Review: The Gardener’s Arms, North Parade

Food

The innocent question ‘where to quench your thirst around here’ to one of my college’s porters brought me to the Gardener’s Arms on North Parade Avenue on my first night in Oxford. I have been returning regularly since. It is a small, narrow pub, shaped like a railway carriage. It is usually rather empty than full, quiet rather than noisy. You might find yourself to be the only guest on a weekday night at ten pm while some of the other pubs in the area are still full of people. The pub has a special, quiet and old-school atmosphere. Its interior is slightly gaudy and may, to some, seem antiquated. It contains a library of miscellany from the past 25 years, including my personal favourites: vending machines for ‘milk chocolate melts’, at 20 pennies a pop or sour gummy bears and heated, coated peanuts – all of whose best before dates you might call into question. The pub has a robust food offering that includes pub classics and a large sandwich offering at value prices. Both Lunch and Dinner is served from a tiny kitchen behind the bar.

Personally, what ensures my return is the excellent Gardener’s Arms Ale, a house-branded bitter which is deliciously quaffable and comes at a benign 3.7 Pounds. Pints are always filled to the brim and its down-to-earth and civilised atmosphere make the Gardener’s Arms a favourite for a convivial pint or more quiet reading.

Pints are always filled to the brim and its down-to-earth and civilised atmosphere make the Gardener’s Arms a favourite for a convivial pint or more quiet reading.

The Gardener’s Arms on North Parade is not to be confused with the hipper, vegetarian pub of the same name on Plantation Road, a mere five-minute walk away.

The pub dates back to 1876. Then, there was a market garden in this part of Oxford that spanned from Plantation Road to North Parade Avenue. This explains the double occurrence of the name as both pubs used to be owned by Morrel’s brewery of Oxford and were at opposite sides of the market.

The current landlords, David and Jenny, took over in March of 1993. I sat down with them over a pint of the above praised bitter for what turned out to be a fascinating conversation. It quickly became clear that the pub has not changed very much in the 26 years the two have been at its helm. However, they emphasised how the neighbourhood, the university and student life changed.

The stylish owners describe the Gardener’s Arms as ‘a traditional pub’, run like in ‘the olden days’. It is a place to hold a conversation, to meet and to work, essentially an extension of one’s home. It is not a place to get inebriated or to huddle in large groups.

The Gardener’s Arms used to be informally known as St. Hugh’s JCR back in the day. This was at a time when colleges would not have bars, would provide fewer meals and there was both fewer accommodation in college and its quality was worse. The natural solution was to turn the pub into your living and working space.

The Gardener’s Arms used to be informally known as St. Hugh’s JCR back in the day.

Pubs had a different function in the university-college-town triptych. They used to be hubs of the community, a place for students and faculty to meet in a homely environment, to interact and to work. David and Jenny reported of theses being completed at the pub and showed me books with dedications of professors of the university praising their time discussing and writing at the pub.

They also told of a changing neighbourhood. North Oxford has become more foody while the pub is decidedly not a gastropub. It provides traditional dishes – think curries, pies and sandwiches – in filling quantities.

David and Jenny admit it has become more difficult to operate the pub as people vote with their feet for a different way to spend their time and money. They run a tight ship: years ago, the pub used to employ up to four additional full time staff but today it is just the two of them, seven days a week with very occasional help. It becomes clear that the Gardener’s Arms is still catering to a well-defined vision of what a pub is while the town, the university and its students have moved in a different direction. Some might think the Gardener’s Arms and its philosophy nostalgic, however, I find it rather romantic and calming.

A visit to the Gardner’s Arms is highly recommended, it is a different and refreshingly traditional establishment that invites to be used as a living space. 

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