Down an alley and round a corner... a secret gem of a traditional pub awaits you in sprawling seclusion, hidden in the centre of Oxford. The Turf Tavern dates back to the thirteenth century, built in the 'cannon ditch', in the moat area of Oxford's castle. It claims (along with The Bear) to be Oxford's oldest pub. Whatever the truth in this, it predates most of the buildings around it, and you have a sense of time stood still, the waves of modernity trying to encroach on it but not quite managing.
Three separate beer garden areas and four rooms inside mean that the pub has a range of spaces for groups to colonise, each with their individual charm. The front room has a little nook to sit in with a few friends, but is best used as somewhere to hover, meet your friends, get your drink and move on.
The low beams make it dark but not depressing, a quick way to step back in time. Behind here are two rooms with a couple of tables (and a second bar) which are great for eating. Up a few steps at the back is what feels like an indoor terrace, with smaller tables dotted around.
During the winter vats of mulled wine steam welcomingly in the front bar, as drinkers huddle in the cosy warmth of the pub's old-fashioned spaces. In the summer, the back terrace sometimes boasts a barbecue, and the reasonably large amount of outdoor space means that it becomes a great way to relax in the sun over a drink and a bite to eat.
They pride themselves on supplying a good range of ales, with a constantly changing stock. It's always worth asking what the special of the season is, but with at least 11 cask ales on offer at any given time, there's bound to be something interesting for you to try. It would take several repeat visits to sample them all. Prices are a bit higher than the average Oxford pub, but this isn't an average pub, so for an evening out it can be worth it.
The food is excellent. They offer a range of fairly traditional main courses, with lighter meals also available. The sausages and mash are particularly fine, however many times you return for them! The wittily named 'Surf and Turf' takes British pub seafood to a new height. Rich soups and hearty hunks of bread will warm your cockles on a cold day too.
The Turf is about more than the food and drink. The history, charm and atmosphere combine to keep it busy throughout the day and year. A favourite pub of real and fictional characters alike, the Turf is a great spot to tick off your 'to see' list. Many famous politicians and authors are said to have enjoyed themselves here, and you may recognise it from episodes of Morse. They even have their own ghost. 'Old Rosie' is said to haunt the area, announced on a blackboard in the beer garden.
Getting to the Turf isn't easy. From New College Lane you can walk down St Helen's Passage, a narrow alleyway leading to the main entrance of the pub. From Holywell Street you go down Bath Place and through another small passage. There's no room for bikes, let alone cars. It takes planning to visit the Turf, but it's well worth the effort.