The Lion roars

Finding a welcome retreat from shopping and sightseeing in the Oxfordshire countryside.

Oxfordshire has many and varied charms, from big walks in open countryside to the legendary dreaming spires of Oxford and the pocket-emptying temptations of Bicester Village Outlet. So we were delighted to be offered the opportunity to visit the Lion in Wendlebury.

We’d spent the day meandering our way south via Banbury and Buckingham. Banbury is a small town full of interesting spots to explore, including the legendary Banbury Cross and its Grade I listed church. Its micropub invites you to hide from the sun (we visited during a rare British heatwave) responsibly. Our time in Buckingham was mainly spent in its market and historic gaol. Bicester itself is worth your time, but most people visit for Bicester Village, an outlet with more than 150 designer shops. On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, it was absolutely packed with visitors, and shops were trading briskly. We spent modestly, and headed on to The Lion.

Wendlebury itself is a small and lovely village, some two miles out of Bicester on the road to Oxford. It’s therefore ideally situated for both destinations, and also for exploring more widely in Oxfordshire. As you pull up at The Lion, your first impression is of mellow stone, and a well-kept garden simply bursting with flowers and birdsong. A series of buildings linked around a central courtyard, the Lion strikes a great balance between being light and airy in the conservatory restaurant, and having a snug flagstoned bar. A raised grate for an open fire in the bar made us think of the potential for cozy winter evenings there.

We were shown to our room in one of the buildings facing the courtyard and overlooking more gardens. As is the case all Brakspear destinations, the room is tastefully appointed with a beautifully plump bed, comfortable sofa and space to work. Attention to detail is evident all around, from a big selection of pods for the Nespresso machine to copious plug sockets well-situated for all your working and charging needs. We had a large shower, with two different shower spots, one rainfall, and plenty of unguents from the Temple Spa range.

Dinner and breakfast are both served in the Conservatory restaurant. On the night we visited, the Lion was fully booked, and there were groups dining in the restaurant. Although it was understandably busy, the service was both personable and exemplary. You should also know that the arrangement of the tables and foliage in the restaurant gives privacy while maintaining atmosphere, a balance that can be difficult to achieve.

From the main menu, we chose starters of sautéed tiger prawns and chargrilled asparagus. The prawns arrived sizzling and fragrant with garlic, chili and chorizo. The asparagus was perfectly cooked, and served with a deeply Mediterranean scattering of smoked sunblushed tomatoes, black olives, basil and a perfect crunch of red onion. It speaks volumes that we were largely silent during the starters, save for regular moans of pleasure emerging from both my lips and those of my dining companion.

Those same standards were maintained throughout the meal. One of us chose the special of a chicken Kiev, and, when he’d wiped the garlic butter from his lips, pronounced it the finest Kiev he’d had since St Petersburg. He then considered further and called it the best meal he’d had in years. I chose the West Coast salad, scattered with strawberries, candied pecans, spinach and a citrus vinaigrette, and topped with grilled shrimp. It was perfect for the summer heatwave. Dessert was splendid too: a sticky toffee pudding with ginger ice cream, and a blood orange sorbet with chargrilled oranges made a great finale.

This is a spot with seriously good cooking. There’s a mightily talented chef at work here, complemented by a great dining space and atmosphere. I’d also highly recommend a trip here if you have any food allergies or intolerances. The team is knowledgeable and painstaking, and it is great to see so much clearly marked choice available on the menu to those of us who have dietary restrictions.

We retired to the bar for a drink and a chat. Out in the garden, the stars were clearly visible in the summer night sky, reminding us that despite the proximity of many local attractions, this is definitely a spot to enjoy the countryside. That plump bed proved suitably restful, and we bounded out the next morning, ready for the pleasures of breakfast.

Again served in the conservatory, breakfast offered a buffet of cereals, fruit, toast and pastries. We both chose the full English, one gluten and dairy free. The same care over good ingredients was evident here. The bacon, sausage and black pudding were magnificent, eggs perfectly cooked, and mushrooms and tomatoes full of flavor.

As we reluctantly packed up and hit the road, we were already plotting future trips. Thankfully, it’s just far enough away from home to be able to justify staying again. Although, to be frank, that could also apply if it were just five miles away… If you’re looking for an elegant spot to stay, and talented flavourful cooking, you couldn’t wish for more.