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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Aslan and Gandalf go for a pint

Eagle and Child, Earl of Derby, coat of arms

How often do you go into a pub with your mind on a wizard and a talking lion?  Be honest now.  If you need help with this, try stepping over the threshold into Oxford’s Eagle and Child, because it was a favourite watering-hole of close friends JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

Disappointingly, there’s nothing obviously magical about The Eagle and Child – though it does serve a splendid pint of Brakspear’s for a paranormally reasonable price, and the barmaid is enchanting.  It has been a pub since 1650 and, before that, had a role in the Civil War (1642-49), when Oxford was the Royalist capital of England and the building was either used as a pay-house or a playhouse, depending on the source of your typo.  Its name comes from the arms of the Earl of Derby, the Stanley family, who I assume had some connection with it back in the foggy mists of time.  The Eagle and Child’s long history, however, has been subordinated to the glitter of its more recent literary connections.

Eagle and Child, Oxford, real ale

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) and Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) were the two better-known members of “the Inklings”, an informal group of British literary buffs, most of them academics.  The Inklings – a nicely ambiguous moniker, I think - met to discuss their works and ideas, normally in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College most Thursday evenings from the late 1930s until the 1950s.  On Tuesday lunchtimes, they gathered in the ‘Rabbit Room’, the landlord’s former sitting room, at the Eagle and Child – a tradition apparently maintained until the early 1960s.  Presumably, they did what all enlightened men do; they quaffed ale and solved problems, real and imagined.  Lewis recalled, “Many a golden session in front of a blazing fire, with a pint close to hand.”  During the Second World War, when thirsty American troops occasionally resulted in the beer running out, the Inklings would take themselves off to other hostelries, such as the King’s Arms or the Mitre.  When the Eagle and Child was refurbished in 1962, the Inklings apparently switched allegiance to the Lamb and Flag across the road.  Both the Lamb and Flag and the Eagle and Child (which the Inklings nicknamed, ‘The Bird and Baby’), are owned by St John’s College.

Rabbit Room, Eagle and Child, Tolkien, Lewis, Inklings

The ‘Rabbit Room’ used to be at the back of the pub – there’s an extension now, so the room is more or less in the middle, with two, cosy, panelled rooms at the front.  I sat there, supping my Brakspear, trying to picture these giants of the written word nattering away about their books and beliefs, one of them sometimes bursting into intensity to make a particular point.  I wondered what, if any, inspiration they got from the pub – or the beer.  I read that ‘Tollers’, as his friends called him, was once so inebriated that he imagined goblins were trying to steal his wedding ring; but that sounds too good to be true.  Was Tolkien in the Bird and Baby when he dreamt up the massive eagles of Middle Earth who, amongst other things, often rescued the good guys in the nick of time?  Did he see Hobbits on the way home?  I was pretty sure I did.  Was Gandalf modelled on a colleague at Merton?


I couldn’t see anything of Narnia in the bustle around me but, peering into my beer, found myself back at school on a dark, wet, winter’s day with Mrs McGillivray reading “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” to the class.  The images of Lantern Waste and Mr Tumnus’ shocking disappearance are powerful, even after all those years.  Wonderful, wonderful stories.

Probably, of course, the Bird and Baby was simply exactly what we said at the start; a favourite watering-hole for close friends.  There is something undeniably cosy, conversational and blokeish about the place; I liked it very much.  Over at the next table, two young men were earnestly, very audibly, mellifluously and without any apparent embarrassment, discussing their sex lives.

“Well, I’d like to go back this summer.  There’s this girl I met.”
“Oh; did you, er..?”
“No.  Oh, no.  We were both with other people, so it was a bit awkward.  But we text and I think we probably...”

I happily dragged myself back to reality.

Pippin: “What’s that?”
Merry: “This, my friend, is a pint.”
Pippin: “It comes in pints?  I’m getting one.”

By the way, it was not unknown for Inspector Morse, creator of Colin Dexter (or was it the other way round?) to sup a pint at the Eagle and Child too.

Eagle and Child, St Giles, Oxford



46 comments:

  1. Nice literary connections! I had a pint in the bird and baby once, many moons ago. It didn't inspire me to greatness, sadly. Maybe I was drinking the wrong beer.

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  2. Hi Mike,

    The eagle and child sounds like an interesting pub. If only for it's literary background! The stories that must have been told and shared there.....

    Thank you for your comment on last weeks blog post too. I appreciate it very much!

    Have a good weekend ahead!

    Madelief

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  3. There must be lots of interesting ghosts & spirits floating around in the pub, Mike! It looks like a good one!

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  4. It's many years since I was in either pub. The Eagle &Child I found very cosy but the Lamb & Flag Very crouded. must atmit most of my time was spent in the Corn Dolly (now the Cellar) up the road. If you go to visit either of their graves you will be dissaponted, I feel they are not as weel liiked after as their memories in the pubs.

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  5. What a lovely old pub with a great history. I loved visiting our old village pub when we were home recently. Makes me wonder what kind of history it has.

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  6. Ha ha. Muchly enjoyed this history and delightful thoughts of nearer pasts.

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  7. I do like the atmosphere of the place!

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  8. I actually remember this pub from my visit a few years ago! So cool to see it again. :-)

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  9. Thanks for sharing your adventure with us. It was grand!

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  10. Fascinating background. I bet there are other pubs with stories to tell. When we visited England last year we enjoyed eating in pubs.

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  11. Almost makes me want to order a pint. If only I liked the taste of hops. My loss.

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  12. I don't care for beer either...but the atmosphere might be worth it! :)

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  13. What a charming pub! I like the look of it, both inside and out; thanks for all the historical background. I had read that J.R.R. and C.S.Lewis were friends, but never knew this was one of their meeting spots. After reading that Tolkien had spent time there, I looked at the first picture again and immediately thought of the golden eagles rescuing the hobbits (my husband did, too). I see you had the same thoughts. :)

    I'm embarrassed to say I've never read the Chronicles of Narnia, but I have read the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and Inspector Morse. Our son loved the Narnia Chronicles when he was growing up.

    I enjoyed your post, Mike; the pubs were one of my very favorite things when we visited England. Have a great day!

    Denise at Forest Manor

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  14. There is something really quaint and different with English Pubs.
    Some of the names are really most amusing which makes the pubs
    all the more enjoyable.
    There are some English and Irish pubs here and German Beer Halls, but they
    are not same as those in the three countries of their origin.
    Thankfully the beer served in the English ones here is cold, I just can't drink
    room temperature beer.
    Colin (Brisbane.Australia)

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    1. There's a place for an ice-cold lager; but real ale needs to be cool, not chilled, tasty, not full of gas and often has bits floating in it... :-).

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    2. No floating stuff in beer here, Mike.
      The publican would have no patrons and be broke in a week!
      Plus it would have to be nice and cold with a nice head on it.
      I come from a long line of publicans.
      Cheers
      Colin

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    3. Another cultural thing, Colin - and a bit of a wind-up. But the UK caters for fringe tastes like ice-cold frothy stuff too...I come from a long line of drinkers. Can't find a blog or other profile from you to comment on?

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  15. Colleges own pubs? I didn't know that.
    I'm not a beer person (cocktails are more my thing), but I still feel very much at home at my local, an Irish pub a 10-minute-walk from where I live. They do quiz nights every Tuesday, and my team and I just love it - we can't go every Tuesday, but we try to get in about once every 4-6 weeks.

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  16. "The Eagle" pub in Cambridge was also once "The Eagle And Child". It's most famous association is with scientific, rather than literary, types; Crick and Watson announcing the discovery of the structure of DNA there in 1953.

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    1. You could write an amusing article about that! Yes - there's Eagle and Child pubs all over the place; a personal favourite is one in Staveley, near Kendal, which has a garden next to a little river where you might spot an otter, and which serves great ales and food.

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  17. What fun, and what a great history for 'The Eagle and Child'. I'm sure my HB would love it, great Tolkien fan as he is. I love the pubs of Britain, but would not dream of going into one in Australia!

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  18. Hello Mike....As usual, a very interesting post....my home library has 5 or 6 books by CS Lewis. Thanks for stopping by for a comment on my recent post.

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  19. Quaffing ale and solving problems - what a great way to spend some time!

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  20. Sounds like a good place for a pint, would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when those 2 met.

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  21. Wonderful pubs in Oxford. Another favourite is The Bear.

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  22. Hi Mike, now I'm back from 'Blighty' I hope to have more time to catch up with your posts. Looks like you've been getting around the countryside in search of always interesting British history.

    Old pubs - OMG, aren't they just fabulous in the UK, so full of history. We did our share of pub-crawling whilst in Devon and London - and I always look for the oldest ones where head-ducking and "watch it on the cobbles" seem necessary! This trip though, our London pub one night, at one time owned by members of Will Shakespeare's family, was perhaps a little too far gone (when it came to cleanliness). While dining upstairs surrounded by old wall hangings and rafters, we were joined by not one, but three tiny mice zipping about the carpet under our heavy oak table looking for their supper!
    Thankfully the granddaughter, or I, didn't scream - but we told the Russian barmaid who had seen them before, and she went down to tell the manager - not good having mice where food is stored. Apparently London is rife with mice - all I could think was thank the Lord they were not rats - you would have heard my screams for sure!
    Our oldest pub in Torquay is the Hole in the Wall, circa 1540 - we did stop in there where we met a lovely couple from Scotland celebrating their 40th anniv. - they spent their honeymoon in Torquay and it was their first time back! Smugglers used the pub and there may be a tunnel to the bay where they hauled the brandy ashore!

    Yes, you should get down to Devon with Mrs. Britain - I know you'd have a good time.
    Best wishes - Mary

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  23. Methinks more could be learned in places like that than classrooms.

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  24. It looks like a nice cosy place to while away an hour or two :-)

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  25. How neat to sit there where such famous writers have been in the past. It looks like a cozy spot.

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  26. Loved your wonderous way with words.

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  27. I've got to come up with another way to say, 'Great post, Mike.' LOL I love this place. But then, Lewis is one of my favorite authors - not only because of the Narnia series, but God in the Dock is probably my favorite, and I like many of his other books. AND, of course, Oxford also because of Inspector Morse. We visited Eagle and Child in March. Did you notice my initials carved in the table? Oxford is magical, and Eagle and Child even more so. (I've tried, but can't get into the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I know, I'm the only person on the planet...)

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  28. Delightful read...and it does look like a charming spot!

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  29. I'm sure the place is full of magic with stories just floating through the air or maybe the beer

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  30. Un lugar con mucha historia y encanto.
    Gracias por compartir.
    Saludos.

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    1. Hi Manuel - thanks for dropping by; hope you visit often!

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  31. Un lugar con mucha historia y encanto.
    Gracias por compartir.
    Saludos.

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  32. Un lugar con mucha historia y encanto.
    Gracias por compartir.
    Saludos.

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  33. Very interesting read - it looks a lovely little pub too!

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  34. I do love a good pub, good beer and some great history as to who has supped a pint or two! To be in one that had the writer of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is the icing on the cake! Have a great weekend.

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  35. I remember being a little disappointed that it was just a "normal" pub!

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  36. This one is on my to-do list. Speaking of lists.

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  37. Looks like a great cosy pub for a quiet drink - or a noisy one (depending on who one is with).

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  38. I'm not a big beer drinker but I just adore these pubs, I like this name too, oddly enough. We visited as many as possible while over there, and silly me tried one beer Sam Smith it was (I can finally get it over here) and it's the only beer I'd order!

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  39. Oh this was a fun one. I have seen Inspector Lewis :-) there is an episode where the Sword of Truth is stolen!! And is the murder weapon.

    My boys are huge fans of both authors.

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Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to www.bitaboutbritain.com and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.