When you visit Oxford you are surrounded by history of all types. Some of the colleges were founded in the 13th Century, and their famous alumni are too numerous to count, stretching across all imaginable professions including historians, chemists, writers, explorers, politicians and more. One quite pleasurable way to make a connection with some of these denizens of the past is to visit their old stomping grounds for a pint or two.
There are quite a number of very old pubs in Oxford, some dating from the 15th Century. With the resurgence of Real Ale, the selection of drink at most pubs has greatly improved over the last 20 years or so. Look for the hand pumped taps to try some local specialties.
When I come to Oxford for the Symposium on Food and Cookery, I always try to visit a couple of pubs I haven’t been to before. This year I tried out the Eagle and Child which is in a building built in the 16th Century and became a pub in approximately 1650.
Notably, the Eagle and Child is associated with several writers who studied and/or taught at Oxford, including J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis. They were part of a group called the Inklings which met from about 1933-1963 at Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College to read aloud unfinished works. The group also had a standing lunch date on Tuesday afternoons at the Eagle and Child (or the Bird and Baby as they liked to call it). They would sit in the then back room (the pub has since been extended in the rear), known as the Rabbit Room.
The name of the pub is supposedly derived from the eagle and child on the coat of arms of the Earl of Derby. However, the Earl’s lands are in Lancashire and there is also a pub called the Eagle and Child there which used to lie on the Earl’s estate, so who knows?
Legend has it that one of the Earls of Derby back in the 14th Century had not succeeded in fathering a male heir (he and his wife had one daughter). Trying to ensure the continuation of his line, he had a dalliance with a noblewoman whom he kept in style nearby. This liaison resulted in the birth of a bastard son. The Earl then arranged to have his son “found” in an eagle’s nest dressed in clothing appropriate to a noble child. The story of a child found in an eagle’s nest is common to several mythologies of ancient Europe including Norway and France, so perhaps this is where the Earl got the idea. In any case, his wife agreed to adopt the child and raise it as their son and heir.
While sipping my pint, I got to wondering if Mr. Tolkien created the giant eagle that rescues Galdalf from Sarumon’s tower in The Lord of The Rings on a Tuesday afternoon while drinking at the Eagle and Child.