Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Shaw's Corner, Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire

There is no café at the home of everyone's favourite Stalin-loving pacifist, despite his famous declaration that there was no love sincerer than the love of food. Instead, there is a small shed selling gardening stuff and ice creams.

Still, it gives you a chance to meander around the gardens and peer through the window of the writing hut, musing on the man and reflecting on the works.

And realize that he got it wrong. It is not alcohol that is the anaesthesia by which we endure the operation of life. It's a Cornetto.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Sarehole Mill Cafe, Hall Green, Birmingham

This childhood haunt of J. R. R. Tolkien does not have a large café, but that it entirely part of it's charm. It's just a small room in the old Miller's cottage serving light refreshments - meaning, of course, cakes and biscuits. If you were a local, this would be a lovely regular haunt. Despite the everpresent rumble of traffic on the Cole Bank Road, this really is a little oasis of rural peace. There's limited seating, but sit outside in the courtyard and soak up the romantic ambience of industrial Birmingham before traffic and suburbs*. The pot of tea was tasty enough - no standout brands for either tea of coffee but at less than 2 quid for either, who cares? Drinkable, refreshing and cheap enough to tempt you back for more.**

In the Cotswolds this place would be prettified beyond belief, groaning with ornamental flower borders and home-made lavender scones and chintzed-up countryside living. Birmingham museums tend to face up to the realities of an industrial past, focusing on more material matters - machines, technology; stuff. There are a few aspects of eye-rolling cheesiness in the form of the Tolkien homages - some 'search for Bilbo' game for the kids, so the magnificent ingenuity of the mechanization of food production is punctuated by pictures of characters from the books. However, it is complemented by some information describing Tolkien's own account of how the Mill and it's surroundings appear in the stories.

He's right, of course. The sprawling industrial suburbs wrecked his rural idyll. But, when you are sitting outside, drinking tea and listening to the sounds of the Mill and the traffic, you realize that this particular destination perfectly epitomises that moment when what was, becomes what is.

*Before, in fact, Birmingham was relatively 'uninhobbited'
**Or, if you like, 'hobbit-forming'

Access: *****

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Morrisons Cafe, Stratford-upon-Avon

Do you remember in As You Like It when Celia says 'I like this place/And willingly could waste my time in it'? I reckon she could have been talking about this place. Seriously, I mean it. This cafe/restaurant combo is unsophisticated, with basic plastic-and-formica decor. The windows are covered with gigantic stickers depicting idealised rustic views (presumably because the view would otherwise be 20th century Brutalist car park); but, like Celia's country retreat, it is perfectly comfortable and has everything you need. If you are fainting for succour then this will all do very nicely. Your food is even served by local Corins amiably shuffling toward you with platefuls of food that, OK, is not exactly prepared from flock and pasture, but the Morrisons version of it that they call Market Street; and it's tasty, filling, and cheap. 

In terms of space, access is absolutely fine. Though the chairs and tables are bolted to the floor, someone has had the foresight to designate a couple of spaces at some tables for wheelchairs meaning that no one has to suffer the indignity of being perched on the end of a table, blocking the aisle and feeling horribly conspicuous. The main difficulty is that you have to serve yourself to virtually everything. Meaning that there are coffee machines, and coke machines, and milkshake machines and orange juice machines and a vast refrigerated counter of sandwiches, cakes, pasties, sausage rolls, biscuits, juice boxes, portions of fruit, bottles of water, fresh orange juice, fruit juice - if you have wheels, you won't be able to have coffee and a cake without help. 

Meals are ordered and paid for at the till and you are given a number to put on a stand at your chosen table. At busy times, the place is dotted with these numbered cards which, while not exactly love letters pinned to trees, are certainly indicative of yearning appetites. In keeping with many establishments that serve a variation on a chips-with-everything theme, items on the menu are conscientiously labelled with the calorie content, and there are limited options for vegetarians and vegans.

The breakfast menu is great. I recommend the Flying Start Breakfast. For a mere £2.79, you get egg, sausage, fried bread, half a grilled tomato and bacon which is as near as dammit only a portion of mushrooms short from many of the more expensive all-day options in the town. And the bacon is crispy, there's a glossy look about the sausages, a satisfying gravelly crunch on the fried bread, and an elegant, ever-so-slightly crispy frill around the fried egg. The fish and chips is only £4.75 and quite acceptable. Thick cut chips, not terribly crispy, but neither do they taste like warmed-over potatoes. A portion of cod, in a thickish batter, pale gold in colour and slightly crunchy. I had mushy peas, being, of course, the more civilized option, but you are offered baked beans and garden peas. Drew had the lasagne which is offered with salad as an option but we stopped laughing long enough to cut our losses and ask for the chips. The lasagne came served in a separate round dish, presumably as it is heated up when ordered, but at less than a fiver neither of us were anticipating full-on artisan fare.

Just a heads-up - you are charged 10p each for sachets of sauces and mayonnaises so be careful that an otherwise cheap meal doesn't get drowned in three quid's worth of condiments because you grabbed a handful of everything as a matter of course. Too much of a good thing and all that.


Access: *****