I have been drinking at The Black Boy Inn at Milton in North Oxfordshire for 20 years or more and I have seen its fortunes wax and wane. My quiet drink on Tuesday was interesting because I was the only customer and it felt like I was sitting in a building site. What was interesting was that the furniture removals were being supervised by a chap called Marco Pierre White who has apparently bought the pub but was not above humping tables and chairs around himself.
This old cynic is sceptical about celebrity chefs but this one seemed a lot better than the TV stereotype of their kind as foul-mouthed slobs. He was clearly genuinely interested in the pub and enthused about the furniture he was shipping into the bars. He did not mind rolling up his sleeves and helping to shift furniture around and clearly had a vision of what he wanted to achieve in terms of ambiance. God knows, The Black Boy is in need of some tender loving care. It must have had 20 landlords in as many years. Some have left a positive mark; some less so. Milton has less than 200 inhabitants so it will never support a pub with its own spending power but this pub has survived. Why? Well, it is a beautiful building in a fantastic setting in a delightful north Oxfordshire hamlet which has not been wrecked by the planners and the fast buck developers
The Black Boy has seen many different characters pulling pints behind the bar and most have moved on before you can blink or swallow a second pint. However, of late, there seems to have been some continuity in the faces behind the bar and they have coped remarkably well with a pub that has had a total makeover. First the restaurant at the rear was shut off and builders banged and sawed away for weeks on an extension that was only put up ten years ago. Next, the right hand side of the bar was closed including the main entrance door and the same builders beavered away for weeks and weeks. On Tuesday, this part was being re-opened and the left hand part of the bar was being sealed off for its period of demolition and re-building but it all happened during the lunch time opening!
Is there a moral in this tale? Of my nearby villages, most of which measure their populations in thousands rather than Milton’s hundreds, pubs have shut right, left and centre. Tiny Milton has two public assets: its delightful church, built in 1856 by the Gothic revival architect William Butterfield and the 16th century Black Boy Inn. They sit next to one another at the centre of the village, visible from the main road and archetypical of the English village. They have a draw of their own. You can see Milton for what it was – a hamlet supporting several farms. Life has moved on but the village has retained its essential charm. The pub has a good sized car park and the roads around offer more parking. Marco Pierre White will clearly add his own style to the place. That is happening in the building and its furnishings and, subtly, in the menus. I hope he will keep it attractive to locals as well as to those wiling to travel from afar to say they have sampled his food. This delightful 400-year old inn has seen some changes but has retained its charm. Let’s hope it stays that way.