The White Hart in Fyfield was built in the reign of Henry VI, and this magnificent building was finally restored to its former glory in 1963 by St John's College, its owners since 1580. Situated just off the A420, 7 miles South of Oxford, it has always been etched in my mind. In the mid 1970s I was new to the Oxford area and after a Sunday morning rugby match, we were told to rendezvous at this famous local pub. I remember opening a huge old oak door to be confronted with the extraordinary sight of the Sealed Knot Society, who had just re-enacted a local battle from the English Civil War. They were in 17th century dress, swilling ale from pewter tankards! Had I received a nasty head injury during the game or had I opened the door to a time warp? The experience left a lasting impression!
For those visiting the White Hart 30 years later, I suspect that they too will be left with a lasting impression...
The pub has had a chequered history. Having been run successfully for many years by the Howard family, it changed hands in the late 1990s and after a disastrous few years, was finally taken over in September 2005 by Mark and Kay Chandler, a young energetic couple who have devoted the last year to restoring its reputation.
Mark has opened and managed catering establishments since he was 16 - from pubs and bars, to fine dining restaurants and has always had a passion for food and cooking. He is entirely self-taught and only ventured into a professional kitchen a few years ago. Kay was a banking lawyer whose previous experience was waitressing during university holidays. Undaunted, they set about the challenge with real gusto.
The beer has always been good and being a free house, this element of the pub has been retained. Ales change weekly and when I visited last, offerings included Village Idiot from the White Horse Brewery, Pheasant Plucker and the infamous Old Hooky. It is a great place for an early evening pint but its reputation is really being gained with the quality of its food. Whether you want a bowl of soup, a light lunch or a full 3 course meal, customers are made to feel equally welcome.
Mark describes the food as Modern British with a global twist. The menu changes daily, depending what is seasonal and available from local suppliers, whom both Mark and Kay are keen to support. Everything is made on the premises, including the bread and pasta which are made with flour from the local mill. I have now eaten at the White Hart on numerous occasions and have never been disappointed. The atmosphere is cosy, the service efficient and the staff well informed and polite, without being pretentious. There is a set lunchtime menu of 2 or 3 courses starting at £13.95 but on my recent visit I confess that I indulged in the "Full Monty". I can never resist scallops and these were served with celeriac puree and a saffron vinaigrette, which only enhanced the subtle flavour of the scallops. This was followed by the quite divine Antipasti Board with Italian meats and salamis, artichoke hearts and buffalo mozzarella. After a suitable pause (I hate being rushed in restaurants) I decided I did have room for the little pot of chocolate with cumin shortbread. I was then persuaded to have a glass of the stunning Paul Cluver dessert wine from South Africa. As it was a warm late summer evening, this was taken, along with real coffee, on the terrace. This relatively new terrace garden is a real feature of the pub. The subtle lighting gives it a very Mediterranean feel and during the day it is well shaded for those who don't enjoy the direct sun.
I have to say at this point, that my colleague had an equally satisfying meal of pressed ham hock terrine with pickled girolles, followed by cod fillet with a lemon and Parmesan crust and roasted kohlrabi, leeks and vine tomatoes. Feeling happy and satisfied, we were joined by Mark and Kay at the end of their busy evening and I was interested to hear of their future plans. They have just acquired the plot of land next to the pub and are developing a kitchen garden to go with the existing herb gardens (could this be down to Raymond Blanc's recent visit?!). They are also developing the function side of the business by offering private rooms for business meetings, corporate lunches and dinners, as well as catering for weddings, christenings and other private parties.
In conclusion, the White Hart is a vibrant village pub and restaurant, serving great food, wine and ale in a unique and historic building. Mark and Kay have high standards and a real passion for what they do, which is reflected in every aspect of the place. This is definitely somewhere you need to visit. It's back where it belongs!
The White Hart, Fyfield, Near Abingdon, Oxon OX13 5LW
tel 01865 390585