There’s a reason Londoners flock to the Cotswolds. With its idyllic countryside landscapes, picturesque cottages and famous honey-hued stone, it’s made quite the name for itself as the rural playground for the capital’s social set, from the Beckhams to the Royals, and ex-prime-minister-now-foreign-secretary David Cameron to presenter Jeremy Clarkson (both founding members of the so-called ‘Chipping Norton set’).
And where A-listers, celebrities or those with deep enough pockets go, hospitality will follow. After all, why would the capital’s clever restaurateurs and hoteliers miss an opportunity to set up shop in an area frequented by those with seemingly endless spending power? Cotswold-based iterations of London brands have been cropping up for years, the most famous being Soho Farmhouse: the rural arm of private member’s club Soho House, famous on Instagram for its picture-perfect huts and bicycles and, of course, its 95,000-strong waiting list (you better join the queue…).
Soho House isn’t the only one to have pitched up in this serene part of the world, however. Just over an hour from London, you’ll find yourself in the Oxfordshire countryside – one of the six counties that make up the Cotswolds – home to the likes of Daylesford (see Notting Hill, Marylebone and Pimlico) and, come summer, Wilderness Festival, a favourite among Londoners partial to Barbour, Schoffel and Hunter wellies. This is the definition of a home-from-home.
The most recent addition to the London-turned-Cotswolds portfolio in Oxfordshire is The Bull, situated in leafy Charlbury and accessed via an hour-long direct train from Paddington. Having opened in July after an extensive refurbishment, The Bull is the latest project by gastronomic pioneers Phil Winser and James Gummer, the duo behind Notting Hill’s The Pelican, widely known as one of the best pubs in W11. Both Winser and Gummer were born and bred in the Cotswolds – in fact, The Bull is where they enjoyed their first pint many years ago – before embarking on culinary careers in New York and London. So, when the opportunity to revamp The Bull presented itself, it was a project that was inevitably going to be personal – and what a good job they’ve done modernising but preserving this old-age boozer, which now authentically celebrates Britain’s publican heritage.
Daytime guests can arrive at The Bull via a 10-minute walk up the hill from Charlbury Station but on winter nights I’d recommend booking The Bull’s hunter-green Defender to escort you to the door. With its quintessential honey stone draped in ivy, from the outside, The Bull looks like your average country pub, but inside the offering is extensive, featuring a large bar dotted with open fireplaces, a candle-lit restaurant with cosy wooden booths and leather banquettes, a new private dining room, an outdoor terrace swathed in blankets, furs and fire pits and, finally, 10 en-suite rooms. Just a small project, then.
Once inside, I’m delighted to discover the place is filled with locals (my companions from the neighbouring village also know a fair few of the staff and those on the table across from us) which is a promising sign that we’re in for a good time. It’s a Thursday evening, which in post-pandemic London is the new Friday, and it seems the same social pattern has been adopted in Charlbury too. The pub is bustling; busy enough to create a buzzy atmosphere of chatter and clinking glasses, but not to make the place feel crowded. Interiors are pared-back and unpretentious, similar to its sister in Notting Hill, and feature clean whites on the walls, slate floors underfoot and open brickwork – paying homage to the building that has stood on the corner of Charlbury’s Sheep Street since the 16th century.
The food is intended to be the star of the show. Following a farm-to-table ethos, the menu changes constantly, working directly with farms and growers including a community-supported agriculture project, Kitchen Garden People at Honeydale Farm, which provides hyper-local leaves, fruits, and vegetables. Just down the road, The Bull’s Growing Programme at Bruern Farm, which started in May 2023, means the kitchen is already receiving a bounty of produce daily.
So often does the food change that the menu I sampled just over a week ago has already been altered, but my advice would be to take your waiter’s recommendations. The menu is designed to be shared or served as individual plates, but for the best experience, get stuck in and try as many dishes as you can. I’m still thinking about the house soda bread served with seaweed butter, while the muntjac meatballs come in a homemade tomato sauce so succulent you’re liable to forget you’re eating deer, which can often be tough and chewy. The signature rib of beef, sliced into thick chunks and cooked to perfection, is a fine example of the restaurant’s knack for open-fire cooking, best served with the homegrown vegetable plate, beetroot and crispy roast potatoes. Head outside to take your pick of fire pits surrounded by fur-lined benches – the perfect spot for a nightcap, especially when the bar makes a mean martini.
Alternatively, order a digestif to your room, one of 10 spread across two floors above the bar and restaurant. These aren’t the classic, dingey hideaways often associated with pubs, but simple, minimalistic and aesthetically-pleasing boutique bedrooms, offering extensive views of Oxfordshire’s rolling green fields and designed to let the natural materials speak for themselves.
Room six, the largest of the lot, features a canopy bed, plush green sofa, and coffee table in the main space, while you’ll find the ensuite shower room kitted out with Neal’s Yard Remedies amenities, underfloor heating and soft bathrobes. The bathroom is also home to a log burner and large roll-top bath which you will no doubt need to sink into after a long jaunt in the surrounding countryside. You won’t find kettles and coffee machines here, but a 24-hour butler at your service (who helpfully kickstarted our log burner after our several failed attempts), making this the perfect, romantic bolthole when you need to rid yourself of responsibility and flee the city for a few days.
The Bull describes itself as a ‘pub with rooms’ but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s much more than that. From the Defender on hand to escort guests to the door to the farm-to-table menus, and the 24-hour service to the unique rooms, The Bull offers a serene escape from city life that immerses you in the heart of the Cotswolds and all this beautiful region has to offer. Just don’t forget your Barbour – you won’t want to look out of place…
From £175 per night, visit thebullcharlbury.com