Jonathan R Jones checks into The Lion at Wendlebury, Oxfordshire, an eighteenth-century village inn which has blossomed into a luxe Cotswold bolthole.
Recently acquired by the Brakspear chain, the rooms and restaurant of The Lion in the pretty Oxfordshire village of Wendlebury have undergone a seriously stylish makeover. A new purpose-built annex in signature Cotswold stone adds thirteen new garden and first-floor boutique bedrooms. A stone’s throw from Junction 9 of the M40 and a short drive from the designer bargains of Bicester Village outlet centre, The Lion is the perfect base for punishing your credit card or exploring the spectacular Cotswolds.
We stayed in room 8. A generously sized garden room at the back of the hotel, it’s away from the bustle of the courtyard and restaurant and has direct access to (a currently ‘work in progress’) outdoor space.
The look is ‘contemporary country’. A sprawling sleigh bed felt like the size of the neighbouring field and shimmered in crisp, white linens and luxuriously soft duck down bedding by Feather and Black. The putty-coloured walls throughout the hotel are painted in Farrow & Ball’s unmistakable French Grey while the wallpaper comes courtesy of Cole & Son (part of their William Morris re-imagined collection). A well stuffed sofa bed and framed botanical prints complete the look, and everywhere there are touches of muted plaid, tweed, wicker and fur. Thick wool carpets and velvet black-out curtains make for a cosy feel, the whole space guaranteeing a good night’s sleep.
Fun retro touches like a manual dial phone and wind-up Newgate alarm clock, are paired with modern essentials including a Nespresso machine and good-sized flat-screen TV. The overall effect is calming and smart but laid-back enough to not feel stuffy. Homemade shortbread, posh teas, fancy truffle crisps, and complimentary bottled waters welcomed us to our room. There’s even a selection of glossies including, of course, Country Living
But do you know what impressed me the most? Two plug sockets either side of the bed. I know we’re all supposed to be going off grid in the bedroom but as a seasoned business traveller, nothing could make me happier.
The en-suite continued the muted grey palette. Crackle-glazed tiles set off the smart white Burlington ceramics and traditional chrome fixtures and fittings. Last but not least, a seriously powerful walk-in rain shower (my other hotel must-have) was the perfect place to indulge in the Temple Spa toiletries.
Food and drink
We visited on a sunny Sunday evening so grabbed a table outside in the flag-stoned courtyard. We started with scallops and a terrine from the selection of ‘small plates’. The rustic Pressed Chicken, Apricot and Tarragon Terrine was attractively presented but on the sweet side due to the fruit and lacked the necessary savoury bite. We couldn’t detect the tarragon. It came with a generous serving of delightful pickled beetroot and was served on a bed of carrot and apple puree. The Pan-Roasted King Scallops were also beautifully tuned out. Perfectly cooked with a citrus burst of lemon gel they were slightly let down by some burnt pancetta (we’ve all made that mistake).
It being a Sunday, there were pork, beef and chicken roasts on offer with all the trimmings (including duck fat roasties) but on such a sultry summer evening we fancied something lighter. The Pan-Fried Sea Bream was juicy and fresh and was accompanied by a rather wet pepperonata but perfect lovage pesto. The Rump of Lamb may not have arrived pink as requested but my dining partner was in raptures nevertheless. He raved about the rich mix of summery flavours from a parmesan polenta, pea fricasse and puree and a rosemary jus. On the side, triple-cooked chips were good; the garlic and truffled spinach was truly great.
And for dessert…the Sticky Toffee Pudding would have been better bet in October; dense, gooey and a bit naughty. We couldn’t get enough of the Rhubarb and Rosehip Pavlova – think Eton Mess tidied up – with just that right balance of tartness.
To drink there’s a fine selection of cask beers, wines (by the glass and bottle) and cocktails, as you’d expect from a Brakspear inn. We found a decent Picpoul de Pinet amongst the whites and a great Chilean Pinot Noir amongst the reds.
Look and vibe
Dine either in the attractive flag-stoned courtyard – where you’re sure to meet resident Billy, a majestic black long-haired cat – or in the homely yet stylish lounge. We loved the walls styled with hanging plates, cutlery and garden tools. And although there is a fair amount of dried lavender involved, the barn-style interior stays on the ‘shabby chic’ side of rural interiors. Modern, green oak frames support a handsome vaulted ceiling. No less than three beautiful, working fireplaces and a wood-burning stove are certain to keep the whole place snug during the colder months and make a winter return a must.
Rooms cost from £130 a night on a B&B basis. In the restaurant starters are from £6.50, main dishes from £11 and desserts from £6. There’s a daily-changing Blackboard Specials menu, and a Set Lunch menu Monday to Friday from 12pm – 6pm with two courses for £13.95 and three courses for £16.50.
The bottom line
With attention to detail this strong, this boutique gem gives the bigger chains a run for their money. The Lion made for the perfect summer escape to the country, but we’re certain to return for a cosy winter retreat.
The Lion at Wendlebury, Wendlebury Road, Wendlebury, Bicester, Oxfordshire OX25 2PW, Tel: 01869 388228, www.thelionwendlebury.co.uk