Nerds come in all sorts of guises, living history swots, expectant cartoon-kitty obsessives and frankly ought-to-know-better middle-aged Peter Pan fantasists. There’s nothing wrong in immersing yourself in your hobby – the folks at the Isle of Wight Steam Railway have made a very successful tourist attraction out of a love of steam trains and railway memorabilia.
Straight away, Matt and Cat could tell that the volunteers who run this heritage railway have a keen eye for detail. From the little cardboard tickets that M and C bought on their arrival at the station to the staff uniforms, nothing has been left to chance. Even the railway’s location is, unlike the incongruous Needles Pleasure Park, completely appropriate to its surroundings. There has, after all, been a railway on the site since 1875. Take those aforementioned tickets; consecutively numbered, dated and hole punched with those clipping plier things – little cardboard works of art. Matt and Cat, stepping through the ‘heritage cream’-coloured picket gate, looked forward to an afternoon of nostalgia, and maybe something to eat…
As expected most of the other visitors to the railway were families with small boys – although one suspects their attendance may have been at the insistence of the bigger boy in each party. Matt and Cat, with no children in tow, probably looked more like earnest train spotters. However, don’t be mistaken, you don’t need to be a train enthusiast to appreciate the Isle of Wight Steam Railway; it’s a place where even the most siderodromophobic can’t help but raise a smile, as we used to in the war.
Matt and Cat made their way straight to the on-site café, Granny Winter’s Pantry, having about 40 minutes to kill before the next scheduled train ride. The building looked pretty much like an old station buffet from the outside, and inside there was a counter of hot food which one approached canteen-style. A limited range of pastries, chips and a tureen of beans basked under the hot lamps. There was a better selection of cakes and the menu also promised jacket potatoes, salads and sandwiches and baguettes. Matt, never one to turn down a hot lunch chose sausage and chips (declining the beans which were also included in the price), and Cat asked for egg mayonnaise sandwich. Both had tea.
Food orders given, Matt carried the tray of tea to a table in the rather grandly named pergola. In reality this was a jerry-built extension to the café, with flapping plastic sides. Here the dedication to railway authenticity that permeates the rest of the site dissipated like steam from a loco’s whistle. The place was a mess of a decidedly contemporary nature; lightweight plastic furniture, tables strewn with the previous occupants’ meal remnants and napkins which had settled on the floor having been blown there by the gusts that insinuated themselves through the flimsy walls. Cat tidied up the surrounding debris whilst Matt went on the hunt for cutlery. He returned with a metal knife and a plastic fork, as that was all there was to be had. They then spent a couple of minutes moaning and clucking about the lack of tea pot. Will venues never accept that people don’t want a cuppa made with a teabag disconsolately chucked in a cup of boiling water? Surely the eponymous Granny Winter didn’t make her tea in such an indifferent manner? Teapots, please. At least the railway café had real milk in a small jug that one could help oneself from, although the hated UHT cartons were also on display.
(EDIT: thanks to commenter Ellen for correctly pointing out that tea in pots is available on request. M & C would still prefer this to be the default, but apologies for missing this obvious remedy to the problem.)
Despite all the grumbling the service was very quick and soon the food arrived. For M, a trio of sausages, with complexions like that of leathery old antiques hound David Dickinson, lolled on the plate next to a pile of greasy chips. Cat’s lunch looked positively anaemic by contrast. The garnish-free zone that was her egg mayonnaise sandwich was certainly freshly made and tasty enough but she was disappointed that the only green to be had on the plate was the napkin. Cat chewed listlessly at the sarnies whilst Matt made valiant attempts to spear the bangers onto the weak prongs of the plastic fork. He chewed on the sausages and found them only just edible – these were pretty basic sausages to start off with, but their long sojourn on the hotplate had reduced them to wizened tastelessness. All the while the sides of the construction heaved in and out like bellows. This constant movement eventually dislodged the corpse of a hoverfly, long perished, which drifted from the rafters and down onto the pile of chips. Matt and Cat looked at the intruder and were reminded of a similar and equally unwelcome dipterous experience long ago at Pizza Hut and, as the train was soon to depart, they decided to give up on their lunch.
It was a mystery how a venue so keen on the tiniest detail of historical accuracy can be so haphazard about the café. Where were the wooden tables and chairs, tea pots and metal cutlery which would have been found in the refreshment area of a steam railway back in the day? It’s certainly not a bad thing to have basic, 1940’s-style food and indeed that would be just the thing in that location. It’s never going to be a five-star gourmet dining experience nor should it try to be. But heritage does not have to mean dirty and untidy, indeed quite the opposite. Just look at the tea rooms at some attractions run by the National Trust or English Heritage. Rather than be an embarrassment and a sideshow to the attraction, the archetypical NT tearoom is of the highest quality: something that people seek out and pay very well to use. They also provide much-needed revenue for charitable works.
Egg mayo sandwich £2.50
Sausage and chips £4.50
Mug of tea £1.30
Cup of tea £0.90
Perhaps Matt and Cat’s rosy-tinted view of the past failed to incorporate the reality of the station tea room which, according to this article, was the home of stale cakes and curling sandwiches. Either way, it wasn’t nice. And it seems that the Isle of Wight Railway Company is fully aware of the cafe’s shortcomings, referring to the place in its strategic vision and including proposals for the “last of the older furnishings [to] be changed when possible”. Even though the food was disappointing the subsequent ride on the train was really great. Matt and Cat thoroughly enjoyed the view from its windows, spotting familiar landmarks from an unfamiliar vantage point.
Just as there are steam engine, railway signage and guards’ uniform nerds, perhaps the steam railway could franchise Granny Winter’s Pantry to a station buffet nerd? It’s good to know that the railway is thinking of making changes, because certainly as things stand Matt and Cat can’t recommend this as a place to eat. Anyway, you don’t have to go far to see how it’s done. For a heritage meal, try ‘battery pie’ a 1940s-style fare of corned beef topped with mashed potato in a pastry case at the Needles Old Battery instead – just the ticket!
Granny Winter’s Pantry, Isle of Wight Steam Railway, Havenstreet