Latest pub opening brings a great new drinking, dining and stay-over scene to a South Oxfordshire village
Whenever a tired old pub gets a make-over, it’s usually by one of the big chains with their standardised beers and menus or, perhaps, a community-owned venture. But re-opening in October of the Crown Inn at Benson – just off the A4074 road, 11 miles from Oxford, on the X38-X40 bus routes – brings Hook Norton’s name to a part of Oxfordshire where it hasn’t been seen before.
The brewery has spent about £1 million on the pub, but early indications are that this is an astute investment despite these very difficult times. It’s not only a pub with a fine kitchen but also has six luxurious guest-rooms boasting features such as roll-top baths and rain showers, and in the New Year it expects to open its own nano-brewery. With all these features housed in a 17th century, Grade II-listed former coaching inn, the Crown looks set for success.
Looking first at the beers, five were available when I visited before the second lockdown – Hooky, Hooky Gold, Old Hooky and the seasonal or experimental beers Steaming On (named after the historic brewery’s steam engine, featuring the face of brewery boss James Clarke), and Metzger Brauen, a German-style beer. I was most impressed by the bar staff’s knowledge of what they were selling and the samples of the latter two beers that were provided – they acted almost like beer sommeliers. In the end I stuck with what I like best – Gold or Old Hooky – but the German-style beer was interesting, and nothing like a lager, being described as great with Bratwurst sausage. All were served in branded glasses.
You wouldn’t expect it to be otherwise from Hook Norton, but putting real ale at the forefront of their offer is a welcome facet of the new Crown. The meal proved to be equally impressive as we shared a starter of scallops (£11) followed by the burger for Victoria (£14.50) and calf’s liver with crispy bacon for myself. The wine list included a local rarity – a red called Regatta from Brightwell vineyard, just a few miles away – but at £34 a bottle, I gave it a miss.
After lunch, we had a chat with manager Miles Partridge who has worked at pubs in London and Leamington Spa, and also at the Pear Tree in Hook Norton village. It turns out that the Crown was a neglected Greene King pub which had had various tenants, and it was already closed when the purchase went through in September 2019. Most of the money was spent inside by opening it out to make two large drinking and dining areas, and décor which includes prints of the brewery and some old pub signs, such as the (still open) Castle at Edgehill, near Banbury. The brewery’s name and images of barley are ingrained into the windows, a nice touch. Carved into our ancient wooden table was “RKC 1873 July 11” – but no-one knows who he, or she, was.
Miles said the pub was often fully booked at weekends, despite generous seating capacity indoors and outside in nicer weather, in the sun-trap of a garden patio. The nano-brewery will soon be in production in an old outbuilding with James Clarke’s sons Ed and George likely to be involved, so we’ll look out for developments here.
All in all I found Hook Norton’s commitment and vision for the Crown Inn to be very impressive, and hopefully the rewards will come in 2021 when we get through this awful pandemic. I’ll certainly come back here – and those guest-rooms look tempting!