The fun of finding a tucked-away pub

Let’s exit the main entrance to University Parks and walk south a few minutes to the intersection of Parks Road and Broad Street, the preeminent hub of old Oxford that’s trod by tourists in the thousands every month. Here you see the Sheldonian Theatre, designed by a young Christopher Wren, and the Radcliffe Camera, the reading room of the Bodleian Library, which by royal decree has received a copy of every book published in Britain for 400 years. You also see a forest of spires gracing architecture seen nowhere else in the world.

But right now we’re looking for a pub away from the hubbub of this hub. It’s hard to find, so hard the pub’s website shows photographs of every twist and turn – well, almost every one – you have to take. That’s one of the joys of the Turf Tavern: If ever a pub has been tucked away, it’s the Turf, as it’s called around here.  It makes you feel like you’re one of the cognoscenti elite just to know where it is.

Across from the Radliffe Camera you’ll see the Bridge of Sighs, called that because it’s similar to the famous Venetian bridge of the same name, over which prisoners trudged toward interrogation, or worse. In Oxford the bridge has a much happier function, connecting two parts of Hertford College and providing a landmark for people tracking down the Turf on a route with no signs.

Ready? Walk under the bridge on New College Lane, and just past it turn into a pedestrian-only alleyway on your left called St. Helen’s Passage on maps but on this alleyway called nothing. Walk a few yards, jog to the right and, um, ask someone where the Turf is. You’ll eventually see a little blue sign near a low-slung door leading into a very deep slice of history.

If you’re tall, you’ll have to duck to get into the Turf, and you’ll have to beware the low-hanging blackened beams, one of which has a sign telling you to Please Mind Your Head. Please do. The foundations of this place go back to the 13th century and its shorter denizens. It’s been a malt-house (where barley or other grain was prepared for brewing), a cider house (the English have long preferred their cider hard), an inn and, since 1805, the Turf Tavern.

At the bar you’ll see a dozen or more hand-pulls serving up what’s come to be called in England “real ale.” In fact, since 1971 there’s been a Campaign for Real Ale in England, now the largest single-issue consumer group in the United Kingdom, with more than 80,000 members. The founders were opposed to the growing industrialization and homogenization of brewing in Britain. So they began the Campaign for Real Ale to support small brewers and traditional pubs, and you’re now standing in just such a pub serving just such ales.

“Real” ale is served at what’s called cellar temperature (54-57 F), warmish to many Americans. But real ale-ers say if beer is too cold, it snuffs out subtle flavors, assuming it has any, which they say industrial beer doesn’t.

There’s a flood of flavors at the Turf with such pleasing names as B&T Black Dragon, Greene King Ruddles Best and Tom Wood Hop & Glory. But you don’t have to like beer to love this pub. They serve their own mulled wine, fruit juice, soft drinks and coffee, along with a surprisingly long menu of food.

You can order such English classics as Cumberland sausages and mash, fish and chips, steak in ale pie and sticky toffee pudding. And many other comestibles make a seasonal appearance, such as chicken tikka masala, sweet pepper and white wine pasta, and a Wiltshire ham sandwich with sweet cider mustard.

After you order, go outside to the Turf’s two beer gardens. They have trestle tables, canopies (the English weather, you know) and braziers for heat – and marshmallow-roasting, believe it or not. But the coolest part of the gardens is the tall stone wall on one side. It is, in fact, part of the original city wall of Oxford, built about 800 years ago as protection against marauding Vikings. Thankfully, you can sip a pint without worrying that you’ll see a two-horned helmet with a Dane attached poking over the top of the wall.

This part of the city wall extends through New College, very close to the Turf on Holywell Street. New College was founded in 1379 by William Wykeham, bishop of Winchester, allowed by city authorities to build on this area with one condition: That the college maintain the northeast part of the city wall in perpetuity. And they have. But just to make sure, every three years to this day the mayor and sheriff of Oxford make a ritual inspection of the wall on the grounds of New College.

So have a seat, and just listen. What do you hear? Just the sounds of pubby conviviality bouncing off an ancient wall. No traffic noise. No jangling jukebox. No blaring telly. This is pub life in the very slow lane.

This is also one of many classic pubs in Oxford, as any guidebook will tell you. But what is it about the Turf Tavern that has turned so many people over the centuries so thoroughly on? One answer is simply age: The Turf goes way, way back, and looks the part. Another is what it serves: Some of the best beers in the world, at affordable prices, served the way they should be served, though other English pubs do that, too. Then there’s the Turf’s ambiance, especially in the gardens.

But there’s something else, something to do with the Turf’s tucked-awayness. Finding the Turf by winding down a serpentine path seems like winning a prize. The act of moving through a maze, ducking into a pub founded the year Thomas Jefferson became president of America, and spooning up your rhubarb crumble as you gaze at a hoary wall that has redefined the concept of durability…well, that is not your ordinary pub experience, is it?

And you walked here. You couldn’t have driven a car or a truck up to the door – you were lucky just to find the door. It’s removed and safe and cheering, like a warm fire on a rainy night. Is it not splendid what you can experience in Oxford, simply by placing one foot in front of the other?