THE National Trust enjoys an enviable reputation for the high-quality homemade food served up in its tea rooms and restaurants.
Indeed, after a rummage around the treasures of a historic house, a potter in a formal garden or a brisk walk along the hundreds of miles of coastline in the Trust’s care, there is nothing better than sitting back and enjoying a taste of a bygone era (many dishes and cakes are based on historical recipes) alongside a decent brew.
National Trust tea rooms have come a long way since visitors to properties in the early days were offered little more than a cup of tea and a biscuit at the kitchen door.
Now sightseers can quench their thirst and sate their appetites morning, noon and sometimes even into the evening, in far more comfortable and stylish surroundings.
That’s not to say that you can’t still eat on the hoof, however – quite literally in the case of one National Trust café here in the North East.
There can’t be many eateries happy to offer ‘at horse’ service for riders and their equine charges.
But that is what happens at the café at George Stephenson’s Birthplace in Wylam in the heart of the Tyne Valley, which has just begun opening on winter weekends.
The humble birthplace of railway pioneer George Stephenson, the cottage where the entire family lived in just one room stands beside the Wylam Waggonway which runs between the village and Blayney Row and is a popular route for walkers, cyclists, birdwatchers, anglers, horse riders and families alike.
During the tourist season between March and November when the cottage where Stephenson was born in 1781 is open to the public, many hundreds are tempted to turn off the waggonway which once carried coal the five miles from Wylam Colliery to the staiths at Lemington, for a reviving cuppa and a bite to eat.
These include horse riders who are often served at the cottage gate on their mounts by among others National Trust volunteer Norma Meers.
“We have a few customers who come up on their horses and we are quite happy to serve them,” the 50-year-old says. “We even get a farmer who pulls up on his tractor and we serve him his bacon sandwich!
“I can’t think of many cafés that would be happy to offer that kind of assistance, but it’s just part of what we do here at George Stephenson’s Birthplace.”
Norma says the café’s relaxed atmosphere is what first encouraged her to become a National Trust volunteer herself three years ago.
“I had just moved to the area and didn’t know anyone. But I knew of the waggonway and decided to go for a walk along it one day and ended up at the café.
“The staff were really friendly and soon got talking to me and coaxed me into being a volunteer.
“The tearoom itself is very quaint and I liken the atmosphere to going back home.
“Everyone knows everyone else, you feel comfortable and it’s more personal.”
It is this ambience along with the high quality of the food, which explains why many locals as well as day trippers make a special journey just to have lunch or afternoon tea at the café.