Christopher Gray indulges in an ale and a trip down memory lane to enjoy a Chequers meal

F or a good few years now I have been an enthusiastic patron of Nicholson’s pubs, which can generally be relied upon to be well-run and characterful, besides boasting a fine array of real ales and a decently varied, if not especially imaginative, food menu.

A particular favourite during the past few summers has been the Elephant and Castle in Holland Street, Kensington, where I always eat (at an outside table if possible) en route to Opera Holland Park.

In Oxford, three pubs have been acquired by the company, which is a 77-strong division of Mitchells & Butlers. These are the Chequers, off the High Street, the Crown off Cornmarket Street and the Eagle and Child, otherwise known as the Bird and Baby, in St Giles. In every case they are significantly more attractive now that they were under their previous ownership.

I am especially fond of the Chequers, which I once patronised with great regularity. For a spell in the late 1980s I was a member of its quiz team. Rummaging through some old photographs at the weekend, I came across one taken of us as victors in the Hall’s brewery championship — a success which sent us on a celebratory conga through the many rooms of this sprawling two-storey pub.

In the sunshine of Sunday’s service of remembrance in St Giles I came across fellow team member — in truth, its intellectual power-house — Antony Moore, a long-serving photographer with The Oxford Times. I was amazed to find he still remembered the final buzzer-round question which clinched the match. It concerned the height of the mountain K2.

Quizzes apart, the appeal of the Chequers then, as now, depended greatly on its antiquity. Nearly 500 years old, the property is thought to have once been the home of a wealthy alderman. The diarist Anthony à Wood wrote of a “groaning elmsboard” at the pub in 1682, its groan being uttered on the application of a red-hot iron. “It was shewed,” he wrote, “by two silly women, but quickly prohibited by the vice-chancellor.”

When I first knew the pub, its clientele could definitely be classed Town rather than Gown, including workers from the Covered Market opposite, for whom it opened very early in the morning.

These days students represent a significant section of its trade, to judge by how many eager freshers were around last Wednesday when we accepted the invitation of Nicholson’s boss Ben Lockwood to join him in a beer tasting there.

This was in connection with a beer festival, celebrating Nicholson’s 140th anniversary, which is continuing across the estate until Sunday.

Though I have not been a beer drinker for almost a decade, I was prevailed upon by Rosemarie, a real ale aficionado, to join in the tasting of the seven excellent beers on offer (there were 50 beers and ciders featured throughout the festival).

The huge variety of flavours was a revelation, from the chocolatey toffee of Marston’s Hobgoblin and the sharp bitterness of Hilden’s Irish Stout to the citrussy surprise of Revolutions’ EP. I was amazed to find, in Great Heck’s Citra, a powerful flavour of grapefruit. This is a taste I have not experienced for many years, as grapefruit reacts badly with one of the drugs I take.

The condition of the beers was in all cases excellent, a tribute to the care taken by Steve Edwards, the landlord for the past six years, and Will Lusted, the ‘cask master’ with responsibility for the cellars.

One thing certainly demonstrated was the efficacy of beer as a stimulant to the appetite. Ben having departed for dinner at another of ‘his’ Oxford pubs, Rosemarie and I stayed on to eat. I tried a couple of dishes from the menu that were new to me. First up were rings of crispy calamari served with a herb and garlic mayonnaise dip. These were much enjoyed, with none of the chewiness sometimes found with squid. The batter was surprisingly spicy, though, which might not have gone down well with some eaters.

My main course was venison and red wine sausages. There were three of them, juicy and flavoursome, served with creamy mashed potatoes and onion rings. I also had a side order of green beans and carrots, both of which were a tad overcooked.

Rosemarie gave the thumbs up to her starter of brie fondue, with its topping of Nicholson’s pale ale chutney. She also enjoyed steak and kidney pie, which on its arrival looked as if it was going to be a real job to finish. In the event, the ‘filling’ was largely fresh air with the meat — tasty though it was — confined to a layer at the bottom. But at least this meant she had room for some top-notch sticky toffee pudding.

We drank the fruity rioja (Marqués de Riscal, 2010). This was at Ben’s recommendation, proving that he’s as well informed about wine as he is about beer.

  • Chequers
  • 131 High St, Oxford
  • OX1 4DH

01865 727463