Alexandra Fraser visits the self-styled 'Bond Street of Oxfordshire’ – and thanks to a rather wonderful new place to eat, even manages to persuade her other half to join her.
Bicester Village is a surprisingly harmonious mix of quaint countryside and luxury fashion. Take away the signs that read ‘Dolce & Gabana’ and ‘Bamford Haybarn’, the price tags which are synonymous with these brands and the occasional sharp pain of a stiff shopping bag hitting your leg and one could be forgiven for thinking they were in the middle of a quiet – extraordinarily well colour-coordinated – provincial town.
I’d visited Bicester as a child and found it to be marvellous – if a little out of my pocket money price range. Thankfully my parents took pity on my wistful gaze and completed my retail experience by purchasing me a Ralph Lauren knit blanket at the fraction of the price one would find it labeled for in a traditional retail store.
Herein lies the beauty of Bicester. Designer brands relegate their castaways, reduced products and discontinued lines, as well as their latest collections, to this quite corner of Oxford where one can often find the bargain of the century – a bargain which can make a contrite 15 year old feel slightly less guilty about spilling a bottle of sparkly nail polish on said blanket.
Shops like Pandora offer discounts on additional charms purchased and others knock large chunks off eye-watering price tags. It’s not the place to do your weekly grocery shop but if you’re in the market for luxury goods, the savings do add up.
‘One person’s retail heaven is, after all, another’s absolutely-never-why-would-you-even-suggest-it nightmare’
When offered the opportunity to go explore Bicester as an adult (despite the reality that my purchases would probably still be limited to the many delicious food carts which line the ‘streets’) I was elated.
There was just one problem: I quickly realised that I would have to bring along someone a good deal taller than my quaint 5’4″ frame to fight through the crowds which flood down from London every weekend to ogle the gorgeous window displays.
I sensed that this person would be slightly less enthused at the proposed plan; one person’s retail heaven is, after all, another’s absolutely-never-why-would-you-even-suggest-it nightmare.
Thankfully, my apprehension over convincing my partner to pilgrimage to the Bond Street of Oxfordshire just in time for the first Christmas crowds proved to be entirely unfounded, thanks to The Wolseley opening up an outpost. The mention of first class dining at the newest addition to Bicester’s culinary repertoire was enough to get us both on the 11.06 train from Marylebone for a weekend away from the city.
In the unlikely situation of a prior train’s cancellation and the resulting issue of no available seating in any carriage, please note that any pointed looks can be placated by the sight of London melting away to a sea of rolling green and the occasional slightly condescending pat of the knee.
Food and drink
Sophisticated shopping calls for equally high-end dining, thankfully Corbin & King have answered this requisite by opening their first restaurant outside London, providing Bicester with its very own Café Wolseley. Combining British heritage with European grandeur, Café Wolseley and its uncompromising high standards are the perfect addition to Bicester, which plays host to top fashion brands from all around the globe.
Although the café offers a stunning afternoon tea menu, we required something a little heartier after a long morning of marvelling at the stunning wares on sale throughout the village.
The highlight of the meal would have to be both starters, a truffled wild mushroom soup with a light, mousse-like texture and the Severn & Wye oak-smoked salmon, served with capers and a lovely seeded bread. Both met the high standards expected of the Wolseley name and were filling enough that we approached our mains with some apprehension as to whether we would be able to do them justice.
It is a testament to the quality of the salmon that the sirloin steak –served simply with a gorgeous béarnaise, chips and a gem-heart salad, which was woefully neglected in favour of the stunning cut of meat– came second place.
Wolseley’s eclectic menu was perfectly encapsulated in the smoked haddock kedgeree, a very tasty mild curry dish topped with a perfectly poached egg.
Prices for starters begin around £7, with mains from £15/£16– roughly averaging around £56 for 2 courses for 2 people (excluding drinks). To see the menu, please visit www.cafewolseley.com.
Sleep in style
A ten-minute drive from Bicester Village sits The Manor Country House Hotel, a striking countryside retreat built in the late 15th century for the bailiff of Osney Abbey. Weston Manor has received regular updates since its construction, re-fronted in the Tudor style 16th century and once again in the 19th century, with the 13th century moat filled in 1903. Careful care of the property has left it charmingly timeless, perfectly at ease in the gorgeous countryside it sits in.
Most of the rooms are arranged with separate sitting areas designed to make you feel at home. It can be quite hard to tear yourself from what begins to feel like the comfort of your own living room to explore The Manor grounds, but the effort is worth it.
Rows upon rows of perfectly manicured hedging lead you around the garden as what at first appears to be the ruins of an old abbey reveals itself to be the entrance to the swimming pool. Guests are invited to make use of the tennis court during the summer and stroll through the harmonious woodlands in autumn to appreciate their plethora of songbirds.
Things to do
From the 1st November for 11 days, the British Fashion Council for the first time will open an exclusive pop-up boutique at Bicester Village, showcasing some of Britain’s most exciting fashion brands including Peter Piloto – designer of Princess Eugenie’s wedding dress – Marques’Almeida, Christopher Kane and many more.
For a brief retail reprieve, the magnificent Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, sits less than a 20-minute drive from The Manor and offers daily historic tours as well as a wonderful set of Pleasure Gardens and a hedge maze.
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