This blog has become a bit of a photo blog of late........
My recent trip included visits to two tea rooms and this got me thinking what makes a good tea room? As regular visitors to this blog know I do like a nice tea room, did someone mention Cake?
Some might say that a good tea room is all about good quality food but I think it needs more than this.
A tea room is not a cafe. A good tea room needs ambience, I'm not sure you can have a tea room on a typical highstreet, for me a good tea room needs to be situated in a building with character. So you can have a tear oom in a historic village/small market town centre but not in a new town or urban connurbation. It just doesn't feel right.
Inside the tea room must have a suitable atmopshere. What is suitable? Now I appreciate that this is personal but again I like the historic and traditional. Higgledy piggledy arrangements of tables, what some might call quaint. None of this is needed for a Cafe but I think it is for a tea room.
I don't care how good the food is it if the ambience is not there it
doesn't work. It might make a good cafe but not a good tea room.
Now you will have already determined that the building and atmosphere matter to me. Hence you can find good team rooms in the likes of Lavenham, Thaxted, Cotswold Villages etc. I'm not sure that you'll find what I think of as a good tea room in Milton Keynes but I may be wrong.
Now the National Trust has a lot of "tea rooms" and you'd think they would know how to get them right. They sort of do but they do get it wrong from time to time. Of course the Trust call them a variety of things, Restaurants (they're not really!), Tea Rooms, Cafe but they often feel like tea rooms.
Purpose built tea rooms seldom work. Anglesey Abbey has one and it is, well, ghastly. No don't get me wrong, the food is generally fine but it lacks character and ambience. Too light, too airy and frankly no ambience. The tea room at Lyveden New Bield on the other hand is in an old cottage and it is lovely. Let me put it this way I'd make a 5 mile detour to go for a soup and a cuppa (and a slice of cake) to sit and read my book in one of those two and it wouldn't be Anglesey! The trust may disagree with me but Anglesey feels wrong to me. Curiously Croome Park has a big airy tea room in restored RAF buildings. It recreates a 1940's ambience and works, well sort of!
Ickworth has restored one of the wings as a "restaurant" with waitress service. I always feel uncomfortable as I don't want to be led to a seat, I want to go and drool over the cake. Waitress service is fine but it needs to be a little less formal than what Ickworth manages. I nowadays ignore the restaurant and head to the porters lodge! Much more like it! I appreciate that the Trust will argue that Ickworth is a a restuarant but it isn't. I'm not sure what I'd call it but for me it is ultimately a fail as it isn't a tea room I want to visit and for that matter it isn't somewhere I'd go for a meal either.
In case the East of England National Trust think I'm picking on them then I'll say Oxburgh generally gets it right as does Flatford and Houghton Mill.
English Heritage have more of an issue with tea rooms as their properties tend to be ruined castles etc and many just have a drinks machine. Audley End really ought to work as a tea room but EH don't get service. Normally there's one poor girl desperately trying to serve a long queue and take the money. I too often can't be bothered. It's not I might add that there aren't the staff they just don't see to be on front of house.
Do private houses fair well? They're a bit of a mix. The likes of Houghton Hall go for an up market approach with waitress service that doesn't really deliver. Chatsworth is similar. I ought to add that of course some get it right. Sezincote has a tea room, Charleston (Sussex) has a proper tea room. Indeed the less grand the property the better the tea room ordinarily. The day I see Celeb Chef @ Historic House I'll cry. Actually that's a little unfair as if it makes money then fair enough I guess.
Of course you have to have food. A good display of cakes and when I say display I mean display. You know what I mean, whole cakes on plates/cake stand under a glass cover. Not slices cut on a plate and under polythene (yes I'm looking at you Blickling Hall!!). Oh and we want choice! Home made soups. Tea and Coffee. It doesn't need 40 variants of coffee I might add. Sandwiches have to be made to order to work, I'm not a fan of the National Trust sandwich, these are usually in card containers (green friendly no doubt) and never seem that fresh (ooh I'll get in trouble for that). There are exceptions, I was once delivered of a lovely freshly prepared sandwich at Peckover House. I appreciate that sometimes people want to grab and go but if you stick something in a card container and then charge me £4 for it I really expect it to taste amazing and too often I feel that I'd have been better off just getting them from M&S. I've become a Soup buyer at NT tea rooms. These are undoubtedly home made and taste delicious. Yes £4.50 for a soup can be considered pricey but if it is good I can live with this.
I appreciate that many of these may not set out to be a tea room. They will be referred to as Cafe's or restaurants (in reality they are not restuarants though are they).
Some good tea rooms?
Fletchers House Tea Room Rye, East Sussex
Churchgate Tea Room, Castle Acre, Norfolk
Attingham Park NT, Shropshire
Berrington Hall NT, Herefordshire
all four are worth seeking out. Why? The food is good, the ambience is good and I could happily wander into any and read my book in comfort whilst sipping a cup of tea and eating cake!