For those of you still keeping up… thank you, I’ve been terribly lax in posting anything… there are three afternoon tea posts missing. Don’t worry, they are coming soon.
I haven’t resumed any overseas travel since returning to the UK in March 2020 and once Lockdown eased earlier this year, I’ve been hiking and gradually rebuilding the life I enjoyed before I went travelling.
But you’re here about the cakes, so I’ll get on with it.
Afternoon tea on a train pulled by a steam engine, what’s not to love? Nothing is the answer you’re seeking.
I made my way to Bolton Street Station, the home of the East Lancashire Railway to take up my seat and… slight problem… my booking wasn’t included on the passenger manifest. Neither was another couple’s.
We watched the other passengers board and as the station manager ambled down the platform to ask what the hold up was, a couple of staff glanced over their shoulders at us and moved away to talk discreetly. The other waiting woman turned to me and said: “Don’t you feel like a naughty child?”
I hadn’t. I’d felt like I was the entertainment as I assumed people were speculating what the problem was.
We didn’t wait long, even if it did feel like it. The train’s concierge found us tables and assembled the place settings for both tables. That felt quite novel in itself.
Problems can happen but the concierge handled the manifest issue quickly and efficiently, with a lot of apologising. Service was friendly and quick. My absent booking really did not become a big deal.
A glass of bubbly quickly arrived and as I looked forward to the food arriving I wondered… if they weren’t expecting me and the others… where was the food coming from? Presumably they only stocked the train for the numbers booked. So where were these ready assembled sets coming from? Would someone drop a M&S tea set off the bridge as the train pulled out of the station?
Sandwiches first and a traditional selection: egg mayonnaise on brown; thick sliced ham and chutney on white and finally coronation chicken on white (which felt very fitting with the 1950s carriage upholstery). Plenty of flavour and generously sized.
The first class seats were incredibly comfortable though I entertained more than a few doubts about the Barbara Streisand muzak.
My teapot (and what a cracking size – I wouldn’t be running empty before the train returned to Bury) was delivered just as the train jolted and about half a cup of tea was deposited on the table cloth. An inch further forward and the tea spout would have spurted it all over my jacket.
I was surprised that I looked to the wellbeing of the tea rather than whether any of the bubbly had spilt. On reflection, considering my occasional nickname is Teabag, it isn’t really so unusual that the teapot was my first priority.
Apparently being in the last carriage inevitably results in juddering and shaking. The waiter said he was surprised that the hot tea and coffee wasn’t more of a priority to the engine crew.
By the time we reached Ramsbottom, it was time for the individual cheese quiche – no soggy bottom in sight.
As pointed out by another traveller, the name Ramsbottom may be familiar owing to the poem about the exploits of the Ramsbottom’s son Albert, who abused a lion at Blackpool Zoo by shoving his stick with its ‘roses ‘ead ‘andle right in the animal’s ear. (Before anyone calls the RSPCA, retribution is swift for Albert as Wallace the Lion eats him).
As we chugged out of Ramsbottom (also previously home to the Head for the Hills Festival) I had an audio teaser for the cakes with our poetry expert saying: “That’s the smallest Eccles Cake I’ve ever seen”. He was right.
But scone first. (I feel like there has been a move towards providing only one scone at afternoon tea, rather than two. This is a mistake.
This one was a respectable size and just as I was contemplating the fruit content I realised the table assembly had not included cutlery, so the lady who had resolved the seating issue dashed off, with profuse apologies to rectify this.
Butter, jam and cream… while it’s probably marginally healthier (and probably keeping costs down) to serve scones with jam and cream… the full trinity does taste better. I doubt that the East Lancashire Railway does its own baking but wherever they’re getting these scones from, the buyer has made a very good decision.
As we pulled into the wonderfully named Rawstenstall, I was eyeing the cakes.
My fellow traveller was definitely right about Eccles Cake but as it’s my least favourite of any cakes, that’s not a problem. There was no skimping with the fruit in this one though and possible some of the scone’s sultanas may have migrated here.
The circle of lightly flavoured lime sponge topped with a swirl of butter cream, was delicious and deceptively substantial.
As I ate, the steam engine from the far end of the train sailed past to re-attach to the carriage I was in – we’d now be at the front of the train for the return trip. I finished off with the trifle.
For £40, including the almost two hour journey by steam train, it’s a very pleasant afternoon tea.
If the romance of steam is your thing, you may want to think about booking sooner rather than later as the East Lancashire Railway intend to replace the steam engines with diesel… not that whatever engine is pulling the dining carriages really matters while you’re eating.
Good food, beautiful Lancashire views (especially on the sunny day I had) and riding a steam train, it’s a very pleasant and incredibly relaxing way for anyone (nevermind a train geek or railway enthusiast) to spend a few hours.