Muddy stays: The Fleece, Witney
Cocktails in the Cotswolds? Well, if you insist. Muddy whizzes to the lovely market town of Witney to check out this sleek gastro-pub with rooms.
There’s nary a bar in Oxon or Bucks I haven’t propped up at some point over the years (and a few I’ve fallen through, Del Boy-style, ahem) but sometimes it’s good to share the load, no? I dispatched Muddy’s pub stalwart Sophie to hit the cocktails at The Fleece, a super- pretty Georgian gastropub in West Oxfordshire. Over to you, Soph.
The Fleece certainly has kerb appeal, with its prime position on the church green at the top end of Witney’s high street. Twice voted one of the Top 20 pubs in the UK, it’s part of the Peach group, which also owns the lovely Bear & Ragged Staff in Cumnor, The Fishes in North Hinksey and The James Figg in Thame – so plenty of gastro creds. Fun (ish) fact: the name is a nod to the Oxon Cotswolds market town’s wool trade history.
The elegant Georgian building with its sash windows and high ceilings has been deftly transformed into a modern haven that retains its original charm with copper down lighting at the bar and cute stools upholstered with a ram motif. The dining area starts in the bar and flows naturally into the back, avoiding that cramped disjointed feeling you can get in restaurants with loads of separate rooms.
The country chic décor takes in feature walls in warm, earthy tones, leather booths, contrasting soft furnishings, ram heads mounted on the wall (noticed the theme yet?!) and shelves of knick-knacks keeps things cool and quirky.
Warning – the toilets are labelled ‘rams’ and ‘ewes’ – which I had to think hard about after a couple of drinks. Maybe this is a case of extending a theme just a leetle too far?!
We booked in late on a Friday evening so it was definitely a grown-up affair, with not an ankle biter in sight. The other diners were mainly locals – you could tell by the familiar way they joked with the staff, but service was uniformly friendly so we felt entirely welcome.
SCOFF & QUAFF
We had a drink at the bar before dinner and I tried a rhubarb & ginger warmer cocktail, with fruity Whitley Neill gin, Canada Dry, ginger wine, mint and lemon. It was a little bit different and a lot delicious, and went down a little too easily. As did the second and, um, third (hey, it was a Friday night!)
I sobered myself up with Devon crab and chilli linguine which was nicely flavoured but a bit heavy for a starter. My boyfriend had a moreish garlic and rosemary-studded camembert which I eyed enviously. The accompanying rustic loaf was big enough to mop up all the cheese. These are BIG portions so no hitting the biscuits before you arrive otherwise you’ll struggle.
He followed this with flat iron chicken, confit garlic butter and skinny chips (basically posh chicken and chips). Clearly we don’t get out much because we learnt a lot of new things during this course, including the fact that the lemon is wrapped in cloth to stop the pips falling into your food and that flat-iron chicken is named after the process of grilling it under an iron. The result was perfectly crisped skin and tender meat.
I had the Merrifield duck breast with dauphinoise and red cabbage for main which was indulgently rich. However, there isn’t a decent picture of it as the aforementioned cocktails hindered my ability to focus the camera. Sorry!
For dessert my boyfriend had a brownie with raspberry ripple ice cream which he scoffed without complaint and later discovered that it was vegan (much to his horror, ha!). My pear and almond tart came with unusual accompaniments of jam and clotted cream giving it an afternoon tea vibe.
The menu changes four times a year with the seasons so while we ordered off the winter one, the spring one is imminent, with a new menu tasting evening on 7 Mar if you want to try it ahead of everyone else. There is not a separate kids menu as they believe children should enjoy the same food as you but they do offer half portions at half price.
Approximately 8,000 calories later, we rolled upstairs into one of The Fleece’s ten newly refurbished rooms which vary from ‘cosy’ to ‘four poster’ and all individually designed. If you can, bag a front-facing room for panoramic views of the green.
Our ‘cosy’ room was bigger than implied and the styling, like the rest of the inn had a boutiquey feel, with vintage furniture. Huge trunks stood at the end of a velvet bed that matched the draped curtains. It was the kind of room you feel instantly comfortable in.
I particularly loved the chic en suite with its gorgeous walk-in shower, monochrome chess board floor tiles and Damana beauty products.
The breakfast was as good as the dinner. I polished off a faultless eggs on avocado toast with a side of unusual – but in a good way – chilli sausages.
OUT & ABOUT
Witney’s bustling high street has an eclectic mix of chains and the more enticing independent businesses like Ue Coffee Roasters, Huffkins and Como Lounge bar. If craft beer is more your bag, micro-pub Oxbrew opened in August to rave reviews and Wychwood Brewery is close by and offers tours. While shopping doesn’t extend much beyond a FatFace, White Stuff and handful of charity shops, Bicester Village is only half an hour away. Muddy fave Cogges Manor Farm has connections to the town’s blanket-making history (it’s a lot more interesting than it sounds!) and is always putting on family events.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Good gastropub grub in a homely surrounding – there are no airs and graces here. The Fleece would work equally well for relaxed family gatherings or a low-key date night. Foodies will be impressed by the locally sourced ingredients including Aubrey Allen steaks and Cotswolds White free-range chickens.
Not for: If you have very small/boisterous/picky children, it may not be your first port of call. (But conversely, if you’re looking to get away from your own little darlings for a night, you’ll enjoy the grown-up feel.)
The damage: Mid-range for gastropub prices but you’re paying for the provenance of those ingredients. Starters are around the £7.50 mark, mains range from £14.50 for pie and mash to £27.75 for rib eye steak and desserts are £6.25. B&B from £70 per night.
The Fleece, 11 Church Green, Witney OX28 4AZ. Tel: 01993 892270
Pssst! Like what you see? Win a weekend away at The Fleece PLUS a free gin tour here!
Words: Sophie Hadjikyriacos