How secure is Oxfordshire’s reputation as England’s beau monde county? Just ten years ago, the “Chipping Norton set” ran Britain from a cluster of farmhouses in this delightful part of the country, with Prime Minister David Cameron, and media royalty like Rebekah Brooks and Jeremy Clarkson all neighbours. Now Boris Johnson has just bought a Georgian manor house there with wife Carrie and their three children, and will no doubt be plotting his next moves from its high-ceilinged drawing rooms. But when I asked self-appointed custodian of cool Nicky Haslam about the county before setting out on a recent trip, he was sceptical. “If Boris wants somewhere truly chic, he could do worse than the Scottish borders,” he pondered. Yet my weekend trip revealed the area is still the place to be.
The epicentre of Oxfordshire glamour now is Bicester Village. Only an hour’s train ride from London Marylebone a stone’s throw from historic Oxford, the designer shopping destination is perfectly placed to fulfil all your retail therapy needs, and much else besides.
For the full Bicester Village experience, start with a brisk walk down the central street that leads from the railway station. The kaleidoscope of premium brands on offer can be overwhelming at first, so use this time to settle in, assess the queues (Prada really will make you wait) and draw up a mental list of stop-offs.
Get your bearings at the Ralph Lauren store. It’s hard to miss at this time of year, as staff dressed in the brand’s Wimbledon collection sit in charming umpire chairs outside the front door. Turn right and make a beeline for The Apartment. At this exclusive, invite-only hangout, the staff will make you feel truly at home, with a tipple of your choice at the upstairs bar to welcome you.
The Apartment will be your base of operations in the Village. From here, you can coordinate your bespoke hands-free shopping, receive generous VIP experience discounts on stores around the Village and enjoy a personal shopping suite. The Apartment also serves as a convenient pick-up and drop off location for private cars to ferry you to and from hotels and leisure spots in the surrounding countryside.
Now you are ready to explore, set out into the village and keep an eye out for the charming attendants dressed in bright red, fin-de-siecle style uniforms. They are always on hand to assist you in the village and possess an intimate knowledge of what is on offer.
After a whirlwind tour of some top destinations (Balmain, Paul Smith, Stella McCartney, etc.), we stopped for dinner at Cecconi’s, a terrifically well-provisioned modern Italian restaurant set prominently in the corner of the Village. The restaurant’s two halves (one has a pizza oven) are expansive and decorated with subtle Jazz Age influences. On a balmy summer evening, the windows were thrown wide open for us. Any guest at Cecconi’s should be sure to try the arancini truffle. It’s delightful. They also serve the best hand-made pizza for miles.
As the clock strikes 7, your first day at Bicester Village will begin to draw to a close. But not to worry. The surrounding area offers some very agreeable hotels. We took a swift car to the centre of Oxford for a stay at the five-star Old Parsonage. As its name suggests, the hotel has a rich history which it shares with the next-door St Giles church. The gentle ringing of its bells forms a pleasant musical accompaniment to breakfast, which can be taken in your room or - for the full Oxford experience - in the library.
After a restorative stop at Bamford Wellness Spa, we felt compelled to return to the Village for another, stopping at all the places we had missed when we arrived. There are over 150 boutiques. So even as you make the journey home, you will surely be thinking of your next visit.