As the train from London pulls into Bicester Village station, the on board recorded announcement lets loose a burst of Cantonese, or possibly Mandarin. Outside on the station the signs are in pictograms. This is not your typical Cotswold village and, it would seem, few people are local.
It’s not even a village, not really, as no one actually lives here. It is in fact a retail park for top designer brands, one of five across Europe and a magnet for the aforesaid Chinese who hurry off my train trailing their bargain-ready empty suitcases clearly fit to shop until they drop.
Wooden looking chalet style buildings line the’streets’, each sporting a top name – Burberry, Gucci, Barbour, Polo etc. It’s slightly surreal, a village of the damned or at least of those doomed to run up large credit card bills. The prices, as far as I can tell, are indeed cheaper that in the regular shops back in London but they are nonetheless rather more than I could comfortably spend. That doesn’t stop the streets being very busy on a Wednesday morning with eager shoppers.
I walk past an outpost of Vivienne Westwood; I remember her Kings Road shop that she co ran with Malcolm McLaren back in the 1970s, I wonder what her 1970s self would make of her designer handbags going for around £400? Probably be very pleased, she and Malc never saw any noblesse in being poor.
But I am not here to shop, I’m here to visit Le Pain Quotidien’s latest opening located down at the end of the lane (turn right at Gucci and continue past Ralph Lauren, you can’t miss it).
I like Le PQ even if my spell checker doesn’t; founder Alain Coumont opened the first one in Brussels in 1990 and now there are 220 or so of his bakery-restaurant locations worldwide in 17 countries. They all stay true to Alain’s original, rather hippy chic concept – great organic bread and communal sharing tables.
Alain himself is here for this opening, tousled of hair and clothes and romantically good looking in an older man kind of way. God knows what his personal wealth must amount to now, but you’d never guess by looking at him.
He comes across as very genuine, very warm, just a man, he says,’who simply wanted to buy decent bread and when I couldn’t I decided to start baking my own’. A smile and a Gallic shrug follows.
Alain has laid on a sharing lunch for the assembled press, and as the kitchen starts to bring it out chef explains the LPQ philosophy of organic everything, an emphasis on good grains with healthy ingredients and good vegetarian options.
Avocado toast and salmon tartines are delicious as starters; LPQ is big on tartines as indeed are the Belgians. Good toppings on sour dough bread are a combo hard to beat. Also rather delicious is a smoked chicken cob.
A bowl of mashed potato glistens with butter, proving you don’t have to wear a hair shirt to eat well and chicken and veal balls show that not only is LPQ not madly vegan it doesn’t actually mind too much about veal either.
Desserts of chia pudding, tarte tatin and carrot cake mix healthy with indulgence and I swig down the last of the rather good wine to head out to do some retail therapy.
Bicester Village is certainly a place to nab serious designer bargains and it’s good to know that when your feet begin to complain there’s somewhere fair priced and tasty to give yourself a break.