Matt and Cat\'s Isle of Wight Eating Out Guide
Granny Winter’s Pantry, Isle of Wight Steam Railway, Havenstreet Granny Winter’s Pantry, Isle of Wight Steam Railway, Havenstreet
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...

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.

Sausage and chips

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…

Egg mayonnaise sarnies

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.

Surely the eponymous Granny Winter didn’t make her tea in such an indifferent manner?

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.

Matt and Cat’s bill
Egg mayo sandwich £2.50
Sausage and chips £4.50
Mug of tea £1.30
Cup of tea £0.90
Total £9.00

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

  • Di Sutton says:

    Just read with disgust the latest review on your website for the Restaurant at the Steam Railway. ‘Granny Winter’s Pantry’ hasn’t been there for years! And neither has it’s Edmondson ticket… And yet, to the visitor reading your review, it still looks current. And, to have this review resurrected by a colleague at the Council, clearly says something about officers of the Council ‘having it in’ for Island businesses.

    On the one day Ms ‘Vrba’ ate at the Restaurant they had to resort to using paper plates – typical. If you would care to look at the reviews on Tripadvisor there are glowing reports of the Restaurant facility. If I were the IWSR I would really consider this a slap in the face and someone at the Council should get hold of this clearly incestuous influence and sort it out once and for all.

    I’m off now to see where I can post this without it being got at.


    Matt and Cat respond: We’re sorry you don’t like our review Di. It is old, but we went back in 2013 and found things much the same. We’ll be back again in due course no doubt but with over 500 reviews we can’t get around to revisit everywhere that we’d like to. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that Matt and Cat’s Isle of Wight Eating Out Guide is nothing to do with the Isle of Wight Council. You can see our policy on independence here. You will also find on the same page our commenting policy, which says that if you’re connected with a venue (e.g. you work there, you work in a rival venue, or you know somebody who does), you must say so. You didn’t, which is disappointing. We normally delete comments when we know they don’t comply with our policy – but we want you to feel welcome to comment so we’ll leave this one. Just remember next time to be sure to include your connection with the IWSR in your comment. Thanks.

  • Helen Vrba says:

    I dug out this old review of yours following our visit today, mainly to the motor show there but decided to have some lunch as it was that time (and also raining more heavily than when we arrived). We have had a couple of nice meals here and today;s was OK but let down completely by (a) plastic paper plates and (b) not even plastic cutlery now but balsa wood (like you used to make play-play planes out of in days gone by!). My other half had pie of the day – shepherd’s pie which, with new potatoes, veg and gravy made the horrid plates quite unpleasant and unstable! The balsa wood cutlery (so small it looked as if it was for very small people) but just impossible so I asked for ‘proper’ cutlery. We’d already been told the throwaway stuff was due to the ‘field event’ but when I asked, a helpful member of staff said she would find me some cutlery – unfortunately she came back having been told by her manager this was not to be. So I asked to see her manager who told me no-one else had complained. When I pointed out she now had an unhappy customer, she did find two sets of knives and forks with fairly bad grace.

    Now I don’t think the cafe was any busier than it had been on previous visits so why the excuse that the throwaway stuff is cheaper when they have an event on and cuts down on staff time? Places like The Needles and Robin Hill cater for far more on a regular basis and manage to provide appropriate cutlery. And I don’t think they can use the excuse that ‘they’re volunteers’ either – if you expect customers to pay, you must provide a professional service. Oh and £8.95 for the shepherd’s pie on unsuitable crockery and cutlery is a bit of a cheek!
    I have emailed them my thoughts and look forward to a reply!

    Sorry, didn’t mean to rant on at such length!

    Matt and Cat reply: Thanks for your comment, Helen. We popped back and had lunch at GWP in 2013 with the plan to update our review. Alas nothing seemed to have improved so we let the old review stand – although we did have china plates and proper cutlery. It’s a shame that the rest of the attraction has such fabulous attention to detail, let down by the food offering. There’s a great opportunity to provide an authentic buffet car or Brief Encounter-style station cafe in keeping with the rest of the wonderful railway.

  • Adam says:

    Good review. Ok, so the name dosent exactly sound flash and modern, but neither does The Waverly or The George. I admit the sausages are somtimes a bit barbequed but what we have to remember is that it is run by volunteers.

  • Graham says:

    This review surprises me greatly!

    I agree that the food (the sausages) were not of amazing quality, but I fed my family (three children) any myself for just over £10 so I cant possibly complain.

    What really gave me a good experience was how good the service was, the young staff were very friendly and welcoming even though the cafe was very busy, which i found endearing.

    I work in the catering business, and we do pots of tea, however the majority of people, always ask for mugs (or cups) so I feel for the pantry on that critique.

    Although i have only been to the Steam Railway once, I WOULD love to go again.

    Graham – Sheffield

  • Norfolk Nick says:

    This is a great tourist attraction & well worth a visit but the food is not good. So bad that even my ravenous kids didn’t eat their meals……………..condemnation indeed.

    Don’t really think anyone can argue that Matts sausages look very unappetising & for £4.50 I would expect much better.

  • Ellen says:

    I think that you have been extremely harsh on the Steam Railway! It isn’t their fault that they are constantly rushed off their feet with customers to not have the time to constantly clean cutlery. Plastic cutlery is a perfectly sensible back up to the silverware which I’m sure would have been replaced had the issue been brought to the attention of a member of staff. It does say on the menu that the tea is available in a mug, cup or pot, so that clearly is your own fault 🙂 I have been to eat there a few times and I must say i have always been extremely satisfied with my meal. The food being on a hot plate does not bother me because i know it will have been there purely for speed service in busy times, my god they would get complaints if they had to cook the food there and then (!) If you would like to eat something fresher then why not order something else? I know that they have a varied menu. Yes, Granny Winters Pantry might sound like a 1940’s tea room but this is the 21st century, they would probably get half as much business if it was to be styled as such – it would probably put families off from bringing their children in. About the insect thing, it is inevitable that a fly is going to be attracted to warm food; it has happened to me a few times but its hardly something to kick up a fuss about – let alone take a picture! Last but not least, I would like to say that the staff are always kind, consistent and welcoming. Big up Havenstreet!

    M & C respond: thanks Ellen and you are quite right about the tea. We have edited the review to reflect this. We also agree with your remarks about the staff – perhaps we could have emphasised more that they were all very friendly and helpful. The fly, however, had for some time been beyond being attracted to anything, except by gravity.

  • Neil (local) says:

    Well I’ve been a few times and have to say although the place is generally clean and the staff are polite, the quality of the food has a lot to be desired.

  • Simon says:

    Well, it must just be “Horses for courses” here. I had a fish and chip supper at the Steam Railway this week, and I thought they were possibly the nicest chips I had eaten in a long while. The cafe was clean and very pleasant and the staff. as always,polite and efficient. What are you talking about you two?…and more to the point WHY??? !

  • bushy says:

    How sad that the two family tourist attractions you have visited recently have been such a let down. What a contrast to the two we’ve been to in the last few weeks: Robin Hill and Carisbrooke Castle, both of which distinguished themselves with freshly made food and regularly cleaned tables.

  • Nick Churchill says:

    Once again M&C you have hit the nail on the head in your observations. Having visited Havenstreet on a number of occasions over the last few years I knew this year to take a picnic for my son and I rather than eat at Granny’s Pantry. While the rest of the site is excellent, especially if like Alex and I you are Steam enthusiasts. but the one part that does let it down is the catering and catering facilities.

    Once again M&C you have hit the nail on the head in your observations.

    For an attraction that has so many visitors you would think that they would get that part right, apart from anything else think of the lost revenue that could be ploughed back into the attraction!! One other thing that rather annoys me is that the ‘tent thing’ they have for people to eat under can only be used if you purchase from them and there is nowhere else under cover to use for a picnic if the weather is inclement!

    I would have thought that having somewhere for a picnic under cover would keep people on the site and more likely to spend more, but obviously someone hasen’t thought of that!!

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