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Nestled against the best-preserved remaining section of Oxford’s ancient city walls in Holywell, the foundations of The Turf Tavern date back to 1381. Once serving as a malthouse, producing brewing malt for the local beer houses, the site was in use as a cider house by 1775, known as The Spotted Cow. In 1801 the public house was offered at auction described then as comprising “a good kitchen, bar, two parlours, five bedrooms, two cellars, detached wash-house, convenient offices and two large gardens”.
By 1830 it had been renamed The Turf Tavern, possibly due to its popularity with turf accountants from the nearby gambling hall. It was also known to host cockfighting and dogfighting, and offered its guests the chance to play ‘bumble-puppy’, a mixture of skittles and bagatelle, designed to circumvent legislation banning skittles in public houses.
Today The Turf is hugely popular with Oxford students, and promises ‘an education in intoxication’, with a wide range of real ales, gins and cocktails on offer alongside a delicious daily pub food menu. This charming Grade II listed tavern is an intriguing warren of small rooms connected by narrow passages and small staircases, surrounded on three sides by delightful patio courtyard beer gardens, which are popular throughout the year and especially so at the end of Oxford exam week. Visitors would be wise to duck when entering The Turf, as the ancient front door of this venerable tavern is designed for smaller guests!
Over the years The Turf has played host to a stellar collection of guests - Prime Ministers, US Presidents-to-be, actors, academics and literary figures, including Bill Clinton, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Stephen Hawking and CS Lewis. The pub is featured in several literary masterpieces, including Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, where it was fictionalised as The Lamb & Flag, and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. But perhaps the biggest draw for visitors to Oxford is for The Turf Tavern’s regular appearances in Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels, and the pub has featured in three of the televised episodes, with the late John Thaw’s Morse regularly retiring to The Turf and a pint of real ale to ponder his latest case.
It remains notoriously hard to find, located down the narrow medieval alleyway off New College Lane today known as St Helens Passage, but described simply in the 1772 Survey of Oxford as ‘Hell’. Hell Passage in the 19th Century was a wretched place, with tightly packed tenement cottages housing poor working families. These included a stable groom whose daughter, seventeen-year-old Jane Burden, became famous as the embodiment of pre-Raphaelite beauty when she was discovered and persuaded to model for Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Fellow pre-Raphaelite William Morris also painted Jane and became so entranced by her that in 1859 he married her.
The Turf Tavern sits at the heart of academic Oxford, between New College and Hertford College, surrounded by distinguished landmarks including The Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theatre and the iconic domed Radcliffe Camera library. Perhaps the most useful city landmark, though, for locating this hidden gem of a hostelry, is the much more recent Bridge of Sighs, a photogenic tourist attraction spanning New College Lane and built in 1914 to connect the two parts of Hertford College. St Helen’s Passage, and the route to The Turf, can be found just beyond this distinctive skyway.
Located against the medieval remains of Oxford’s city walls across the site of the former moat that surrounded the town, and reached only by exploring the back alleys and cobbled passageways of Oxford’s Holywell district, The Turf Tavern is truly a hidden gem. This charming and historic location is the ideal location to enjoy delicious pub food with family and friends, sample the wide selection of real ales and savour the wonderful atmosphere and a sense of stepping back in time.
Directions to The Turf Tavern
You can find The Turf Tavern down St Helens Passage, off New College Lane by the Bridge of Sighs, or by venturing into the equally narrow Bath Place, a cobbled alley off Holywell Street opposite the Holywell Music Room. The pub is only reachable on foot, but the nearest postcode is OX1 3SU.