South Oxfordshire is rarely the most rewarding part of the Beer Guide, the new entries seemingly reflecting the dining pub’s occasional flirtation with Locales. It’s not so much the food, which pretty much all pubs rely on, as the feel of the dining pubs that I don’t much enjoy.
The triangle between Didcot, Thame and Oxford does have some gorgeous looking pubs, particularly just off the Thames in villages like Dorchester. Gorgeous looking pubs don’t often produce classic pub experiences, as the Seven Stars in Marsh Baldon showed.
I’ve mentioned pub seating positively in quite a few posts lately; the seating in the Seven Stars makes it clear they neither expect or want to accommodate drinkers (which is fair enough, it’s a restaurant). This was the middle room of three, the others attractively set for the groups turning up with lunch reservations. In between squeezing between those huge sofas I heard just four words spoken – “Table for four – Smithly-Jennson”.
This restaurant is in the Beer Guide because it serves some decent beer – the White Horse (NBSS 3) and Loddon are decent Locale choices alongside Adnams and Pride. Tellingly, the chap didn’t recognise my choice when I ordered by brewery name rather than (stupid football themed) beer name. Staff peering over the front of the pump clips is a bit of a giveaway. Four beers also seemed very ambitious.
To be fair, it was doing great business on a Friday lunchtime and if I’d fancied eating there I’d probably have been disappointed, but I can’t imagine locals from the gorgeous looking village popping in for a pint.
Quite a contrast with the very pubby Wheatsheaf down the road in Drayton, doing just as much food but in a totally different atmosphere.
Three small rooms again, but proper chairs and tables (fancy that) accommodating drinkers and casual diners. The Landlord was manning the bar and taking orders in a cheery and efficient way.
It wasn’t just the accents that revealed the Liverpudlian roots; the ‘early 60s music and trencherman portions made me feel I was in a pub on the Wirral, even if the prices were entirely Vale of the White Horse. The fish and chips was spectacularly good though.
You might think I was only here for the Bass, and I was surprised to see it in Oxfordshire, perhaps for the first time ever in a Beer Guide pub. It wasn’t the best Bass I’ve had this year, but certainly good enough to justify first time Beer Guide inclusion (NBSS 3).
A succession of folk plumping for the Old Hooky failed to persuade me I’d made the wrong decision, even when it lubricated some energetic discussions about the EU and DNA testing from one group, and calor gas prices from the other. The calor gas debate was world-class, as are the toilets.
The universally good reviews for the Wheatsheaf on Trip Advisor from a range of visitors confirm my experience wasn’t a one-off, and that folk appreciate informal dining and good beer as much as anyone round here.