0 New

31 January 2019

A Weekend in the North Cotswolds

"How can I visit the Cotswolds by public transport?" I spent several summers working in the Oxford tourist information centre and this — along with questions about Harry Potter filming locations — was one of visitors' most common questions. However, the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty located between Oxford and Gloucester wasn't especially accessible. You could take a train to Moreton-in-Marsh, or a bus to Chipping Norton or Burford, and then, if you timed it well, travel by local bus to one or perhaps two more villages in a day trip.


More than a decade later and it's still quite tricky to see much of the Cotswolds if you're short on time and don't have a car, although at least the bus timetables are online now. Luckily, when we head west for a family weekend in the countryside, my parents pick us up at Moreton-in-Marsh station. The train takes about 1h40 from Paddington, passing Reading and Oxford before trundling through Charlbury and Kingham, and then speeding past the now-defunct Adlestrop station made famous by Edward Thomas's poem of the same name.

If you imagine the Cotswold region as a tiny upended United Kingdom, Moreton-in-Marsh would be Southampton, located in the north, although not quite as far as Evesham. We are staying in Broadway, ten miles north-west, but stop for a short walk and lunch in Snowshill, just to the south. The National Trust property Snowshill Manor is closed between November and March, but we wander through the village looking out for snowdrops and peeking inside St Barnabas Church, whose honeyed limestone building matches the rest of the village (and the region) even though this incarnation only dates to the 19th century. The drizzle persists and we seek shelter and sustenance inside the Snowshill Arms, a cosy 15th century pub with a roaring fire, local ales, good pub food and plenty of muddy walking boots outside. We soon warm up over steak and ale pie and toad in the hole.




It's only a short drive to Broadway and we soon reach the Lygon Arms, our lodging for the night. This coaching inn turned luxury hotel has more than 600 years of history ingrained inside its thick, labyrinthine walls. My deluxe room, in the connecting annexe, is very cosy and of a decent size; the décor is Cotswold chic. The bed is extremely comfortable, and I'm pleased to find a kettle in addition to the Nespresso machine, which means I can brew my own coffee in the morning.




The spa treatments are all booked up, so I venture out into Broadway, whose picturesque high street boasts a combination of pubs, lifestyle boutiques, and clothing and outdoor stores. I buy a cashmere jumper at one and some locally produced lavender oil at another. I stroll up the gently sloping road, hoping to capture the perfect shot of the village with the moody hills in the background, but the weather and the bends in the road put pay to this.



Instead, I return to the hotel, for some pre-dinner R&R in the spa. I use the small gym and make use of the small pool, spa bath, steam room and sauna. Feeling very relaxed, I return to my room to change for dinner and join my family for a snifter at the hotel's cocktail bar. I start with a Cotswold's Fashioned, which puts a local spin on a classic drink, and then try the walnut and pistachio caipirinha, both of which are potent and very well mixed.




Dinner is two minutes down the road at Russell's. The à la carte menu puts a creative spin on modern British classics. I start with the lobster ravioli (actually, one giant raviolo), followed by lemon sole with parsley mash and turnips. My dessert is quirkier and vibrantly coloured: butter milk panna cotta with apple and celery gel, olive granola, walnuts and beetroot sorbet; the flavours and textures contrast nicely. The restaurant was completely full and there was a lively, welcoming ambiance.



After a good night's sleep, I drag myself out of bed and over to the gym. Breakfast at the hotel isn't included, and at £10 for continental or £20 for a hot breakfast dish, I pop over the road to the Broadway Deli. My doorstop of a bacon sandwich (£4) invokes feelings of envy when I bring it back to the hotel lobby. It's a good thing I have pounded the treadmill already.



After checking out, we drive to Broadway Tower, a late 18th century folly, which, over the years, has served as a retreat for artists like William Morris, and as a nuclear-fallout monitoring site, among other things. It costs £5 to ascend, and there's some historical information on the way up and a good view at the top. On clear days, you can apparently see 16 counties, but a smaller range is on offer for us. There are lots of walking routes if you have more time and better footwear.




Next on our itinerary is another classic Cotswold villages, Chipping Camden. Its high street is not dissimilar to that of Broadway, with its yellow limestone buildings and antiques shops competing for footfall with homewares stores and purveyors of avocado toast. We eye up some vintage cocktail glasses, but at £75 a pop, I decide to stick to a marbled candle instead.


We then drive back to Moreton-in-Marsh, via the pretty village of Bourton-on-the-Hill. Sadly, we don't have time this trip to see some of the other iconic Cotswolds destinations like the Slaughters, Bourton-on-the-Water and Stow-on-the-Wold. (Yes, they like their compound place names around here.) We are booked in for lunch at the Mulberry restaurant at the Manor House Hotel on Moreton's high street. You don't have to have a roast lunch but we all do, and my roast beef is just the ticket.


Trains back to London are every hour on Sundays. If possible, try to reserve your seats like we did. Although it isn't too busy when we get on, many of the seats are reserved from Oxford and most passengers have a fair bit of luggage. By the time we return to Paddington, we've been away from the city for less than 36 hours, but I feel refreshed and revitalised by my low-key weekend in the Cotswolds. January isn't necessarily the best time to visit — the weather isn't usually great and some attractions are closed — but it was still quite busy, although nothing like as crowded as it can get in the summertime. If you're there in summer, it's worth reserving accommodation and restaurants well in advance.

28 January 2019

The Caffeine Chronicles: Workshop Coffee at The Pilgrm

Workshop Coffee — one of my all-time favourite London roasters — opened its latest coffee bar, to much acclaim, inside The Pilgrm Hotel in Paddington last summer. These days, however, I don't spend much time in that neighbourhood, so it isn't until I need to take a train from Paddington Station that an opportunity to visit presents itself.


Located on London Street, directly opposite Paddington Station, The Pilgrm Hotel might be missing an i but it certainly doesn't lack an eye for design, if its lobby is anything to go by. The mint green La Marzocco machine sits on the marble-meets-midcentury counter, while several low stools encircle the marble coffee tables by the windows that look out onto the street. On the other side of the grand, wooden staircase, smaller and squarer marble tables and stool seats are attached to the wall's wooden panels. There is some pleasing pendant lighting too.



Early on a wintry Saturday morning, there are only a few other customers. Although Workshop's hand-brewed filter coffee often impresses me, I don't have time to drink in and don't have a reusable cup with me. Instead, I order a piccolo, brewed with an Ethiopian Dimtu coffee. I'm not hungry yet but I also pick up an almond croissant for the train.



The piccolo is on the long side but smooth, sweet and well-balanced. I don't buy the beans, but if you do, Workshop often provides handy brew recipes for its espressos on its website. Several more customers come in while I am finishing my coffee, as the hotel guests — and Paddington more generally — begin to wake up.



And before long, it's time for me to slip out of these beautiful surroundings, past the vibrant blue tiling and back across Praed Street to the station. It seems as though I'm going to have to find more reasons to take a trip to Paddington Station.


Workshop Coffee at The Pilgrm. 25 London Street, London, W2 1HH (Tube: Paddington). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

For 100+ more of my favourite coffee shops in London, please check out my speciality coffee guide.

17 January 2019

The Caffeine Chronicles: Omotesando Koffee

One of the high points of my first trip to Japan in 2014 was my visit to Omotesando Koffee, located, as you might expect, in the Omotesando district of Tokyo. I enjoyed the calm atmosphere, minimalist decor and the best macchiato of my trip. I had hoped to return some day and was sad to learn that it closed at the end of 2015, although there are sister cafes in Toranomon Hills, Tokyo; Singapore; and Hong Kong. There's also the related Tokyo beans specialist Koffee Mameya, which Brian of Brian's Coffee Spot has highlighted.


Unsurprisingly, I was delighted to hear that Omotesando would be adding a London coffee shop to its petite but perfectly formed posse. The new cafe opened in the dying days of 2018 in the sleek Rathbone Square development in Fitzrovia. I've visited twice now, managing to arrive both times — on Twixmas Friday afternoon and on a Saturday afternoon — during particularly busy periods with the queue stretching out of the door. Its location, not even a block north of Oxford Street, may have contributed to the crowds but it was great to see such a positive response to such a new coffee shop.


The minimalist design shares several Omotesando Koffee hallmarks, including the empty-cube-like structure preserving empty space above the coffee bar and the strong use of light wood and geometric lines. There are just a few seats — suspended stool seats perched at the window — and on both visits, many customers opt to take their drinks away rather than drink in.


Walking into the shop, you order and pay at the counter in front of the door, head to the bar with your receipt, which you hand to the barista, who then makes your drink. In this way, it's almost like being in an Italian espresso bar and yet this zen-like temple of coffee couldn't be more different. The charming, skilled baristas wear white lab coats and produce special drinks, such as the famed Omotesando iced cappuccino, alongside more traditional offerings.



On my first visit, I order a macchiato, for old time's sake, which is excellent, and when I return, I go for the hand-brewed filter coffee. The open structure of the coffee bar allows me to watch the expert preparation of my drinks and to chat to the barista. The coffee is roasted by Ogawa Coffee, a Japanese roaster I actually sampled at their Boston, MA, cafe, but the barista tells me that a new blend, roasted especially for Omotesando by London-based Assembly, is coming soon.


The beans for the filter coffee are stored in test tubes located at the end of the counter. I am invited to smell the beans before they are ground, and the barista tells me that coffees for the Japanese market are usually darker roasts, even in the speciality coffee space. I usually prefer lighter roasts, but brewed through a Kalita dripper, the Panama–Guatemala blend that I try is very well balanced and rich without being too overpowering. The subtle flavours come through very nicely as the coffee cools. Fortunately, I spy a spare seat at the window and leave my post on the corner of the counter to engage in some Fitzrovia people-watching.



They also serve kashi — cube-shaped custard pastries — but I've missed out on these so far, more's the pity. I plan to return soon to try the Assembly coffee, so I'll have to arrive earlier in the day to improve my odds of scoring a sweet treat. Omotesando is a wonderful and unusual addition to London's speciality coffee scene, this will be an absolute pleasure.

My photos of the original Omotesando Koffee, taken in 2014




Omotesando Koffee. Rathbone Square, Fitzrovia, London, W1J 5EZ (Tube: Tottenham Court Road). WebsiteInstagram.

For 100+ more of my favourite coffee shops in London, please check out my speciality coffee guide.

9 January 2019

The Caffeine Chronicles: Le Café Alain Ducasse, Coal Drops Yard

When I first started working in King's Cross, nine years ago, I used to have to walk 20 minutes at lunchtime for a good cup of speciality coffee (The Espresso Room was my usual port of call). I've often written about the rise and rise of the neighbourhood as a speciality coffee hub, and the latest coffee spot to open up in the area is really quite special.


Le Café Alain Ducasse — and the neighbouring chocolate shop Le Chocolat Alain Ducasse — has hopped over from Paris, a short ride on the Eurostar, whose terminus is nearby. The coffee is roasted in the Bastille area of Paris, in the 11th arrondissement, but the Gallic influences don't end there.



Most of the slender shop is occupied by the sleek counter reminiscent of many of the ubiquitous comptoirs en zinc you'll find in France. The espresso machine sits at the end closest to the French windows that look out onto the shiny Coal Drops Yard development. At the other end is the brew bar, where pourovers are very much the order of the day. In front of the counter, there is a row of leather-seated stools — these are the best spots for maximum interactions with your barista, but there are a few more seats against the other wall, and a couple of tables outside too.



An impressive range of single-origin coffees is on offer, including a coffee from France — the island of La Réunion, in case you were wondering — and a beautiful coffee from Yemen, which goes for £15 as a filter coffee. On my first visit, that's exactly what I try, encouraged by the charming baristas, whose passion for coffee is as evident as their attention to detail and customer service. The tasting notes describe the coffee as delicate and sophisticated, and indeed, it is a subtle drink, whose flavours come out beautifully as it cools. I wait until I've finished my coffee before enjoying the Alain Ducasse praline I've been given, to avoid ruining the flavours.




I return twice more in the first week of the year, sampling a super-smooth Ethiopian espresso with strawberry and white chocolate notes and a noisette (the French for macchiato or piccolo, depending on your point of view) with their signature coffee, a Kenyan that tastes lovely with a little milk. Each time, the service and presentation are excellent and the coffee tastes great. And the baristas are always just as keen to welcome and to share their caffeinated delights with speciality coffee novices as with those, like me, who have long since fallen down the rabbit hole. I'm so pleased to have a coffee bar like Le Café so close to my office. On y arrive, King's Cross.




Le Café Alain Ducasse. Unit 16, Bagley Walk Arches, Coal Drops Yard, London, N1C 4DH (Tube: King's Cross).WebsiteInstagram.

For 100+ more of my favourite coffee shops in London, please check out my speciality coffee guide.