A 455-Year-Old Pub Where J.R.R. Tolkein Drank Is Closing Due to the Pandemic

The Lamb & Flag in Oxford has been serving guests since 1566.

Lamb & Flag Pub in Oxord
Photo: Michael Winters / Alamy Stock Photo

The Lamb & Flag, a pub in Oxford, England, opened in its original location in 1566, which means that it was serving ale during the reign of Elizabeth I and when William Shakespeare was just another fussy two-year-old. It moved to its current location in 1613, and a list of visitors in the years since read like an English Lit syllabus: it was a regular spot for J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis during their time at Oxford University, and it is believed to have been visited by novelist Thomas Hardy.

Unfortunately, the pub can't run on 455 years of history alone, and despite enduring countless challenges during the past six centuries, it hasn't been able to survive the current pandemic. The Lamb & Flag is owned by St John's College, one of the 40-plus colleges that are part of Oxford University, and it has announced that the pub will be closing at the end of January.

"The Lamb and Flag, like many other businesses in the hospitality industry, has been hard hit by the pandemic," Steve Elston, St. John's deputy bursar, said in a statement. "Despite the best efforts of the staff and looking at every option to keep it open, the trading figures of the last 12 months have meant that the pub is not currently financially viable [...] Therefore, the Directors of the Lamb & Flag (Oxford) Ltd. have regrettably been obliged to close the pub."

According to inews.co.uk, Elston said that St. John's will still own the pub, and that it will try to "look beyond the present situation" to determine what the Lamb & Flag's future might be.

Dave Richardson, from the Oxford branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) told the Oxford Mail that the organization will object if the city council tries to turn the building into anything other than a pub, and it may petition for the pub to be named as an Asset of Community Value, which further protects the building (and would give a community group the right to buy it if it ever went up for sale.)

"It's got such a long history it would be wrong to let that go," he said. "It's a big student pub and is popular with residents around the city. A lot of people also made it their first stop when they visited Oxford."

In an article for the Oxford Drinker, Richardson wrote that the pub had been featured in the Good Beer guide for 20 straight years, and had been named "City Pub of the Year" more than once. The pub offered a half-dozen real ales—CAMRA would know—as well as real cider. He also noted that its closure leaves the St. Giles area without a pub (or it will do, whenever any pubs are allowed to reopen).

The Eagle and Child, a circa-1650 pub that was also frequented by Tolkein and Lewis, temporarily closed for renovation in Fall 2019. Even if you were unfamiliar with the Lamb & Flag until this morning, it's suddenly difficult to imagine a world without it. Good luck, Oxford—hopefully they can get this sorted, and keep the ales flowing for another 450 years.

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