Beth Harris, Features Writer
Alweston - resting in a fold of the Blackmore hills and described on Wikipedia as simply ‘A village in Dorset, England.’ It is also however home to a charming brick and flint farmhouse which has seen the baking of bread for over 105 years by four generations of the same family – the Oxfords. Entering the Bakery is like stepping back in time - white washed stone walls, a red tiled floor and trays loaded with Chelsea buns, flapjacks, brownies and, of course, Oxford’s famous golden crusted loaves. I’m welcomed by Steve, the fourth generation of Oxford’s to run the bakery and Elias, his three-year-old son, who judging from his apron and dough laden fingers is eagerly in line to become the fifth.
Steve starts by showing me the bakery itself which in all its simplicity, is a warm and inviting space. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many times before, but it never fails to impress on me a sense of history. As I stand in the main bakery admiring the original wooden dough bins, bread tins and trays of freshly baked biscuits, Steve tells me; “This bakery has been family owned, loved and run for over one hundred years. Since 1911, an Oxford has stood on those four red tiles there and baked bread”. That’s quite a thing to imagine, standing here taking it all in, the stonework thick with the echoes of shuffle footed bakers past, pulling bread from the oven. Oxford’s bakery then is not only a story of traditional bread making but also one of heritage, local craft and family. So, where did it all begin? The first generation of Oxford’s to bake was Frank, who bought the bakery in 1911, for £170.00. He baked through the first world war, delivering bread by horse and cart to Sherborne and its local villages. He then handed down the business to his son; Ron. Ron learnt his trade as a pastry chef in the army during WW2, his recipe book taking pride of place in the bakery even now. Ron encouraged his son, Roger to join the bakery in 1961 when he was just 15.
It’s fair to say that Roger was hugely influential in shaping Oxford’s into the successful business it is today. Roger was a firm believer in continuing their traditional method of breaking bread; “No more than four ingredients. Ever.”
It must be something of a curiosity for Steve bearing witness to the trend in artisan bread making and organic food when his father Roger had instilled this philosophy so many years previously. Keen to make his own mark on the business, Roger opened their first shop - ‘Oxford’s’ at 42 Cheap Street in 1969. He was one of the first bakers on the high street and on opening day, people queued down the street for freshly baked loaves. Roger has been a huge inspiration to Steve, who joined the bakery in 2002, albeit somewhat > reluctantly at first! He tells me though how he “learnt the business and then fell in love with it”. Steve joined at the beginning of a Dorset food revolution. Motivated by provenance and social conscience, customers wanted locally produced, traceable food. Steve embraced this, bringing Oxford’s bread to the new wave of farmers markets emerging across the county. Sourdough, Muesli Bread and Blue Vinney stuffed loaves became quintessential Oxford’s products as much as their white cobs, wholemeal split tins and cottage loaves. There have, of course, been challenges to overcome.
The growing dominance of supermarkets has taken its toll on many small businesses but Oxford’s has fought back and survived. When I ask Steve how, he simply replies “We are a bakery in 2016 still making products by hand, producing quality bread using simple ingredients. No two loaves are ever the same. We hold true to our traditional values and refuse to compromise on quality”. Steve’s love for both baking and the business itself is clearly evident as my tour continues. Although the days of delivering bread by cart have long gone; many of the old tools still remain. Steve points out the Dumbrill single rotary arm mixer, installed in 1940 and still in use today. Steve’s pride and joy however, is the imposing 1920’s cast iron oven, used today as it was 76 years ago to bake all of Oxford’s products. It fills the best part of one wall in the centre of the bakery and radiates heat throughout the building.
“The oven is the heart of the bakery. It beats every night from 6pm until 6am”. Steve describes the oven as a living, breathing thing. He smiles as he talks about the sometimes unpredictable nature of such a venerable piece of equipment. To bake successfully in the oven, Steve has to be able to work with its changing temperature, adjusting what he bakes accordingly. First in are the granary loaves followed by the stoneground wholemeal then white tins. The oven dictates the schedule. As Steve points out “there is no dial that I can use to turn it down”. In a typical week the oven will bake over 1,000 loaves and ‘morning’ good such as rolls, Chelsea buns, Belgian buns and Dorset lardy cakes. The Alweston bakery has always played a central role not only in the business but also within the family itself. It has been home to numerous birthday parties, celebrations and feasts. Today, it swells with the laughter and running feet of Elias and his two cousins, here to help bake hot cross buns. Steve mixes the dough by hand, gently dusting the table-top with flour. The bakery has used Stoate & Sons flour, from Cann Mill in Shaftesbury, for over 100 years. The children are eager to help weigh and mould the buns, and ten minutes later, there is a tray full ready to go into the oven. The bakery fills with a sublime homely smell and forty-five minutes later out comes a tray of beautiful, glistening buns, full of currant and spice. And then, in much less time that they took to prepare, they are enthusiastically devoured by all! I can see that the bakery is not only the heart of this successful business but it is also the soul of the Oxford family itself; all of the family working together to sustain it. Steven’s wife, Gemma, works in their deli in Canford Cliffs (the empty shop was spotted by both of them en-route to their wedding reception). His brother and sister help at farmer’s markets and even Roger still lends a hand every now and again. So, what of the future? Well, Steve has started to bake with Elias on Sunday afternoons and it is an incredibly special thing to witness - father and son mixing and kneading dough together, standing on those same four red tiles where 3 generations of father and son have stood before them.