A visitor's guide to Bicester at Christmas
PUBLISHED: 13:32 16 December 2019 | UPDATED: 13:32 16 December 2019
Anna Bailey encourages us to get into the festive spirit at Bicester's historic town centre and ancient markets
Bicester lies on the border of Oxfordshire, where the Cotswolds meets the rest of the country, and although these days it is renowned for its popular duty-free shopping village, there is still plenty of typical Cotswold charm to be found in this historic town.
Take a stroll down historic Sheep Street, where Bicester's market town atmosphere is still very much alive. Its 800-year-old market still runs every Friday in the adjacent Market Square, while Sheep Street's Farmers' Market, held every second Thursday in the month, is a must. Explore the little businesses and pretty houses down Bicester's many side streets, including the marvellous independent bookshop Coles on Crown Walk, then take a stroll through Garth Park and admire Garth House, a grand 19th-century building with a rather charming wonky spire. Formerly a hunting lodge, it now serves as the seat of Bicester Town Council, and is surrounded by recreational facilities and lovingly tended parkland and gardens.
Amid the hustle and bustle of Sheep Street, settle down for a bite to eat at Nash's Bakery tearoom. Open since 1930, this family-owned establishment serves delicious cakes and pastries, as well as hearty quiches and sandwiches, made with local ingredients. Alternatively, just a ten-minute drive up the road brings you to the picturesque village of Stratton Audley, and a wonderful lunch and a pint of real ale at the Red Lion - a traditional country pub with splendid views (and a thatched roof, no less!) If you're hunting for stocking fillers, look no further than Stratton Audley Christmas Barn, where you can, if the mood takes you, pick up a Christmas tree too. There are also plenty of lovely walks to be had between here and Bicester, and the gentle country roads winding through this gorgeous landscape make the area popular with cyclists.
Only seven minutes out from the town centre is Island Pond Woods, with walking trails and plenty of nature¬spotting opportunities. In summer it's an ideal spot for picnics, but even at this time of year, it's a great mini outing for children tired of being cooped up indoors in the cold weather. Green and tranquil, it's the sort of place that, when you're little, you can imagine seeing fairies (I didn't, but don't let that put you off - I wasn't wearing my glasses).
If you fancy something a bit hardier in the outdoors, 20 minutes driving south will take you to RSPB Otmoor. During the winter, this wetland nature preserve is home to thousands of migrating wildfowl, and you have a good chance of spotting merlins and peregrines, as well as wigeons, teals and bitterns.
There are equally fine views to be had back in town, as Bicester is home to over 100 listed buildings, including a vicarage dating back to 1500 and the remains of a 17th-century lockup. But perhaps most impressive of these is St Edburg's Church, the town's oldest building. As Bicester was originally a Saxon settlement (Burencestre, Burcester, Biciter - there were as many as 45 different names for the town until they settled on Bicester in the 17th century), there has been a place of worship here since the seventh century, but the Norman and Perpendicular Gothic architecture of today's church is just as remarkable and definitely worth a visit.
As well as its own historical highlights, Bicester is also a perfect base from which to set out and explore some of the area's most majestic stately homes. Twenty minutes east takes you to Waddesdon Manor, the Neo-Renaissance chateau formerly owned by the Rothschilds. This National Trust property is celebrating Christmas right up until January 5, with a spectacular light display, a Christmas Fair, and a chance to see this resplendent manor decorated in all its festive glory. Also out this way is Boarstall Tower - once part of a fortified manor, this impressive moated gatehouse dates back to the 14th century, and is surrounded by beautiful gardens, ideal for a crisp winter stroll. Just under half an hour in the other direction is magnificent Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Churchill - this season lavishly decorated inside and out to resemble the magical world of Alice In Wonderland. The illuminated light trail through the grounds is the perfect way to keep the festive cheer going in the face of early sunsets and chilly nights.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Bicester Village at all, since the outlet shopping centre does draw over six million tourists each year, and that's not something to sniff at. The Village - home to top designer brands like Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger - is designed to look like a Scandinavian town centre, and at this time of year that definitely has a certain cosy appeal.
But with most of the Village's visitors coming from outside the UK, one can't help feeling they're missing out on a more accurate experience of the Cotswolds. This being the season of giving and goodwill and all that, this journalist encourages you to spend your pounds at Bicester's ancient markets, and to get out and discover all this beautiful region has to offer.
Points of interest on Katie B Morgan's map:
St Edburg's Church: Medieval church
Coker Lane: Named after John Coker, manorial lord of Bicester's Kings End, who in 1793 formed an 'Association for the protection of property against Levellers and Jacobins'
Airfield: In the north of the town for the Royal Flying Corps. now home to Bicester Heritage
Aunt Sally: The traditional game originated in Oxfordshire and is still popular in Bicester
Jenson Button: The Racing driver has a home here
Ian Paice: The Deep Purple drummer was brought up in Kings End
Chinese lanterns: To celebrate the visits of Chinese citizens to Bicester village
Garth Park: Garth House on Launton Road was originally called 'The Poplars'. It was renamed 'The Garth' by a banker called Adolf Deichmann in 1876 ('garth' means ground)
Queens Avenue: Built in 1939 and was lined with trees to celebrate the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II
Foxes: Bicester became a centre for fox hunting and racing in the late 18th century, hence the fox on its coat of arms
Lace and straw: The town used to make lace and do straw plaiting for hats
Bell foundry: Edward Hemins was running a foundry here in 1728
Old Place Yard: Grade II listed dovecote here