Driving north from Banbury along the B4086, as you near the village of Ratley you can see the crenelations of Radway Tower rising up above the crest of Edgehill’s rolling green slopes.
Built in 1742, it marks the spot where King Charles I stood with his army just before the Battle of Edgehill a century earlier during the English Civil War. A memorable place to mark with your own memorable date because – despite the fact that when I was there the clientele ranged from couples to groups of friends drinking pints and puzzling over jigsaws, families enjoying a post-festive weekend break and fit-looking retirees breaking a walk with a hearty pub meal – in my opinion, this is a place made for romantic assignations; illicit or otherwise.
We arrived on a deliciously frosty, dark winter’s night, parked our car and stepped through the swirling mist toward the illuminated tower standing bronze against the night sky. Once inside, the welcome was as warm as the bar in which we found ourselves. Although tempted to linger awhile and start working our way through the excellent collection of local spirits and beers, we were eager to check in to our room. The Castle at Edgehill bills itself a restaurant with rooms and there is a choice of five en-suites, two of which (Kings and Prince Rupert) are in Radway tower, the others in the smaller tower and main building. We were in Kings, with its expansive views of the battlefield and plain.
To reach it we had to leave the cosy warmth of the bar and clamber up a flight of stone steps, then over a raised walkway joining the buildings. It was worth the effort. Kings is dramatic and inviting; all rich velvets and feature walls with trompe l’oeil panelling contrasting effectively with a white-painted modern four poster and clean white walls. The en-suite had a large walk-in shower, and an alcove housed hanging space and the all-important tea and coffee making facilities.
All that was needed was a drink, so we headed back to the main building, more than ready for a G&T and to get down to the business of perusing the menu. From an extensive choice of gins we went with the pink Castle gin, made on site by Pinnock Distillery who occupy the top of Radway Tower. They also run a Gin School on site, offering the chance to make your own botanical gin, or Gin Tastings to learn more about the Distillery – with ample opportunity to sample the goods.
With notes of grapefruit and liquorice balancing fruity and bitter notes, we felt we’d made a good choice as an aperitif, and it was the ideal accompaniment to the essential pre-prandial chatter taking place at our table: if I have salmon can I swap you some for a scallop? Do I want meat – the vegetarian options look amazing! Would it be a wasted opportunity if I go for the venison burger?
We were seated in a modern extension to the rear; bare brick walls, scrubbed wooden tables and a glass wall overlooking that magnificent view which was slightly wasted on us as by this point it was pitch black outside (side note, it was so quiet and peaceful that the only noise we heard all night were the hooting owls). Eventually we opted for scallops served with a pea puree, a pancetta blade and a black pudding tuile, and hand-cut gravlax served on rich, creamy celeriac remoulade, shot with grainy mustard. Pops of pretty pink salmon roe cut through the richness of the remoulade and dots of peppery green oil infused with rocket adorned the plate. The scallops were equally well considered and delicious, the sweetness of the seafood and minty peas offset by that welcome salty hit of crisped pancetta.
A bottle of the house red (a merlot from Cantina Trevigiana) came along with our chosen mains. The wine was smooth, fruity and undemanding in the best way, slipping down all too easily as we ate. We had chosen the half pheasant and the mushroom bourguignon pithivier, but both were so good that we swapped plates halfway through. I was eyeing the mash which came with the pheasant whilst my guest fancied the crisp buttery pastry on my pithivier, which was indeed outstanding. (It would have been too mean to keep it all to myself). Anyway, I was keen to plunge my fork into mash which had been salted and buttered in quantities which I could never justify at home (and was sublime as a result) and finish off the moist, tender pheasant, served with roasted root vegetables and spiced red cabbage.
The food was stylishly presented. This can often be code for tiny portions, but that certainly wasn’t the case here. Perhaps after such robust mains we shouldn’t have even looked at the dessert menu, but we were there to do a job, not to shirk. We looked, we ordered, and we devoured a perfect crumble – the chef was clearly well-schooled in the perfect crumble/fruit ratio as this was impeccable – and a toffee sauce-smothered pear tart which came with the nicest almond ice cream I think I’ve ever had. Properly nutty and flavoursome.
We had been advised that a cooked breakfast is available on Saturday and Sunday mornings (during the week, a continental-style basket is placed in your room), and so the next morning we were back in the dining room for a full English, sourced from the local butcher. (I know this because the bacon was so masterfully smoked and the herbed sausages so tasty I wanted to know where they were from, hoping I could pick up a packet on my way home). All washed down with truly excellent coffee served by the friendly General Manager, Sylwia.
As getaway from Oxfordshire, the Castle at Edgehill is to be highly recommended. Just over the border into Warwickshire, it is easily accessible and there is plenty to do. It is great walking country and a must for English History buffs – particularly those fascinated by the Civil War. Wander down to Radway Church to see the informative exhibition of the significance of the site – it’s well worth a visit, as is the nearby National Herb Centre down the road in Warmington. And, if that’s not your thing, just sit back and enjoy the view while sampling the gin or even a pint or two from a commendable range of beers from nearby Hook Norton brewery.