“Ancient, modern, arty…” Old Parsonage reviewed in FT weekend magazine
When I was a child, I used to visit Oxford with my father for a treat. It was always Sunday afternoon, the light was always golden, the buildings all looked like nice churches and we always had afternoon tea. Quite a lot to live up to perhaps, on a winter weekend decades later.
The Old Parsonage Hotel is smack in the middle of town, right next to St Giles’ Church, and more than capable of fulfilling anybody’s wistful memories or fantasies of Oxford. In fact, it is on a mission to do so. The current owner — Jeremy Mogford, founder of the Browns restaurant chain — has preserved the original 17th-century house, while adding a large dollop of essence of Oxford to the mix.
We arrived at lunchtime, pushed open the ancient front door and ducked inside. The hotel reception is tucked into the corner of a handsome old bar room: huge stone fireplace, low ceilings, walls painted off-black, everything else glowing in reds and purples and a lot — a lot — of oil paintings. Polite young and staff were stationed all around.
The bar was extremely busy. It was graduation day in Oxford, so lots of families were meeting and greeting and eating lunch. We found a quiet corner and had a snack, which arrived on modern bone china with linen napkins and gleaming silverware.
The pride of the hotel is a new floor of seven bedrooms built on top of the original structure, taking the total number of rooms to a Tardis-like 35. The new floor is all sleek glass and warm tones, and so quiet and discreet and full of stairs that it is like navigating an Escher drawing. Fascinating old prints of Oxford — from originals in the Bodleian — cover the walls. Our room, a junior suite, was open-plan and gorgeous, with a spectacular glass-walled bathroom area.
By the time we had unpacked the light was already fading, so we dashed out to sniff the air. It was only a five-minute stroll, on streets full of excited graduands, to the Ashmolean, the colleges and other Oxford landmarks. Back at the hotel, the afternoon ended with scones in the new residents’ library. This has big sofas, books chosen by a scion of the Blackwell family and arty black-and-white photos of 1960s Oxford: glamorous girls in floppy hats lying by the river and boys looking like David Hemmings.
Later, over dinner, we were surrounded by a somewhat older Oxford crowd. Mogford’s collection of portraits, mainly from the 1930s and 1940s, is the hotel’s defining feature, designed, says the brochure, to give a clubby feel “reminiscent of the Bloomsbury period”. But that rather undersells it: by our table was a portrait of Paul Roche by Duncan Grant — not just Bloomsbury style but the actual thing. The atmosphere in the dining room was buzzy but relaxing, the food very good (rabbit and chanterelle pie and crème brûlée).
The next day was Remembrance Sunday, and after breakfast we stepped out into St Giles. Bands were playing a march, hundreds lined the street and many young men and women were parading in uniform with proud, serious faces.
A golden morning.
Another timeless Oxford moment.
Written by Sue Matthias
Edited by Tom Robbins