Looking for walk and lunch combo? Muddy grabs a perch at The Perch, the idyllic riverside thatched pub in Oxford's Port Meadow.
Drive just a few minutes down Binsey Lane, away from the traffic-choked Botley Road in central Oxford, and you’ll arrive, as if by magic, at The Perch, the bucolic riverside idyll and Oxford institution. There’s been a hostelry on this site for 800 years – the current incarnation is a Grade II-listed 17th century thatched building – and illustrious guests over the years have included Lewis Carroll, who did public readings of Alice In Wonderland in the garden, legendarily grumpy TV detective Inspector Morse… and now Muddy Stilettos. Lucky old Perch, eh?
It’s clearly still a crowd-puller, even eight centuries in. We arrived at 12.15pm on a Friday lunchtime and the car park was completely full, as were most of the verges on the narrow lane that runs down to the pub. You’re probably better off walking down from Wolvercote or up from Jericho, along the river. After all, the Thames, which snakes through Port Meadow, with its menagerie of cows, horses, ducks, kayakers and wild swimmers, is the big draw here. It’s hard to think of a better located pub in the county, in fact.
It’s one of those places that works for almost all occasions. The sprawling beer garden, punctuated with ancient weeping willows, was full of dog walkers supping pints, while the marquee at the end of the grass was being prepped for a wedding. (One of my best friends got married here, with us all arriving by boat, and it was wonderful.) There’s an outdoor drinks and bar snacks kiosk called The Shed which wasn’t open on our visit but perhaps should’ve been, given how darn busy it was. Meanwhile, the indoor dining room is all rustic charm, with a vast leather Chesterfield, stone walls, cosy nooks and piles of logs framing the woodburner.
You can also now dine in the Garden Room, which opened earlier this summer. It used to be a drafty temporary structure but now it’s an airy, oak-beamed conservatory, packed with smartly-dressed inter-generational family groups on our visit. We, however, plonked ourselves outside, on the terrace, which was dotted with barrels and beds teeming with lush foliage and flowers. Buy that gardener a pint, pronto!
If you seeking a pub with a buzz and/or want to tick off a classic Oxford experience, you’ll have a grand old time here. There’s a friendly, relaxed feel to the service which I like though on the day we visited we waited a looong time for our lunch (our waiter George was charming and attentive though).
SCOFF & QUAFF
The Perch was once a French fine dining spot but these days it offers more accessible gastropub fare. The short-ish menu is mainly gussied-up pub classics – pork belly, pie, fish and chips, burgers, plus a few lighter options. I sometimes find gastropub menus feel overwhelmingly blokey – meat-heavy, very carb-y, billions of calories, hardly any vegetables – but pleasingly three out of 10 main course options here were veggie and there’s a vegan menu available on request. Like any restaurant worth its Maldon sea salt these days, the focus here is on seasonal ingredients, locally sourced where possible.
I started with the vegetarian plate, which was crammed with homity pie (me neither – it’s a West Country recipe; potato, leek and cheese based), celeriac remoulade, toasted mushrooms, goat’s cheese, homemade bread and much more. It was enormous so I followed with a summer salad of artichoke, broad bean, courgette, radish and Caerphilly. It was an imaginative combo but too heavy on the dressing for my taste.
My husband nailed a Perch burger, with farmhouse cheddar, crispy smoked bacon and chips, while our children were happy with their fish and chips from the decent kids’ menu. (Full marks for trying to get ’em to eat their veg but I did wonder if any child has ever ordered the heritage beetroot pearl barley risotto option?!)
We were too full for dessert but my sugar fiend son managed a ridiculously indulgent bowl of custard peppered with marshmallows.
I was impressed with the thoughtful by-the-glass wine list – often there’s little choice unless you go for a full bottle but here there were seven reds, six whites, two rosés and three sparklers. I tried a rosé produced precisely 14 miles down the road, at Brightwell Vineyards.
OUT & ABOUT
A one minute stroll down the pergola-lined walkway brings you out onto the towpath and the delights of Port Meadow. It always blows my mind that this languorous green space is in the middle of such a vibrant city. Do take time for a wander along the waterfront to walk off your lunch and marvel at the swimming cows. If you fancy doing a spread-out pub crawl that nails your fitness tracker’s daily step count (more hike than crawl, really) you could head north to Jacob’s Inn in Wolvercote or south to the delights of Walton Street in Jericho. And if you visit during spring or summer, Medley Manor Farm is a few minutes along the river and does PYO.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Warm days when you can sit outside and take advantage of those wonderful walks – so go now before winter encroaches. It’s very child-friendly, with a good kids’ menu, patient staff and lots of space to roam free. I would take out-of-town visitors of all ages here for the classic Oxford experience. And if you’re looking for a bohemian, low-key wedding venue, it’s well worth a look.
Not for: Hipsters, fine diners, anyone who’s (a) in a hurry or (b) doesn’t like crowds.
The damage: Standard for central Oxford with starters £7-£10 and mains £14-£18. The kids’ menu is good value at £8.95 for a main course plus dessert.
The Perch Inn, Binsey, Oxford, OX2 0NG. Tel: 01865 728891; the-perch.co.uk