaching inn on an adjacent site, closer to the High Street. Initially called Parne Hall and then Le Tabard, it adopted its present name in the 15th century, after either a bear pit on site or the bear and ragged staff on the crest of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. It was a very fashionable place in the 17th century with rich and royal patronage. When it closed in 1801, there were over thirty bedrooms, with stabling for a similar number of horses. The present building was built in the early 17th century as the residence of the inn’s ostler. It was converted into a separate tavern, The Jolly Trooper, in 1774, and took over the name of the Bear when the other inn closed.

Oxford – The Bear – Colin Dexter


The Eagle and Child in Oxford was known affectionately as the "Bird and Baby" by the two men who made it part of literary history: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Occupying the same site on St. Giles Street since 1650, it is a destination for literary pilgrims from all over the world. Inside it doesn’t look much like a literary shrine, with its dark oak settles, gleaming beer pumps, diminutive fireplace, and slightly incongruous conservatory. For almost four decades until the 1960’s, however, it was the favourite watering place of the Inklings, a group of writers, poets and religious thinkers which centred on C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien whilst they were both dons at the University.
The group met here to read and criticise each other’s works in progress, including the first drafts of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. As well as being writers and religious philosophers, Lewis and Tolkien were connoisseurs of a good pint, who derided the "varnish" served at The Mitre on the High Street, and did full justice to the fine ales served at the Eagle and Child whenever wartime shortages permitted. All that remains of the Inkling’s brilliant circle is a plaque on the wall and some of their books displayed behind the bar, but that’s enough for coachloads of people to flock here to drink in both the atmosphere and the ales.
A connection between C. S. Lewis and Sergeant Lewis is made by Colin Dexter in his detective novel The Secret of Annexe 3: "In the back bar of the Eagle and Child in St. Giles', the two men [Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis] sat and drank their beer, and Lewis found himself reading and reading again the writing on the wooden plaque fixed to the wall behind Morse's head: ‘C. S. LEWIS, his brother, W. H. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and other friends met every Tuesday morning, between the years 1939-1962 in the back room of this their favourite pub. These men, popularly known as the "Inklings," met here to drink beer and to discuss, among other things, the books they were writing’. Sergeant Lewis's mind ... was waxing the more imaginative as he pictured a series of fundamental emendations to this received text, "CHIEF INSPECTOR MORSE, with his friend and colleague Sergeant Lewis, sat in this back room one Thursday, in order to solve"



Established in 1607 as a coaching house and named after King James I, The centrally situated King’s Arms is a bustling, linchpin of Oxford life. It is popular with tourists and students as well as crime writer Colin Dexter who set scenes here in three of his Inspector Morse crime novels. In the 1989 story, ’The Wench is Dead’, we learn about the lunchtime routine of Christine Greenaway, senior librarian at the Bodleian:
quot;Just after twelve noon with one of her female colleagues she walked over to the King’s Arms, on the corner of Holywell Street – in which hostelry she was accustomed to enjoy her fifty-five minute lunch break, with a single glass of white wine and a salmon-and-cucumber sandwich. It was when Christine got to her feet and offered to get in a second round of drinks that her colleague eyed her curiously ".
Dexter promotes the fact that in this relaxed Young’s pub the food is good, plentiful and reasonably priced. In the 1994 story, ’The Daughters of Cain’, the murdered man McClure, has his last meal here. A Sunday lunch consisting of an; quot;8oz Steak, French Fries and Salad - only Ł3.99 - washed down with a couple of pints of Best Bitterquot;. In the penultimate Morse novel, ’Death is now my Neighbour’: the fondness for pubs and drink has finally caught up with the Chief Inspector, who rattled of a litany of complaints (including diabetes) in answer to Superintendent Strange’s question:"What exactly’s wrong with you? "
"In The King’s Arms, that square, cream-painted hostelry on the corner of Parks Road and Holywell Street, Morse had been remarkably abstemious that evening. After his first pint, he had noticed on the door the pub’s recommendation in the Egon Ronay Guide (1995); and after visiting the loo to inject himself, he had ordered a spinach-and-mushroom lasagna with garlic bread and salad ".
The King’s Arms used to be host to bare-knuckle and cudgel fights, almost to the death, in its courtyard (now covered with a glass canopy). It has spacious, airy front rooms, and at the rear three or four small rooms, all thick with honey-coloured wood and irregular in shape. The walls are adorned with pictures of locals, past and present - see if you can spot the picture of the Queen Mum with handbag in one hand and a pint of Young's Best Bitter in the other!

Oxford – King’s Arms – Colin Dexter

Karl Philipp Moritz (1756 - 1793)      Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 - 1957)      Colin Dexter (1930 -)

In 1782 Karl Philipp Moritz, a young Prussian clergyman, visited England. The account of his journey, written as a series of letters to a friend, was published in 1795. Moritz was travelling on a modest budget, with little in his pocket besides a copy of Paradise Lost, which he meant to read in the Land of Milton. He encountered a number of problems enroute because innkeepers were suspicious of guests who arrived on foot but he had no trouble at the Mitre:
"I here found prince-like attendance. Being, perhaps, a little elevated the preceding evening, I had in the gaiety, or perhaps in the vanity of my heart, told the waiter, that he must not think, because I came on foot, that therefore I should give him less than others gave. I assured him of the contrary. It was probably not a little owing to this assurance that I had so much attention shown to me"
In her detective novel ’Gaudy Night’, Dorothy L. Sayers, had her hero Lord Peter Wimsey stay at the Mitre whilst helping Harriet Vane solve the mystery of the obscene graffiti and poison pen letters. Several scenes are set in the inn including the one in Chapter 19 where Vane accepts Wimsey’s invitation to concoct a letter to Reginald Pomfret:
"’We never had that beer. Come round and have one with me at the Mitre, and we’ll concoct a salve for wounded feelings.’ With two half-pint tankards on the table before them, Peter produced his epistle"
Inspector Morse became disenchanted with this ancient hostelry, as his creator Colin Dexter explains: "Morse once drank quite regularly at The Mitre, a little way down the High Street. Not any more, at least not since its new owners converted it into a restaurant. Beer, he regularly informed Lewis, was ’pure food’. It didn’t need adulterating with real stuff"
There has been an inn on this site from around 1300. The present Mitre, which dates from about 1630, has always been owned by Lincoln College. It was an important coaching inn as early as 1671 with connections to London three days a week. Now, as part of the Beefeater chain, the pub serves pretty standard pub food and big-brand beers. The listed building has a pleasantly rambling feel, with plenty of little snuggeries and nooks. In 1969 it ceased being a hotel when the College took back a large number of rooms to provide accommodation for students.

Photograph and additional notes courtesy of Simon Ward.
Oxford – King’s Mitre – Karl Philipp Moritz  - Dorothy L. Sayers  - Colin Dexter


This great little pub situated in the heart of the city is obviously a favourite of novelist Colin Dexter because it features in no less than four of his Inspector Morse novels. In ‘Last Seen Wearing’, Mr. Baines, Second master of the Roger Bacon school arranges to meet Morse in the White Horse to help him with his enquiries: "Baines was there already and got up to buy the inspector a drink. The lounge was quiet and they sat alone in a corner and wished each other good health. Morse tried to size him up…."
In ’The Way Through the Woods’ we learn: "It was half an hour since Dr. Alan Hardinge had decided it was time to walk along to St Giles’ and take a taxi out to his home on Cumnor Hill. But still he sat sipping a scotch in the White Horse, the narrow pub separating the two wings of Blackwell’s bookshop in the Broad.".
In ’The Daughters of Cain’ Dexter informs us that: "Lewis, on his way for an appointment with the House Matron of Wolsey, had dropped Morse off in the Broad, where the Chief Inspector had swilled down a double dosage of penicillin pills with a pint of Hook Norton in the White Horse, before making his way to the Pitt Rivers museum of Ethnology and Pre-History for his own appointment.".
And in ’Death is Now My Neighbour’, the contest between Julien Storrs and Dr Denis Cornford for a coveted academic position is hotting up - but Cornford had half an hour to spare so: "He walked over to the White Horse… and soon he was sipping a large Glenmorangie, and slowly coming to terms with the prospect that in a month’s time he might be the master of Lonsdale College.".
The pub is also famous for the filming of certain episodes of the Morse TV series in the 1980s - and more recently with Lewis and Inspector Hathaway. Filming of ’The Oxford Murders’, based on the novel by the Argentinean author Guillerno Martinez, also took place here in 2008. In the book the main characters frequent the Eagle and Child but the film makers decided to use the smaller, less busy, White Horse for the pub scene sequences. The mellow, oak beamed interior comprises a single small narrow bar with a snug one-table raised back alcove. There is a beautiful view across the road to the Clarendon building and the famous Sheldonian Theatre.

Photograph and additional notes courtesy of Simon Ward.
Oxford – The White Horse – Colin Dexter


This busy 19th century Coaching Inn found fame as a hotel in the 1920s under the tenure of its eccentric proprietor John Fothergill, who called himself ‘Pioneer Amateur Innkeeper’ in ‘Who’s Who’. Fothergill earned an honoured place in the pantheon of hoteliers by introducing haute cuisine to the provinces. And he chronicled his experiences in the best-selling book ‘An Innkeeper’s Diary’. First published in 1931, the book was an instant success and continued to be reprinted throughout the next two decades. It is great fun and filled with picaresque tales and anecdotes cleverly exaggerated for comic or dramatic effect. He was a terrible name-dropper and could be a bigger snob than Mrs. Hyacinth Bucket and yet he has an evocative and witty way with words.
Fothergill was a pioneer of the privately owned country hotel and the first celebrity chef. To say he was an eccentric restaurateur is an understatement. He combined the flair and passion of Gordon Ramsey with the business acumen and people skills of Basil Fawlty. However, his cuisine and flamboyant personality attracted the glitterati of the day including artists, actors and writers like George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Evelyn Waugh and G. K. Chesterton to name but a few. A programme about Fothergill’s life as an eccentric landlord was screened on BBC2 television in 1981 with his character portrayed by Robert Hardy. Fothergill was not only an illustrious innkeeper, a very tallented artist, an outstanding chef, a connoisseur of wine and an early campaigner for real food - he was also an intriguing, volatile and provacative personality. He firmly believed that the customer was not always right and, he could on occasion, be outrageously rude.
The highly decorative and striking inn sign shown in the photograph was designed and painted for John Fothergill by writer Lytton Strachey’s bohemian friend Dora Carrington. Dora’s life with Strachey was dramatized in the 1995 film ‘Carrington’, starring Emma Thompson in the title role. The Spread Eagle has stood imposingly in the heart of Thame since the 16th century and in former times has played host to Charles II and French prisoners from the Napoleonic wars. Now caringly restored, the hotel provides comfortable accommodation, extensive Conference/Banqueting facilities, a large car park and a high standard of cuisine in Fothergill’s Restaurant. At the time of writing (Spring 2008) the Spread Eagle is up for sale for offers in excess of £3.3m.

Spread Eagle - Oxford - Oxfordshire - John Fothergill


In Chapter 8 of Colin Dexter’s 1983 Inspector Morse mystery ’The Riddle of the Third Mile’a body is found in the Oxford Canal at Thrupp and Dexter provides a description of the hamlet:
"Two miles North of police headquarters in Kidlington, on the main A423 road to Banbury, an elbow turn to the right leads, after only three hundred yards or so, to the Boat Inn, which, together with about twenty cottages, a farm, and a depot of the Inland Waterways Executive, comprises the tiny hamlet of Thrupp. The inn itself, only some thirty yards from the waters of theOxford Canal, has served generations of boatmen, past and present. But the working barges of earlier times which brought down coal from the Midlands and shipped up beer from the Oxford breweries, have now yielded place to the privately owned long-boats and pleasure-cruisers which ply their way placidly along the present waterway".
In Chapter 9 we learn that: "It was a little later that Morse, Lewis and the police surgeon presented themselves at the Boat Inn where the landlord, sensibly circumspect, informed the trio that it would of course be wholly improper for him to serve any alcoholic beverages at the bar; on the other hand the provision of three chairs in a back room and a bottle of personally purchased Glenfiddich might not perhaps be deemed to contravene the nation’s liquor laws. "(Note that afternoon opening is now permitted!). In Chapter 25 Lewis, feeling a little resentful about taking too many orders, decides to return again to the scene of the crime and, before he walks along the canal road he stops and partakes of: "half a pint of bitter in the Boat".
The Boat appears again in Dexter’s 1996 novel ’Death is Now My Neighbour’. In Chapter 10 Morse and Lewis call at the pub because: "Morse knew he might be thinking a little more clearly if he were drinking a little." He has two pints of Best Bitter (whilst Lewis has an orange juice) and engineers the situation so that once again the put-upon sergeant pays.
This basic 17th century canal-side pub, formerly known as the Axe, is arranged over several small rooms with wooden and stone flooring. The bar is decorated with artifacts and photographs of canal life. The huge garden at the rear has plenty of tables and is a great attraction in the summer. The pub was originally owned by Morrells Brewery of Oxford but was acquired in 2002 by Greene King.

Photograph and additional notes courtesy of Simon Ward.
Thrupp – The Boat – Colin Dexter


’The Wench is Dead’ is the eighth novel in the Morse crime series and the Chief Inspector’s heavy drinking is finally catching up with him. It is 1989, and he is recovering from a bleeding ulcer in Oxford’s Radcliffe Hospital when he is given a little book called ’Murder on the Oxford Canal’. It is an historical account of a murder aboard a canal boat.
"Joanna Frank’s body was found at Duke’s Cut at about 5.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 22nd June 1859… John Ward, a Kidlington fisherman, who happened to be passing at that time… had the presence of mind to have the body, which was still warm, to be taken down to the Plough Inn at Wolvercote".
As Morse reads he becomes convinced that the two men hanged for the crime were innocent and he sets out to prove it from the confines of his bed - despite the fact that his experience of narrow-boating was extremely limited. He rated the activity as:"grossly over-rated… Once on the invitation of a pleasant enough couple, he had agreed to be piloted from the terminus of Oxford Canal at Hythe Bridge Street up to the Plough at Wolvercote". To his dismay the short journey took far longer than predicted and they arrived at the Plough: "with only five minutes drinking time remaining on that hot and thirsty Sunday".
The novel won the British Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 1989; was dramatized for Radio 4 in 1998 and was later filmed as an episode in the Inspector Morse TV series. The pub also features briefly in Dexter’s novel ’Last seen Wearing’, when it appears as the ’King Charles’. The Plough is a large, popular country pub standing opposite Wolvercote Green. The bar is decorated with models of sailing ships and stuffed fishes in glass boxes. Today there is a pleasant atmosphere, though it was not always so. In the first decade of the 20th Century the Plough was a rough bargee pub, notorious for fights.
Joanna Frank’s body is not the only one to have rested here. On the morning of Christmas eve 1874, the stables were used as a temporary mortuary after a train crashed nearby, when 34 people were killed and over 100 injured. The dead were transported to the Plough in farm carts and laid to rest until the Oxford morgue could take them after Christmas.

Wolvercote – Plough – Colin Dexter


Colin Dexter's Last Bus to Woodstock is the Morse story where the Chief Inspector first joins forces with Sergeant Lewis. Early on we are introduced to the old town of Woodstock where a murder has taken place - and where: "There was always, it appears, a goodly choice of hostelries, and several hotels and inns now clustered snugly along the streets…" The corpse of a murdered young woman is discovered in the car park of 'The Black Prince' and we read that the pub is situated: "...half-way down a broad side-street to the left as one is journeying north." The car park was formerly an: "…old courtyard where once the horses had clattered over the cobbled stones." And it had: "access from the street through a narrow archway."
There is a potential cause for confusion with an actual Woodstock pub called the Black Prince - which was renamed following the book’s publication – but Dexter’s description fits the Bear whose lounge: "...was gently bathed in half light, giving a chiaroscuro effect, it was hoped of a Rembrandt nativity scene". Where: "For the last two and a half years Gaye had been the resident ‘hostess’ – ‘barmaid’, thought the manager, was a trifle infra dignitatem".
In Our Old Home: a series of English sketches Nathaniel Hawthorne, The 19th century American novelist and short story writer wrote: "…we reached Woodstock, and stopped to water our horses at the Black Bear. This neighborhood is called New Woodstock, but has by no means the brand-new appearance of an American town, being a large village of stone houses, most of them pretty well time-worn and weather-stained. The Black Bear is an ancient inn, large and respectable, with balustraded staircases, and intricate passages and corridors, and queer old pictures and engravings hanging in the entries and apartments. We ordered a lunch (the most delightful of English institutions, next to dinner) to be ready against our return, and then resumed our drive to Blenheim…"
The Bear in Park Street is a handsome old inn with a heavy-beamed bar on the right, cosy alcoves and a tastefully casual mix of antique oak, mahogany and leather furniture. There are paintings, sporting trophies and a blazing inglenook log fire during the winter. It’s a lovely place but the prices reflect the captive tourist clientele (many of whom are American) visiting Blenheim which is just a short walk away.

The Bear - Woodstock - Oxfordshire - Colin Dexter, Nathaniel Hawthorn

Copyright T.W. Townsend - the opinions expressed herein are those of the author and any observations were correct at the time of the review.

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