A rural ride through Oxfordshire

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.

Great drinking and dining at London’s gastropubs

The pub is a fine British institution, but the eating is rarely as good as the drinking. When you order food at most pubs, what you get is a preprepared meal that’s heated up in a microwave, not something that’s cooked especially for you.

Some pubs do have good kitchens where they make everything from scratch, like The Fir Tree, my local in Oxford, but it can be hard to tell just by looking at a pub whether the food is good or not. If you want to get some good dining with your real ales, either ask a local or go to a gastropub.

Gastropubs are just what the name implies–pubs that pride themselves as much on their kitchen as on their bar. Last week I tried the Anchor and Hope, named by the folks over at Square Meal and several other reviewers as one of London’s best.

I must admit I wasn’t going in with the clearest state of mind, having just flown in from Missouri that morning and done a full day’s work at the British Library. (Ever read medieval manuscripts while jetlagged? Neither had I) The meal soon perked me up.

It was a Tuesday night but the place was packed and noisy. My friend and I didn’t bother trying to get a table and simply sat at the bar. Service was quick and we enjoyed watching the chefs do their thing in the open kitchen. I ordered the braised hare, and my friend ordered the fried eel, peas, mustard, and bacon.

The braised hare was tender and rich, and I found my friend’s dish pretty good too, even though I am by no means an eel fan. Both dishes came with plenty of flavorful sauce and we cleaned our plates with some sourdough bread. For dessert we had custard fingers. They were good too, but nothing special, so after the excellent entrees they were a bit of a letdown. Our two meals, three pints of Bombardier, and dessert came to just 43 pounds ($70). That’s good value in a city infamous for overpriced and mediocre food.

Other dishes on offer included Foie gras terrine and poached quince; pot roast partridge; braised cuttlefish and chickpeas in ink; and whole roast sea bass, fennel and anchovy dressing. As the night wore on items were crossed off the menu. This is a good sign because it means they only had limited quantities of quality ingredients, but it can lead to disappointment. I’d gone in with my heart set on the wild rabbit, tomato, anchovy, and almonds.

Located at number 36, The Cut, the Anchor & Hope is conveniently close to Waterloo station and the Old Vic and Young Vic theatres, so give it a try when you’re in town, or try one of the many other recommended gastropubs listed at Square Meal.

The word “gastropub” was coined back in 1991 by the owners of The Eagle in Clerkenwell, pictured here. Gastropubs, like many other aspects of English life, are very class-specific. Working-class types tend to dismiss gastropubs as being full of toffs who don’t know what a real pub is, and I have to say there’s a bit of truth to that statement. The gastropubs I’ve been to tend to be a bit less social and attract fewer of the regulars that make traditional pubs into little communities. The three times I’ve lived in England I always had a local pub where I was a regular, but I’ve never become a regular at a gastropub.

Now if someone opened a gastropub that served Ethiopian food, that could change. . .