“ Historic pub in Oxford city centre. „
40 Holywell Street,
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By name alone, it is just like any other monarchy- titled public house; at first sight it appears ordinary. Thinking it is an ordinary is due to whether you are in fact 'ordinary' - nothing wrong with being ordinary, however The Kings Arms is far from a run of the mill drinking establishment - apart from being licensed to sell alcohol for 407 years and systematically swapping the beers every other week, you'll be pleased to note, modernity as yet set foot inside the pub to update the décor, or do any upholstery - you're assured that every event morsel for over four centuries still resides in the seating fabric, wooden chairs and tables - this is all part of the charm; history never claimed to be hygienic. If only tables and chairs could tell stories, such as one of Boris Johnson was never alone at night during his days at Oxford University, no he had the company a teddy bear named; 'de Pfeffel' after his master - both were in-separable; fluent in piffle. It wouldn't be The Kings Arms if piffle wasn't spoken.
My earliest memories of the place seem to mingle into my most recent ones on the premise that time stands still - you see, when the interior doth not change occasions and years just roll into each other. In the mid 1990s I was friends with an infinite-student at its formal title: Collegium de Harris et Manchester - Known as Manchester College. He was a resident for five years, I saw him regularly in the pub and after he graduated; we still met there - he would always remind me when his birthday was as a joke. "And don't forget my birthday!" he would cheekily say. Our wisecracks abruptly stopped; we lost contact after 2004; no-one has seen him since. The thing is at Christmas he and his fiancé would without fail go to Galle beach in Sri Lanka; exactly the spot where the Boxing Day tsunami hit. He adored 'The Kings Arms' - he even commissioned me to sketch the location as a reminder of his time at Manchester College. I waved the fee; and so he bought me a pint or three instead in 'The Kings Arms', everyone was all smiles.
Of recent, in reference to the bar-staff; students once served students - nupe, not any longer - the staff are a assortment of immigrants - ranging from Polish food staff dealing with the culinary orders; and Iranians bumbling their way through a night-shift behind the bar. The punter is the same, predominantly students and their lecturers, college drop-outs and wannabe Samuel Becketts populating the bar - buzzing around it, hovering, readjusting and swivelling just as worker bees do around their queen. Such people allegedly boost up the pub's IQ average; of course only those who're fluent in piffle tend to be that boastful as they guffaw into their pints in unison. I found out the IQ average of the place was rather low, duly because, I quickly found out one bar staff member didn't know the difference between 'do,' 'don't' or knew the different terminology for the word 'bark' - "What beer *don't* you recommend?" I clearly asked. "Eye recommended da Tree-brute beer, suur." The correct beer name is called 'Tribute' just for the record. I responded: "Ah, yes, a pint of Tree brute would do nicely, thanks; - with the bark of course." He looked bewildered, and asks me; "Bhaarrk, suur; you 'av dog in ere?" - I smiled sympathetically and paid 3.25 GBP. That was a time whereby some things are better left unsaid. For five minutes thereafter the barman was watching me intensely, expecting a head of a Chihuahua to miraculously emerge between my lapels. Aye, the IQ average was low that night.
I watched in despair for a food staff member who had her hands and arms full with garlic bread and other hot munchies trying to get to a table of diners. After ten seconds of inching forward and polite asking, I manfully moved a scholar which interrupted his raucous piffling to his comrades; in a bid to let the polite Polish girl through. It seemed a string of her polite "exshoes me's" didn't suffice. She was invisible to those that piffle, and visibly exhausted, too the extent kicking up a fuss would mean using energy she couldn't afford to lose. This was a fair reflection of what the poorly paid has evolved to becoming in this industry - they're too knackered to complain, dreaming of their bed rather than a pay rise - No wonder there wasn't any British staff; I doubt none of them could pirouette through the body mass as if a Maria Alexandrova while holding hot plates. Naturally, the glorious scent of the food awoke my salivary glands.
Before long, I joined the line of food orders and within ten minutes I was tucking into hand battered fish and chips with homemade tartar sauce - a spontaneous idea, as I initially was going to forgo an evening meal until after attending a charity Christmas concert nearby. Time wasn't a priority. My plaice was hand battered with the might of an assault and battery; I overplayed the lemon drizzle to help soften the crunch. The generic offering of an insipid salad lost its fresh, crunch due to an over-heated kitchen or inadequate cooling area. The chips were far the best on the plate; delicious, delicate and fluffy inside. I dipped them into the tartar and braced myself for a sharp flick of tartar flavour - instead of the tartar doing pirouettes on my tongue it smooched back into the background letting the zest of lemon take centre stage. The meal was fine, alas, didn't warrant the 9.50 price tag. You're incessantly reminded of Oxford's elite of the past parading themselves for staged camera shots. I've yet seen a punter wistfully gaze at them, or take notice of the in-public-house's notice board; instead, they're absorbed in piffle, mulling the piffle and coming up with their own piffle. The only place in the establishment that remains 'piffle free' is in the toilets downstairs where the stench of human waste gatecrashes the nostrils, like no other place in the vicinity - disabling piffle entirely. Pity that the self-acclaimed brainiest bunch in Oxford can't aim straight, such a menial task eludes their brain while deliberating piffle.
~An Oxford Favourite~
The Kings Arms is a place from my student days which I recall with a high degree of fondness but with very little clarity. Such is the way we remember our old drinking dens perhaps. As the second closest pub to my Oxford college, it was somewhere I inevitably ended up on more evenings than I care to recall although I don't think I'd been back in there in the last 20 years. When college throws the alumni dinners every few years, the Kings Arms is generally where people congregate but for some hard to explain reason, I've stayed away until this summer.
My aunt and uncle from Australia came over to visit this summer and we were allocated quite a lot of 'moving them around' duties. Oxford was a convenient place for us to break our journey between a bunch of relatives in Bedford and my parents in Salisbury. I thought it would be a good place to stop off and show them around. My obsessively intellectual Uncle Tony has a massive educational chip on his shoulder so I had in mind that it might be fun to rub him up the wrong way with the home country's oldest place of learning. He's also an obsessive collector of economics books so I could get back into his good books with a trip to Blackwell's bookshop. But first we needed to eat and I thought the Kings Arms would do the job.
~First find your pub~
If you're familiar with Oxford, the Kings Arms is at the end of Broad Street, on the corner of Parks Road and Hollywell Street. If you don't 'do' street names but you know some of the sites, it's very close to the Sheldonian Theatre, The Bodleian Library and the Exam Schools. If you still don't know where I mean, stop anyone on the street who doesn't look to obviously like a tourist and they'll point you in the right direction.
The site on which the pub stands used to be an Augustinian priory way back in 1268 and the first license to sell alcohol was issued in 1607 to a gentleman called Thomas Franklyn who gave the place its name in honour of King James I. From the outside it doesn't give any spectacular sense of age but then in Oxford almost everything is so old that such things are rather relative. It's a painted building - white, perhaps with a creamy pink tinge depending on the time of day and light conditions. The building has three floors with large sash windows on the ground floor and the first floor and smaller ones at the top of the building. I've never been upstairs but am aware that there's a private dining room in there somewhere and that might well be up top.
There are tables and benches outside on the pavement but they've rarely appealed to me because of the proximity to a busy road junction. The day we visited the weather wasn't great so we headed inside but not until my husband had told me off (once again) for trying to get friendly with a Doberman that was tied up outside. I'm rubbish at identifying allegedly dangerous dog breeds and will no doubt get savaged one of these days.
We arrived about two o'clock in the afternoon which was an accidentally wise move since there were plenty of tables inside. We grabbed a large wooden table in a quiet corner close to the counter where you order food and beside a large obscured window. If there had been tables available I would have gone for a table in the room at the front of the pub which has large windows overlooking the street outside, which would have been a lot prettier than where we were.
The Kings Arms - or the KA as it's always been known - is quite a nice looking pub inside. The floors are stripped wood, the ceilings are high, the windows large and it's rather traditional looking. The tables are bare wood and the walls are decorated with lots of photos of college societies and old shots of Oxford. My poor husband was baffled by photos of 'toffs in suits' on the wall beside our table tracking the history of some or other silly dining society from the college next door. I didn't even bother to try to explain just how stupid such societies tend to be - especially in front of my militant uncle for whom it would only have been grist to the mill of his class war anti-privilege stance.
I left it to my husband to coordinate drinks and food whilst I popped downstairs to the toilets where I was instantly reminded why I'd not been in there for over 20 years. Don't choose this pub if you can't handle steep stairs - or if you have a normal sense of smell. The toilets are utterly disgusting.
The food in the KA isn't cheap for what's really rather ordinary pub food. My husband and I both ordered scampi and chips. I didn't have too much choice since I don't eat meat and there were only three things on suitable on the menu board on the wall. My aunt ordered one of the other - the fish pie - and my uncle had some kind of meat pie with chips. My money would have been on steak and kidney as it's just that kind of traditional place but it could equally have been steak and ale.
Our food arrived in about 20 minutes. I was a little put off by passing one of the kitchen staff in the corridor spouting some comment about 'More f***ing food' which perhaps displayed a rather less than enthusiastic attitude to both his job and the food.
First the positive news. My uncle's pie was a stunning looking dish with the flaky pastry puffed up to mountainous proportions. Unfortunately the other dishes were disappointing. My aunt's fish pie was almost white in colour which just seemed wrong. I know fish pie always has mashed potato on the top but normally it's at least a little bit browned off. This just looked like someone had dolloped a mound of mash on top of the sauce without putting it into the oven or browning it under the grill. It was served with some unexciting looking vegetables. For our scampi and chips the portions were rather mean in size given that they were £9 each. As we were having lunch I didn't really want or need more but felt the dish wasn't particularly good value. The chips were crisp and not greasy but the wholetail scampi were very much 'from the freezer centre' in style - "Mum's been to Iceland" said my husband under his breath.
The scampi was served with tartare sauce but the waitress checked if we wanted alternative sauces and we asked for ketchup for the scampi and mustard for the meat pie and both were provided quickly. The food was entirely edible but sadly just not very exciting. I had hoped for better quality but I've had better in our local Wetherspoons. The four meals cost just under £40 with drinks on top.
~Snob factor restored~
As we prepared to leave my uncle stopped to read the notices on the large notice board just inside the door. Nowhere else in the world, he claimed, could a pub have a notice board like this one. Instead of cards selling second hand cars or advertising the darts or pool leagues, this was covered in adverts for theatre events and classical music concerts. I think it was one of the few things that impressed my uncle about the place.