Is there anything that leaves you feeling fresher than a good autumn walk? Watching the trees turn a dark orange, the leaves fall to the ground and crunch underfoot? We certainly don’t think so. This sharpest of seasons affords you the chance to invest in some new country clothing, fire up your 4X4 and head out, looking for adventure, into rural Britain.
For us, Oxfordshire is the ideal destination. Just a stone’s throw from central London, it is a county of rolling scenery, winding roads and hidden treasures. There are picture-perfect villages, wooded hills and official Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty ranging from the open chalk hills of the North Wessex Downs to the lush sweep of the Chilterns. It’s an outdoorsman’s paradise.
And, with the soft thud of the car door closing, our own autumn walk has just drawn to an end; a wholesome trudge across fields and through thickets, taking in the best a crisp British autumn has to offer. We’re somewhere between High Wycombe and Henley, it’s a cold morning and we’re ready to set off on an seasonal drive across the county, taking Oxfordshire’s underrated B-roads to Bicester Village.
And the car poised to take us there is another of Britain’s best. The Range Rover Velar is a masterclass in functional luxury, proof that the brand have perfected the art of bringing elegance to the wildest of environments. Indeed, as we sit in the elegant cocoon of the cabin, prying branches pushing up against the windows, it is easy to see why Range Rover remain one of the nation’s most trusted brands. Few luxury cars could even make it this far — let alone look this good doing some seriously off-grid off-roading.
As the engine purrs to life, we roll back down through the trees and the car’s torque-on-demand All Wheel Drive system makes short work of the ridges and roots obstructing the road. Range Rover’s unique Terrain Response Technology is the best on four wheels, and the car moves us effortlessly between woods and mud, grass and gravel.
This is Stonor Park; the ideal rural destination for those in search of a picturesque Oxfordshire escape. Sitting stoic and dignified in the valley that shares its name, the historic country house is the ancestral seat of the Stonor family — and the perfect place for a fresh autumn walk.
Criss-crossed with walking routes, the tracks that meander through the grounds of Stonor Park are best in the area — from the Chiltern Way to Shakespeare’s Way. They offer unrivalled views of the county, its patchwork fields and forests. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the graceful fallow deer that graze the park, one of the most ancient herds in Britain.
Red Kites also circle above, the majestic birds easily spotted through the Velar’s panoramic glass roof. With magnificent reddish-brown wings and forked tails, the species was brought back from the brink of national extinction thanks to nests in this area, and Stonor Park remains one of the best places in Britain to spot the birds. And, after your birdwatching draws to a frosty close, The Chilterns Pit Stop Café will have a hot chocolate on hand to warm you back up.
Back in the car, it’s time to switch off ‘Mud Ruts’ mode and head back to the tarmac; a 30-mile spin down the best backroads Oxfordshire has to offer. Passing through Stonor Park’s grand gates, the first stint on the trip back to Bicester Village sees us carve down the Chiltern Hills, motoring through the festively named Christmas Common and rustle the leaves of the Aston Rowant Nature Reserve.
Beech, yew and juniper trees tower on either side of the single-track roads, and the countless dew-ponds and grasslands call out for Instagram — daring you to pull over and snap photos at every tight, exciting turn. It’s an ethereal drive, and one which the charms of the curious villages — with names from Nettlebed and Pishill to Bix and Turville Heath — serve only to heighten.
Of course, before pushing the Velar’s twin turbocharged V6 in the direction of Bicester Village, it pays to refuel — both the car and ourselves. For food, there are few options quainter and more spirited than The Crooked Billet, a gastropub hidden — almost to a fault — behind the hedgerows and groves of Stoke Row.
Rolling through a garden filled with rusting retro bicycles, we pull up next to a pair of vintage cars, push our way into the pub and take a seat below whimsically low ceilings. The menu itself looks good enough to eat, and offers up lunchtime specials including fillet of John Dory with crispy seaweed, slow roast pork belly with black beans and cider braised rabbit with a chorizo frittata.
It’s mouth-watering stuff. And, with the crackling embers of the fire offering an ideal antidote to the cold snap outside, it’s tempting to order everything and stay until evening. Pubs don’t get more English, more homely or more recuperative than The Crooked Billet — whose long, late live music nights are legendary in the area. But, as well-fed as we are — and as comfortable as the inn may be — the open B-roads beckon; and the Range Rover must ride again.
As a county, Oxfordshire is teeming with small characterful villages, and there is much to be gained from taking this off-beat approach to exploring the area. In the shadow of the M40 — a swift, if uninspiring ribbon of motorway — the B4011 offers up a lovely parade of hamlets and communities on the way to Bicester. Through Kingston Stert and Sydenham, the B-road will take you to Thame — a market town that sits on the banks of a northern tributary of the River Thames.
Passing Thame, Long Crendon and Lower End, the Velar’s heated seats kick in — warming our way to the village of Brill and its signature windmill. As superlative as the name suggests, Brill windmill has become iconic in Aylesbury Vale, and was first built by a local family of bakers. Now Grade II listed, it is but another of the small village’s compelling entries in the history books. A nearby manor has been used to hold court by at least five English kings, the village holds a Royal Charter for a weekly market, and the humble train station was once, unbelievably, the most north-westerly point of the London Underground network.
From Brill, it’s just a short drive through Blackthorn to Bicester Village, where the valet parking team will take your mud-splattered off-roader off your hands before showing you into The Apartment. As the shopping destination’s luxurious, by-appointment-only space for VIP clients, The Apartment offers us a tranquil and well-appointed space in which to relax. And, as it’s been several hours — and many miles — since that coffee at Stonor Park, it’s time for another Americano.
After a double-shot of caffeine, Bicester Village is ready to be explored. With over 160 designer fashion brands to be found on the stretch of shops, this is the ideal destination to while away an autumn evening. And, open until 8 o’clock at night, it proves the perfect opportunity to breathe some new wintry life into your cold weather wardrobe.
So, whether that means a new jacket from Belstaff or Barbour, boots from Timberland or even warming thermals from Under Armour or The North Face, Bicester Village has something for everyone. There’s even an Orlebar Brown if you’re trying to push past the cold snap and look to next summer.
Bicester Village also has a whole world of delectable eateries to sample. From the thoroughly French Crêperie Angélie, across the Mediterranean to Ammoura Lebanese Kitchen, to the Asian influenced cuisine of Shan Shui, there are more dishes than you can shake your shopping bags at. But our particular favourite has to be the 35 Day-Aged Local Ribeye Steak at Farmshop Restaurant & Café; the perfect filling finish to a day spent forging across Oxfordshire.
This is the quintessential British autumn adventure. The car is capable, the scenery stunning and the destination well worth the trip. Crisp leaves, good food and the roads less travelled: Oxfordshire at its best.
Want to see more of the best autumn styles? Take a look at our essential round-up…