Proper seasonal tea garden cafés (i.e. just with a tea garden facility and no indoor space as a cosy backup) are few and far between in this country – especially in the north (thanks largely to the weather) and they don’t come much more idyllic than the picturesque Greystoke Cycle Café in the north of Cumbria, where hens cluck contentedly around your feet as you munch on homemade scones or devour a bowl of delicious weed soup (whatever’s available in green – nettles, dandelion, sorrel, bistort, land cress etc.). It’s the perfect spot for lycra-clad cyclists to pause for breath before tackling the Hartside Pass – the way over the Pennines on the coast-to-coast (C2C) cycle route to the North Sea.
Greystoke Cycle Café tea garden is owned and run by Annie Swarbrick and, as with most of the best ideas, came about more through necessity than design when she was looking for a sustainable way to become self-employed, so she could be at home with her growing sons (then aged 12 and 15). She decided to combine her love of gardening and baking and in early 2005 opened the garden café on a temporary basis while she considered her options; 9 years later the café is flourishing and has evolved into an exciting hub for those looking to learn an array of skills and crafts as well as being a welcome stopping off point for cyclists tackling the sea-to-sea C2C cycle route.
Many of the courses, or ‘Quirky Workshops’, focus on developing and preserving skills which could otherwise be lost – longbow making, dry stone walling, stone carving, weaving and creating stained glass windows etc. – and those attending range from enthusiastic amateurs to those seeking the skills needed to create and live a more ecologically-sound lifestyle. Annie has close links with the North of England Civic Trust (NECT) and Heritage Skills Initiative – receiving an award from the NECT for the restoration of one of her previous properties.
With the pace of life becoming ever more frenetic and with fewer HIM (Human Interface Minutes) – all due largely to advances in technology – the simple pleasure of learning something new at leisure, be it a simple ‘hands on’ craft or a more complex heritage skill, becomes an experience to enjoy and savour. To simply sit or stand alongside a fellow human and learn something absorbing, new and exciting, where moments of creative immersion are punctuated by lighthearted chat and laughter with those you hardly know is, perhaps unsurprisingly, more appealing than ever.
In 2014 the longbow making, wood carving and bread oven making courses were really popular. For 2015 new courses include leather ‘dastardly dog collars’, letter press print making and more stone sculpture, plus cob pizza oven building. The silver clay and fused glass days still appeal greatly, with sewing days (tote and messenger bag making) and artisan cheesemaking scoring high in the popularity stakes too.
The tutors for the courses are sourced via recommendations from students combined with a spot of Googling when Annie comes up with an idea for a course and needs to track down someone suitable to deliver it, though rarely without making sure she’s met them first. Increasingly these days, as the reputation of the café spreads, tutors are contacting her for the opportunity to deliver at this fascinating venue.
The business grew around Annie’s personal passions and beliefs – and her commitment to working ethically is clear. All the food she grows is organic with big leafy salads coming from her own garden from June onwards, with the rest sourced from the local area; and if you’re wondering why the garden looks so immaculate then check the menu for the delightful “weed soup” which often makes an appearance around the nettle, dandelion and bistort time of year (May & June). Much to the disappointment of the ever hopeful hens, little goes to waste in the Café. The yolks left over from the Aga meringues along with yesterday’s bread provide the perfect excuse to whip up a batch of divine bread and butter pudding. The hens and wild birds have to wait for the unsold scones and the steamy compost heap welcomes the rest!
While the courses run all year round, the Cycle Café tea garden is open from Easter to the end of September, and is a firm fixture on the coast-to-coast cycle route. Though Annie would only describe herself as a hobby cyclist, before she opened the café she insisted that both she and her two young sons cycled the route from Whitehaven to Greystoke in order to properly understand what the cyclists arriving at the front door had been through.
This goes some way to explaining why, when you arrive, you’re greeted with far more than tea and cakes – there’s water for your bottles, oil for your chain, air for your tyres and a bike stand if you need to tinker with anything more major. When it’s so quiet that she feels she can pop to the shops to restock, and a long-distance cyclist turns up unexpectedly – in her absence they are redirected to a dry barn at the back of the house full of hot fluffy towels, tea and coffee making facilities and a fridge full of flapjack, with payment via an honesty box. Cyclists she insists are in general one of the loveliest groups of people – honest, appreciative of whatever you can give them and nearly always smiling – regardless of the rain and wind they might have just cycled through.
As with any business, behind the scenes things are not always idyllic, with the weather being Annie’s biggest adversary – many’s the time she’s chased gazebos and garden chairs around the garden at 3 in the morning, despite the late evening forecast promising calm and clear conditions. She also faces increased competition from the local pubs, all of whom are keen to attract the thirsty cyclist, but the thing that makes Greystoke Cycle Café truly special is Annie herself with her boundless energy and creativity.
Though she claims not to be crafty she loves gardening and enjoys the peaceful colours, the blues silvers and whites – but she equally enjoys the challenge of sewing another umbrella canopy or laying some cobbles – it’s just as well she enjoys a challenge as there are plenty to keep her busy – at some stage she hopes to tackle a spot of garden sculpture or maybe even learn to weld if time allows. She’s also a great believer in the power of the friendly hen clucking around you as you tackle one of the many courses, or simply enjoy a cup of tea in the sunshine, providing a focus that is both relaxation and entertainment in equal measure.
The many glowing compliments in the visitor’s book are testimony to what Annie has achieved with this sustainable and creative business and that, together with the grateful thanks she gets from the many lovely people she meets every day, goes some way to making all that late night gazebo chasing worthwhile.
Before you set off for a cup of tea at the Cycle Café – the owners would like you to note that it has quirky and seasonal opening times. The tea garden is currently closed for the winter and will reopen on a warm sunny day around Easter – or Easter Friday at the latest. They are then open to those who arrive on a bicycle every day from 10am to 6pm from Easter to the end of September. For walkers and drivers who parked in the village car park and walked the 300 yards to the Café they are open 12–6pm Fridays, 10am-6pm Saturdays and 10am-6pm the 2nd Sunday of the month. The Quirky Workshop days run from March to December throughout the week.
Here’s a link to our website page detailing opening times and location etc.
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