November 5th, 2009


Tea and cakes and Isis

We had a lovely low-key bonfire night at the Isis Farmhouse: a decent-sized bonfire in the corner of the Meadowside garden, delicious lentil and chestnut soup in a mug, equally delicious (and powerfully brandy-ish) mulled wine in another mug, and free sparklers from the bar. No fireworks of their own; their events email promised "a view across the Meadows of Oxford's fireworks", but we didn't see any at the time and in fact we were content to stand in the warmth of the bonfire for a while drinking our mulled wine, and waving our sparklers for a few moments of electric crackle in the woody darkness. On the way back along the moonlit towpath we heard fireworks, and ended up standing on Donnington Bridge watching some quite impressive fireworks far across the fields and beyond the ring road (Kennington, maybe?), all huge blossoming reds and greens. Then came home and were treated to another brief but no less impressive fireworks display from the house nearly opposite, tweetly crackly doodlebugs and rockets exploding into massive chrysanthemums of fire across the street, leaving charred spiderwebs across the cloudy sky.

The Isis is our nearest pub now; I'd always thought of it (insofar as I'd thought of it at all) as a summer pub -- a riverside tavern for punting to, or for sitting outside in the sun with a cool beer and a view of the boats going past -- but at the moment it's a wonderful warm autumnal hearth-from-home, hidden among the wet leaves, its flickering lights reflecting on the dark water. The flickering lights aren't just poetic licence: it's heated by a wood-burning stove, with incredibly low lighting (just the stove, candles, a couple of lamps, some red fairy lights across one wall). It's also only barely decorated, raw plaster showing through in places, but the overall feeling is not so much "building site" as "I know we haven't finished decorating but we couldn't wait to start inviting people round, come in, sit down, have some nice warm soup" -- a lovely homely feel. And talking of soup... we've been there a few times for food now and it has always been delicious: meals I recall have included a tasty and filling chickpea curry; a big bowl of borscht with slabs of warm crusty bread; tonight's lentil and chestnut soup; and (not strictly speaking a meal, but still very welcome) big slices of home-made cake. The food menu usually only has two or three choices (one of which is always beans on toast, but it's a good-sized portion of beans on a doorstep of crusty toast, with cheese on top), and it tends towards the one-pot style (soup, curry, stew), but I've still always struggled to choose because everything on offer looks tasty! The beer is mostly Cotswold lagers (plus a couple of guest beers in casks); there's a choice of proper bottled cider (Henney's, Weston's, and something else I can't remember); it's also the sort of pub where I wouldn't feel self-conscious just ordering a coffee.

At the moment the Isis seems to be trying lots of different things (as the Jam Factory did in the early days of its current incarnation -- and it seems to have been a successful tactic there!): a Stornoway gig earlier this year, a free mini-festival at the end of the summer featuring local-ish indie bands, and other music nights coming up soon ('Mongrel English folk' session on Friday 12th, trad English folk session on Sunday 14th); films showing in the converted barn at the side of the pub (which was also the main stage at the festival); bonfire night tonight; open for Christmas and New Year. It'll be interesting to see whether this will mean they start to open on more nights of the week -- if I had to think of something to complain about (and I'd be struggling) it'd be that they're only open Wednesday to Sunday (don't worry, addedentry has added their opening hours to the excellent new wiki, so you don't have to remember that).

As well as being cosy and welcoming, the Isis seems to be doing well on the environmental front -- not just because you can't get there in a car but in a far more focused way than I'd realised until reading the owners' latest mailshot:
"When we arrived at the Isis, it was an ecological mini-disaster area. Having sorted out the piles of rotting rubbish, and got the sewage treatment plant working (it does discharge straight into the Thames, after all), and cut down some dominant and alien conifers, and taken the 500 litres of used vegetable oil to the biofuel manufacturer, and removed the three skip fulls of scrap metal on site, we could start to think about our carbon footprint. Now, we burn only wood on our stove, so most of our space heating is carbon neutral. And our new air-conditioning is via an air-to-air heat pump, providing about 3kW of heat for every kW of electricity. And we're about to insulate the roof of The Barn, our film / party / meeting space, so that it's warmer, uses less energy to heat, and is better sound-insulated."
(I hope they don't mind me quoting them so extensively. It's just because I'm impressed.)

Far too many riverside pubs seem to default to either beefeaterish blandness (people will visit for the view and a cold beer, why bother trying beyond that?) or leather-armchair gastro blandness (I'm looking at you, The Perch) -- the Isis has managed to be completely different without being gimmicky. The food and drink is great, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming, and it's near enough to us that we can run and hide there when our central heating breaks down.