On Beer and Human Company: How the Rusty Bicycle is Becoming a Part of the Neighborhood

So, finally, here it is, a proper post on the Rusty Bicycle! The landlords were kind enough to have a chat with me this afternoon, so I got to find out more about what's going on, and as far as I can tell, it's good things. See below...in the meantime, I think I'm off for a quick pint down the road, and I suggest you do similar...

On the corner of Hurst Street and Magdalen Road, deep in the heart of East Oxford and nestled between the Cowley and Iffley roads, used to live the pub where cheer and warmth went to die: the Eagle Tavern. Now it’s the home of the Rusty Bicycle, a wood-floored gem run by a pair of young, friendly landlords. My interest in the pub is partly selfish (it’s a matter of yards from my own house), but mostly, if I’m honest, cultural.

Hilaire Belloc, a transplanted Frenchman with an appreciation for all things English, wrote this in 1948: “Change your hearts or you will lose your inns, and you will deserve to have lost them. But when you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.”

Perhaps it takes a foreigner to see the truest importance of pubs; and if that’s the case, I’m certainly qualified. In my California youth, the pub was the pinnacle of exoticism, required a stretch of the imagination just to envisage. It’s one of England’s most famous institutions, built on simple foundations (beer, human company) that have outlasted every recent age, outlived every war and every movement for centuries. And today it runs the risk of becoming sterile. I am not an expert on pubs, but even I can tell that there’s a sadness in the hollow bellies of mass-marketed establishments like O’Neill’s, Wetherspoons, The Slug and Lettuce, places so often replicated, and in so many different locales, that they have ceased to be anything but a holding pen for the tipsy and the more-than-tipsy. The contrast to the Rusty Bicycle, which is still only in its infancy but, as far as I can tell, in good hands, is striking.

Alex Arkell and Chris Manners are fresh out of university. They talked about running their own pub idly, but had other plans until a passing comment from Arkell’s father, the chairman of Swindon-based Arkell’s Brewery, set them on a short path that ended at the Rusty Bicycle.

The turnaround was almost shockingly quick—they’re still breathless talking about it. Manners was heading to Berlin, he says, his travel companion had already bought a ticket, and then, suddenly, he was a pub landlord. The Eagle, true to its reputation, wasn’t in good shape when he and Arkell arrived, but four skips and a lorry full of rubbish later, they had purged the building of mold, carpet, rotting meat, and a weary atmosphere.

The renovation, funded by Arkell’s, resulted in a complete transformation of the pub, which now features warm wood floors, a fireplace, bold wallpaper, and an assortment of furniture handpicked by the young landlords. The result is a pub with personality, enhanced by the photographs and drawings, all done by friends of the landlords.

Still, say Arkell and Manners, the Rusty Bicycle is a work in progress. When I meet with them on a chilly Tuesday afternoon, they are busy hanging a dartboard. They are also looking further ahead, awaiting installation of the internet so that they can offer customers free wifi, as well as a phone line so that they can accept cards (they currently have a cash-only policy). They look forward to opening during the daytime and being able to serve food, as well, and hope to eventually feature live music, open mic evenings, poetry, and quiz nights. They’re still finishing things off, they say, and don’t want to rush anything, but, as Manners points out, “it’s all about not getting stale.”

And so far success, it seems, is on their side: they have sold more alcohol in two weeks of business than the Eagle sold in an entire year. But it’s when they start talking about their clientele, however, that Arkell and Manners begin to reveal what makes them so different—and so refreshing—in a city, a nation, of pubs.

“We don’t want to alienate the local people,” says Manners, and in East Oxford, this can mean catering to a hugely diverse range of people, from students to young couples to established locals who have lived here for years. The landlords say their main goal is to make everyone feel welcome, and that they especially want to draw in people who are looking for a nice pub to settle into for the evening. This, I think, surely this is the point of the pub? And am thrilled to hear them affirm it.

Publicity for the Rusty Bicycle has been almost exclusively word-of-mouth—which in itself has tied the pub even more tightly to the community, who have, upon recommending it, at least some small sense of ownership of it.

This sense of interactivity is crucial, and Arkell and Manners are making the best of it. They tell me that just the other day, they had a customer come in with a photograph of a rusty bicycle, and that they’re going to frame it and put it up; another customer, they say, wants to partner with them to sell his sculptures, made of old bike parts. They may be young, and lacking in traditional experience, but if they do want to be not just a pub but a local pub, they are doing all the right things.

“A good local pub,” writes Paul Kingsnorth in his book Real England: The Battle Against the Bland, “serving good local beer, is the ultimate antidote to placeless globalisation. At its best, it can be the perfect representation of a rooted, human scale institution serving good-quality local produce, which results in good-quality local enjoyment.” The world is huge and times, they tell us, are dark; things that are good, and human-scaled, may be just about all we can take these days. And, anyway, as Kingsnorth writes, “It’s hard to know what more to ask for.”

The Rusty Bicycle 28 Magdalen Road Oxford Oxfordshire OX4 1RB
Opening Hours are Monday-Thursday 6 pm-11 pm, Friday and Saturday 6 pm-1 am, Sunday 6 pm-10:30 pm, but check back shortly as the pub plans on opening during the daytime soon!

And Some More Rusty Bicycle:

Where it is...
An article in the Oxford Mail