There are some trips you remember not just because the place is great, but because it links in with something quite personal. This is one. On the day we were due to go to the Woodstock Arms, we buried my cousin who lost her fight against cancer at the age of 36. A horribly sad day for everyone involved and the kind of thing that really does make you think.
My mum and I had gone down to the south coast together and arranged that she would drop me off at the Woodstock Arms on our way home where I would meet Mr M and Brandy for our evening there to check out their rooms and food. After a long emotional day Mum and I arrived in the beautiful historic town of Woodstock, complete with its picture-perfect houses, independent shops and hotels like the Woodstock Arms.
The fact that Blenheim Palace is slap bang in the middle of Woodstock makes it a great tourist attraction but it’s also managed to retain that quaint charm that so many of those middle England towns have.
The Woodstock Arms is no different, with that real English cosy proper ‘pub’ feel yet with a real touch of class. Parking can be a bit of a nightmare – it doesn’t have its own car park so it’s a case of waiting for a space to come free nearby. But once you’re in, it’s somewhere you can breathe out, chill out, and leave your troubles at the door.
Mum and I arrived after a long drive to a lovely welcome from the staff and tucked ourselves into the bar area to wait for Mr M and Brandy. The bar and restaurant have an understated cosiness about them. Benches cleverly built into the windows to give extra seating, slightly mismatched furniture, bare stone walls and a few comedy phrases on the wall to all lend it that home-from-home feel.
Out the back is a cute little courtyard, perfect (I imagine) for summer drinks and warm evenings.
The rooms are above the pub, through a door that can lead either into the bar area or out to the courtyard, making it easy for us dog owners to get our pooches out for a quick wee late at night without having to fight our way through a busy bar.
As we sat enjoying a drink, we had decided that it was such a lovely place that rather than wave goodbye to Mum and enjoy a night on our own, we’d take a moment to cherish family and asked if they had a spare room that we could book so she could stay too.
Serendipitously, there was one room left that night at the Woodstock Arms – a single room just perfect for mum to stay in and enjoy dinner with us. So in a moment of spontaneity that is all-too-lacking sometimes, we booked it and decided to make a family night of it.
Our room was a real treat. Decorated in a kind of cosy chic style, with a real sense of personality – Winston Churchill on the walls, lantern-style lighting and a printed wallpaper feature wall complete with an ornamental mirror that cleverly looked like a window.
But it’s not all cosiness with no substance. At the Woodstock Arms there is a definite sense of attention to detail – Nespresso machine, a mini-bar with drinks and snacks, White Company toiletries, and a decent shower that I could have stayed in for a long old time. It’s dog-friendly too (aren’t they all on this blog nowadays) and Brandy made herself right at home at the bottom of the bed.
After checking out the room and then taking a turn around Woodstock, including a peep into the ground of Blenheim Palace before they locked the gates, we returned to a packed pub where we had luckily been reserved a table right in front of the fire to enjoy a lazy dinner together.
The menu was certainly tempting, all wholesome and classic but with a touch of sophistication. For starter, mum opted for confit rabbit salad with baked artichoke, green beans and pea shoots, mustard dressing that was a lovely fresh plate of green and, according to mum, full of texture and flavours from crunchy beans to tender rabbit and a piquant mustard dressing.
Unable to resist anything cheesy, Jamie went for Cerney ash goats cheese, breaded and fried and served with saffron poached pears, candied radish and walnut crumble. Another pretty plate, his cheese was a rich, slightly cloying main event, with sweet soft pears by the side.
The radish provided the peppery piquant contrast and the walnut gave the crunch. A dish that brought everything together in one place in a way slightly more imaginative than your average cheese starter.
I had been unable to resist a Rarebit special, served on wholemeal bread with root vegetable caponata. The usual schoolgirl error someone like me makes, as while it was delicious it was also pretty rich and filling. Perhaps more a choice for a lunch or a light bite than a starter – for me anyway.
While there was plenty on the menu to tempt us, from fish dishes to pies, grills and steaks, Mr M and I – whose greed I have realised often knows no bounds – couldn’t help but be drawn to the Rib of Aubrey Allen beef, which came with a choice of two sides and a sauce or butter. In short, a meaty feast for two.
Completely unnecessary, as ever, but we just couldn’t help ourselves. The only small sense of regret came as we watched the wonderfully helpful staff manoeuvre an extra table closer to us because ours just wasn’t quite big enough for ALL the food we’d ordered. That was soon dismissed once we dug into our board loaded with rare beef, salad, and bearnaise and stilton hollandaise sauces.
We’d also, for some reason (I’m still not quite sure why) got ourselves some roast potatoes with bacon and shallots and a rather heavenly bone marrow and mushroom gratin that, yes, did come served in a hollowed-out bone with a delicate tuile perched on top.
Elements like the bone marrow and the stilton hollandaise added that touch of chic that I mentioned, while not detracting from the robust, ‘good, honest, food’ feel that the Woodstock Arms exudes. A good balance I reckon, giving something for everyone and justifying the prices that are slightly above an average ‘pub’ meal but well worth it, in my book.
While we were busy gorging ourselves on all things meaty, carby and fat-loaded, mum had fillet steak with extra greens. Not a huge test of a chef’s skill but a testament to the fact that decent ingredients can be left to speak for themselves. Her steak was cooked just right and she thoroughly enjoyed her dinner, as simple as it was.
We should have been beaten by the huge amount of food on the table, we really should have. But the dessert menu wasn’t just tempting, but proof that putting thought into the way you describe things or present them can be the key to people ordering that one more (highly unnecessary) course.
We had first been swayed by the offering of a great cheese selection – complete with full description and provenance of each cheese on there. It was that that started us looking seriously at the dessert offering, and we ended up agreeing to share a chocolate pot with caramel and shortbread so we could all have at least one sweet spoonful to close the meal.
Another simple, but well-executed dish. Light and airy mousse. Not too sweet, not too bitter, and laced with sweet caramel. All served with a buttery, crumbly shortbread. Yum.
Full to the brim, we enjoyed the luxury of staggering upstairs to our gloriously comfortable beds to sleep off the excess of the evening and the emotion of the day, enjoying the warmth of having seized the day to spend time with important people instead of fretting over plans.
Fresh-faced and ready for the day the following day, having enjoyed a restful night’s sleep (even Brandy who snored contentedly pretty much all night) we all trooped right back down to the same table where the same wonderful waiter who had made us feel so at home the night before was waiting to spoil us over breakfast.
Jamie and Mum decided there was no point trying to resist the call of hollandaise, going for Eggs Royale and Eggs Florentine, which looked exactly as you want them too. Glossy hollandaise, well-shaped-but-not-too-perfect poached eggs that oozed golden yolk as you cut into them and the wonderful rich butteriness that comes with a ‘special treat’ breakfast like this.
I, on the other hand, had tried to be less indulgent by going for smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. Lovely it was, isn’t it always, but come on – it ain’t ever going to trump a nice hollandaise.
We left the Woodstock Arms feeling thoroughly spoiled, rested and relaxed. What had been a nice reprieve at the end of a tough week became much, much more than that. Yes, part of that was about my nearest and dearest spending time together, but the Woodstock Arms provided us with the perfect backdrop for that.
From the minute we walked in, we were welcomed like old friends, made to feel at home, and nothing we asked for was too much trouble. From the added fun of our excitable puppy then springing the need for an extra room on them at the last minute to making various requests over dinner, including some insider tips on the best route to drive to Tuscany (ask here, they know!), nothing was too problematic.
There are some places that get it just right and I really do think the Woodstock Arms has managed that. Cosy, rustic, homely and familiar, yet with a touch of class and all the hallmarks of a quality establishment. The obligatory decent food, a good selection of drinks, luxury rooms and, of course, great service. A winner in my book.
Oh, and while you might think that I’m fairly easy to please, my Mum certainly isn’t and she left a happy lady. That tells you everything.
I was invited for a complimentary stay and dinner at the Woodstock Arms. We paid for my mum’s room after springing it on them at five minutes notice.
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