EATING OUT: HELLOS AND GOODBYES
A fond Muddy farewell to Ian and Caron Williams, owners of The Star Inn at Sparsholt. The coupele took it over nine years ago, and during their tenure have retained two AA rosettes and been awarded Good Pub Guide County Dining Pub of the Year. Stepping into the breach is new owner Alastair Storey – he already owns the Berks Michelin-starred restaurant and cookery school The Woodspeen so we think it in safe hands!
Also a sad goodbye to the current team at Goring’s characterful and award-winning pub, The Miller of Mansfield, which closed last weekend after the current owners couldn’t reach an agreement with landlords on the rent. After surviving a fire and COVID, Mary & Nick said the price hike was the final nail in the coffin. There’s hints of a new venture, which will be foodie and local, so I’ll let you know when I hear more.
And some good news! Say an excitable hello to the new garden at The Bull on Bell Street. The courtyard at this lovely foodie pub in Henley is getting a complete refurb. It was last zhuzhed in 2018 when a bar and barbecue area was added, so I can’t wait to see what they’ve got up their sleeve this time.
FOOD & DRINK
The bottle that’s just been crowned England’s best London dry gin is made in Oxfordshire! The Henley Distillery is celebrating (with a tipple no doubt) after clinching the Country Winner award for its Henley Gin. After nabbing the nationwide award, Henley Gin will next be pitted against other national winners in a bid to claim title of the World’s Best. Bottoms up to that!
And while I’m on the subject of local gin (my Mastermind specialist subject in case you hadn’t twigged), there are even more ways to enjoy it thanks to Cookham Cocktail Club. Launching 4 March, this is a party that comes to you – in the form of a gin tasting event, mixology class or any gin-themed shindig you can dream up. Cocktails can be locally themed using ingredients that are sourced nearby, or if you’ve got the mixologist bit down pat, you can just order a bottle of its signature gin ‘No.5’.
Knoops, the cult hot chocolate brand, is opening its first Oxford shop on Turl Street on 11 Feb. If you’ve not been to one of its stores already across London, and in Rye and Brighton, here’s what to expect – a chocolate barista-style experience where you can pick your choc by cocoa percentage/tasting notes/origin and get precisely the elixir you want – hot or cold and with cow’s milk or one of six non-dairy milks. Accompanying the drinks will be goodies from Gatineau, the local artisan bakery. Heaven right there.
The Oxford Fine Food Store opened in Oxford last week on the former site of the Queens Bakery in Headington. The premise, from Simon and Samantha Stonehouse, is to sell super-fresh and local ingredients and products from artisan producers and makers. It’s open seven days a week and has a coffee bar and food to takeaway as well as grocery goodies and gifts.
Blue Tin Produce, a fabulous farmshop and café in Ipsden has been in the limelight again, appearing on Escape to the Country (BBC) fresh from its BBC Food & Farming final spotlight at the end of last year, then had a visit from Strictly’s Graziano over the weekend. I have it tipped as a honeypot for celebs over the coming weeks.
PLACES TO STAY
Oxford has some fabulous hotels – The Old Parsonage, Old Bank Hotel, Vanbrugh House Hotel and The Randolph Hotel (more on that, below) but I’m always excited to see another place open its doors – and this time it’s Greyfriars Hideaway, a pair of 17th-century self-catering apartments on Paradise Street, sleeping four and eight respectively with a courtyard garden, luxe interiors and a complete concierge and butler service if you want the full shebang.
Artist Residence, a quirky Muddy fave retreat just west of Oxford has opened a family friendly suite, The Hideaway, in converted outbuildings. It sleeps up to four in a super king bed and two single bunks. With statement copper bathtub and rainfall shower, log burner and fabulously boho decor, there’s no stinting on style, and you’ve still got the fab Mason Arms for supper sans taxi.
Oxford’s iconic Randolph Hotel threw a glam party to celebrate its reopening since being bought and refurbed as part of the Graduate Hotels collection, which – you guessed it – has properties in studenty cities. It’s now fully open with bars, restaurant and event spaces all themed around Oxford history, plus chintzy but elegant bedrooms and a spa.
Squeals of excitement across the border at Muddy Berkshire HQ with news that the bucolic 18th century mansion house Elcot Park in Newbury is undergoing a refurbishment and will reopen in the spring as The Retreat – Elcot Park. It’s the second property from The Signet Collection, who caused quite stir when it opened The Mitre in Hampton Court in 2020.
As its name suggests, the emphasis at The Retreat is on rest and recuperation, with hydrotherapy pools, sauna and steam in the spa, tennis courts, and – the piece de resistance – an infinity pool with Whispering Angel pool bar and private cabanas. It will also have a bakery, hair salon, wine shop and coffee house and two eateries. Rooms will be bright and breezy, with splashes of bold colour, standalone baths and sumptuous beds.
You want more? Alright then! The Bucks Grade II-Listed beauty, Horwood House, has opened its fabulous new H Spa, which includes pool, sauna, steam, treatment rooms, snazzy gym and relaxation areas so you can go full sybarite for the day or just dip in for a treatment/workout. The spa menu offers face and body treatments using the luxe French brand, Caudalie, and there’s a load of spa packages that include meals or overnight stays if you want to stay be-robed for the full 24 hours.
ARTS & CULTURE
Oxford’s Honresfield Library has been saved from closure after a campaign raised £15m to keep it going. It means that hundreds of original and rare works by authors such as Jane Austen, have been saved from private sale including manuscripts and private letters. Half of the donation came from one person – Sir Leonard Blavatnik – the richest person in the UK. He made money in show business and heavy industry though evidently has a soft-spot for literature too.
And still in Oxford, the innovative and edgy theatre group, Creation Theatre, has launched its latest digital show, The Witch of Edmonton, which will be performed live, to be watched on screen, on 5-20 March. The show tackles a witchcraft trial set 400 years ago and invites the audience to be judge and jury. Expect a powerful and thought-provoking show, if past performances are anything to go by.