Out in the West Wight countryside Chessell Pottery Barns is a popular venue that seems to have broken the mould that typifies chintzy tearooms in the thatched Meccas of Godshill and Shanklin Old Village.
The mould-breaking analogy is perhaps apposite; in order to succeed as year-round destination the former farm has diversified and offers pottery-wrangling activities. Decorating pottery is a clear attraction for parties, but you no longer need to get your hands covered in clay and paint to enjoy the venue. Matt and Cat wouldn’t want to deter any budding Grayson Perrys, but they’d say the Courtyard Café is enough of an attraction in itself.
One summer afternoon as most of the Island seemed to be jigging along at the Isle of Wight Festival, Matt and Cat had other things on their minds – and scones and cream were foremost. Driving west from Newport, they made a bee-line for Chessell, soon drawing into the gravelled former farmyard that serves as a car park. The origins of the site are never far away, with barns and bales of hay nearby, plus ducks – Cat had to get out and shoo away an extremely self-confident duck before the car could be safely parked. Further in is the eponymous courtyard. A handsome weeping willow shades picnic tables on the grass where children can safely play by a sparkling fountain as their minders chat. There is even a little jar of ‘doggy treats’ which suggests that ‘fur babies’ are also welcome.
Inside Matt and Cat found a busy tearoom and pinnied waitresses bustling about with trays full of tea and scones. A huge array of fresh cakes and sweet and savoury pastries was on display. Matt, who had planned to join Cat in a cream tea, goggled at a puff pastry tart laden with cheese and tomatoes, which he spontaneously ordered along with the ubiquitous cream tea.
As they settled down at one of the few vacant tables, they were impressed by the sight of a Chessell afternoon tea being delivered to the adjacent party – it was the full Monty: cakes and sandwiches on tiered cake-stands, and teapots a-plenty. A fabulous afternoon treat.
Cream tea for 2 £11.95
Cheese and tomato slice £2.95
Their own cream tea was laid out on the table and nearly filled it. A basket of four huge scones, clotted cream served in scoops like ice cream, a platter of jam, a vast teapot, and all the cutlery and crockery one could wish for. In presentation, this cream tea was lacking nothing. But how did it taste? Cat had chosen a mix of scones from the selection: plain, fruit, and cherry and almond. The room-temperature scones were vast and a decent texture; firm on the outside and with soft interiors. Perfect for receiving the jam and cream – or is it cream then jam? No matter. Cat raised a jammy thumb in approbation – the cream tea clearly made the grade.
Matt started late on his sweet as he had been busying himself with the vegetarian tart. The puff pastry case was burdened with cheese and tomato, and was accompanied by a small simple salad with a basil dressing. He enjoyed his vegetarian lunch greatly but was not too stuffed to start on the scones.
Despite their best efforts, Matt and Cat were unable to drink the pot dry. The capacious vessel held enough for more than two cups each, which meant that the two teabags really had to work hard to get themselves noticed. By the bottom of the pot the tea was more the colour of builders’, but the early drawings were a bit weak. Matt and Cat had also been offered extra hot water, should they want it but even vicarage boy Matt has a finite capacity for the brown stuff.
The Courtyard Cafe is, as its name suggests, a cafe in a courtyard setting. But perhaps its name might also include the words ‘and vast gift shop’. As Matt and Cat scoffed their tea they watched a trail of visitors browsing the groaning shelves of Union Jack-adorned storage tins and entertainingly-captioned crockery. Further into the shop there were piles of child-centric gifts though M&C were pleased to see that some of the produce on sale was of local origin, including Garlic Farm chutneys, Wild Island dressing and Chessell’s own preserves.
The Courtyard Café is an excellent candidate for anyone seeking a pleasant afternoon’s tea and cake way out west. With its roomy agricultural setting and diverse places to eat and sit, the venue can cater for quite a few people at once. And the kitchen? Really pretty decent stuff all round. Savoury fans will be tempted by the light lunches – which included a reasonable selection of vegetarian choices – but be honest, you came for cake, didn’t you? You won’t be disappointed if you did. With massive meringues, traditional sponge cakes and slices, plus probably the biggest portion of scones M&C have ever been served, delicious jam and cream, and a seemingly inexhaustible pot of tea what’s not to love? Recommended.