We were invited to try the Sunday Lunch menu at the Boxing Hare pub in Swerford last weekend. Many locals might know the Boxing Hare as the Mason Arms on the A361 which runs between Bloxham and Banbury. Due to its proximity to Great Tew, it’s now very popular with the Soho Farmhouse set and friends have reported spotting the Beckhams in there on their visits to the Cotswolds.
However, despite being visited by the odd A-lister, the Boxing Hare is a very welcoming, family-oriented pub. A lot of thought has gone into a decor that feels comfortable and inviting; tables with enough space to move between – to get a pram down the aisle or a large dog.
We were welcomed by Stacey and her husband, Antony, who took over the pub just under two years ago. The pair have many years’ experience running award-winning eateries in West London and Notting Hill and in 2017, the pair reunited with head chef, Nicholas Anderson.
Nicholas first worked with Antony throughout the 1990s before running his own successful restaurants where he was awarded two Michelin stars. With this pedigree, it is no wonder that the Boxing Hare soon won a reputation for good, quality grub.
In fact, the team go to great lengths for their menu – the sous chef, Kate, makes the restaurant’s homemade bread, ice cream, sorbet and desserts. There is a big focus on seasonal, locally produced food plus all the beef is aged for at least 50 days onsite, ensuring a tender bite at each mouthful.
Sunday lunch at the Boxing Hare Pub, Swerford
Ok, so here’s what Tom & I had:
Twice baked cave-aged cheddar soufflé with spinach and Parmesan (£6.50)
Classic Provençal fish soup, Gruyère croûtes and rouille (£7.50)
Aged roast rump of Longhorn beef with dripping roast potatoes, seasonal veg, cauliflower cheese and Yorkshire pudding (£18)
50-day dry-aged Rib-Eye steak with house butter, seasonal salad and fries (£28)
Chocolate fondant with salted caramel sauce, chocolate and almond crumb with vanilla ice cream (£7.50)
Iced peanut butter parfait with honeycomb, caramelised bananas (£7)
It was hard to choose a favourite part, Tom’s iced peanut butter parfait really slipped down a treat and he reported that his Rib-Eye steak was in fact, one of the best, if not the best that he’s had. Equally, my roast came with three gob-stopper sized roast potatoes, which I just couldn’t finish, despite all my best efforts and it was a crime to leave them on the plate. To find out more visit: https://www.theboxinghare.co.uk/
A few weeks ago a friend and I headed up to Stoke-on-Trent to the Emma Bridgewater Factory to try our hand at painting a mug!
The Emma Bridgewater Factory is based in Stoke, the centre of the UK’s pottery industry and the factory was first opened by the Meakin brothers in 1883. Now it produces over 1.7 million pieces of pottery decorated in the distinctive Bridgewater style per year.
Each piece of pottery is made from clay sourced from Devon, Cornwall, Wales and even nearby Staffordshire before it’s piped into different casts where it is left to dry. Each piece is smoothed off before firing – over seven hours at a 950-degree heat. The factory has 50 decorators who hand paint each piece of pottery using brushes and sponges to create different designs – including the famous polka dot.
Emma Bridgewater High Tea
Maxine and I first had an afternoon tea at the Emma Bridgewater tea room. It’s everything you’d want, lots of the iconic crockery plus delectable leaf tea served in large family-sized teapots. Rather than the three-tier stand you often get, here sandwiches, cake including a shot of Eton mess, scones and crisps are served on a large cake stand just waiting for you to dig in.
It’s all prepared on-site and you can see the team assembling sandwiches and cake as you walk in. The tea room is filled with the inspiration painters use for the pottery and to really set the scene a range master Aga decorated in that classic polka dot print is placed centre stage.
There’s also plenty of room. I sprained my ankle pretty badly a few weeks beforehand and was still hobbling on a crutch, which does not make you the most nimble of people. I felt there was pretty good space for me and my crutch or maybe a mama and pram.
The afternoon tea is very popular, as you’d imagine, so I would recommend booking in advance. We went on a Saturday and the restaurant was full by the time it reached peak afternoon tea period (3 o’clock). It’s £12.50 per head for the High Tea and is available from 12 noon at the weekend and from 2pm on weekdays. We booked about 6 weeks beforehand to get the slot we wanted.
The cafe is also open for breakfast plus hot and cold lunches, so if afternoon tea is not your thing, there are other options – but you’d still probably need to book a table.
Had I not been on crutches, I think we would have opted to do a Factory Tour which is free but also needs to be booked in advance. You can walk through the whole process, meet the jigger, jollier, fettlers, casters and decorators and see their traditional skills in action.
Decorating Studio at Emma Bridgewater
After our high tea, we had a session in the Decorating Studio (because you remain seated for most of it!). A session costs £2.95 which secures your booking and basically covers the costs of your decorating materials. It then costs extra for the items you wish to decorate which you pay for on the day. I found it quite difficult deciding what to decorate – in the end, I opted for two quarter pint mugs, whilst Maxine tackled a star-shaped bowl and an egg cup.
It is worth bearing in mind when making your selection that you have an hour and a half to complete your paint job. There are lots of different items to paint including a 50-gallon teapot. I did hear a staff member say to a lady painting a GIANT jug that she could have an extra 30 minutes due to the size of her piece!
After an introduction from a professional decorator, showing you how to use the specialist paints and pencils, it’s time to take a look at the offer tools on offer. There is a whole host of sponge stamps, like the equipment the professional decorators use, everything from mermaids to leaves to the alphabet.
With the paints the trick to remember is that the colours will end up darker than when you apply them – there’s a plate on each table to show you how they end up and with all painting, you apply lighter colours first and end with the darker ones.
It can actually be a bit overwhelming, so they have plenty of inspiration for designs on the shelves around the studio. I’d also recommend maybe having a bit of a Pinterest spree before you go – you could even save a photo on your phone to save time. (I definitely saw at least three versions of this mug being painted – clearly going down the Pinterest route, and who could blame them!)
I liked using the sponge stamps as it meant that we created a design at the end which was reminiscent of the classic Emma Bridgewater looks but with our own twists. You can, of course, go completely rogue! We were explicitly told to not paint the bottom of our pieces so that the official Emma Bridgewater stamp could be seen.
Once we’d finished pretending to be Picasso, our pieces would then be fired a final time. It takes about two weeks for the finished product, which you can either collect from the factory or they will post to you for £5.
Factory Outlet shop
Lastly, it’s definitely worth mentioning that the factory has both a factory outlet shop, which sells seconds and final buys, and a showroom, which shows the latest ranges. You can certainly get a good buy in the outlet shop but do check that although it is a second, that you pick up a piece that’s not cracked or chipped. Despite checking several dishes, I managed to buy a butter dish with a hairline crack in it!
There’s plenty of parking at the factory and in the summer, it has a courtyard area which would be lovely for sitting in if it’s warm. You can also book a complete experience day at £30 per person – which includes the afternoon tea, tour and half-pint mug to paint in the decorating studio (and a 10% shopping discount in the showroom).
After a sell out run in Oxford during 2017, War Horse returns to New Theatre until 7th September 2019.
With serious critical acclaim, War Horse has been seen by over seven million people worldwide and racked up 25 awards including the Tony Award for Best Play on Broadway.
I was completely transfixed by the incredibly life-like horse puppets and the touching storyline from children’s author Michael Morpurgo. Centered around the remarkable relationship between a young farmer, Albert, and his horse, Joey, the story tells of the shattering of their idyllic West Country life by the outbreak of World War One in 1914.
When Albert’s father sells Joey to a cavalry officer, a heartbroken Albert – too young to enlist – vows to track Joey down, and bring him home again.
As Albert and Joey are separated, but both caught in the fighting in France, the play switches between their journeys; and portrays the true horror of war.
The staging, although simple, is incredibly effective. The hung backdrop, resembling a torn page of an artist’s sketchbook with beautiful projected animation, brings the audiences through the action, from the fields of Devon to the stormy sea, and the barbed-wired battlefields of war.
But it’s the life-sized puppets which are undoubtedly the stars of the show, each animated and controlled by several, incredibly skilled actors listed in the programme as each animal’s ‘head’, ‘heart’ or ‘hind’. The horses move and mimic as if entirely real – each snort, stamp, flick of the ears, and flap of wings (yes, there are birds too!) is so life-like. Whenever they were on stage, I really could have just watched them and nothing else; they were as enchanting, if not more so than the first time I saw the show.
With not one, but two standing ovations on its opening night at the New Theatre – this multi-award- winning production is not to be missed. It’s incredibly poignant (though there is laughter too), thought-provoking, and ultimately uplifting.
With thanks to ATG for the tickets and looking after us! War Horse is showing at Oxford New Theatre until 7th September, then continuing on tour.
What if I told you, you could visit the rainforest in Berkshire? Well, that’s exactly what you can do at the Living Rainforest in Hampstead Norreys, Berkshire, which is just a stone’s throw from Manor Farm Courtyard Cottages where we stayed earlier this month.
It’s run by the Trust for Sustainable Living, which each year welcomes 100,000 visitors including 26,000 schoolchildren. Here you can experience the sounds, smells, and sights of the rainforest without ever leaving the country. The centre is home to 700 plants and animals including rare and endangered species.
It cost £11.85 each (adult ticket), which includes an annual pass; the family ticket is £38.15.
There are three large interconnected areas with different animals and plants. Following the walkway, you first pass a number of insects including Giant Stick Insects and Blue Poison Dart frogs, there’s an offshoot area with butterflies and an Iguana. The biggest area is home to a large shallow pond, with birds fluttering about. This is also home to a sloth, channel billed toucan, carpet python and pygmy marmosets.
Tom quite enjoyed having a look at the giant tank where some huge fish were having a field day (as someone with a fish phobia, I avoided it like the plague!) It’s also worth keeping an eye out for the times when some of the animals are being fed. When we were there they were building a new space for two new caimans (I think!)
The Living Rainforest has evolved over many years, it was originally home to one of Europe’s largest orchid nurseries and in the 90s philanthropist, Keith Bromley led its conversion into the Wyld Court Rainforest visitor centre. In 2000, the centre passed to Karl Hansen and is now part of the Living Rainforest.
The centre obviously does a lot with its education programme. Throughout August, they are hosting a green festival – a large eco-market was on when we visited. Check out the website before you go to find out what’s on when you visit: https://livingrainforest.org/
We spent a happy couple of hours having a mooch about, although I was disappointed not to see the sloth on this occasion. There’s an onsite cafe and an outdoor play area if you have smaller ones in tow.
I’d say if you are looking for an easy activity, that will interest lots of different age groups then this is a good bet. There’s a children’s trail which looked like a good option for giving the visit some structure and as two adults, we enjoyed taking in all the different tropical foliage. (But don’t go thinking you are visiting the Amazon, it is after all in Berkshire!)
Last weekend Tom and I were invited to stay at Manor Farm Courtyard Cottages in Hampstead Norreys, Berkshire. We were allocated the Pear Tree Cottage and it was hard to turn down a whirlpool bath.
Owned by the Betts family for several generations, Manor Farm’s self-catering cottages are based in 17th-century former barns and stables which have been lovingly and beautifully converted. There are four in total, The Stable, a studio cottage design for two, Orchard Cottage and the Hayloft with accommodation for four people, and lastly Pear Tree Cottage.
In many respects the cottage did feel larger than our actual house, it had a spacious kitchen which would easily seat four with all the mod cons; a living room; and what I’m going to call a bathroom suite. The bathroom was bigger than the main bedroom and the second bedroom we have at home combined, featuring a walk-in shower and whirlpool bath.
It was the bedroom though that Tom and I thought was the cosiest. A king-size bed snuck into the eves between exposed beams. But although it was cosy, it certainly was not small and it was nice to have space to put up a suitcase without permanently falling over it.
There is obviously a real sense of community in Hampstead Norreys, which is a good base for seeing Oxfordshire, Highclere Castle and Bicester Village. I always like it when you leave the Cotswolds and suddenly the rural architecture changes – like in Worcestershire and near Stratford upon Avon, here red brick replaces the sandy colour stone of the Cotswolds.
Manor Farm Cottages are good examples of this, but if you want real quaintness stick your head outside the gate to the thatched cottage over the road. All it needed was a witch enticing small children in with a gingerbread man.
We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and wandered around the estate, there are wild meadow areas and an impressive pond that rises and falls depending on the stream that feeds it. It was pretty idyllic. You’ll pass the 17th-century granary propped up on its saddle stones.
The community village shop is on the same site as the Manor Farm Courtyard Cottages, which is perfect if you forget the milk or like me and Tom are just too lazy to make your own breakfast. It’s won stacks of awards for its eco-living! At weekends the shop and cafe is open from 9am to midday and cyclists, locals and guests were there as soon as the doors opened. We both popped in for a coffee and pastry before we headed out for the day.
The Living Rainforest is also just up the road, so I’ll have another blog post on that coming up.