A rural ride through Oxfordshire

Oxfordshire, Coxwell
Yesterday was my birthday, and now that I’m halfway to 84 I figured the best way to spend it was with other decaying leftovers from ages past. I mean medieval buildings, not my travel companions.

Oxfordshire offers plenty of hikes, historic buildings, and good restaurants. To celebrate my increasing decrepitude, some friends drove my wife and I from Oxford to the nearby village of Great Coxwell to see a rare survival from the Middle Ages–the Great Coxwell Barn. While there’s no shortage of medieval churches and castles still standing in England, there aren’t many well-preserved medieval barns. This one was owned by the Cistercian Beaulieu Abbey and was built around 1300 AD. It was part of a grange (farm) owned by the abbey and worked by lay brothers and servants. The barn stored the produce of the grange as well as the tithe of the parish farmers.

The exterior looks remarkably churchlike, while the interior is a vast open space with a slate roof supported by an impressive system of wooden posts, beams and rafters, all connected by pegs or slots and tabs. Metal was expensive back then, and not a single nail was used in the construction of this massive roof.

%Gallery-130852%Great Coxwell also has a small church that’s about a hundred years older than the barn. It’s just up the hill in the middle of a churchyard filled with moss-covered gravestones that centuries of weathering have pushed over into crazy angles. Just the thing to see on your birthday! On a happier note the churchyard is a managed wildlife area with a colorful variety of wildflowers. These folks are pushing up more than just daisies.

The church has been much restored but has some interesting early inscriptions and a tiny winding passageway behind the pulpit that I could barely squeeze into. Sadly it led around a single turn and straight into a wall made of rubble and mortar. My mind conjured up all sorts of legends and ghostly walled-up monks, but the more likely explanation for this barrier is that it’s to keep nosy visitors from going up the steps.

For lunch we visited The White Hart in Fyfield. This restaurant/pub (called a “gastropub” over here) is in the old Hospital of St. John the Baptist, built in the mid-to-late 1400s. The “hospital” was actually an almshouse, housing five poor people as well as a priest whose job it was to say masses for the benefactor. We ate in the main hall beneath old wooden beams. Beyond the bar was a huge medieval fireplace.

The food was as good as the atmosphere. Many of the ingredients are locally sourced, some from as close as their own garden. I had the slow-roasted belly of Kelmscott pork, apple, celeriac puree, carrots, crackling, and cider jus. Utterly delicious. For dessert I had a roast peach with raspberry sorbet, topped with a spider’s web of spun sugary something. Sorry, I’m not a foodie writer, just trust me that it was good. My companions’ meals looked equally good and we washed it down with real ale from the Loose Cannon Brewery from nearby Abingdon.

Not a bad way to grow older!

The number 66 bus runs regularly between Oxford and Fyfield. This bus stops at Faringdon, where you can take the number 61 to Great Coxwell.