The Turf – one of Oxford’s finer features

I’ll admit to having gone off Oxford a shade since I spent many years there being refulgently brilliant, but this does not account for the revulsion I felt when getting off the train. Sadly, every route into the city of dreaming spires is a tiresome slog through dismal neighbourhoods filled with vile architecture; the view from the station is perhaps the worst of these. The Said School of Arms-Dealing has been built just outside and it is such a loathsome building I defy anyone to find somewhere more deserving of an impressive number of demolition charges (The Vatican excepted).

As you leave this monstrosity behind things just get worse. The walk up George Street to vague civilisation assaults your sensibilities with a staggeringly wretched collection of insipid chain drinking establishments and harrowingly lowest-common-denominator eateries. It is so repulsive that everyone walking along that road looks harassed and despondent; I lengthened my stride and tried not to think of jumping in front of passing traffic.

Getting to Broad Street is a positive relief. There may be countless shops selling over-priced tat for tourists, but there are some great sandwich shops (Morton’s is as good as ever) and Blackwell’s is a wonderful place to lose yourself in books for an hour or two. However, this is just a minor jolly in comparison to what lies down a small passageway at the end of the road – our destination, The Turf Tavern.

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The Turf Tavern is a sprawling assembly of courtyards, outhouses and doors. These encircle and sometimes give access to a core of throbbingly busy rooms of irregular shape and head-crippling height. In these you can fretfully queue for far too long with the aim of purchasing samples from a multitude of wizard real ales that are invariably in cracking condition.

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We had not just come to The Turf for quality bevvies, the prime draw was an appointment with erstwhile drinking-buddy ‘Stinky’ Geoff, the polymath number-cruncher and charismatic shower-phobe. Given our discomposure after the trek through the obnoxious end of town we were very grateful he left us at a table outside to get our breath back whilst he battled to score the first round.

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Being tucked in the middle of several of the nicer buildings in Oxford the courtyards afford some good views. The picture shows a view of the tower belonging to my undergraduate den, New College. We are told the people who built the the tower and first parts of the college in the 14th century were housed al fresco in the very same courtyards which belonged to a pub even back then. We are also told that when it was built my college had a different name: the College of St Mary the Virgin of Winchester at Oxford. Unfortunately, there was already a College of St Mary the Virgin of Winchester at Oxford so my future home became the New College of St Mary the Virgin of Winchester at Oxford and eventually simply New College.

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Geoff returned before we expired from the unseasonably hot weather with three pints of IPA, one of which he models in this picture. Sadly, for reasons that will become clear I cannot remember the staggeringly obscure brewer who made it, which is a bit of an appalling omission on a website that reviews drink and food. However, even though I found this example of IPA to be lacking a degree of the hoppy bitterness I want from such beers, it was in quite astonishingly good condition.

Real ale is a delicate beast that needs care and attention to stop it from tasting as noxious as every pint of London Pride I’ve been misfortunate enough to try. With the number of real ales The Turf has on offer it must take serious application on the part of the staff to keep them all showing as well as this pint did. They have maintained the good practices I first experienced two decades ago.

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With several nights of no sleep behind me and one pint already improving my mental state continuing with booze to drink my way through the shagged-out barrier seemed the prudent strategy. I pointed Editor Daniel to one of the innumerable doors and asked him to kindly furnish me with the strongest beer they had on offer on the other side of it.

He did well, coming back with a pint of something that had a confusing name and a confusing alcohol level of 5.8%. Like many distinctly strong beers it had a suggestion of sweetness that was more than a little reminiscent of strawberry jam in aroma and flavour. This character is not one I particularly enjoy, but the mystery brew had just enough bitterness to give it an approximation of balance and, once again, it was in rude good health. This slipped down a treat and rather rapidly too.

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Conversation was jocular and I had almost forgotten being incoherently tired, but the odd yawn showed I needed further fortification. Dani dragged me into the back bar to show me what he had found. It was truly the perfect discovery for the moment, a scrumpy (rough cider) clocking in with a migraine-tastic booze-quotient of 7.9%. A pint of that would keep me going through dinner and all the way back home.

It was remarkably clean, fruity and lacking filth-associated flavours for a scrumpy. We had to finish off rather quickly as Geoff had a college function to attend, but when I had those three pints inside me, crowned with the delight of chatting to a thoroughly spiffing old flame, it was abundantly clear to me that the pub experience could be one of supreme pleasure.

This fact has been underlined on at least one occasion before at The Turf. Fourteen years ago I had popped out of the lab for a swift academic half at lunchtime and at the table next to me I noticed an ageing lady sitting with a boy I’d guess was about five years old. She had a pint, he a small glass of lemonade (I suppose it could have been a beginner’s size G&T). Suddenly she fixed the lad with an intense stare and said to him, “Oooh, there is nothing like a trip to a good pub is there?” At five I might have lacked a large enough dataset to answer such a query with confidence, but, with the wisdom in advance of his years, the little boy annouced, “Yes Granny, I think pubs are great!”