Photo courtesy of Mark Gallagher
I started writing this blog post some months ago as a light-hearted tribute to the coffee stop, then put it aside to come back to later. Little did I know what would transpire in the meantime. The humble cafe, something we took for granted for so long, has suddenly vanished from our lives with the advent of Coronavirus lockdown. At present I can still head out for a solo cycle ride in the largely traffic-free Hampshire lanes around Beano HQ, but somehow it's not the same without a stop in the middle.
Someday soon, the restrictions will lift and the coffee shops, cafes and tearooms of Britain will, we hope, start to re-open. But some of them may stay closed forever. The smaller independents, out in the villages and market towns, may suffer the most. When it's safe and legal to do so, please get out there and support them.
In the meantime, though, let's raise a mug to happier times. Here's my tribute to the coffee stop.
It had taken some work to track the new tearoom down. My only clues were a Facebook page and a pin on Google Maps that, as it turned out, was more than five miles out-of-position. But just from the description I reckoned it lay high in a valley between two mountains, at the upper end of a detour on one of the Snowdonia Beano rides. That detour is reward enough in itself - it's a long, steady haul up a not-too-steep road following a pretty river valley into the mountains. Halfway up you pass the brooding Gothic ruins of a slate mill. At the end of the road you reach a reservoir ringed by hills, where you stop for a breather before turning back down the valley. It's an experience in itself. But throw in a tearoom at the top? Surely it would become unmissable.
I arrived at the spot I'd identified: the final bend in the road before it petered out to nothing by the reservoir. An isolated cottage stood on the corner. No sign. No activity. No people. Nothing.
As I turned to go, a woman bustled out of the kitchen door, brushing flour from her hands onto her apron. "Are you looking for the tearoom? Oh, I'm sorry, I'm not open today. Weekends only 'til the school holidays start."
There was a pause. "But" - she looked around her conspiratorially - "you're here, I'm here, so... what would you like?"
"Er - coffee and a couple of Welsh Cakes?" I ventured.
Ten minutes later I was seated at a table in her sunny garden overlooking the reservoir, scoffing hot cakes with melting butter dribbling from their edges while she pointed out the distant remains of the great quarry and the long-abandoned village that was built to serve it, stacked high above the far shore of the lake.
There must be very few sporting activities that involve stopping in the middle of the action for a nice cup of tea and a sit down. Footballers, with their half-time break, do little more than gulp down a bottle of energy drink and suck on half an orange. (Or something like that - I'm not big on football and my knowledge may be slightly out of date.) Runners grab a swig of water and squidge suspicious-looking goo into their mouths from little sachets. Swimmers... don't. I guess traditional village cricket matches are the exception, with a full afternoon tea laid out between innings, but that's probably just to relieve the boredom. (Nope, not a cricket fan either, how did you guess?)
And then there's cycling.
Of course, it's partly that cycling isn't only a sport. It's also way of getting round town and transporting stuff; it's a nice way of going out for the day and exploring the countryside; it's a means of travel. If you're out all day, you're going to want a proper break and a meal at some point. But even at the sporty, heads-down road warrior end of the scale, there's a grand tradition of pulling up at a cafe for a hot drink and maybe a tasty snack..
In a post on the Cycling UK Forum entitled "Confessions of a cake-hating heretic", one regular bemoaned "this road riding fetish of cake/cafe stops" - the tendency for groups of cyclists to stop halfway round their ride for no good reason, just to enjoy a coffee, a chat and maybe a piece of cake. In fact our heretic went further and suggested that going cycling with a group at all was an odd thing to do when you could head out on your own and enjoy the solitude and the quiet of the countryside, with no need to match your speed or your route to anyone's preferences but your own. Which is all fair enough, and I greatly enjoy a solo ride, but I also enjoy the company of groups, not least for the joy of sharing the experience with others.
Whether I'm alone or not, though, I still enjoy a good coffee stop.
For me there's something about the change of pace that appeals. An hour or two of constant motion, the breeze whistling past and the legs pumping away, gives way to stillness. In a group it's a chance to chat without the wind noise and constant interruptions ("POTHOLE!") of the ride, to tease Dave about his obsession with having his coffee served in a takeaway cup ("But it goes cold too quickly otherwise!"), to talk about upcoming events and plan future rides, to reflect on life and politics - or just to decide where we're going next after coffee.
Even on your own, it's a chance to sit back, think, and watch the world go by. And that can be entertainment in itself. Small towns in France are good for this: early Saturday morning in the market square, sitting at a table outside the bar-tabac with fresh croissants bought from the baker next door, the sunshine gradually dispelling the overnight chill. An elderly lady dressed in an unfeasibly warm fur coat walks past, carrying a small dog. An aged, battered Renault wobbles to a halt in front of the bar and a man gets out, takes an unmarked cardboard box into the shop and emerges a few minutes later with a similarly-unmarked carrier bag. Inside, two farmers discuss the price of artichokes in Rouen while keeping half an eye on the winning Loto numbers churning ceaselessly up the small TV screen over the counter.
Back in Britain, people-watching at cafes can be just as rewarding. Outside a Pink Floyd-themed coffee shop in a Somerset town, locals clustered round the man at the next table who was out taking his pet lamb for a walk on a lead. (Yes, it was Glastonbury. Where else?) At the legendary Eureka Café on the Wirral, waves of road cycling clubs in matching jerseys arrived, drank, talked loudly and departed on their way to the Clwydian hills as they have done since 1929. At the village shop in Talybont-on-Usk below the Brecon Beacons, volunteer workers from the canal dropped in to order their bacon butties and banter with the staff. Sitting in burning sunshine at a bench outside Eric Jones Caffi in North Wales, I drank thick black filter coffee and watched the rock climbers calling instructions to each other as they scaled the cliffs opposite.
Of course the dynamic changes when you're with a group. If it's an organised group like our local club rides or a Bicycle Beano tour, you need to find somewhere that has enough seats and can cope with the arrival of ten or twenty or thirty hungry cyclists. One cafe owner likened cycling clubs to a swarm of locusts: at first one or two drift in then suddenly they're everywhere, there's lots of noise and activity, then thirty minutes later they're gone, leaving the place stripped bare of food.
Inevitably this means garden centres feature a lot on the more popular club rides, as they're usually set up with big cafes. And to be fair some of them are great places. Others are a little... well... odd.
At one local garden centre the cafe has a long counter where staff stand ready to receive orders. Facing the left-hand end of the counter is The Queue. The Queue begins behind the White Line painted on the floor, set some four metres back from the counter. (This was long before social distancing was a thing.) Customers must stand behind the White Line until they are summoned forward by a staff member. On the counter a vast array of cakes is laid out. The trouble is, it's impossible to see from the White Line what any of the cakes are, and when you're summoned, you're inevitably called to the other end of the counter where you can't see the cakes at all. Woe betide anyone who tries to cross the White Line to inspect the cakes before ordering: they will be pointedly ignored by the staff, who will simply call the next person behind them forward - and the next, and the next, until the miscreant returns to the back of The Queue and starts again. If you order cooked food, you're issued with a number card on a stand. The card includes detailed instructions on how to place it on your table: it must be arranged upright in the centre of your table, with the number facing the floral display near the counter. If it isn't, the instructions warn sternly, your food may not be delivered to you. (I guess maybe the flowers can read the numbers? Not entirely sure.) But we still stop there, because the only alternative is the gliding club up the road, where it takes half an hour before everyone even gets a drink, let alone manages to drink it. And you can't not have a coffee stop.
One nearby village shop has a very impressive espresso machine that throws the volunteer staff into a panic when someone actually asks for a coffee. Another has a bean-to-cup machine that automatically roasts the beans, grinds them, makes the coffee, foams the milk and paints a little picture of your face in the froth on top (I may exaggerate slightly). It's so complex it takes the staff a whole hour to shut it down and clean it out at the end of the day. Arrive during the last hour of trading and you'll be offered "just" a hand-prepared cafetiere of fresh coffee that tastes much nicer than the machine's output. Then there's Old Winchester Hill, one of the area's more challenging and scenic road climbs, beloved of local road cyclists (and familiar to anyone who did the South Downs Beano last year). On random weekends a man with a mobile coffee cart appears in a shady roadside spot near the top, serving cappucinos and brownies. Nobody knows where he comes from or where he goes to.
Cake. Cake is important. Yes, energy bars are probably more efficient but where's the fun in that? I've already mentioned Welsh Cakes. These are my default choice when arriving at a tearoom anywhere in Wales. (That or Bara Brith.) Most Welsh tearooms pride themselves on their Welsh Cakes. Fully half of them claim to have won prizes for their Welsh Cakes, to the point where I can only guess that the three main categories in any regional eisteddfod must be Poetry, Music and Welsh Cakes. (For bonus points, recite lines from the Mabinogion while simultaneously playing the harp and cooking up a batch on the stove.) They are light, fluffy discs, a cross between a cake and a pancake, and they're pretty small so there's no shame in ordering two of them. For preference, eat warm with unreasonable amounts of butter.
Nearer home I look out for Hoxton Bakehouse cinnamon buns, available in all Hampshire's best coffee shops. (Hoxton Bakehouse has nothing to do with Hoxton, by the way - I guess they thought it sounded cooler and more hipsterish than "Industrial-Estate-Behind-Southampton-Central-Station Bakehouse"). Flapjacks are good if you want to give the impression that you're eating something healthy while actually consuming large amounts of butter, sugar and syrup.
One of the tougher parts of the Bicycle Beano job is that it involves testing out a lot of cafes to find just the right experience for all you good Beanoers out there. Often that can mean several tea and coffee stops in a day. Sometimes I barely have time to get back on the bike before it's time to try another one. I persist bravely, though Madelaine occasionally has to stop me on health grounds when I'm about to order the fourth Americano of the afternoon.
And seriously, it does matter to us that we encourage Beanoers to stop at local cafes and pubs for food and drink. The philosophy of Beano has always involved bringing a little bit of money into the communities we visit and even (gasp) talking to the locals - not passing through in splendid isolation, herded by a support van and a mobile caterer. That's just not the Beano Way. The best Beano coffee stops aren't necessarily the ones with the best coffee or cakes (though they're all very good, of course). The Snowdonia Beano regularly features morning coffee at Antur Waunfawr, a social enterprise in a village in the mountains that provides training and employment for people with learning disabilities. It's somewhere we always get a friendly welcome and, of course, home-made cakes. Some cafe owners will open specially if they know we're coming past. (Others may close up and hide in the cellar, but let's not talk about that.) On past Beanos we've even had retired tearoom owners re-open their doors as a one-off just for us.
So, long live the coffee stop. I love them all and I look forward to visiting them all again when they're allowed to re-open. I just hope they all do.
And remember, when you see me there, mine's an Americano and two Welsh Cakes.
Actually, make that three Welsh Cakes. They're only little, after all.
Checking the routes for the Wye Valley Beano, I reach an afternoon tea stop that we've used in the past: a large, rambling garden open to the public. The owner serves teas in the old pool house, a huge glass lean-to standing against a brick wall, inside which the indoor swimming pool has now become a lily pond (though still with a ladder into it and a rope to swing on over it).
I bump down the rutted entrance drive into the garden, avoid the patrolling peacocks, drop my bike on the lawn and enter the pool house. There's no-one here but a bemused cycling couple from Droitwich. "There was no answer up at the house," they tell me, "so we thought we'd just help ourselves." We put the kettle on again, I choose a cake, put some money in a random biscuit tin, and we settle down to chat.
After a few minutes we hear a splashing sound. Built into the wall at the back of the building is a brick fireplace with a chimney leading up from it. Water is spattering down the chimney into the hearth. We check outside. The sun is shining, the sky is cloudless. Back indoors, it's still raining. The fireplace is gradually filling with water. Soon it starts to spill over the edge and spread across the floor.
"The fireplace is flooding - is that normal?"
"Could be. Hard to tell round here."
So I walk back up the drive to the main house and bang on the door. After a while the elderly owner pokes his head out of an upstairs window. "Sorry, in the middle of something at the moment. Can't come down. Please do help yourself to tea - there's milk in the fridge."
"Thanks - we already did. But we're just a bit worried about the... I mean... it's raining in the chimney."
"Ah. There are two mains switches near the kettle. Turn them both off. Then turn one of them back on. That's very important."
Before I can ask "Which one?" he is gone.