When Asian tourists come to London they head to Harrods, they seek out Windsor Castle, and they flock to a shopping mall in Oxfordshire. The retail outlet with the magnetic touch is Bicester Village - The Luxury Shopping Experience. And whilst it might look like a lot of chalet sheds to some, to many it's Total Brand Heaven, and it Must Be Visited.
They gather at Marylebone station, and queue in surprising numbers for a ticket. The staff behind the glass nod knowingly at another garbled request, and throw in the shuttlebus for an extra fiver before sending the smiling shoppers on their way. Most cram quickly into the seats at the near end of the train, rather than walking up to the far end where there's more space, and chatter contentedly as the service departs. Pick the right service and you can be at Bicester North in under three quarters of an hour, which is pretty impressive for 'beyond Oxford'.
At the destination off they pour, and line up patiently by the footbridge for the next coach to the shops. Several shuttlebuses will be lined up waiting, beneath station signs written jointly in English, Chinese and Arabic, because Chiltern Railways know their clientele. A marshal beckons visitors to fill up the seats from the front, and off they go on their brief journey round the ring road. In reality Bicester Village is barely one mile away through the town, but it might as well be on the Moon because nobody would dream of walking.
I walked. Twenty minutes in total, much of which I spent ambling down the town's main street. Here are all the shops that Bicester's residents frequent, the usual run of minor chains and independents, and rather pleasant all told. I enjoyed a rifle through the excellent Cole's Bookshop (who specialise in signed copies), and dallied with two bakeries (for tasty elevenses), untroubled by any clothes shops whatsoever. Much more my kind of shopping experience than what was to follow, alas.
Bicester Village is onelongpedestrianisedavenue with about 100 shops in total, or boutiques as the management prefer them to be called. A large car park runs the entire length, because cars are even more important to trade than trains and coaches, as is evidenced by the valet parking service offered to discriminating punters. Smartly dressed drivers pull up in the special lane outside the bureau de change, then hand their keys to an underling who goes round the vehicle videoing it for fictional scratches lest there be any misunderstanding later.
And yes, finally, the shops. Every luxury brand you'd hope to find has staked a claim to one of Bicester Village's chalet cabins, from Prada to Burberry and Versace to Vivienne Westwood. Viewed from outside each store has a continental feel, but step through the door and the shop is more of a 1995 prefab decorated with shelves and displays. The bigger stores have an upstairs but most are quite compact single-storey affairs, packed high (or somewhat sparsely) with fashion bargains.
I say bargains, but it's all relative. In Hugo Boss the t-shirts were reduced to 'only' £29, while the polo shirts were down to fifty-nine from ninety-nine, but this didn't seem to stop people from milling and fussing and purchasing. In the Levi's shop a lady was delighted to find a pair of denim shorts for a fiver, but their jeans were tagged with much the same price as I'd expect to see on a high street, and as for the handbags nextdoor I don't feel properly qualified to comment.
You don't get cut-price brand outlets in Shanghai, or anywhere else in the South Midlands for that matter, so the allure of Bicester Village is strong. And it gets considerably stronger as the day goes on, hence many of the boutiques have roped-off areas out front to dripfeed potential customers within as numbers increase. On the day of my visit initially only the Ugg store and Polo Ralph Lauren (for Men) had queues, but several others swiftly followed, until shopping for the most popular brands became more of a chore than a joy.
As well as the Chinese and Middle Eastern contingent, a goodly proportion of those frequenting Bicester Village are Home Counties couples and well-groomed families. Nobody runs around in hoodies, instead the look is more heels and hairgel, as befits the lifestyle everyone's here to buy into. Most come for the day, perhaps gaining sustenance from the conveyor-belt creperie, grabbing a Pret or taking a table in the perfectly targeted Thai before returning to the fray.
Slowly the designer carrier bags accumulate, a-dangle from manicured hands, until every potential bargain has been explored. And then it's back to locate the car, or queue for the coach shuttle, and to begin the long journey home. I bought bugger all, having been wholly unimpressed by the preponderance of clothing and paucity of objects, and turned off by pricetags still well above what I'd consider a good deal. But the happy souls packed on the train home told a different story, and tomorrow Westminster Abbey, yes?