Food & Travel: Open and shut cases!

IT seems to me as if inland rural Oxfordshire and its neighbouring counties, in late January, is considerably colder than Aberdeen on the exposed north-east coast of Scotland, with wind howling untrammelled from Siberia, was at the beginning of the month.

That may, of course, be because the two UK visits were neatly sandwiched by a fortnight in the Caribbean? The ever persistent chill seems even more penetrating.

Yesterday, we’d planned to do the tourist bit, taking an open-topped red bus tour of Oxford gawping, pointing cameras lenses, at the many attractive ancient churches, civic and college buildings.

On de-bussing from Faringdon, the wind was bitter. I told my daughter, Adele, that the wind-chill factor on top of a double-decker would be horrendous; did she think it a good idea to expose my not-quite-four-year-old grand-daughter Siena-Rose Vincent to such weather?

The tot was singularly unamused at the change in our much anticipated plan, but Adele breathed a sigh of relief, admitting she’d hoped I would make such a suggestion.

We meandered through Oxford’s weekly Gloucester Green open market behind the bus station. It’s been here more than 400 years but many of the stalls were empty on such a cold day. We didn’t want to hump lovely looking fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, bread and charcuterie all over the city and planned to buy en route home. Sadly the few stallholders open for business just pre-lunch had decided to call it a day by mid-afternoon. We shopped for foodstuffs after dark at Budgen’s, Faringdon!

We toyed with lunch at super-celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver’s restaurant, Jamie’s Italian, in George Street (ex- the Cock & Camel pub!) But it wasn’t open at 12.15.

My immediately-pre-returning-to-Zim shop-ping list meant visiting Marks & Sparks, British Home Stores, Waterston’s, WH Smith’s, Primark and Debenham’s where we had a light lunch. Soup of the day was a very more-ish, very large, very hot, steaming cream of broccoli and Stilton, with warm crispy roll and butter which Adele and I enjoyed. Baby had macaroni cheese, an apple and fruit juice.

Weighed down with parcels we visited the Pitt Rivers Museum at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, the entrance of which is through the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

I’ve set off to see this world famous collection several times, once with my son, Rhoderick. Unfortunately, directions call for you to cross the road at the Eagle & Child Inn (aka the Bird & Baby) in St Giles’, where Tolkein, CS Lewis and their set “The Inklings” met to drink excellent ale and enjoy super lunches, then to pass the Lamb & Flag, another good pub, over the busy street.

Previously I’ve reached one tavern or the other, but never before Wednesday –– encouraged by a daughter, who’s not potty about boozers!) — had I actually seen the Oxford dinosaurs etc. The collection was started by philanthropist Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers (born 1827), as a subaltern in the British Army.

Splendid museums and –– unusual in the UK today–– entry is free. To reach the Pitt Rivers we passed the entrance to the newly re-opened Ashmolean Museum founded by Elias Ashmole (1617-1692). It has been shut during my four previous visits to Oxford for major refurb, being re-opened by the Queen in November.

Oxford’s only rooftop restaurant and a café can be found there. Both received much critical and popular acclaim.

Next to the Ashmolean, is the flag-bedecked wonderful Randolph Hotel where several incidents in the Inspector Morse books take place. My daughter reckons their famous afternoon tea served daily in the Drawing Room is an other-worldly experience. (Recently I have seen afternoon tea still being served and eaten in Meikles Lounge, after I’ve left a cocktail party.)

After getting back to Faringdon on a bitter night, dark at soon after 4.30pm, we made an impromptu decision to have a firelight supper at the Red Lion Inn, Market Square: a free house dating back to the 17th century and mentioned in the novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

My iconic British dish: fish and chips, meaty, white, flaky fillet of cod in beer-batter, served with crisp, square cut golden chips and a minted mushy pea purée (£6,99) was exemplary, Adele had a Thai-style prawn dish and even the children’s plate  of home-made sausage and mash with baked beans looked splendid.

This was the second time I’d eaten at the Red Lion this trip. As late as May my favourite Faringdon pub was The Crown Coaching House: a hostelry billeted by Cavalier cavalry in the Civil War. It is where the Oxford-Swindon bus stops; we had lunch there most working days in my spring visit.

It lacked both atmosphere and clientele when I called there for a pint en route from Gatwick Airport after returning from the Dominican Republic and, unforgivably, someone had let the log-fire die on an arctic lunchtime. Draining a pint of Stella, I made my excuses and left!

I was delighted that the pub adjoining The Crown, the Portwell Angel has very recently re-opened being run as a co-operative of local worthies. Ed Vaizey, the Tory shadow Arts minister and local (Wantage) MP officially re-opened it just before Christmas.

Once run by TV celebrity chef Keith Floyd, it had been shut many years.

 

Floyd died about six months ago. I used to have the odd noggin with him and (I think) his fourth wife, in Faringdon’s The Volunteer and Folly Inn. Some 52 British pubs a month close due to the recession, smoking ban, draconian drink-driving laws and fierce price competition from the liquor sections of supermarkets.

Sadly here in Faringdon, The Swan a blue-collar suburban pub shut a week ago and the Snooty Fox, an up-market roadhouse at Littleworth, lays empty, windows boarded sometime in the eight months since my last visit.
dustym@zimind.co.zw

Dusty Miller

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