The pretty Oxfordshire town of Burford, known as the gateway to the Cotswolds, has long been a draw for its tranquil ambience, as well as its history and proximity to London. Kate Moss and Kate Winslet both have houses in the area and can shop in the same high street that actress Nell Gwyn (Charles II’s mistress) once trod. PR chief Matthew Freud, chairman of Freuds Group, lives in Burford Priory and many people will have discovered the town’s charms while attending one of his parties. Now, a new wave of visitors will be admiring the medieval architecture, the River Windrush and the green rolling hills, as Freud opens Bull — A Coaching Inn, a country hotel with a difference, in Burford high street.
Guests can book in for a two-day retreat of mind-expanding courses and delicious food. It’s a place to go if you’re following an itch for a reset in life — but when fluffy bathrobes and chewing spelt just don’t hit the mark.
“I think we all need to take a breath sometimes,” says Freud, who set up his creative and communications business 39 years ago. Activities at Bull include perfumery, sushi roll-making, Padel tennis, acting, GarageBand, bee keeping and ceramics, delivered in one-hour sessions. Although the choice is wildly diverse, all the activities are designed to allow everyday obsessions and the noise in our busy brains to melt away.
“There is nothing left in my right brain and nothing right in my left brain,” is the Stephen Kurniawan quote that Freud drops. He adds: “Our left brain is quite often not your friend as it’s the area that analyses and critiques your every movement and thought. When you distract left brain with a task — it could be knitting or playing the drums or a cross word — it occupies that annoying bit of brain that then allows your right brain to be dominant. The vast majority of pursuits and hobbies are about getting the left brain to shut up.”
Freud, who has lived in Burford since 2008, restoring the Jacobean priory over five years, is as devoted to the town as he is to this project. It started in 2020, when The Bull Hotel — in a listed, 16th century building — and the adjoining shuttered post office, came up for sale. He bought them and started a restoration. “I did not have any idea that I was going to do it, or how to do it,” he says. With no experience as a hotelier but having stayed in lots of hotels, Freud invested his curiosity and analytical mindset into figuring it out.
The upshot is a delightful 18-room premises painted in earthy tones and decorated in velvets and linens, with a mix of vintage and new furniture, plus plenty of rugs and artworks (Damien Hirst, Harland Miller) and photography from Freud’s homes. For the interiors, he worked with Ellen and Adam Painter who collaborate with Freuds Group on the Global Goals House that pops up at forums and think tanks including Davos, Cop, Cannes Lions and at the UN in New York.
In the labyrinthine building you will discover a pantry (for all-day snacking); four dining options including Hiro, a sushi spot; Horn, a family style dining room, plus a subterranean poker room, a terrace and a cosy panelled library. Here Freud hopes to see men gathering for the evening book club. “Men tend to find it harder to jump into connections without a context so I was insistent on a book club,” he smiles.
Activities also take place off-site: at a newly restored complex of outbuildings (a five-minute stroll away) called Coaching House; in the grounds of the priory (choir practice is in the chapel, flower arranging in the garden; bee keeping in the woodland, Padel on the lawn); and at The Rectory which in time will be transformed into a separate bookable annex. “There’s an element of campus,” says Freud of the varied locations. “The courses in craft/games/creative food are not compulsory but that would be like going to a restaurant and not eating… Part of the point is that you become part of a transient community who are experiencing the same things.” Over the summer, Freud set about putting his thought processes into practice, selecting tutors and course leaders.
The courses in crafts and games aren’t compulsory but it’d be like going to a restaurant and not eating
At the soft opening, I signed up for meditation, textiles, Padel, acting, book club and a beginner poker session. By the end of evening, seated at the communal dining table over a huge fish pie and salad, my mind was satisfyingly buzzing and exhausted — faith restored in the therapeutic joy of experimentation. “The part that made me happiest about our soft opening was the atmosphere at the communal dining table in the evening — it looked like a coherent group of people from different ages and demographics, and all had a lot to chat about because of those shared experiences,” Freud says.
His family — including great-grandfather Sigmund, uncle Lucian, sister Emma, cousin Bella and niece Martha — have plenty of history at excelling in different ways. And a number of family members are closely involved, including Martha who will host her ceramics class Night on the Tiles. Freud’s partner, Sheherazade Goldsmith, who is co-founder and fine jewellery designer behind Loquet and a trained horticulturist, is also an inspiration. She established the beehives and replanned the kitchen and cut flower garden. The retreat is Freud’s second big project in three years. He also produced the Oscar-winning animation film of his friend Charlie Mackesy’s illustrated fable The Boy, the Fox, the Mole and the Horse.
As Bull — A Coaching Inn and its staff (many of whom lead classes) get into action, tweaks and programme changes will happen along the way. As a guest, all you need to do is sign up (the courses, food and soft drinks are included in the two-night rate). “When the Bull opened in 1536 it was a coaching inn, a place for tired horses to recover and prepare themselves for the next long ride. The new Bull aspires to offer the same sort of service to anyone on a journey who might need a moment to catch their breath,” says Freud.
£500 per night based on two people sharing, which includes food, drink and coaching; 105 High Street, Burford OX18 4RG