The Eagle and the Child, a British pub serving patrons since the 17th century, shut its doors in early spring 2020 due to COVID mandates. Having been out of use for so long, it is now in a state of decay, with its future on the line.
The Eagle and Child had been the meeting place for the Inklings, a group of philosophers, theologians, and literary enthusiasts responsible for developing some of the greatest fiction written in modern times. For several decades, the pub hosted J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Hugo Dyson, and several other talented writers who met to discuss the state of les belles-lettres and to exchange their own manuscripts for review.
These men of learning—the group grew and changed throughout the years—met for lunch at the Eagle and the Child most Tuesday afternoons, in a closed-off ‘Rabbit Room,’ from the mid-1930s to 1962. The draft of Lewis’ famous The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe was first read in the Rabbit room in 1950. In 1962, the pub owner removed the walls that made the room private. Thereafter, until Lewis’ death in 1963, the Inklings took their meetings to the Lamb and Flag pub across the street.
Among the famous pubs in Oxford, this one also enjoys a Grade II listing: it’s been officially recognized as a British heritage site worthy of preservation since 1954. But exorbitant costs may prove prohibitive to its continuance. Refurbishment was estimated at around £1 million back in 2020, but this number has inevitably risen since then.
An organization dedicated to keeping pubs from closing has stepped up to save the Eagle and the Child. Campaign for Real Ale, or CAMRA, has called on the pub’s owners, St. John’s College, to account for its neglect.
According to Dave Richardson, a campaigner of the Oxford chapter of CAMRA, something must be done. “It does appear that the Eagle and Child has been left to rot,” said Richardson. “I’m calling on the owners of St. John’s College to provide an update because the pub really is a national treasure.”
St. John’s College had developed extensive plans to renovate the pub, including the provision of boutique hotel rooms, but they seemed to struggle with finding new landlords. Annual rent is estimated at £165,000.
Nevertheless, the owners may be put on the spot. Historical England, the government’s advisor on England’s historic environment, requires that Grade II-listed heritage sites be maintained. Their website states that while “there is no direct legal obligation on the owner of a heritage asset to carry out repairs” repairs may be forced in case “the works are urgently necessary for its preservation.” In that case, and if the owner does not pay for the works, the government has the “power to enter the property, carry out the works and seek to recover the costs from the owner.”
The Eagle and the Child consequently may convert to merely a heritage site and no longer serve as a pub, since the owners are not obliged to restore it according to its original purpose.
The Eagle and Child is known by locals as the Baby and the Bird, or just the ‘Bird.’ The origin of the name remains unsettled. It may either derive from the noble crest of the Earls of Derby, which tells of a child found in an eagle’s nest, or from the legend of Ganymede, a mortal of such beauty that the eagle of Zeus brought him to Olympia to be cupbearer to the gods.