Despite perhaps not being quite at its peak in early April, the daffodils alone make a wander in Howick Hall Gardens a most enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.
Plus, buying a ticket into the Grey family estate is the only way to get into the tea room which, as I discovered on Sunday, is well worth a visit for simple lunches in impressive surroundings.
The Earl Grey Tea Room is named, unsurprisingly, after Charles, 2nd Earl Grey, the most distinguished member of the family which has had Howick as its home since 1319. As leader of the Whig party, he was Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834, during which time the Great Reform Bill of 1832 was passed – a key precursor to our modern parliamentary democracy.
He is also known for his namesake tea, which was specially blended for the 2nd Earl Grey to suit the water from the well at Howick, using bergamot in particular to offset its taste of lime.
Howick Hall is not open to the public at the moment and the family lives in the West Wing following a conversion in 1973.
The Earl Grey Tea House is situated in the East Quadrant and was opened in 2004.
In the 1928 rebuild, which followed a large fire, the quadrant had been converted into the kitchen, pantry, larders, store rooms and servants’ hall; all these were stripped out in 2003 to return the room to its original shape as a ballroom.
The tearoom is now run by Mary and Karen Jamieson; Mary is the youngest daughter of the retired head woodman at Howick, Andrew Jamieson, and was born and bred at Howick, while Karen is her sister-in-law, so there are real ties to the estate.
And having had a decent walk all around the different areas of the gardens and grounds on what was a very pleasant afternoon – mild and sunny – we had worked up quite an appetite.
Having sat down in a prime window seat with views over the lawn and having admired the special room and some of its artworks, we were pleased to see that the menu contained a wealth of classic dishes and crowd-pleasers.
There was also an enticing specials board and three-quarters of our party ended up ordering from that – I always worry about missing out on something that won’t be there if I go back and when Craster kippers are included, then that’s it for me.
A pair of whole Craster kippers (£8.60) was served in the best way possible, simply with brown bread and butter.
It wasn’t one for those who favour a fillet with the bones and skin having been removed for them, but it was perfect for a fish fanatic like me.
Also selected from the specials menu, which also featured a marinated herring salad (£9) as well as revealing that the soup of the day was Thai spiced tomato, were a smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich and a bacon and brie toastie ( both £6).
All the sandwiches either come with crisps or a side salad, which includes a tasty homemade coleslaw as well as the crisps.
The final choice was a Northumbrian ham, cheese and homemade chutney sandwich and this, like the other two, went down very nicely.
There was some debate over whether the bread used for the sarnies could have been more ‘interesting’ or ‘exciting’, but the majority felt that the bread was just fine, especially given our choices; certain fillings lend themselves to a plainer surround.
After a brief breather, a stroll over to the other side of the café to take a look at the cakes was in order.
There was a wide and varied selection, ranging from the usual – Victoria sponge, lemon drizzle – to the not-so-usual – parsnip and coconut anyone?
All four of us decided to have a slice (£2.90), but our choices remained on the pedestrian side; two carrot cakes, a Bakewell tart and a gingerbread. Tray bakes (£2.30) and biscuits (£1.20) are also available.
We were very impressed with the cakes.
I didn’t get a taste of the gingerbread, but was told it was very tasty.
However, the carrot cake was moist and the icing just right, while the Bakewell tart was particularly good.
AFTERNOON TEA IS ON OFFER AS WELL
Strangely enough given the venue and its history, none of us had a cup of tea with lunch, but afternoon tea is an option at the tea house.
A sandwich, scone with butter, jam and cream, a slice of homemade cake and a pot of tea costs £16.50 per person, or the addition of a small bottle of sparkling wine makes it £20 per person.
The prices for food were pretty good, we felt, particularly given the portions, albeit you have to pay to get into the gardens. However, the alcohol is relatively pricey.
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
Homemade soup with roll......£4.90
Sandwiches – £4.50 With Crisps, £5.70 With Side Salad
Egg mayonnaise and cress; Tuna mayonnaise and cucumber; Cheese, tomato and pesto
With butter and jam......£2.75
With butter, jam and cream......£3.50
With butter, jam and clotted cream......£3.85
STAR RATINGS (out of 10)
Quality of food......9
Access for the disabled......8
Verdict: Nothing revolutionary here, but you don’t need it – decent lunchtime fare and excellent cakes.
Contact: 01665 572232 or www.theearlgreyteahouse.com