Each year the National Trust serves more than 3.5m cups of tea. That’s a staggering number of fresh brews being drunk in our 100-plus tea rooms across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Few of our properties will have seen as many cuppas consumed over the years as at Wallington, however.
When it comes to tempting sightseers with a cup of Rosie Lee, the estate at Cambo near Morpeth, Northumberland, is well ahead of the game.
For visitors have been enjoying a brilliant brew set against the picturesque backdrop of the Palladian mansion with its grassed courtyard, formal gardens and woodland walks, for more than 70 years.
It all started innocuously enough at the beginning of the Second World War when nearly 120 young evacuees from Newcastle were billeted at Wallington – which was passed to the National Trust in 1941 by Sir Charles Trevelyan. The girls’ families would visit at weekends and descend on the family kitchen in search of a reviving cup of tea after the long and often arduous bus journey from Tyneside.
So Lady ‘Molly’ Trevelyan arranged to provide tea at 2d a cup.
Writing in her diary she observed of the first tea run in September 1939: “This was very successful… I think about 40 had tea. The following Saturday evening we got a telegram to say that 88 parents were coming the following day!
“This struck terror into our hearts, as we couldn’t possibly cope with such a big number in the Hall. Instead we got Mrs Whitelock down and she served cups of tea in the Courtyard.
“We made a very tidy profit on the transaction – it happened to be a fine hot day, and they were quite happy sitting out in the sun.”
In the years after the war, the public was encouraged to visit the estate every Saturday and Sunday and on public holidays from Easter to October when, according to a guidebook from 1957, “for large parties, but not more than 100 in one day, an arrangement can be made by applying in good time for a supply of hot water, tea, milk, and cups, in a room off the courtyard, for which a charge per head is made. Food is supplied.”
The Trevelyan family continued to take an active interest in the Wallington estate after Sir Charles died in 1958, and it was in 1961 that his eldest daughter, Patricia Jennings, opened the now famous Clocktower Café.
Helen Cowan, 64, who lives at nearby Kirkwhelpington, joined the staff in 1963, with her mother, Violet Bland, going to work at the café three years later making cakes and biscuits.
“It was all local women who did the baking,” Helen recalls. “I worked at the Clocktower for about five years part-time as a waitress until I got married, and then I went back as an understudy to my mum in 1984.
“My mother worked there for 20 years until Mrs Jennings retired in 1986 and the National Trust took over the Clocktower Café. I stayed on for another 10 years. The Clocktower Café these days is on the ground floor with overflow seating upstairs, but in Mrs Jennings’ day it was the other way around and included a gift shop.
“Mrs Jennings made sure she used as much local produce as possible. There was a cottage garden at Wallington from which the café got all its salad things and peaches came from the greenhouses in the Walled Garden.
“There was a cooked lunch every day with soup, but the big thing was the traditional afternoon teas with sandwiches, scones and cakes. It was all waitress service and Mrs Jennings would do her share of the work.”
So popular was the Clocktower Café that the queue would often snake down the stairs and out of the main door. On these occasions Mrs Jennings would take it upon herself to entertain the crowds in her own inimitable way ... on the Northumbrian pipes.
Lloyd Langley, Wallington’s current collections manager, remembers visiting the café in the 1970s. “There was always a very convivial atmosphere and I can clearly remember Mrs Jennings entertaining diners on the Northumbrian pipes.
“It was a very well-known café in the North East that had an excellent reputation for its warm welcome and the high quality of its food, and people used to travel a long way to eat there.”
Now the National Trust runs the Clocktower Café, and while tastes in everything from interior decoration to clothes and music have changed in the past 27 years, the historic eaterie is still a popular focal point for visitors. The impromptu pipe playing may be a thing of the past, but locally inspired seasonal main courses, cakes, scones and an energising cuppa are still very much at the heart of the National Trust menu.
Granted, lattes and cappuccinos, children’s lunch boxes, exotic flavoured crisps, paninis and both vegetarian and vegan options may have joined the traditional National Trust tea room staples, while nostalgic prints and photos have replaced the rustic curios on the walls, but visitors can still expect the same high quality welcome and food the Clocktower Café has always been renowned for.
But these days it is not just visitors to this area of mid-Northumberland who are being lured into the café. Heather Leatherland, Wallington’s food and beverage production manager, says an increasing number of locals are patronising it too.
“We have built up a loyal local clientele and I know that people do come to Wallington purposefully for the food.”
The Clocktower Café is constantly evolving, though. Catering staff at Wallington work closely with nearby Cragside at Rothbury to ensure visitors get a diverse dining experience. “We try to do something different,” Heather explains.
“We know that people who are holidaying, for example, and visit Cragside are very likely to come to Wallington a day or so later and vice versa, so we feel it is important between us both that we offer something different.”
There are no shortage of tempting sweet treats, however. “I think we’d get shot if we didn’t have cakes and scones still,” Heather says with a laugh.
“We sell extra big scones and still have plenty of cakes, like Dundee Cake which was a favourite of the Trevelyan family. We are looking at developing our dessert offerings in the next few months to include things like chocolate and strawberry meringues and introduce even more traditional cakes, which is what the public seems to want.
“We have vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free options and we even sell our own home-baked dog biscuits so everyone in the family can enjoy a bite to eat.
“Eating at Wallington has come a long way since the days of wartime rationing and cups of tea on the lawn.”
Wallington, Cambo, Northumberland, NE61 4AR, 01670 773 600, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/wallington
To find out more go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/northeast, follow on Facebook: www.facebook.com/NorthEastNT or Twitter: @NorthEastNT
RECIPE: DUNDEE CAKE
125g soft brown sugar
15g ground almonds
160g plain flour
1g baking powder
250g dried mixed fruit
25g whole almonds
Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/gas mark 3.
Line a 1lb loaf tin with greaseproof paper. Cream the sugar and butter together until smooth and add the eggs. Beat well.
Add all the dry ingredients except the whole almonds.
Pour into the loaf tin and decorate with the whole almonds.
Bake for 80 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
If there is any mixture on the skewer, bake for a few more minutes and then do the test again.