Monday, 28 January 2008

By the Time We Got to Woodstock...


The mechanics of a successful pub must be the subject of great study in Britain: where to situate the pub, how to decorate it, what beer to serve, what food, what pub games and theme nights to offer. The exact combination of these factors combine to create a place people want to spend their time and their money.

Pubologists would do well to study the Woodstock Arms in Oxford--and then do the exact opposite. I haven't done enough research to determine what is the Sorriest Pub in Oxford but the Woodstock Arms certainly deserves a shot at the title. Or it would have, if it hadn't closed last week. I was walking the dog one morning and a lorry was parked outside. The pub's furniture was being loaded inside of it. The Woodstock Arms is shut tight now, though one blackboard sign leaning against a tree across the street, announcing 2-pound drinks for all of January (a good deal, if a desperate one), was somehow left behind.

The Woodstock Arms is right around the corner from our house but I've only been there twice--three times if you count the time I stopped by on a Saturday night around 10 p.m. a few months ago to find the place locked up tight. The times I was there it was like a funeral inside, but without the laughs. Where was the bonhomie?

The day after the Woodstock Arms closed I saw a headline in the Oxford Mail: "Celeb Chef Jamie Buys Local Pub." My heart leapt! Perhaps in a few months' time my local would be a gastropub operated by Jamie Oliver. But no, Oliver's opening an Italian restaurant in the city centre.

I have been to some lovely pubs. The Trout just outside Oxford is worth a walk, though I hear it's impenetrable in tourist season. The Turf is supposedly where Bill Clinton didn't inhale. The Bear is a quintessential pub: tiny, ancient (13th century, some claim), warm and cozy. The Rose and Crown has become the unofficial watering hole of the Reuters Fellows. The Argentine Fellow Abel is trying to be adopted by the landlady. Barring that, I think he wants to be reincarnated as a beer mat, so he can spend eternity in the Rose and Crown, gazing up at the amber liquid of his dreams.

The Woodstock Arms failed, I'm told, because the population of Summertown is too old. Plus, it's on a busy road, on the other side of the town from the main shopping strip that supports a more popular pub, the Dew Drop Inn. And, of course, it had no atmosphere. Whatever magical combination of attributes that a pub needs the thrive, the Woodstock Arms didn't have it.

What do you think makes a good pub?

14 comments:

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

When you use the word "pub," I picture a men's-only establishment. Are they predominantly male hangouts, or are they more like any bar in the U.S.?

mark from alexandria said...

Though, I am a few decades out of college, each year when friends and I return for alumni weekend, we still drink in the same bar that we did "back in the day." I would say good beer, good pool tables and decent snacks are all important, but its really the "Cheers factor"...going where everybody knows your name, or at least where you will see friendly faces. When I am in the UK, as I am a couple of times a year, I like to study the pubs I frequent to see what makes them tick. It seems like basically the same factors as I listed.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

The names of British pubs may not be quite as varied and inventive as the names of racehorses but they are fascinating. "Arms," as in the now forlorn Woodstock Arms, is generic. Individuals can get addicted to a particular pub.

Anonymous said...

"I haven't done enough research to determine what is the Sorriest Pub in Oxford but...." Oh, really! So far, I counted six [6] pubs mentioned in today's blog. You sounded quite familiar with them too. I'm definitely envious.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

A good pub needs good beer on tap: Hobgoblin, Taylor's Landlord, Ruddles' County or Brakspear's. A roaring fire, low, oak ceiling beams, dim lighting and enough seating but not too big. Food should be good and hearty and not too expensive or fancy.

The pub should be part of the neighborhood and comfortable to come with your family or women on their own. Some even welcome dogs. I've never found the equivalent in the USA. It's what I miss the most about England when I'm not living here.

mark from alexandria said...

I think that there are some pubs or bars in the States that are similar to the kind that Sarah Laurence mentions. It seems likely that these are more often found in American service/ religious/retired military orgs (VFW,Knights of Columber, Elks) or at Country Clubs. For the unwashed masses, its very hit or miss.

Anonymous said...

We actually have a pretty good pub in Wheaton, MD (of all places) called the Royal Mile. It fits all of Sarah Laurence's requirements (except the dogs), and even has weekly Scotch tastings. It's pretty much the default place to go for everyone in our neighborhood.

-T in Silver Spring, MD

Henry said...

Sarah and Mark are both on the money (though in England it'd be bar billiards) but I'd also add a great landlord, ideally some colourful fat geezer called Jim. He (or she) doesn't have to conform to stereotype and be kindly and wise - some of my favourite landlords have been cantankerous old gits - but they are essential to the character of the place.

Pubs are shutting down across the country at an alarming rate: my vote for sorriest pub in Oxford would have been The Horse and Jockey, a truly sketchy morgue on the Woodstock Road, but it has closed down, and is now a guesthouse brilliantly called The Former Horse and Jockey. Many others are being replaced by wine bars, all chrome and glass with little bowls of lime slices on the counter and smiling, helpful young bar staff with spiky hairdos and can-do attitudes. Bring back the cantankerous old gits, I say....

John Kelly said...

Ah, Hobglobin. I've had a few pints of that. And something called Old Hooky. It's tasty. I've actually spent a lot of time at the Royal Mile. I used to play darts there in college. I brought my darts with me to England and haven broken them out once yet. I think a good pub should have darts, and allow dogs. But it shouldn't let the dogs play darts.

Henry said...

John
Your tragic tale of talent wasted has moved me. I hereby challenge you to a darts match, and invite you to choose both the time and the oche.
I used to play in the Oriel College beer cellar, where if you scored 160 or 180 you were allowed to write your name in pen on the Honours Roll on the wall. Then they closed the bar down for health and safety reasons.
The gauntlet is down... Let the arrows begin!

Spangly Princess said...

noooo.... what sad news, the Woodstock Arms was a pub I always liked. It was, for some unknown reason, where we used to go to celebrate people finishing their doctoral theses. Perhaps that's why it closed: no-one finished their doctorate any more. It had a good range of beer and lots of nice cosy seating areas.

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Anonymous said...

I'm very sorry to see that the old Woodstock Arms has closed. I recall in 1973--the last time I was there--a much different atmosphere than the one described here. John and Di were ever the cheerful "landlords", and there was a large crowd there every evening.

I understand Di passed away from cancer a number of years ago, and John by now would be over seventy. No doubt he was saddened as I am to see the pub close.

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