IF one tired of London pubs is tired of life, what of one tired of London pub crawls?
There are many shortcomings to the nation’s rail services, but they do open up a whole array of towns and pubs to the dedicated drinker. And what more zealous tippler could there be than Inspector Morse?
Crime fiction’s biggest pub lover was often seen doing his best ‘thinking’ in the charming boozers of Oxford.
The ancient university city is an hour by train from the capital, making eight bars in the environs of Jericho and the city centre a walkable target for the London day tripper.
Paddington station was the rendezvous for five regular crawlers on Saturday 14 November 2015: the Kenna League chairman, the Pirate, Lady Norman, Sutcliffe and Dazza – who was once again on gents hand dryer rating patrol.
At this point, recognition must be paid to Christopher Sullivan, whose detailed research on the pubs of Morse was an essential part of planning.
1. The Morse Bar, The Randolph Hotel (map)
Despite the gloomy weather at Oxford train station, crawlers felt refreshed from a journey in which fellow passengers on the 11.21 had engaged in both conversation and our supply of brandy and coke. Pub recommendations flowed with the chat, and at least one pub was added to the itinerary.
Making our way east towards the city, umbrellas were up. Moist from light rain, we entered the small cocktail bar of The Randolph Hotel. It was filled with a mix of tourists and older patrons who looked a regular feature.
The waiter baulked when we ordered five Morse cocktails. A fiddly drink to make for even the most skilled barkeep, our man persevered. After a brief interlude five tipplers were showing signs of either displeasure or enjoyment depending on their interpretation of champagne, vanilla spirit, bourbon and something else garnished with long strain of orange zest.
The drink divided opinion but the surroundings did not. The wood panelling and nod to the fictitious chief inspector hanging above the fireplace was by far the most salubrious snug this posse had found themselves on a crawl. At £66 for the round, it was a pity Sergeant Lewis wasn’t ‘in the chair’ to pick up the tab.
2. The Old Bookbinders Ale House, Jericho (map)
The whip decimated, we made our way into the neighbourhood of Jericho and The Olde Bookbinders Ale House. The rain had not yet let up, so it was with great pleasure we crowded into what would turn out to be one of the best pubs of any crawl.
Situated opposite ‘Canal Reach’, the murder scene from the first televised Morse The Dead of Jericho, the Bookbinders is a tremendous pub. Authentic, cosy and a fine selection of drinks, it seemed a pity to stay for just one. The French landlord was as welcoming as his pub. His bonhomie and hospitality was extended to the toilet artwork. Captivating.
3. The Jericho Tavern, Jericho (map)
It’s a short walk from the Bookbinders to The Jericho Tavern. A spacious, echoey pub with wooden floors, a high ceiling and according to the pin board a fine heritage as a live music venue.
Morse was seen disappearing into this establishment in the closing scenes of The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. An adult film at the cinema next door proves crucial in solving the case. At the end of episode the chief inspector is disappointed to find the skin flick has been replaced by 101 Dalmatians, so he ducks into The Jericho Tavern instead. Classic Morse.
And a wise move. The beer selection was little short of outstanding. That is unless you’ve got the palette of Sutcliffe, whose customary resort to ‘the darkest thing on the menu’ – in ale, as well as life – was rewarded with the amber Doom Bar. He found little recompense in the balance-the-20p-on-the-bobbing-lemon-to-get-a-free-drink game, as did all crawlers.
4. The Eagle & Child, St Giles (map)
A heated discussion on Stephen Fry’s value to society later, we cut east across a footpath through academic buildings. The brandy and coke, cocktails and beer manifested themselves in another debate: what constitutes an afro. In hindsight, how a man with a ginger beard offered a valid point on this matter was a mystery with which Morse would have wrestled longer than The Times crossword.
JRR Tolkein and other literary big hitters used to hang out at the Eagle & Child, but on our visit there was no more than tourists and wet umbrellas.
The pub is narrow and wood panelled. The number of tourists ordering mulled wine meant one could have read The Lord of the Rings trilogy while waiting to get served.
Finding a table in the conservatory area at the back, I can’t imagine anyone from Oxford wanting to visit this tourist snare. Indeed, the closest it came to the chief inspector it was dressed up as a background wine bar.
5. The Lamb and Flag, St Giles (map)
Taking advice from an Oxford graduate on the train that morning, crawlers traversed St Giles to the Lamb and Flag. This wasn’t in the original plan, but its proximity and the scholar’s conviction gave it a solid recommendation.
The Lamb and Flag is much preferable to the Eagle & Child. Open, warm and with beer options adequate rather than outstanding, crawlers saw for the first time that day some real students celebrating after their graduation ceremony. And I thought girls only wore bow ties in gentleman’s magazines.
6. The King’s Arms, Hollywell Street (map)
Taking the Lamb and Flag passage from the pub, the crawl reached Parks Road and took at right. A few minutes walk through yet more sandstone university buildings and now the pubs come thick and fast.
The King’s Arms was up first. It was packed with more bow ties than the Playboy Mansion. By now the day’s repast was beginning to take it’s toll and events slid past with remarkable ease and conviviality.
Immersed in the academic world, for the Pirate it was time to put some of that Somali charm to work. While not disastrous, other audiences have been more receptive to his chat. Pity, with his prolific London Tinder history he could have found an ideal match in a freshly-graduated immunologist.
7. The White Horse, Broad Street (map)
Undeterred, we bounded around the corner onto Broad Street and The White Horse. With three of the five crawlers standing over six feet tall, it’s a bit of a crouch from street level down the step and through the low doorway.
A corridor of a pub with bar one side and banquettes the other greets the visitor. Peroni was the pick of the lager in here, but we were straying dangerously close to the jaws of the tourist trap again.
8. Turf Tavern, Bath Place (map)
It was with relief then, we piled into Turf Tavern 50 metres away. A firm favourite with Morse, this labyrinthine boozer appears to be built on the design of a rabbit warren. By now steady rain was falling, so we huddled under one of the giant umbrella squares erected to protect patio tipplers. The ebb and flow of the chatter was pleasant and effortless. If only I could remember what the hell was being discussed.
9. The Mitre Beefeater, The High (map)
From here the crawl became unwieldy. Walking south on Catte Street and turning right at the High, crawlers made another bonus pub visit. I say pub, but The Mitre is a Beefeater.
Morse does happen into here in one of the books, but waiting for Sutcliffe’s bowl of chips while drinking over-commercialised pilsner fails to fire many synapses, or to inspire Sutcliffe to get his camera out. The chief inspector would have solved few crimes in such a setting.
10. The Bear Inn, Alfred Street (map)
Crossing the High and going down Alfred Street the crawl made it’s last official stop at The Bear Inn. This pub is old with dark beams and plenty of trade. After eight hours on the pop, other details are scant. We had something to drink. It was in a pint-shaped glass. Probably beer.
Having completed the crawl with at least 90 minutes until the 8.21 to London, it was a meandering path back to the station. We stopped at one of the many new new and characterless bars along the road back to the station to kill time.
We stocked up on Polish lager outside the station. The train ride home is a complete blank.
The spires and sandstone of Oxford were a welcome change from the suburban dives and city centre faux show of London. The pubs are by and large fantastic too, and one can see why Colin Dexter made Morse such a lover.
The proximity of the drinking houses means any able bodied drinker can stroll between them, and going at the customary 40-minutes-a-pub pace, we completed the objective in less than six and a half hours, including an additional three pubs.
Perhaps in hindsight it would do better to visit the older pubs (The Bear Inn, Turf Tavern etc) first, in order to better enjoy their historic environs. However, the direction of the crawl would be difficult to reverse. The Randolph Hotel doesn’t feel like somewhere one would be welcome 10 pubs to the good.
Even if one could negotiate the doorman with a skinful, consuming the Morse Cocktail would be a Pyrrhic victory.