Pub/Bar of the Month May 2014: The North Star, Steventon, UK
Everyone needs a little respite from the rush and tear of the modern world now and again.
Even just a couple of hours can help, especially if you hide yourself away in a pub that has changed little over the centuries. That was certainly what struck me when I sat quietly with a pint in The North Star.
I had just pulled off the busy A34 dual carriageway, having negotiated the roundabouts and traffic lights of Oxford in peak hour, the local radio station warning me of further stressful incidents ahead if I carried on my headlong dash for home.
So, making a short detour into the village of Steventon, I sought out a pub I'd heard much about but never visited before.
I found The North Star away from the main drag, tucked down a quiet side road called The Causeway that runs along the site of an ancient earthwork.
The pub looks a simple place from the outside, a small, cottagey whitewashed building, broadly T-shaped in structure, with a handsome old Morland Brewery 'artist' plaque still set in the wall.
Of course, Morland's beers – brewed until 2000 no more than five miles from here – are now produced in Bury St Edmunds, thanks to Greene King's take-over and closure of the Abingdon site.
They still sell Morland Original at the pub, but, as quaffable as it is, it's not the beer that locals remember. What else is offered to the beer drinker depends on availability.
On my visit, it was just one other cask ale, Loddon's Ferryman's Gold, although at times the range is greater.
All beers are dispensed in fine fettle by gravity in a cellar that opens into the quarry-tiled main bar. There is no bar counter as such, so you need to order at the stable door.
Pint in hand, you can then turn and take a seat in the big, square settle that provides an effective barrier to draughts creeping under the door.
The settle enfolds three small tables and holds them close to a small fire that, I'm assured by my friendly fellow customers, does a cracking job of keeping out winter chills. Here, old images of steam engines on the walls reveal the origin of the pub's name, in case you missed the locomotive on the fading sign outside.
Engines and Racehorses
Around the corner from the main bar is an equally diminutive second room with a bare-board floor, a few old kitchen tables, traditional agricultural implements and exposed brick walls.
Traction engines feature in the photographs here, along with racehorses; a shove-ha'penny board stands ready for action and a hatch opens into the cellar to save you the hassle of walking that extra five yards.
If you ignore the small TV in the corner (happily not always on), you could easily be back in the 1950s or even earlier.
There is a third area to the pub, one that is larger and more boxy. It has much less character than the main rooms, but serves a purpose in hosting darts matches. On its door is the number one.
The presence of numbers at the entrance to all the areas recalls a time, the locals say, when rooms in a pub were only taxed if they were in use. By keeping a couple closed off, a publican could save a few bob. It's the first time I've come across such a situation, so whether it's true or not, I cannot say.
What I can confirm, however, is the fact that this gem of a pub was very nearly lost to us just over a decade ago, when, in a drunken New Year's Eve moment of madness, a JCB was driven into the sixteenth-century building, causing a reported £100,000-worth of damage.
Thankfully, no one was hurt in the incident and the restoration has been admirable.
You can barely spot the renovation from outside where a few benches, fed by another hatch into the tap room, sit waiting for sunny weather and there's the added attraction of an Aunt Sally pitch.
This old game, involving no more than the throwing of sticks at a china skittle, is still very popular in this part of England on summer evenings and is just the perfect amusement for such simple pubs as The North Star.
Like the pub itself, it's not complicated, it's wholesome fun and, rather wonderfully, takes you away from the stresses of the modern world for just a little while.
The North Star, Stocks Lane, Steventon, Oxfordshire, OX13 6SG, UK
Opening Hours: 5–11; 3–11 Friday; 12–11 Saturday & Sunday; closed Monday