The pale sign of The Lamb & Flag swung in the wind as staff removed barrels from one of Oxford’s oldest pubs, which have been permanently closed under the coronavirus lock. When the 16th-century inn closed its operations, Oxford landlords warned of the “devastating” effects of national lockdown on the university’s cozy pubs.
Many were visited by writers such as JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis and the fictional detective inspector Morse, while relying on student trafficking, social drinkers and tourists.
But like other English pubs, they have faced bans and restrictions since March last year and can currently only open for food delivery or pick-up.
“I know of several interpreters who have said, ‘Enough is enough, we can not go on,'” Mark Baz Butcher, landlord of The White Hart in Wytham, on the outskirts of Oxford, told AFP.
“I think it’s inevitable that there will be some closures,” with small traditional pubs most vulnerable, added Dave Richardson, spokesman for the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).
In January, St John’s College, a massively wealthy landowner, The Lamb & Flag, which it owns, said it was not financially viable and its staff would be laid off.
The University, part of the University of Oxford, said that as a registered charity it could not run a loss-making business.
Richardson said he was aware of the interest in taking over the pub, even from local landlords.
Still, large breweries and hospitality chains are most likely to sell traditional smaller, mostly beverage-led pubs, such as The Lamb & Flag, he said.
These have struggled to comply with the restrictions, especially in December when they were ordered to serve only alcohol with “significant meals”.
Pubs have been “shielded out of all proportion to the risk”, Richardson argued, urging the government to provide sector-specific support.
Oxford’s high property prices also make pubs attractive for remodeling.
Across the street from The Lamb & Flag, the pub The Eagle and Child, where Tolkien and Lewis participated in Inkling’s literary discussion group, is closed for renovation.
The building, which will include a new hotel, is also owned by St John’s.
In The White Horse Pub on nearby Broad Street, landlady Jacqueline Paphitis said the lack of the usual buzz and smell of alcohol was strange.
With wood-paneled beams and panoramic views of the Sheldonian Theater and its famous emperor’s stone heads, the 16th-century pub is a magnet for film crews.
On the walls are pictures of actors including John Thaw, who played Morse in the British television series based on Colin Dexter’s novels, Laurence Fox, from the spin-off series “Lewis” and Elijah Wood, who starred in the 2008 film “The Oxford Murders “.
The virus has been “completely devastating”, Paphitis said, fearing that some pubs “will not reopen, especially the independent ones”.
Her staff are tormented and the beer taps are disconnected but the pub’s owner, hospitality operator Mitchells & Butlers, has reduced the rent and local authorities have given a grant of £ 25,000.
“We stay afloat,” she said.
“Spray particles everywhere”
Paphitis is desperate to reopen but not until all restrictions have been lifted.
Landlord Paul Silcock, from Gardeners Arms on Plantation Road in the Jericho area of the city, agreed.
“Right now would be so irresponsible, it would be ridiculous,” he said.
“Pubs are a great place for people to sit really close to each other … and get angry and scream and have fun and laugh and all that really squirts particles everywhere.”
He has worked for 17 years at the independently run red brick pub, which is also owned by St John’s and only serves vegetarian food.
Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is one of its customers.
With the help of loans, staff space and government grants, “we are struggling. We are not afraid of going under yet,” he added.
But he predicted “a lot of accidents” among pubs if the lockdown goes on until May.
Every pub without a kitchen is “filled,” he said.
“Saved my bacon”
The butcher has also switched to food delivery at White Hart. Inside, staff assembled kits to dish up grilled cote de boeuf or game-cooked kebabs.
“My heart goes out to the drink-led pubs,” he said. “Of course they have been decimated.”
He has been looking for new ways to keep the inn running in the 18th century, including last summer when he put wooden frames “ski” in the garden so that people could eat protected by clear plastic walls.
“Frankly, it saved my bacon,” he said.
But the sudden closure of pubs after Christmas left Butcher with a surplus of wine and food worth thousands of pounds.
While receiving government grants and loans, he says he has accumulated “debts in excess of £ 100,000 that I did not have before”.
“It has been awful for so many people,” he said.