To think that I have lived in London now for nearly a decade and I’m only just discovering the joys of this beautiful country is disturbing. I’m ashamed and as I write this I’m shaking my head and thinking how I’ve let you down in leaving these great adventures until now. So to make up for it I’m hitting the home turf hard and I couldn’t think of a more appropriate way to start things off than with a shopping weekend getaway. Here’s what I love most about what I did this weekend…it isn’t at all what you’re expecting me to write.
Bicester Village invited up to their neck of the woods for two days and they turned what would have otherwise just been a shopping adventure into a complete cultural experience. On Saturday afternoon I lazily made my way to Marylebone station and caught a Chiltern Railway train to Bicester North. The train ride was under an hour and passed in no time at all in perfect comfort. We arrived at the station and travellers on the train were immediately singled out as locals or shoppers from the moment they stopped off the platform. The locals made their merry way into town or to their vehicles and the shoppers jumped on the Bicester Bus which delivers travellers straight to the shopping centre mecca of England.
I was neither a local or a shopper at this point as I was greeted at the station by a lovely local cab service and driven about fifteen minutes away to a small town called Woodstock. My destination: Hope House, a small luxury hotel that is like nothing I’ve encountered before.
I was greeted at the hotel by the owner who informed me I was staying in the Blenheim Suite, a set of rooms that has welcomed many a celeb while filming on location. I was in heaven. Maybe it was the four poster bed, the roaring fire, the massive soaking tube or the heated bathroom floor that had something to do with it! Here’s a video that I believe best captures the magical space as pictures just weren’t doing the trick this time around:
From Hope House I stopped in for a spot of lunch at Feathers and after feeling sufficiently fueled, marched as fast as my legs would carry me to Blenheim Palace. I arrived at 3:30 and was advised sunset was imminent. It took exactly ten steps into the estate for me to wish I had another six hours to view the breathtaking property. The long path lead this humble tourist past a great lake with swans swimming and small children fishing with mocked up poles. The green rolling hills were dotted with grazing sheep accompanied by loud mouthed geese and the scene itself made me believe I had momentarily stepped back in time. As I approached the Palace, workmen were still hard at work preparing the palace for what I can only assume must be the spring opening. I wandered down to the lake and I marvelled at all the happy and healthy faces around me. So this is what it looks like when you live in the country!
Beautiful families with flushed cheeks walked together towards the house with one or two, and sometimes five, dogs trailing behind them (I also must mention I loved watching the guardsman hand out treats to the visiting pups).
The sun began to set and in fact escaped faster than I anticipated. I sat in the hollow of a great tree, which Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe has occupied before me (and greater figures in history as well I’m sure), I stood on the wondrous bridge looking out over the water, I watched as the light disappeared and finally I walked back to the gate of Blenheim Palace by the light of the moon.The beauty was astonishing.
Having made my way back into town, it was time to sit down to dinner. A stay in Woodstock is not complete without dinner at The Bear Hotel. It was perhaps the most charming discovery for a combination of lounging, food and atmosphere (and also a hotel which I will have to enjoy on another weekend in Woodstock). The hotel itself is one of the oldest coaching inns of old England. It is over 600 years old and if those walls could talk I imagine they’d have quite a bit of history to whisper in our ears.
Now speaking of bears, as I was dining alone on this occasion, the restaurant made sure I had a companion to keep my evening warm and fuzzy…the hotel mascot…a teddy bear! I thought it an absolutely charming touch but I do believe others in the restaurant believed me to be a complete nutter! And if the bear wasn’t making them talk, my groans of delight surely did.
I started my meal with scallops…not just any scallops…scallops covered in bacon and accompanied with a lovely sweet potato puree. It was covered with a sea foam decoration that reminded me momentarily of a ritzy London restaurant that charges three times the price for a similar dish that doesn’t have anywhere near as much taste! I’m not suggesting that this is bargain basement food, only that The Bear offers gourmet delights at VERY reasonable prices. Having just landed from the big smoke I find this incredibly refreshing and downright delightful, hence the loud praise from my singleton table…and that was just the starter!
The main course arrived – Lamb, cooked medium rare with seasonal vegetables. Each mouthful melted in my mouth and set of alarm bells with my New Year’s resolution to step back from indulgence. At this point I leaned over to my dining partner, the Bear, and said “honestly, you get this every night?!” Yes, it was then that I became the town “tourist” who will most likely never be forgotten…not an easy feat considering the legends who have walked these streets before me.
I regret to say that I cannot for the life of me remember the lovely red wine that accompanied my meal. Of course I remember the lovely taste but alas did not catch the name. I asked for a rich red that would compliment my choice of dishes and the selection was impeccable. So my recommendation – ask for help as you will be pleasantly surprised. In fact, all assistance here is pleasurable. Staff were constantly at attention and the service was incredibly swift.
And of course I will finish on a high note… Dessert! Actually, I’m not going to give everything away. I’ll just say if they have dark chocolate creme brulee on the menu you MUST order it!
Then it was back to Hope House for a good night’s sleep. Did I say good night’s sleep?… I meant seven hours of work on FFG before a nap!
On Sunday morning I awoke in Hope House wishing I could stay in bed forever. That bed! My god it was as if I was sleeping on actual clouds. Upon exiting my suite I was led into the breakfast room where I enjoyed freshly made pain au chocolates, croissants and a choice of hot breakfasts – all made on site in the house kitchen. I sipped my English Breakfast Tea (which always tastes better when someone British makes it for me) and chatted with an Australian family that was visiting their daughter at Oxford.
My taxi arrived at 10am and I was packed, fed and laced up in preparation for a day of full on bargain hunting at Bicester Village. Apparently I wasn’t the only one! At 10:15, just fifteen minutes after the outlets had opened, the parking lot was completely full and patrons were lining up for valet parking.
I first visited the visitor centre where I was greeted with a special VIP card along with other goodies and off I was sent into the great lion’s den of serious shoppers!
I started from the front of the outlets and was amazed to find Alexander McQueen (purchased a black cocktail dress), Diane von Furstenberg, Gucci, Dolce + Gabbana and Armani just on the first corner. I popped into LK Bennett and scored two beautiful wrap dresses for under £100 while I was there. Feeling fabulous about my steals I moved onwards and upwards. Naturally I was headed towards my main focus of the day, Ralph Lauren! Before reaching my very own brand heaven, I stopped into Celine, Fendi, Karen Millen, Matthew Williamson, Anya Hindmarch, Coach, Smythson, and Dior.
Then it was just me and “Ralph”. Woman to designer, credit card to machine, I was going in and I wasn’t coming out empty handed.
As I approached the door I saw ropes outside and immediately tensed. Nothing stands between me and RL, not even ropes and guards. This could get messy. Thank heavens the crowds were not intense enough yet to require crowd management. I leapt into the store and took the stairs two by two towards the second floor where I was greeted by more Ralph Lauren bargains than I’d ever seen in my entire life. I’ve been to nearly every Ralph outlet in the continental USA and I’d never seen an offering of this magnitude. I was bad, very bad. I spent money in a way that is unhealthy for even someone with a Donald Trump sized wallet. But I don’t regret a penny spent as the bill would have been a down payment on a house had I not had about 75 percent off each and every piece.
Just when I thought I couldn’t carry anymore I spotted Ralph Lauren Home, Burberry, Vivienne Westwood, YSL, Bally, Tod’s and Aquascutum. I’m not sure at this point whether to describe this place as heaven or hell…heaven for the closet and hell for the American Express!
Alas, I survived the beauty of Bicester. And beautiful it truly is. It is accurately titled as it does feel as if you are wondering through a local village as you shop. Only this is the most chic village I’ve ever known!!
I can’t thank Bicester Village enough for the wonderful experience from start to finish. This will now become a bi-annual adventure for mind, body, soul and credit card.
A big thank you also to Chiltern Railways, Hope House, The Feathers, The Bear, Taxi 5-star Chauffeurs and the town of Woodstock!