For sheer Cotswold charm, there’s little that can beat prodigiously pretty Charlbury. Stand in its very centre, at the top of Church Street, and you’re at a perfect, honey-stone crossroads. Narrow lanes of terraced cottages on either side look implausibly quaint; in front of you, a gracious road lined with handsome houses sweeps down to St Mary’s churchyard; ancient forest coats the hills beyond.
With four pubs, five churches and a resident coterie of poets, painters and other artists, there’s a gentle buzz to the town (and locals will proudly tell you that it is technically a tiny town, rather than a village). It’s very accessible, too. Despite its diminutive size, it has a station with direct services to central London (a journey of one and a quarter hours).
For years it’s been a haunt of the great and the good, from Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury (who had a house here) to actor Toby Jones (who was brought up in Charlbury) and David Beckham (who lives nearby).
It’s a musical place. The town stages the free Riverside Festival every July; the much-loved old-school ale house, the Rose & Crown, is not only a winner of numerous CAMRA awards but also hosts live sessions with blues guitarists and country singers; and there’s more music at its two beer festivals (held in June and October).
It’s also the nearest town to the annual Wilderness Festival, held in Cornbury Park, on its fringes, which has – along with its proximity to Soho Farmhouse – put it vaguely on the radar of England’s hip set. Yet it remained largely bypassed as a destination in its own right. Until now. An injection of creativity and cash is suddenly turning it into Notting Hill-on-the-Wolds.
Earlier this year, Charlbury’s two largest pubs, the Bull and the Bell, changed hands. Both have been painstakingly relaunched as foodie venues with a commitment to Cotswold produce. There’s an intriguing edge too – these old inns stand next to one another, so there’s a sort of face-off between rivals.
Dating from the early 1500s, the Bull (01608 656957, doubles from £175) is in pole position at the central crossroads. Its refurb, largely completed in July, is radical, disrupting cosy-pretty Cotswold pub conventions with minimalist, monochrome looks. There are New York warehouse vibes.
Like many pubs in the area, it was hit hard by lockdown. Then, in December 2022, the Pelican, a newly trendy pub in London’s Notting Hill, staged a pop-up here (locals were aghast when Boris rocked up to its New Year’s Eve party). It was the overture for a serious takeover, masterminded by the Pelican’s James Gummer and restaurateur Phil Winser. A random decision? Not a bit of it. Both Gummer and Winser grew up near Charlbury, both left to run big-city restaurants (Gummer in London, Winser in New York), and now both have returned to their roots.
Downstairs are bare floors and simple wooden furniture, uplifted by a few leather chairs and softened by candles (lit even during the daytime) and crackling fireplaces. Upstairs and in a converted barn next door, the 10 bedrooms have a similar, pared-back decor – albeit some with four-poster or canopy beds. It is at first startling, yet the sense of space and the uncluttered style help you appreciate the character of the property.
The menu is equally minimalist, giving little clue to the serious quality of the dishes – “muntjac, gooseberries”, for example. Much of the veg is grown on the Bull’s own plot at nearby Bruern Farm, and it has its own butchery, too, which purchases animal carcasses directly from local suppliers. Come on Sundays to see them cooked whole on an open fire in the garden.
Jeremy Clarkson’s farm is a few miles north, and his mushrooms were on the Bull’s menu on the night of my visit. His Hawkstone ales and cider are stocked by the rival across the road.
In September, the Bell (01608 787700, doubles from £195), a 17th-century coaching inn reopened as the latest in the roll-out of Daylesford’s super-stylish pubs with rooms. The organic farm, deli, homeware and pub brand of Carole Bamford has just formed Daylesford Stays, an umbrella name for its collection of cottages and inns, which along with the Bell includes the gourmet Wild Rabbit in nearby Kingham (acquired in 2013) and the Fox at Oddington a few miles away (bought in 2022).
The Bell is now a haven of beautiful, soothing décor and organic food. Its fairly sensibly priced menu ranges from a venison carpaccio starter to Cornish fish pie as a main. Aside from the fish, most of its ingredients come from the Daylesford farm and its sister enterprise, Wootton Estate in Staffordshire. Dishes are served by a small army of young staff in the old parlour, in a variety of snugs including a wonderfully panelled side room, and in a former barn that can also be used for private parties.
The 12 bedrooms are eco-chic sanctuaries, with gorgeous applique and patchwork throws on the beds and a choice of four teas (organic, of course). And there’s more to come: across the car park, the Bell’s large garden is a work in progress; it will host wellness mornings, summer cinema nights and other events.
Meanwhile, just along the road from the Bull and the Bell, the old post office has been reimagined as a Brazilian restaurant. Its founder and chef, Marcia Harvey, grew up in northeast Brazil and has lived in Charlbury for 15 years. Her Amarelo Bistro was in the final stages of completion when I visited, yet even without food to hand it had a South American feel thanks to striking paintings on the walls by Charlbury artist Elaine Kazimierczuk.
When it opens later in October such dishes as light, cheesy pão de queijo and feijoada (loaded with taste from black beans, garlic and a heap of veg) will add to the growing gourmet riches of Charlbury. The Cotswolds has a new star.