The process of arranging for my visit to Oxford for the opening of the Bodleian's Tolkien exhibit was an epic in itself. Tolkienian linguist Carl Hostetter was the one who originally suggested gathering with colleagues and friends for this event, and when, early this year while looking over my calendar, I asked him how plans were going, within a few busy weeks he and Mythopoeic Society organizer Lynn Maudlin had concocted a viable practical plan. They rented a large (4-bedroom, with extra beds) house for a week off Airbnb, and reserved a private room at one of the Inklings' favorite pubs for a vast quantity of local and visiting Tolkienists for the evening of the opening day. Lynn coaxed four of us who would all be converging on Heathrow the previous day to buy a group-discount round-trip (return) coach ticket to Oxford which, since we were coming back at different times, would be transferred to a somewhat different group of four people for the return.
Even more fun was that the house we rented was the Headington Shark, a locally famous landmark in the form of a suburban row house (just off the main road, so convenient for the bus) with a 50-foot fiberglass shark crashing head-first into the roof. (And, in case you're one of the many who ask, no there isn't a shark head emerging from the ceiling on the other side.) The sculpture's actual title, as revealed in a plaque by the front door, is "Untitled 1986." As a rental property, the house was professionally-run, clean and well-kept, with a spacious kitchen and sitting room, the latter ideal for an extra guest in the form of Tolkien biographer John Garth, who stayed over the night of the opening rather than running the hour home so that he'd have more time to write his Telegraph review of the exhibit which was due early the next morning.
We all contributed to the knowledge base. Carl had researched the bookstores, Jason Fisher the pubs; I knew the local geography so could offer advice on bus lines and knew which block of stone belonged to which college on the history-steeped two block walk from the bus stop to the Bodleian. ("And those," I said, pointing through an archway, are the twin towers of All Souls, and they have at least as good a claim to be the original of Tolkien's Two Towers as any pair of smokestacks in Birmingham.")
The exhibit is small, and while admission is free they were expecting demand to fill up, so you could buy a timed ticket online for a small fee, and our group went in at various times on the first two days, some of us at least twice. The group pub gathering was a fine place to meet: Every strange face I introduced myself to turned out to be some renowned Tolkienist, usually one I'd corresponded with, so we had a very focused set of conversations. Other than that, we bookstored (besides Blackwell's and the Bodleian shop, we were happy with St Philip's in St Aldate's), avoided the rain which at times came down in torrents, surrounding the Bodleian with a 5-foot-wide running moat, and pubbed. In 2 1/2 days in Oxford I had 5 meals out, each with a passel of friends in a different pub. All were old and atmospheric, all had good cider which is my drink, and quickness of service was purely a function of how crowded they were, so there isn't much to base a comparative ranking on except the size of the quarters and the food. From bottom up they were:
5. The Turf. Large, with many back rooms. One of the most famous pubs in Oxford, particularly prized by those who can boast of knowing how to find it - it's down a winding and narrow passageway, set far back from the nearest streets. The meat pie had interesting filling (with marrow in it) but a very dull crust. One of our party had to leave unfed as there was nothing gluten-free she could eat.
4. The Kings Arms. Very large, with reservable private rooms, so it was the ideal locale for our large gathering. It's also an Inklings pub, where C.S. Lewis liked to meet with Tolkien and others after a day's research at the Bodleian, which is across the street. At one time this had the best pub food in Oxford, but that was quite a while ago. I had the fish and chips, and while the chips were great - double-fried and very crisp - the fish was mealy and tasted more like battered mashed potato than fish. The White Horse down the street was better for that.
3. Lamb & Flag. As large as the Turf, also with many back rooms. This is directly across the wide St Giles high street from the smaller but more famous Eagle and Child pub known as where the Inklings met. Unfortunately the crowds know that too, and it was too crowded to eat in. But what we knew that most of the crowds didn't is that at one point the Inklings themselves abandoned the Eagle and Child (they didn't like the remodeling) for the Lamb and Flag, which we found decently uncrowded. In addition to several kinds of meat pies, they also have suet puddings, which at least is a little bit different. And yes, one of those is lamb (no flag, though).
2. The White Horse. Very small pub, right next to Blackwell's. Also an occasional Inklings gathering place. Besides having probably the best cider, it had wonderfully textured and tender fish in its fish and chips.
1. The White Hart. Medium-sized, but with a large back garden. The hidden find of the trip, not in central Oxford at all but in Old Headington, which is a quiet little area a couple scenic blocks' walk north of the main Headington shopping area, and hence close to our house. Easy to get to, but hardly anyone does. Not much up here, aside from houses, except the pub and the medieval church across the street, which is also worth visiting, except the church doesn't have drinks or an extraordinarily extensive (about 8 varieties) selection of truly excellent meat pies, admirable not just for the fillings (beef, chicken, venison(!)) but for the light and flaky crusts. And yes, they'll make a gluten-free one on request.