Now that David Bowie has shuffled off this mortal coil, the memory of him will surely eventually fade away. But for old codgers like us, there is no greater shorthand for reinvention than the conceiver of the Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust. And, just as the erstwhile David Jones’ change of hair colour signposted a new persona and sound, so Chessell Pottery has been through several incarnations since Bowie’s heyday.
Early this century the pottery, founded in the 1970s by ceramicists John and Sheila Francis, was turned into a tourist attraction complete with a cafe. There were kilns and pottery blanks to paint, but for most visitors the reputation of Chessell as a place for a jolly good cream tea was what brought them through the doors.
Now in 2018 the lovely 1970s pottery studio has been given a makeover that almost counts as another reinvention. The airy space that once held the Francis’ kilns and workshops is now a magnificent modern tearoom. There are, apparently, still pottery bits to paint if you so desire, but our interest in ceramics was purely functional.
Parking the car in Chessell we were diverted by the chattering of a clear chalk steam running nearby. Once we’d given it sufficient admiration, we wandered past the various holiday cottages, barns and sheds until we found the cafe, with the familiar peaceful courtyard outside as charming as ever. The lunchtime rush had just faded away and we had a few moments to ourselves to gawp at the impressive new set-up before a chirpy chap guided us through the range of food and drink on offer. Cream tea was our objective, and this was clearly the feature dish of the venue, with options for plain, fruit, lemon and poppy-seed, or cheese scones. Matt nodded approval as there was no problem in substituting regular tea for his favoured tipple redbush, and Cat went similarly off-menu by swapping in an Americano coffee. Our cheerful server was happy to oblige, and gave us some tasting recommendations on the scones – including lemon curd – as he prepared the drinks.
Our food was brought out to us in the sunny courtyard, where we sat in the shade of a big umbrella leafing through a complimentary copy of this week’s County Press. The nearby fountain tinkled in a rustic manner, birds sang their song and invertebrates batted themselves against the sunshade.
The person who had cut the cheese to accompany Cat’s savoury ‘cream tea’ had done so in an agreeably heavy-handed manner. It was more like a scone ploughman’s; with its accompanying pot of soft, sweet pickles. A delicious alternative to the traditional sweet cream tea.
Matt exclaimed aloud when he saw his plate of scones. Unlike the savoury cream tea, he had two scones – scones that caused a sharp intake of breath. These were scones of which the traditional hyperbole “the size of a baby’s head” was hardly an exaggeration. The portions of jam and cream alongside were similarly generous. No pre-sealed pots here, the cream was liberally doled out in a ramekin; whilst the jam came in a small jar that held more than enough for this Brobdingnagian scone assembly. Matt was delighted. He’d chosen a poppy seed and lemon scone, and one plain – his advice is to go for the plain one. A simple, soft and fresh creation that served perfectly as vehicle for the cream and jam.
We’re pleased to report the very successful relaunch of the Chessell Pottery Cafe this year. There’s nothing wrong with reinventing yourself every now and again, and this place has done a great job of ushering in some new ideas whilst keeping the special and well-loved features of the venue mostly intact. Service and food are still exemplary, and if it is a cream tea you are after, Chessell is going to be one of the best on the island.