If you fancy a trip out to the Cotswolds near Soho Farmhouse, Banbury and Chipping Norton, Hook Norton is a charming village with dark limestone cottages, rolling landscapes and fine dog walking.
At the village’s heart stands the historic family-owned Hook Norton Brewery dating back to 1849. It retains its Victorian tower and traditional brewing methods, producing distinctive high-quality real ales. A tower brewery is one in which all the stages of the brewing process flow logically from floor to floor; mashing at the top, boiling in the middle, fermentation and racking at the bottom. Until 2006, the brewing process was powered by steam! The steam engine now only powers the mashing equipment, grist mill, and sack hoist on certain days.
Traditional English beers like Old Hooky & Hooky will probably outlast so many of the over-hopped, over-marketed craft keg ales that seem to come and go (or get bought out by the big multinational brewers).
Opposite medieval St. Peter’s Church lies The Sun Inn, part of the Freespirit independent mini-chain of pubs, leased by pub veteran Mark Higgs from the brewery. We have previously reviewed his Castle at Edgehill and Bell at Ladbroke.
The Sun plays a central role in village life with its community dinners, pub quizzes, TV sport screenings (6 Nations rugby was on the day we visited), bingo nights and the legendary ABBA music event. Its clientele is a broad spectrum – busy families, walkers, drinkers, dog lovers and in the summer, holiday visitors to the Cotswolds. There are seven bedrooms offering B&B. The inn is shut until 4pm Monday to Thursday in the winter and only in May does it fully open 7 days a week. It offers normal hours Fridays and weekends. Midweek food service starts at 5pm in the winter. Comfy sofas, a central wood burner and a dog-friendly snug area create a warm welcome.
If you want to explore this northeastern corner of the Cotswolds, it’s a hostelry for a well-kept ale and some everyday, classic pub fayre. It is not fancy or gastro-country fine dining but it is your archetypal English village pub.
There’s plenty to discover to merit the drive out from Oxford – The Rollright Stones and the Hook Norton Brewery visitor centre & museum, for example. The stones are ancient megalithic monuments lying near the village of Long Compton and located on the scarp slope of the Cotswolds Hills, with views into the Stour and Swere river valleys. The various stones span nearly 2000 years of Neolithic and Bronze Age development. Blenheim Palace is half an hour away.
The chef Fran Streatfield has been here for several years and all the dishes are homemade and prepared on-site, using well-sourced ingredients. Meats come from the local butcher in Hook Norton and the ice creams are from Noel, a small family-owned maker, just over the Warwickshire border. Fish is from highly renowned Kingfisher. Assistant managers AJ and Ollie run a happy, competent, and welcoming operation.
Foodwise, the highlight was the starter of wild mushroom Scotch egg with truffle mayonnaise at £7.45. Very unusual, clean tasting and crowned by its legendary yellow runny centre – a fresh, warm Cacklebean egg! The Cacklebean egg comes from Mr and Mrs Cackleberry aka Paddy & Steph Bourns, reared on their 12-acre farm just outside Stow on the Wold. They’ve featured on TV series Clarkson’s Farm, which is but 7 miles from The Sun.
The pulled pork croquette was a novel starter with Dijon mayonnaise and sweet red onion garnish. Interesting enough but it felt like “dude food” for the sake of it and a bit pricy at £7.45. Deep-fried starters really feel a bit old hat these days and you would hope that Freespirit’s independence allows them to be a lot more innovative. The menus do differ over their five separate pub sites.
I opted for the “pie of the day” – chicken and mushroom pie, buttered greens, chips and gravy. A pretty decent example but £17.45 felt a wee bit toppy. But maybe that’s purely the huge produce and energy inflation we have all experienced these past two years.
Pan-fried stonebass with a leek and saffron risotto won the mains competition – a chunky slice of stonebass and an intriguing, well-flavoured risotto topped with crispy onion.
Dark Chocolate & Orange Mousse, White Choc Crumb at £7.95 was easily enough for two to share. The rich, bittersweet notes of dark chocolate worked in tandem with the vibrant citrus essence of orange.
The house sticky toffee pudding is described as “our famous Sticky Toffee Pudding” which stays on the menu all year, otherwise apparently the villagers would rise up in revolt. The accompanying local Noel’s ice cream provided a rich creamy balance (£7.45).
This artisinal ice cream is available in Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry and White Choc Chip, Salted Caramel, Bubblegum, Passionfruit, Mango Sorbet, Spiced Mixed Fruit and Raspberry Sorbet. 2 scoops at £4 might well prove a lighter dessert.
The food was fine. Maybe I just don’t enjoy heavy dishes or carbohydrate-loaded food anymore and it’s more an age thing. The portions are very generous so you might well only need a main dish. The beers are exceptionally well kept and the young wait staff are skilled, diligent and friendly. There’s plenty to see and do out this way so why not enjoy a pitstop at The Sun whilst out exploring?
The Sun Inn
High Street, Hook Norton, Oxfordshire, OX15 5NH