Playing at grockles one sunny August day, Matt and Cat and junior reviewers Bill and Jack headed west with a plan to have lunch at Warren Farm, a place repeatedly recommended by a colleague.
It was closed. Not to worry – something else to eat must be nearby. A quick drive up to nearby Headon Warren elicited nothing to eat other than ice cream. The foursome were getting hungry, and choices thin on the ground, so, having scrutinised the contents of the collective purse, they pulled up at Needles car park, coughed up the £4 charge and wandered into the ‘Pleasure Park’ on the hunt for lunch. Now it might with some justification be claimed that the Needles Park is “The Island’s most famous attraction for all the family“, but that doesn’t make it good. In fact, rather like the notoriously rubbish ‘theme park’ at Land’s End, Cornwall, the spectacular location and famous name is what brings the visitors to The Needles – the Park exists to separate them from their money whilst they are there.
A range of generic tourist amenities in industrial styles nestles uncomfortably under the sweeping downs, dispensing ersatz heritage to the credulous: “Test your skills with Junior Driver, have a whirl on the Spins & Needles teacup ride, putt your way around Jurassic Golf or climb aboard the traditional Carousel!” Surely this was the place that inspired Julian Barnes to write his famous Island-set satire of the tourist ‘industry’: ‘England England‘? But in amongst the tat there are a few gems of value – you can still go and create your own glass phial of coloured sand, just as generations of tourists have since Victorian times. A memorial to the location of Gugielmo Marconi‘s first wireless transmission is here, and despite the relentless kiss-me-quick tourist-trapness of the place, the awesome scenery steals the show. It really is worth enduring the park for the delight of the beach and the spectacular views of the titular Needles.
So, how will the food at the Needles Park measure up? Read on to see what the hungry travellers made of it.
Jack, who has a wasp-like affinity for sugar, would have been quite happy for his midday meal to be had at the Sweet Manufactory; walking down from the car park his gustatory sense was tantalised by sickly wafts of sugarscent. Hustling the youngster past this lure, the foursome soon arrived in front of The Pantry. A less promising external appearance would have been hard to devise – possibly an incinerator chimney belching out sulphurous fumes might have made it look worse, but on the other hand it may just have been a welcome relief from the dismally clapped-out restaurant. The Pantry looks a little like the motorway service-station of the 1970s: plasticky, dirty, and full of vaguely dissatisfied people. Matt and Cat shepherded the boys in, by now eager to eat lunch anywhere at any price.
Inside the scene was, if anything, worse. Formica and lino dominated the interior. Tables were littered with the debris of meals past, and an unfortunate infant was yelling somewhere off in the cavernous interior. After the bright sun outside the restaurant seemed dingy, and the party looked around in puzzlement for the source of the food. Eventually they noticed that the rear wall of the building was a cunning screen, and a series of signs directed would-be diners behind it. Rounding this façade a maze of counters with hot and cold food was revealed. The unfortunate staff behind them must have been sweltering, hidden away from natural light and slaving over their sizzling pots. Why it was necessary to hide the food in this mysterious manner was unclear. And that wasn’t all that was unclear – to determine the price of anything was quite a task. Some was pre-packed and priced, but other items had minuscule labels cunningly attached to nearby bits of furniture. Some dishes were not on display at all, but described in little posters, with entreaties to notify the staff if you actually wanted to eat them. What was worse, the first few counters seemed to contain cakes, scones and the like, whilst the hot food was later and drinks right at the end. So without walking back and forth to see what was on offer it was hard to decide what to eat. Luckily the counters were quiet, and so the diners ambled back and forth easily enough, and were able to ask questions of the staff, who were happy to assist. However it isn’t hard to imagine the challenge of taking a hungry family into this gloomy labyrinth on a busy Bank Holiday afternoon and attempting to assemble a meal.
Emerging blinking into the sunlight again, Matt and Cat found a table outside the Marconi Bar. The choice of exterior table was limited to one, as all others were either in use or piled high with litter and dirty crockery. The table they chose needed only the banishment of a malodorous ashtray, and a few bits of random plastic and food, before it became relatively presentable. The diners decided to just work around the big sticky gob of fresh chewing-gum that was smeared across the middle of the table. After a while they almost convinced themselves that it was part of the attraction – some sort of heritage gum, perhaps. Maybe it was chewed by Gugielmo himself. Whatever. Bill and Cat had gone self-service: chicken sandwich and cream tea respectively. Jack and Matt had ordered hot food from behind the counter, and had only a few minutes to wait until a member of staff brought out cheeseburger and chips, and scampi and chips respectively. All four set to: lunch at last!
Cat was delighted with her little cream tea. Although, oddly enough, the cream tea came without tea (which had to be bought separately), this was a decent example of her stock summer favourite, and at only £3.50 (including the cost of the tea) was fairly good value. She held its polystyrene plate aloft for the photograph; the view of the distant heather-clad downs preferable to the untidy terrace in the foreground.
Bill also reported his chicken sandwich to be decent enough. Adorned with a few bits of lettuce, it had a reasonable filling, and he ate it happily. Jack’s burger looked good, and came with a fair pile of chips. He made a reasonable job of consuming it, but found the burger to be a bit rubbery and in the end, it defeated him. Matt liked the look of his plateful. A very generous portion of scampi and a stack of chips came with a big salad. However on digging in he was soon less impressed – this meal was not really as good as it looked. The salad was laced with vast chunks of raw white onion – one bit so big that Cat, from across the table, mistook it for a hard-boiled egg. The scampi and chips, fresh from the fryer, achieved a status that very few food items have ever had before – they were too greasy for Matt’s taste. On poking the chips they collapsed softly inward and poured out torrents of grease. The scampi, similarly, had been fried into crisp shells containing a good ration of cooking oil as well as their crustacean cargo. It was edible and Matt ate most of it but it is noteworthy when even this trencherman complains about the saturates slopping round his plate.
Chicken sandwich £2.95
Cream tea £2.25
Cheese burger £4.50
3 x tea £3.75
Ribena carton £1.20
Scone, butter and jam £1.20
There’s much more that could be said of the Needles Pantry. The story of the wasp, how Cat cunningly trapped it in the tiniest jam jar, and its ultimate release. A rant, perhaps, about the indignity of dining to the strains of Isle of Wight Radio piped to every part of the dining hall. Some indignation at the incompatibility between the packaging of the cream tea – which came wrapped in cling film on a polystyrene plate – and The Needles environmental policy. A comparison between the Pantry and school dinners – and perhaps a few words of praise for the staff member who finally came and cleared the table with a few friendly words. But, in honesty, there’s no point. Really, there isn’t. You aren’t going to the Needles to eat: just as Matt and Cat didn’t. This review won’t stop you going there any more than it will cause you to go. You’ll go to the Needles because of the wonderful view. Like everyone else does. And as you’ve paid £4 to park and the kids are starving you might just end up eating there if you can’t be bothered to walk to somewhere better. So any further detail from Matt and Cat is going to be superfluous – let’s face it, although they can’t recommend the Needles Park as an eating-out venue, that doesn’t really matter.
The Pantry, Needles Park