“ Address: St Aldate's / Pembroke Street / St. Aldates OX1 4LB / Tel: 01865 721 600 „
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Fuller pubs usually are full of people, predominantly 'fuller people'. The Head of the River in Oxford is no exception; the restaurant with the added treat of facilitating accommodation - 12 rooms, currently offering, '70% plus off high season price' is on the Folly Bridge bank of the river, at the bottom of St Aldates Street. Adjacent, is the worldly known, nautically speaking; 'Salters Steamers', who'd been ruling the Folly Bridge waves for 155 years - many of the waves to the Head of the River punters perched outside, toasting under garden heaters. Proportionally and by shape the establishment could be mistakenly termed as a Bauhaus styled build - German squared-off-architecture, inspired by a movement. Totally out of sync to the squared-off-ornate architectural features of Christ Church College up the road, and more in keeping with the Police Station which is within spitting distance of the welcoming sign; 'Head of the River, accommodation;' displayed on a wrought-ironed arc at the entrance. For those who hadn't seen the building behind it. But so are signs that have a black and white sign of a finger pointing saying 'toilets this way' when a big glossy signed plaque states; 'TOILETS' is in a prime position two yards away. The pedantic curse strikes again, usually created by Hotel Inspectors who 'tut, tut' at poor signage. In the 'Head,' signage is overplayed, comically so. Aubrey Beardsley would see gentleman eroticism in such overplaying; his inky illustrations entertain while you tinkle the porcelain.
The floor were as haphazard as the chairs and table arrangements, a needless step up and down, one that divides the bar from punters ordering beverages and punters ordering meals. The studious ones meander halfway, neither up nor down representing the obstacles of life, which they aim to always be. Aspiring Robert Peels touching up their thick wavy crops whilst sinking 'Pinot Grigios' at 12.42 pm - developing their own 'Bullingdon Club'; their regularity of visits mean they get the comfy seats, not that I'm irked, I tend to choose the school chairs anyhow. I know my place. My nutty brown baguette with Scottish smoked salmon and Philadelphia cream cheese (7.00 GBP) arrived on cue, an afterthought of salad almost missed the plate entirely, perhaps most of it did. My pint of 'London Pride' sloshed about the palate mimicking a wet scraggy dog rotating its basket before it flops. On each gulp, the rotations lessened, by the end it had slipped down nonchalantly - a Fuller balance of flavours. Next I had a pint of 'Red Fox' it also got the same treatment, although this time it was a wet scraggy fox rotating a dog basket - nothing quite like a red fox cleaning up a smoked salmon palate - a pleasing experience. By the third pint, I decided on the 'Discovery' a pint of a lighter colour of ochre, however, it wasn't lighter on the head; as I discovered; the pumps graphics could've been from a nautical 'Sid Meier, king of Civilizations Game'.
What I admire about Fuller pubs is their insistence to marinate their food with their beers, they're so confident their manufactured beers taste good they cook with it; staff prefer to sell you their beer (even pour out samples for you to taste) than ask you if you're eating. Once, you've tasted their brewing concoctions - James and the staff will explain what happens to a 'Fuller' chip, or a Fuller pie before serving. Thankfully, my stomach was full. "Perhaps, next time, I'll go for the Fuller meal;" I semi-burped out. On my second visit to see Aubrey Beardsley, I glanced up and saw a fuller jowl looking back at me. Three beers and a baguette and automatically I've a 'Fuller' figure. Poor old John Thaw didn't have a chance did he, being beer connoisseur 'Inspector Morse'; a 'Fuller life' isn't necessary a long life; nevertheless, James sums it up with gusto.. "But what a life!" I jested that the slogan, 'for a 'Fuller' life' deserved to be on the wrought-iron signage also, alongside the headline act.
A sporadic bookshelf protrudes from the walls paying homage to DeWitt's & Wallace's 'Readers Digest' you get a distinct feeling by sliding one out will open up a secret door where all the rowers of past and present sit around a round- table banging their wooded ores in raucous camaraderie, watched on by a disheveled young bar-man. A grandiose fireplace pays homage to Dickensian festivities of the past, where you can envisage the great minds of David Dimbleby, W H Auden and Lewis Carroll getting crimsoned cheeked beside it. The black and white memorabilia of major rowing achievements are neatly framed and you get the impression these are not just generic images but the heart-beat of the establishment - if any were to be removed, 'The Head, would roll into the river.' There's a stark reminder of deep entrenched Oxford University rowing traditions at 'Head of the River' - I cannot imagine the establishment to be of anything else.
Don't let the beer go to your head, it is easily done. I've yet to stop at one sampler; the staff is professionally trained to exert enthusiasm while discussing their prize-winning beers. Once they've got you hooked, there is no going back. Time disappears down a urinal; hours passed through me, and then I had another 'Discovery' - I was wearing beer-goggles, not long after James said I was Fuller s***! Charming; I wobbled off twenty five pounds lighter; albeit, 'Fuller'.
A Fuller Christmas Menu now available.
~ Down by the Riverside ~
The Head of the River (THOTR) has long been a popular Oxford pub although it's not always one that the tourists find since you'll need to head quite a long way down St Aldates, past Christ Church and past the less scenic Police Station and Courts (good for Morse fans) before you reach Folly Bridge and the pub. For those not in the know, the pub takes its name from the winning position in the rowing regattas that take place on the stretch of river just outside the pub. The top position at the end of the competition is the team that takes the honours as 'Head of the River'.
I met up with a French friend and her son on Easter Saturday to go for lunch and since her son had never been to Oxford before I thought they'd probably like to be by the river and the Head of the River was the pub which immediately came to mind. The weather had been unseasonably warm and we weren't surprised to find that all the outdoor tables had already been filled. Not surprised and if truth be told, quite glad since neither of us was really ready for quite so much sun quite so early in the year. We managed to find a table for three inside which was not far from the windows which open onto the river and we benefited from the cool breeze but not from the very crowded arrangement of the furniture which meant every time we wanted to get away from the table we had to perform acrobatics to get away.
~ Cheerful but not Cheap ~
THOTR is not a cheap pub and you will pay dearly for the advantage of its position. I hadn't been in the pub for about 25 years so not surprisingly it seemed a lot more expensive than I remembered. We picked up the menus from the bar, ordered some drinks and went to consider our choices. Luckily with my friend being French, she was happy to have a 'proper' lunch rather than just a sandwich although perhaps if we'd known how big the food was we'd have thought twice. She translated the menu for her son who leaped on the option of steak and fries with the benefit of not having seen that it cost a whopping £18.50 which I considered pretty over the top for lunch in a pub. She chose scampi and chips and I opted for a vegetarian burger of mushrooms and goat cheese. We placed our orders at the bar and sat back to drink and wait.
The inside of the pub is traditional in style - wooden floors, lots of old furniture - but not too cheesy (which in my book means not too much tat hanging all over the place - seriously, some UK pubs look like someone decided to hang all their rubbish off the ceiling and the walls). The ceilings are high, there's a nice fireplace, though obviously not lit on a 28C Saturday afternoon but the main attraction will always be the river. The jetty for renting boats or taking motor cruisers up the river is located just outside the pub.
~ Should I eat it or Climb it? ~
Our food arrived and everything was enormous. Given the costs - in my case about £9 for a burger - it did need to be something more than a small dish. Adam's steak was enormous, Squidge's scampi were big juicy ones and my 'burger' was so big I wasn't sure whether to eat it or climb it. The steak was served with lots of chips, a mound of mushrooms (which we got to steal because he didn't like them) and roasted cherry tomatoes. I had one of the scampi and can confirm they were not the cheap nasty ones you usually get in pub meals. The 'burger' (I keep putting in inverted commas because it wasn't a burger at all) consisted of a split bun with a layer of tomato relish under a layer of melted cheese with two enormous Portabello mushrooms perched on top with a dollop of spinach and then an enormous thick slice of goat cheese. It was so high they didn't even attempt to put the 'lid' of the burger onto it. The chips were all thick ones that looked as if they'd been coated in something but whatever it was didn't actually taste of anything. The waitress brought us mustard (unfortunately not English), ketchup and tartar sauce.
My burger was much too big and I felt a total pig for getting through it all. The goat cheese was delicious, the mushrooms were smoky and tasty and there was nothing discordant about the dish but it just suffered from being a bit too complicated. Without the spinach or without the melted cheese at the bottom it would have been a lot more manageable. Half way through our Everest-like challenge of eating all the food I wanted to go and buy us some more drinks but could see there was no way I'd have got them before the food got completely cold because the line was just too long. I waited a little longer and went back for a couple of half pints of beer and we used them to wash down the mountain of food.
~ Recommendation ~
It was nice to go back to a place that I'd long forgotten and though the food was not cheap, the value was fair for the amount served. My only gripe was the cramming together of so many tables and the slow service at the bar but I'd go back again next time I'm in the city which probably won't be long - but maybe I'll avoid a really hot afternoon.