The Crown Inn, Church Enstone
Fine art and luxe design: this stylish Cotswolds pub is upping its game thanks to a fresh new fleet of B&B rooms. Muddy checks in and checks it out.
Church Enstone is the kind of sleepy Cotswolds village that could have walked straight out of a Barbour catalogue. Thatched cottages flanked by country roses and bursts of wisteria sit side-by-side with grazing horses and a Saxon church that bagged a mention in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Even the main road that snakes its way through this Oxfordshire hamlet doesn’t detract from the sneaking suspicion that you’ve rolled back time several centuries.
The Crown Inn lies at the heart of this bucolic scene; a handsome three-storey building that’s been keeping villagers in ale since the 16th Century. With an abundance of exposed wooden beams and golden stone, it’s easy to imagine revellers wassailing their way out of here in years gone by. But, unlike its rustic surroundings, The Crown Inn has adapted to the times.
Thanks to a makeover by new owners Victoria and George Irvine earlier this year, this Cotswolds hot spot is now a B&B as well as a restaurant, with five beautifully converted ensuite bedrooms. George Irvine is also an artist, and the pub has been gifted a new lease of creative life courtesy of his Slade School credentials. Contemporary and landscape pieces now appear throughout, showcasing work by George and other local artists. Clever design touches such as pops of patterned fabric and bright vases filled with wildflowers add to the artistic effect, without overwhelming the more traditional elements of the pub. The pub’s signage, maps and menus are all designed by George, too.
The result is a solid country inn – you’ll always be good for a pint in front of a log fire here – but with a bold upgrade that makes the rooms upstairs a class act of their own.
A country pub needs two things to thrive; good beer and a crowd of committed locals. It’s clear from our arrival at The Crown on a warm Friday night in September that this place has both in spades. A gaggle of punters swarm around the low-ceiling bar, with families and dogs milling about on the outskirts.
Hooky beer is on tap; it’s produced 15 minutes away in the village of Hook Norton and is one of the country’s few remaining family-run breweries. It’s a light golden ale with a bittersweet, malty tone; a perfect companion for the cosy Cotswolds setting.
Even with the changes of the past 15 months, it’s reassuring to see the centuries-old character of The Crown shine through. With a huge old fireplace, flagstone floors and back and front gardens both cheerfully occupied, this pub feels very much like a neighbourhood mainstay. There’s even a friendly-looking piano in the hallway, should you feel a bit musical after a beer or two.
More impressively, The Crown’s restaurant has resisted the gastropub sheen that’s so popular in the nearby Chippings. While the space is warm and welcoming, and the grub truly good (more on that later), it’s not overdone. The vibe is down-to-earth, helped by a young team of staff who are on first-name terms with regulars.
Our bedroom is tucked away up a steep flight of stairs in the eves, amid cooing wood pigeons and a lofty old tree that brushes against the window.
It feels romantic, but also luxe. The super-king bed is adorned with elegant printed cushions by designers Rapture & Wright and a statement leather headboard. There are matching dressing gowns and toiletries from 100 Acres Apothecary; an upmarket local supplier who specialise in botanical flavours such as rosemary and clove that’ll leave you smelling fresh out of an English garden. The power shower, so often an empty promise, packs a full steamy punch.
Personal touches – a geranium plant, a blue vintage radio, a copy of a memoir set in the village – balance out the more polished elements of the room, for a dash of endearing character. There’s an element of sustainability at play here, too; toiletries are refillable, and the eco-friendly toilet paper comes from the brilliantly-named recyclers at Who Gives A Crap.
If the space is small, it’s also expertly designed; a nook that will delight all you interior-lovers out there. The bathroom is decorated with black and white mosaic floor tiles, matched by smaller rectangular wall tiles in glossy duck-egg and sky blue. A low wooden beam isn’t the most practical feature but instead of removing it, the owners have coated it in leather – and it becomes charming as a result. The look is mixed further, and defies convention, via two slightly surreal acrylic prints.
The lighting takes a similar eclectic approach, with a mix-and-match of single-bulb lanterns, vintage night shades and industrial-style overhead lights. Only someone who really knows what they’re doing could pull this off, but the folks at The Crown clearly do.
An artist’s eye must help, and George’s bespoke pieces – ranging from free-flowing impressionist scenery to vivid abstract creations – make a huge difference from your standard helping of generic hotel pictures. Walking along the hotel corridor on the lower landing is like strolling through a section of a modern art gallery, with its carefully curated showcase of mixed media works offset by spotlights and a porcelain white backdrop.
Brownie points go to housekeeping at The Crown, too; the entire place is gleaming.
Added this year is a cosy new self-catering cottage, Crown Cottage (above), which is set over three floors with two double bedrooms, free-standing tub and log fire. There’s also an adjoining one bed, open plan studio, which you can book with the cottage or separately. Fido can come too as dogs welcome.
SCOFF & QUAFF
The Crown’s restaurant feels stylish yet low-key, with pine tables wreathed by exposed brick walls and cornflower-blue curtains. A pared-back palette makes room for George’s landscape paintings to shine, and diners are treated to a series of vibrant, colour-infused scenes from Scotland, the West Country and the local area.
It’s just the right setting for The Crown’s unfussy yet stellar take on modern British cuisine. Both the pub classic and à la carte menu draw from seasonal tastes, to bring a touch of flair to tried-and-tested favourites. The chefs pride themselves on supporting local suppliers; meat is sourced from the Chipping Norton butcher and the nearby Rousham estate, while veg and herbs come homegrown from the owners’ garden where possible. The pub also runs a “produce for a pint” scheme to encourage local produce and foraged items.
Dishes here are packed with en pointe flavour combinations. My smoked trout starter is flaky and moreish; a subtle, smoky nugget that’s elevated by a delicate bed of beetroot and herby potatoes. Confit chicken terrine, meanwhile, gets its punch from a sidekick of tarragon crème fraiche served with buttery sourdough toast.
Veggie dishes can be overlooked by pubs, but my pappardelle pasta main with spinach and walnut pesto cream sauce is a thing of beauty. Thick swirls of velvety pasta capture layers of flavour, from grilled hunks of courgette to an infusion of crumbly Grana Padano cheese.
Carnivores are equally well-served; there’s duck breast, lamb moussaka and chicken supreme up for grabs on the night we’re there, along a ribeye steak. My parter opts for the latter served rare, and it’s cooked exactly to order; a luxurious slab of meat topped with pea shoot tendrils, mushrooms, chunky chips and a picturesque vine of cherry tomatoes on the side.
Presentation is a high point. Though dishes are hearty and filling, they’re also chic, with a plating finesse built on simplicity and attention to detail. This is especially true of the desserts. Limoncello cheesecake features flamboyant dashes of summer berry coulis, while the honey parfait (above) is brought to life with nougatine sprinkles and a plume of sugar-dusted strawberries.
On the drinks front, local gin is well worth a punt. Eleven varieties span a host of seasonal tastes, including rhubarb, plum, damson and local honey. A lively cocktail menu features a rhubarb rosé; just the thing for a pre-dinner aperitif.
If there’s one small niggle it’s that the breakfast buffet could do with a few more pastry and fruit options; but hot dishes in the morning are reliably good.
The restaurant is definitely a place where kids will feel at home, with most menu items available in half-size, half-price portions. The rooms upstairs aren’t big enough to accommodate children, but a new self-catering cottage and studio opening right next door to the pub in October 2019 will provide extra options for small families who want to stay over.
The back garden is a great enclosed space for small ones to run about in, and there’s loads of fun family activities nearby; from country rambles to historic palaces and museums.
OUT & ABOUT
Soho Farmhouse with its celebrity clientele is a bracing 90-minute stroll from The Crown, over Oxfordshire hills and fields. Don your wellies for a workout before rewarding yourself with a massage in its swanky Cowshed spa. There are loads of other round walks you can take from the pub, too: ask the staff for hand-drawn maps and order a picnic the night before.
The nearby market towns of Charlbury and Chipping Norton are great for mooching around, with just the right balance of independent boutiques, cafés and pubs. Chipping Norton has its own theatre and a monthly farmer’s market, too.
For a dash of royal history, pop Blenheim Palace on your radar. The iconic country pad and birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill hosts a full range of events throughout the year, from art exhibitions to firework displays and horse trials.
Top-notch shopping awaits in Oxford and the designer outlet of Bicester Village, both in easy driving distance, while Shakespeare fans will find their mecca in Stratford-upon-Avon, 25 miles away.
Nearby Whichford Pottery is a good call for a lazy brunch; the café there feels friendly and a bit kitsch, and is a beacon for creative types. Artists with serious ambition can book in for a two-day course run by The Crown’s owner George Irvine, which includes accommodation and meals.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Eye-catching design and truly indulgent rooms. Book for a quiet, romantic weekend away with your lover of choice. Four-legged friends are also welcome at The Crown; for a small supplement they can stay over in the pub’s one dog-friendly room, or in the next door cottage and studio. Pooch treats can be sniffed out at the bar as well.
Not for: Party-time central. Pub activity dwindles by around 10pm, bar the chefs post-shift (although you could join them for a drink) and you’d have to drive to find restaurant/bar options beyond The Crown itself.
The damage: Starters, puddings and cocktails all hit the £7 mark, pub classics are £13 and à la carte mains come in at £14-£16 a pop (apart from the ribeye steak, which is a splurge at £20). The Cotswolds is known for being expensive but rooms at The Crown start from a reasonable £110 a night, year-round, including breakfast – don’t forget you get an impromptu art show in the price for this, too.
The Crown Inn, Mill Ln, Church Enstone, Chipping Norton, OX7 4NN. Tel: 01608 677 262.
Words: Anna Brech
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