With Cream on Top: afternoon tea at Wakefield café Mocca Moocho

Always something to tempt at Mocca Moocho!

In June 2018, I had something to celebrate – and Mags and Jamie Blackshaw, owners Wakefield café Mocca Moocho invited me and my partner in as guests to help make the occasion even more memorable. I wrote up my experience with a review for TopicUK magazine – and you can read it here.

There’s something quintessentially British about the idea of ‘afternoon tea’. It conjures up images of delicate finger sandwiches, fancy cakes and scones with jam and cream, all served on fine chinaware in a lovely sunny setting on a summer’s day or cosily by the fireside in the deep of winter: lashings of hot tea, the chink of cup against saucer and the sound of sparkling conversation.

Historically, our notions of afternoon tea can be traced back to Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford who is reputed to have started the trend back in 1840. Apparently, she felt a bit peckish one afternoon and asked her staff to bring her something light to eat with a pot of tea. This became a habit and she started inviting friends in to join her. (In those days, dinner at the finest houses was served around 8 pm, so they needed something in between lunch and dinner).

Before you could say ‘cream scone’, the habit had become a tradition – and a fashionable one at that. By the 1880s, the refined ladies and gentlemen of high society were dressing in their elegant clothes to share tea, sandwiches and cakes at formal afternoon teas served at around four o’clock each day.

Now, of course, most of us are too busy to take a formal afternoon tea every day so the words ‘afternoon tea’ have become synonymous with refinement and elegance and perhaps most of all they hint hint at something that’s a touch special. The best china, the tiered cake stands and the fanciest of cakes are brought together to create a moment of calm when friends and family can indulge a love of cake while catching up with each other on their latest news.

There’s an afternoon tea for every budget and, however mouth-watering the food, some of the prices charged by the poshest hotels can perhaps best be described as, well, eye-watering! But, ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy a quality afternoon tea! I’ve found somewhere where it’s possible to sample some delightful sandwiches, some delicious cakes and the fruitiest of scones, all served with tea or coffee, for under £10! Where, I hear you ask, is such incredible value available?

Well, right in the centre of Wakefield is the answer. Yes, at the long-established and well-known café Mocca Moocho, it’s possible to enjoy a lovely afternoon tea for just £9.95 per person. If you want to add a bit of fizz, and you can afford it at these prices, you can spoil yourself with a glass of sparkling Rosé wine for just £5 extra – and what a treat you will have!

My partner and I enjoyed such a treat one afternoon in early May when we called in to see proprietors Mags and Jamie Blackshaw who opened the business some ten years ago (they won a Wakefield Civic Society Design Award back in 2009 for their premises) and now employ 15 staff, a number that goes up to around 20 during the summer months to meet the extra demand.

Some readers may remember Mags and Jamie running August Day in the Ridings Centre and before that when they ran Colonel Mustard in Wood Street. Altogether, they’ve been part of the Wakefield catering scene for some 30 years but they first came together a couple of years before that while working for a large national retailer, something they’d been doing for many years. They discovered a shared a dream of running a business of their own. Mags took a catering management degree course to prepare and they found their niche in Wakefield in the coffee and café trade. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, their fully licensed café in Cross Square is a hive of activity with business people dropping in for a coffee and a chat with colleagues, shoppers resting their feet and their bags over a cuppa, and visitors to the city perhaps having a breather from sight-seeing.  Whether you’re looking for breakfast or lunch, or just a coffee and a bun, there’s plenty of seating in the café – there’s a large upstairs space as well as the seating on the ground floor, and, of course, you can sit out front where you can people watch from under the awning. Whether you’re there to chat or to work, there’s free wi-fi available. Should you venture upstairs, look out for Jamie’s bookshelves from which he offers second-hand books for sale from his personal collection of hand-bound Folio Society editions.

The café is open from 8 am until 4.30 pm Mondays to Saturdays and from 9 am until 4 pm on Sundays. Group bookings are possible, both during opening hours and for special events outside these times – just get in touch to enquire.

So, what was out afternoon tea like? Well, it was, of course, truly scrumptious. We were there as guests of Mags and Jamie but as it was part of a personal celebration too, we just had to have that glass of Rosé to get things started. Yes, we had the tiered cake stands, which always add a touch of style, and, believe me, they came fully laden! In fact, we were defeated and ended up asking for the proverbial doggie bag to take some of the cakes home with us for later. All in all, it was a very enjoyable afternoon and I think the Mocca Moocho afternoon tea must be one of the best-value treats in Wakefield!

If you fancy experiencing a Mocca Moocho afternoon tea for yourself, please note that you will usually need to book at least 2 days in advance. You can do this by telephone or via the café’s Facebook page.

Mocca Moocho, 10 Cross Square, Wakefield, WF1 1PH.

Facebook: www.facebook.com/moccamoocho/

Telephone: 01924 361755

Start your afternoon tea in style!
A stack of tasty treats!

These scones take some beating!

The New Inn at Walton is a thriving pub and restaurant at the heart of a very old village

The New Inn at night

In March 2018, I visited the New Inn at Walton on behalf of TopicUK magazine. This is my review.

There was a time when you could have reached The New Inn at Walton by land or by sea. OK, that last part might be a bit of a stretch, but Wakefield was once an inland port, navigable to (and from) the sea, and the canal system enabled boats to reach just about anywhere inland. The Barnsley Canal, dug in the late 1790s used to connect Barnsley and Wakefield and passed close by the pub until the canal was closed in 1953. Although the canal has long gone with some sections filled in and even built on, there is a group, The Barnsley, Dearne & Dove Canals Trust, who are campaigning to get the canal re-opened. Until that lucky day, though, the only way to get to The New Inn is by road.

The name ‘New Inn’ seems a misnomer for such an old building although it must, of course, have been new once upon a time. Walton is known to have been settled in Anglo-Saxon times (when it was known as known as Weala-tun, meaning ‘village of the Welshmen’) and is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Waleton.

Records show that there were at least six licensed houses in Walton at one time. As well as The New Inn, there were The Cross Keys, The Star Inn, The Rose and Crown, The Boot and Shoe and an apparently unnamed beer house on Greenside, not to mention numerous other unlicensed ones.(1) That there were so many thriving pubs in the past can probably be attributed to the fact that many navvies came to the area to help with building the canals and later the railways, adding to the number of agricultural labourers and coal miners already working in there.

Today, though, The New Inn is the only pub in the village and is run by husband and wife team Ria Brooks-Bell and Iain Bell. They bought the property in November 2011 and invested heavily in the premises and the business to create a thriving village pub and restaurant that offers visitors a warm welcome in comfortable surroundings.

Ria, who is a native of the village, and Iain each have a background in the licensed trade and were both working for the Slug and Lettuce chain when they first met ten years ago – Ria was employed in sales and marketing while Iain ran one of the chain’s pubs in Leeds.

Having ‘teamed up’ the couple took on responsibility for running the Slug and Lettuce in Deansgate, Manchester, but then, around seven years ago, Ria’s father, Adrian, drew their attention to the fact that The New Inn was being offered for sale and, with a bit of help from the bank of mum and dad, the couple decided to make an offer, which was accepted.

The pub is today very much a family affair; Ria’s father and two brothers help to keep the business running (if mostly by doing their socialising in the bar) while Ria’s mother, Jacqui, does the office work, allowing Ria to focus on running the pub and Iain to lead in the kitchen where he is head chef. It is perhaps a mark of their success that the pub now employs some 28 staff: it was certainly very busy when my partner and I dined there one Wednesday evening at the end of March as guests of the establishment.

As I’ve mentioned before, the life of a restaurant reviewer is not without its challenges. To do the job right, you have to work your way through three courses and so it was that we set about ordering our meals. For a starter, I opted for Salt and Pepper Halloumi Slices in batter. These come with a salad garnish and chilli chutney (although I had mine with ketchup!). I followed this with a Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie served with ‘seasonal vegetables’ and then topped it all off with Caramel Apple Pie and custard. Had I been paying, that would have set me back £21.65, which is not at all bad for a three-course meal and typical of what you can expect to pay there.

Meanwhile, my partner chose dishes from the specials menu. He started with a Bread-Crumbed Brie Wedge, with mixed salad leaves, and for mains chose the Penne Pasta with Pesto, topped with rocket leaves and parmesan shavings. For dessert, he went with the ice cream. Again, the meal would have cost around the £20 mark. The specials’ menu is changed daily while the standard menu is refreshed every six months (so by the time you are reading this, the summer menus will be in use – you can check the menus on the pub’s website).

Should you be visiting at lunchtime, there is the option of a main course from a lunchtime specials menu for just £6.95 and even the offer of a sandwich, chips and a soft drink at the same price. No wonder the place does good business. Or how about an afternoon tea – you have to order these at least a day in advance but at just £12.95 per person (£17.95 if you want it with Prosecco), it certainly looks like good value.

The New Inn can cater for groups in the main restaurant area or there’s the option to book a private room – the Chef’s Table, which seats up to eight people for a private dining experience. Or try the upstairs dining room, Lock Eleven, named after the Eleventh Lock on the afore-mentioned Barnsley Canal which was closest to the pub, where you have the choice of dining inside and experiencing the cosy surroundings, or outside on the open air terrace enjoying views of the surrounding countryside. Lock Eleven can be booked for private groups of up to 20 people.

The New Inn is open from 12 noon until late, seven days a week, and food is served until 9 pm. There’s an extensive garden area with lots of seating and a large car park, there’s plenty of room for everyone. Taking the dog for a walk? Well, provided your pooch is well behaved, you’ll find your four-legged friend is even allowed into the tap room!

So, there you are. If you’ve not yet sampled The New Inn for yourself, there’s really no excuse. The service is friendly, the food is good and the price is right. The canal may no longer be there, but the road still leads to Walton….. Why not follow it there?

My partner and I dined as guests of the New Inn.

(1) Source: A History of Walton by Peter Wright Published in 1985 by Countryside Publications.

The New Inn, 144 Shay Lane, Walton, Wakefield, West Yorkshire WF2 6LA

Website: http://www.thenewinnwalton.co.uk/

Telephone: Tel. 01924 255447


With the opening of Robatary, Wakefield’s reputation for stylish new restaurants goes up another notch

A stylish interior creates atmosphere

In January 2018, I was asked to review Robatary, then Wakefield’s newest restaurant, on behalf of TopicUK magazine. Here’s what I wrote at the time (and I have been back several times since!).

You may already be familiar with 25-27 Northgate in Wakefield. For many years the premises operated as the popular, if unassuming, Qubana Restaurant and Grill – but the building fell quiet when Qubana picked up its skirts and moved across town to the spacious former Barclays Bank building at the end of Wood Street just over a year ago.

Since then, the Northgate premises have lain empty and were even boarded up for a while as work started on a major refurbishment project. The only clue to what was happening was the mysterious word ‘Robatary’ etched across the front. The business is still owned by Jenny Thompson and Matthew Burton, who also own the new Qubana, but they needed a different brand for their ‘old’ restaurant, and Wakefield’s bon vivants waited with breath abated to see what would emerge.  

Finally, the shuttering was removed and all was revealed. Just a week before Christmas 2017, the new place opened its doors to the paying public. And that word ‘Robatary’? It turns out to be the name of the restaurant!

The word actually has a Japanese origin (although that is the only connection the restaurant has with that country – the food is British, albeit with a twist). Apparently, a robata is a sort of charcoal grill used to prepare food in Japan. Robatayaki is a form of cooking in which food is cooked over hot charcoal, rather like a barbecue but, in the case, indoors. The charred taste that the hot coals infuse into the food, be it meat, fish or vegetables, brings the flavours to life.

Keen as ever to sample something new, I booked a table for two and my partner and I went along to see what it was like.

From the moment you step inside, it’s obvious that everything has changed! In fact, the only carry-over from the old Qubana is manager Gareth Quinn whose task it was to look after us as we sampled the food and I spoke to the customers and generally wandered around the place with my camera aloft.

Gareth brought us menus and took our orders. For a Tuesday evening, the restaurant was nicely busy, despite it being a very wintry night. (Honestly it was! Snow was falling outside as we arrived and not even in Wakefield were people taking advantage of the outdoor seating!), Seating inside is a mix of open plan and private booths (we had a booth, giving us a slightly raised vantage point to see what was going on) and, when the weather turns warmer, the glass doors facing onto the street can be opened up in the European manner.

One thing that Jenny and Matthew do well is style. Visitors to the new Qubana have been very impressed with what has been achieved with the old bank but here at Robatary, the more modern building needed something contemporary. There’s a mix of textures, wood, (faux) concrete – one wall reminded me of the Hepworth!, ceramic tiles, glass, chrome, and steel, giving off a slightly industrial vibe, but reined back and softened with velvet and leather upholstery and fluffy cushions. Carefully chosen background music adds a touch of class and even a slightly sultry mood.

But of course, we were there to sample the food, not just ogle the soft furnishings. The menu was still slightly experimental at the time of our visit and was being updated after the pre-Christmas opening. The intention is that the menu, devised by executive chef Craig England, will follow the seasons and will be updated throughout the year.

To begin your meal, you can select from a number of nibbles, breads and charcuterie dishes or go straight to the starters. Although a ‘grill’, the restaurant caters well for vegetarians. The main courses are listed under three headings – Land, Sea and Earth (for which read meat, fish and vegetable) – and there’s a fourth section offering a variety of steaks. All can be ordered with side dishes and sauces.  There’s a handful of desserts (or ‘treats’ as they are listed) from which to select to finish off your meal.  Prices are £5 – £7.50 for starters (nibbles range from £3 to £4.50), and mains run from £12 to £17 – but be prepared to pay more for a steak! Sides and accompaniments are charged extra.  Desserts are all priced at £5.

As regular readers would expect, my partner and I opted for the vegetarian dishes. For starters, I had the grilled spiced courgette skewers (the spiciness dialled right down which, for me, was good) while my partner had the goat’s curd (which looks and tasted better than it perhaps sounds!). These were both light and beautifully presented, setting us up well for the main courses: wood-roasted aubergine in my case and homemade gnocchi for my partner. For desserts (sorry, treats), we had Key lime tart, served with clotted cream, (me) and wood-roasted rhubarb, served with ice cream. These were served ‘deconstructed’ and again very artistically arranged. The cost of our meal would come in at a little over £20 per person plus drinks, which is very reasonable.

So, what did we think? Well, in terms of style, the friendliness of the service, food quality and overall presentation, Robatary comes out very well indeed; it will certainly give some of the local competition a run for their money. And that wasn’t just our verdict. Chatting to some of the other customers, they also thought very highly of the establishment.

The restaurant is conveniently located and is at the heart of the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene. It is open daily from 12 noon (until late) and small groups can be catered for but, as Gareth pointed out, the restaurant is really designed to provide for a more intimate dining experience.

Gareth also told me that his ambition is to make Robatary the best restaurant in Wakefield. On the basis of our evening there, he’s well on the way to achieving that goal.

My partner and I dined as guests of Robatary.

Robatary, 25-27 Northgate, Wakefield, WF1 3BJ. Tel: 01924 211904.

Website: www.robatary.co.uk

Wakefield – My Favourite Things

In June 2018, I was approached by The Wakefield Express weekly newspaper to write a column describing my favourite things about my home city of Wakefield. Bearing in mind that the column is a regular feature written by guest writers from around the city, I wanted to say something which, though personal to me, wasn’t just a repeat of what others had written.

Here’s what I wrote – it was published on Friday, 22nd June 2018.

Wakefield – a city to be proud of!

I have lived in and around Wakefield all my life. I grew up in Newton Hill and now live just a ten-minute walk from the city centre.

I’ve been interested in architecture and history since I was at school but I have developed that interest considerably in recent years through my involvement with Wakefield Civic Society. When I became president of the Society, I found myself receiving requests from community groups asking for talks about the city, its history and its buildings. These requests were quickly followed by people asking for guided walks around the city centre so that they could see something of the history and architecture I spoke about in my talks. I very quickly had to start doing some research to make sure I had my facts right!

Showing off my city to others has really helped me to understand the story of how the city has evolved. Wakefield may have only had city status for the last 130 years, but our history goes back much further, at least to Anglo-Saxon times. While some of our buildings can trace their origins back to the late middle ages, we have a wealth of Georgian and Victorian architecture right on our doorsteps – yet people don’t always recognise or appreciate the diversity of our architectural heritage until someone points it out to them.

In this article, I realise that I’m supposed to say what my favourite places in the city are, but that’s really difficult for me – I have so many favourites! However, one street I have grown increasingly fond of is Wood Street. Not only is it the heart of the city’s civic area but it formed the subject for a research project I undertook on behalf of the Society when we joined with Wakefield Council, Wakefield Historical Society and Leeds Beckett University recently to uncover the history of the street. This led to me writing my first book – Wood Street: The Heart of Wakefield – which the Society published last year. I now have a much deeper understanding of the history of the street and surrounding area – but I’m still learning! As I lead guided walks around Wood Street, people will sometimes recount their memories of the street and its buildings.

One of the surprising things about Wood Street is that it is only just over 200 years old, having first been laid in out in 1806 by the Reverend William Wood, who was the second vicar at St John’s Church and a bit of a property developer on the side!

Much as I love my home city, I’m not blind to its problems. Yes, there are empty shops and offices and this is very true of Wood Street, but I remain optimistic that things will change. What I’d love to see happen is for a new hotel and a new art gallery opening in Wood Street. I think the former police station and court house would lend themselves rather well to such uses. Why an art gallery? Well, the Hepworth Wakefield has proved without doubt that there is huge interest in art and it attracts people from all over the country but the focus at the Hepworth is very much on sculpture. I think there is room in Wakefield for an art gallery that concentrates on paintings and having another gallery at the Wood Street end of the city would be one way of enticing people who visit the Hepworth to come and explore the city centre.

Wakefield is changing as we ourselves change. We might be shopping less, but we do seem to be drinking more coffee and eating out more. There are lots of interesting new restaurants and cafés in the Northgate/Wood Street area and even the night life is changing as some of the bars refashion themselves to cater for a more mature and discerning public.

In closing, I must mention that one of my very favourite buildings in the city centre has to be the Theatre Royal. I am really proud that my home city boasts such an attractive (and intimate) Frank Matcham designed Victorian theatre and I’m really excited by the opening of the new Centre for Creativity, an extension built very much in the modern style of the 21st Century.

So that’s it: great architecture, a fascinating history, a developing centre for culture and art, and a burgeoning reputation for dining out. Add in the various festivals and other attractions and there’s no wonder that I still regard Wakefield as my favourite city!

Art Deco – a design style with enduring appeal

I was asked to contribute an article on an ‘art’ theme to the January 2018 edition of TopicUK magazine for Wakefield. With a deadline to meet and a free rein, it was an ideal opportunity to write about one of my personal interests – Art Deco – while also giving it a local flavour with a link to Wakefield’s history!

The term ‘Art Deco’ is something of a catch-all. It refers to a design style that really came to the fore in the 1920s, although its origins can be traced further back in time. It remains hugely popular today and there continues to be big demand for authentic pieces of the period. The Art Deco term can be applied to just about anything from architecture and decorative arts through to fashions in clothes and furniture and household wares. There were even fonts and a colour palette used in printing that came to typify the style (think of railway posters advertising streamline trains and glamourous destinations). The style persisted well into the 1930s and was revived again in the 1950s, albeit in updated forms

But I’m getting ahead of myself. World War I had changed everything and people were ready to break from the rather fusty traditions of the Edwardian era. Women had begun to find freedom, going out into the workplace and becoming self-supporting. Their skirts and hairstyles became shorter (material was expensive and the bustle didn’t really lend itself to working either in offices or on the factory floor). Corsets and stays were unfastened and discarded. Men’s fashions were changing too – the very formal tailoring (and tailcoats) of the Victorian and Edwardian periods were exchanged for a more modern line that still forms the basis of men’s suits and jackets today.

People wanted to put the memories of war behind them and those who had survived wanted to celebrate! This was the age of jazz, the age of swing: the beat grew faster, the rhythm was syncopated and folk were in the mood to party! Think Flappers, Gatsby, Josephine Baker and the Roaring Twenties!

Art Deco was originally about expensive objets, created for the very wealthy, in precious woods, metals and jewels. The name Art Deco was actually coined (although not until the 1960s) from an abbreviation of the title of the 1925 Paris exhibition, the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, intended to showcase the best of modern decorative art and international design. Art Deco took its cues from African, South American Aztec and European influences. In the USA and Western Europe, the style was developed further – the organic and naturalistic designs of the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements were simplified and streamlined; unnecessary curls and twirls were replaced by more geometric motifs.

Meanwhile, Hollywood films such as the Busby Berkeley musicals were helping to spread this new style moderne around the globe, creating a demand from cinema audiences wanting to have some of the Art Deco magic in their own homes. That demand was met by mass manufacturers whose factories had turned from producing weapons and the machinery of war to creating household wares and goods for the popular market. They used chrome, glass and new materials such as Bakelite plastic to produce less expensive artefacts intended for everyday use.

I guess I fell in love with Art Deco long before I knew what the term meant: indeed, I can trace my fascination with the design style back to when I was a child in the 1950s. On my mother’s dressing table sat a dish, made in amber coloured glass, about 12 inches across and in the shape of a butterfly. There was something about the shape, the style and the colour that just appealed to me. I don’t know how my mother came by it but I later inherited it and for nearly 30 years it sat on a chest of drawers in my guest bedroom. Remarkably, although it must be somewhere approaching 70 years old, if not older, it’s still in perfect condition.

It was a trip to the opening of a new exhibition at Pontefract Museum a few years ago that made me re-evaluate the dish. The museum had a new display dedicated to Bagley Glass, a Knottingley bottle works originally established in 1871 by cousins William Bagley (1842-1924) and John William Bagley (1838-1897) and whose fathers were also glass makers from Yorkshire. The company used coal to fire the furnaces in which their glass was produced – following in the footsteps of an emerging glass-making industry: there had been a glass works in the Knottingley area since the 17th century and so much glass was produced in the area that the nearby village of Houghton acquired the name of Glasshoughton!

Bagleys, as Bagley Glass was to be known, went on to make decorative household glassware and, by the middle of the 20th century, they had become the biggest manufacturer of pressed glass in England, exporting their products all over the world, adapting their styles to meet the demands and expectations of their customers.* (Glass making continues in Knottingley to this day although the company is now part of Stölzle Flaconnage Ltd. under whose name the factory now trades.)

Anyway, back to the museum. On display that day was a butterfly dish, identical to mine but in green glass. My interest was kindled! In fact, on closer examination back home, quite a few pieces of glassware that I’d inherited from my parents turned out to be Bagley glassware; none of it particularly valuable (sadly): you can pick pieces up for around £12-£15 at antiques shops without trying too hard simply because it was so mass-produced and just about every home in the area would probably have had some in everyday use. Nonetheless, my butterfly dish has now been moved to the relative safety of a display cabinet!

A quick internet search revealed that other companies such as Davidson’s and Sowerby’s, both of Gateshead, and Jobling, of Sunderland, as well as European manufacturers such as Walther and Sohne of Germany were also turning out pressed glassware for the domestic market, again keeping up to date with the trend for Art Deco designs. There products have the style, and the look, of the 1920s and 30s but without the price tag of more illustrious names such as René Lalique and they provide a much cheaper starting point for anyone interested in acquiring a few pieces of their own. Of course, you can buy modern Art Deco glassware; manufacturers today are still producing goods that reflect the public interest in the style and I have purchased some 21st century examples myself. Perhaps, one day, they will be the sought-after antiques of the future?

(*) There is an excellent book detailing the history of Bagley glass and from which some of my notes above have been taken. If you’d like to learn more, do try to get hold of a copy of Bagley Glass, by Angela Bowey with Derek and Betty Parsons. Mine is the third edition published in 2010 but a fourth edition is now available.

Art on a plate – the Hepworth Wakefield Café is now ‘under new management’

I think it is fair to say that, before the arrival of the Hepworth gallery, Wakefield had rather turned its back on the River Calder. Unlike other towns and cities, we weren’t making very much of our ‘waterfront’. The railway line high on the embankment from Kirkgate Station and running parallel with Ings Road rather delineated the city centre – why would anyone want to venture down to the riverside?

That all changed when The Hepworth Wakefield opened its doors back in the spring of 2011 but despite its success at bringing visitors to the city, the gallery still feels like it’s a bit out on a limb, part of Wakefield’s cultural offer and yet slightly apart from the city itself. That too will change in the not-too-distant future if, as expected, the eagerly awaited plans to convert the former Rutland Mills into “a vibrant mixed-use creative quarter for collaborative partnerships in music, film, TV, design and new media” come to fruition: the Hepworth Wakefield will find itself part of a much bigger waterfront ‘arts scene’, complete with boutique hotel.

Galleries and cafés go together, of course, but the newly re-vamped The Hepworth Café is something a bit different from the usual offering. Since 20th October 2017, the management of the café has been in new hands: independent Leeds coffee shop House of Koko (Shanshan Zhu and Chris Ball) has partnered with Wakefield’s MasterChef quarter-finalist Chris Hale and his wife, Sophie Mei Lan, to take over the running of The Hepworth Café.

New management, new approach and totally independent: the café is a mix of café and restaurant. It offers a simple range of dishes that will appeal to both vegetarian and vegan palettes but which can then be augmented with a number of extras and side dishes to cater for the omnivores among us. For example, when I visited the new café back in November 2017, I had the ‘The Full Vegan’ (£8.45) which consists of homemade baked beans, sweetcorn fritters, half an avocado, and crispy red onions, salad and toast. (It also comes with tomato and chilli jam, but I passed on this as I never did acquire a taste for chilli.) While this was a real plateful in itself – warming on a cold day and nourishing – you can, if you wish, add a poached egg for £1.50 or smoked salmon, crispy bacon or smoked chicken for £2 each. Skinny fries at £2.95, coleslaw at £1.95 or a side salad (also £1.95) can also be added to any dish.

Meanwhile, my partner opted for the ‘Homemade Baked Beans’, a dish which consisted of chick peas, butter beans and kidney beans with toasted pumpkin seeds, all served on sourdough bread. The dish can be had with or without shaved parmesan. This had a menu price of just £6 but again can be ordered with any of the extras mentioned above.
Among the other dishes available, there’s also a Steak and Ale Pie for £8.95, Corn Fritters and Avocado Stack for £6.95 and a couple of salads (Chicken Caesar and Autumnal Salad, £6.95 and £5.95 respectively).

For desserts, you can choose buttermilk pancakes or select from a range of cakes and pastries available at the counter. Sophie told me that they wanted to keep the menu simple to start with and then build it up once they got to know their customers better. She takes great pride in pointing out that ingredients are sourced from local suppliers wherever possible.

Alongside a range of beers and Fentimans soft drinks, The Hepworth Café builds on the experience of Shanshan and Chris from House of Koko in bringing speciality coffee to Wakefield – something of a first for the city. As with House of Koko, The Hepworth Café serves North Star Coffee‘s Czar Street seasonal espresso. A brew bar offers single origin coffees from around the globe. Tea drinkers are not forgotten: the café serves 20 loose leaf teas, all weighed, timed and brewed to perfection – and there’s always a good cup of Yorkshire tea on hand.

The café employs a team of 20 friendly staff. The business partners each have distinct roles but show a willingness to lend a hand wherever it is needed: Shanshan is in charge of front of house management while Chris Hale works in the kitchen as Executive Chef. A quarter-finalist in the 2016 MasterChef TV competition, self-taught Executive Chef Chris continues to run his Pop-Up North catering and pop-up restaurant business alongside his work at the café while Sophie leads on the media and public relations aspects of the café. Chris Ball from House of Koko is responsible for marketing and design. (Sophie is a blogger and freelance journalist who is also part of the editorial team for the Wakefield edition of TopicUK, for whom I originally wrote this article.)

The café retains the dark wood chairs and tables that regular visitors from the past will be familiar with but there are also soft squishy sofas and even ‘work stations’ for people who want to sit and work while drinking their coffee.

Wherever you sit, you’ll find yourself amid potted and hanging plants which add a welcome touch of greenery and visual contrast while also helping to soften the space and making it feel more intimate. All around the café you will see unusual houseplants, succulents, cacti, ferns, concrete pots and plant hangers supplied by Yorkshire-based plant specialist geo-fleur and these are available to buy. Additionally, The Hepworth Café sells its own range of gifts with produce from across Yorkshire – from the best pickles and condiments to sweet treats – and they also offer hampers. There really is no need to go away empty handed!

So, there you have it – a gallery café which can claim to be a destination in itself. But don’t just take my word for it: get yourself down to The Hepworth Café and try it out. Oh, and while you’re there, you might just want to take in some art as well…..

My partner and I dined as guests of The Hepworth Café. A version of this article first appeared in the January 2018 edition of TopicUK magazine for Wakefield.

All Civic Societies need an ‘Elevator Pitch’

So, imagine the scenario. You have a chance encounter with someone who could help change your society’s fortunes for the better. They don’t know you and they’ve never heard of your society. You have their attention, they’re looking you in the eye, they’re ready to listen but you don’t have long. Fluff this moment and you’re history. What do you say that will capture their attention and make them want to learn more? This is where your ‘elevator pitch’ is vital.

Coined in the USA (hence elevator rather than lift), the idea behind the term is that, to succeed in business, you need to be able to encapsulate in no more than a few sentences who you are, what you do, and, most importantly, why the conversation should continue. As a lift journey can last as little as 30 seconds and even in the tallest buildings is likely to last no longer than around two minutes, you have to be cogent, articulate, and to the point. With luck, you’ll engage the attention of the person to whom you are speaking and they will be curious enough to want to learn more, to continue the conversation over coffee when you step outside that lift.

This sort of scenario isn’t that uncommon. OK, it might not happen in a lift, but it could happen at a business event, a networking opportunity, or just in the street where you bump into someone, and it can happen at any time. You need your elevator pitch ready and to be willing to use it at the drop of a hat.

When I first became president at Wakefield Civic Society, I had to represent the Society at all sorts of meetings and stakeholder events. Often, having introduced myself as the president of the Society, I’d be confronted with the question “What’s that then?” and it was clear that many people outside the Society’s own membership had never heard of us. Being asked this question so frequently really made me think about what the Society did and how best to describe it in the proverbial nutshell. Much to my surprise, and consternation, it was actually quite difficult to summarise the essence of the Society, its values and its activities in just two or three sentences, partly because, at base, the Society’s activities are centred on a number of different concepts.

Reflecting on the question and how to answer it also started me thinking about why anyone would actually be interested in what we do. How do you sell an idea and captivate an audience so that other people can see the value in what you do to the point where they actually want to engage with it and support your work?

I began by writing down the sort of things we do in bullet points, starting with the charitable aims described in the Society’s constitution. Like most civic societies, our principal interest is in the built environment. Our aims say that we exist to “promote high standards of architecture and town planning in Wakefield, to stimulate public interest in and care for the beauty, history and character of the area of the city and its surroundings, to encourage the preservation, development and improvement of features of general public amenity or historic interest and to pursue these ends by means of meetings, exhibitions, lectures, publications, other forms of instruction and publicity, and promotion of schemes of a charitable nature”.

That’s quite a mouthful! And if we go back to the elevator pitch, it won’t work because it’s actually a list of things: connected yes, but each part of that list conveys a different idea of what we do – and what if the person you are speaking to isn’t interested in architecture, planning or preservation and development? Even if they do express an interest, these terms have a wide range of possible interpretations and spin-off implications so it would be easy to get side-tracked while narrowing down the points on which you want to focus.

In the end, I decided to think about the value we add to the city and to find something which would (or should!) grab the attention of anyone with an interest in Wakefield. This is what I came up with: Wakefield Civic Society is an organisation dedicated to making Wakefield a better place in which to live, work or relax – or do business.

You may or may not like this – but it’s easy to say (and remember) and, sometimes with slight variations to wording, can be used in printed documents, on line and in presentations. In other words, the phrase has become part of our brand.

When I tell people this is what we are about, it piques their interest and, if they really do care about Wakefield, they quite naturally want to know more about us. Using this phrase tends to open up a different sort of conversation from the sort I used to have when I spoke of our charitable objects related to architecture, planning and design.

You might not think of your charity as a business but when it comes to marketing and branding, there’s nothing wrong with stealing a few ideas!

My Perfect Restaurant

I’ve been doing restaurant reviews for Wakefield’s business-to-business magazine TopicUK since 2013. In consequence, I’m often asked “What is your favourite restaurant?”

Well, if truth be told, there are several restaurants in the city that I’m rather fond of so it might be more tactful to explain what I look for when choosing somewhere to eat, whether dining in Wakefield – or further afield!

Service with a smile

I want to feel welcomed when I visit a restaurant and, if I’ve been there before, I want to be recognised for being a ‘repeat’ customer. I like to be shown to a good table, preferably with a view, and to exchange a few words of conversation with the proprietor and staff. I want to feel that they care about my experience of eating in their restaurant.

Food quality

I suppose I’m looking for something that I wouldn’t necessarily have at home; so something a little bit out of the ordinary, whether it be the ingredients or the way they are combined – the wow factor if you like – gets the establishment extra points. Having said that, some of the most enjoyable meals I’ve eaten have been the most simple – a plate of fresh pasta, cooked to perfection, can just as easily ‘cut the mustard’. There’s no need for a huge menu – but as a vegetarian, I do expect to see more than one veggie option on there, otherwise the only choice I have is whether to eat there or not.

Food quantity

I’m not a fan of gargantuan portions. Some restaurants seem to want to compete with their American cousins, piling food onto the plate, perhaps in the belief that customers associate value for money with sheer quantity! Eating a meal should not be a test of stamina and endurance. I also suspect that it’s actually bad for business: after all, if you’ve worked your way through a huge main course, who has room for pudding?

Presentation

Food needs to look good on the plate – and yes, when I say plate I mean plate. I’m not into gimmicks, thank you: you can keep your slates, shovels, cloth caps, glass jars, and so on. I like to eat off a clean plate with clean cutlery. Call me old fashioned but I do have my standards! Oh, and I do like a nice bit of napery. Clean white linen can really set off a table. But if there’s no tablecloth, one of my pet hates is to be shown to a table that has just been wiped down – still damp and usually streaky!

Of course, there are other factors to consider: cost, ambience, background music (or lack thereof), furnishings and décor, and so on, but, at the end of the day, what really makes for an enjoyable and memorable meal is the choice of table companions. Eating out with friends and family should be a social and sociable occasion. Conversation and repartee should flow freely (a little alcohol helps!) but that, of course, is something over which the restaurant has little control!

(First published in TopicUK for Wakefield in November 2017)

One of my favourite restaurants afloat: the Verandah Restaurant aboard Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

Settle Down Now – and join me for a trip on the Settle-Carlisle railway line

The Settle-Carlisle railway line is billed as the most scenic railway journey in England – and who am I to argue? By way of a post-birthday treat to self, I decided to take a steam special, The Dalesman, run by West Coast Railways.

A classic diesel locomotive hauling the train into Westgate Station, Wakefield
The journey actually began in Wakefield one morning back in June when my partner and I arrived at Westgate Station ready to catch the train as it glided smoothly in alongside us on Platform 2 at a rather civilised time of 9.45 am. At this point, the train was being hauled by a classic diesel locomotive in the maroon livery of the operating company. The train had begun its journey from York station earlier that morning, calling at Normanton and then at Wakefield’s Kirkgate Station before arriving at Westgate, so the train was already quite busy as we boarded to find our pre-booked and reserved seats.

Ready for breakfast
We had opted for the ‘Premier Dining’ service. Tables are available for two or four people. We chose to go for a table for two, although this upped the price further by £15 each. We were travelling in what had originally been first class inter-city carriages back in the day, now restored and furnished with comfortable armchairs. Dining tables are aligned to windows to make the most of the views (unlike many modern trains where you can easily find yourself sitting up against a pillar). There were curtains, table cloths and table lamps, and every table laid for the serving of breakfast!

Breakast is served!
Hardly had the train moved out of the station before our stewards were bringing round orange juice, tea and coffee. There was a choice of cereal, porridge or orange and grapefruit segments to start with, followed by the ‘full English’ (here entitled the ‘Great British Grill Tray’) or Grilled Manx Kippers. (A vegetarian option was available – although this had to be booked in advance, as we had done). To complete the breakfast, there was a selection of toast and croissants with jams and marmalade.

The steam locomotive, seen here at Carlisle Station
But I’m skipping ahead! Breakfast was actually a leisurely affair, so there was plenty of time to chat and look out of the window as we headed towards Leeds, our next stop, to pick up more passengers, and then onto Skipton, the final boarding station. At Hellifield, the diesel locomotive was exchanged for our steam engine.

For any steam buffs reading, the loco was former LMS Stanier heavy freight Class 8F 2-8-0 locomotive No. 48151, originally built in 1942 and now painted in the black livery of British Railways.

Crossing the Ribblehead Viaduct
We passed through Settle and headed on towards Carlisle. As we picked up speed, steam and smoke swept past the carriage windows. Soon we were crossing the famous Ribblehead Viaduct before plunging into the Stygian gloom of the Blea Moor tunnel, nearly a mile and a half long. More viaducts and tunnels followed as we approached Ais Gill Summit, the highest point on the line (and with a name that sounds as if it comes straight out of the pages of a Tolkien novel). Alongside, nature performed its magic: rolling hills, rocky limestone outcrops, verdant trees and grazing sheep, all beneath a cloudless cerulean sky.

The plaque on Appleby Station commemorating the late Eric Treacy, MBE, Bishop of Wakefield from 1968 to 1976
After a brief pause at Appleby to allow the locomotive to take on water and an opportunity to stretch our legs on the platform, we continued on to Carlisle as Yorkshire Dales gave way to Cumbrian Fells. Drinks were served ‘at seat’ and orders taken for wine to accompany the evening meal.

We arrived in Carlisle at around 2.30 pm and had a couple of hours to look around but such was the heat of the day that a few of us headed for a nearby coffee shop to take advantage of the air conditioning while drinking coffee and eating muffins!

The wine awaits!
Heading back to the train, we found our table was now laid for dinner and our selected bottle of wine waiting for us. It seemed pointless to delay, so we poured ourselves a glass apiece and toasted Carlisle as the train pulled out of the station just after 4.30 pm.

Dinner consisted of four courses plus coffee and chocolates, again with a vegetarian option (special diets can be catered for if notified at the time of booking). We had the Asparagus and Pea Girasol to start and this was followed by vegetarian lasagne and then Eton Mess. We had to decline the cheese board – too many muffins in that coffee shop!

The return journey was every bit as relaxed as the journey out, but mellowed even further by the bottle of wine and the slowly setting sun. The diesel locomotive was there at Hellifield to take over again for the final haul to Skipton, Leeds and back to Wakefield.

The sun had just about set as we pulled into Westgate Station at 9.20 pm, saying farewell to travelling companions we had come to know but who were staying on until the train reached its final destination of York.
All in all, this had been a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable day. You could even say I was chuffed!

Need to know:

The Dalesman is one of a number of special trains run by West Coast Railways throughout the year. Have a look at their website, www.westcoastrailways.co.uk, for more information or telephone them Monday – Friday from 9:30am – 4:00pm on 0844 850 3137.

Prices: Tickets start at £59 for an adult travelling in Standard Class (£25 for a child). For passengers wishing to travel in First Class, the price is £115 (£50 for children) and includes complimentary teas and coffees along with a Danish pastry served on the outward journey and a savoury of the day with cakes on the return journey. The Premier Dining offer costs £199 per person. Subject to availability, it is possible to reserve a table for two in First Class and Premier Dining at a supplement of £15 per person. (All prices for the York-Wakefield-Settle-Carlisle return journey described above and correct for 2017.)

There is a buffet car on the train from which it is possible to purchase refreshments.

[A version of this article appears in the September 2017 edition of TopicUK magazine – Wakefield issue]

Do members add value for civic societies?

Members
Let me be provocative (again)…..

Members, eh? Who needs ’em? No, seriously, who really needs members?

If you’ve read my article on how we can measure the success of a civic society, you’ll know that I have questioned the idea that membership numbers should be used as an indicator of a successful civic society: we tend to think that the more members a society has, the more successful it must be and most if not all of our civic societies region probably spend some time and effort in trying to recruit and retain members.

In my previous article, I posited that it is actually reputation and trust that really count: how others see you, and whether or not they trust your judgement and advice are the real markers of a successful society. If you agree with me, then the natural conclusion is that the size of membership is not really that important. In fact, dare I suggest that your members are holding you back? Let me explain.

As I said in my article, at Wakefield Civic Society we organise 30 to 40 events and activities per year, sometimes more. We do that because our members enjoy the events and, if the members are happy, they are more likely to renew their membership year after year. On top of that, a lively programme of events is a great way of attracting new members. In other words, our desire to recruit and retain members determines how we operate: we are a membership-based organisation so therefore we run events for members.

While often hugely enjoyable, these events take a good deal or work to organise and to run but only around a fifth of our membership turn out for them and sometimes attendance is even less which means we are going to a lot of trouble to put on events for a smallish subset of the membership. As well as effort, these events also cost us money – we subsidise at least some of the events we put on from our membership subscription income as part of our charitable mission. Having said that, our members (or at least those who attend) tell us that they enjoy the events and, if I’m honest, I enjoy hosting them!

However, our charitable objects as a civic society are:
(a) To encourage high standards of architecture and town planning in Wakefield.
(b) To stimulate public interest in and care for the beauty, history and character of the area of the City and its surroundings.
(c) To encourage the preservation, development and improvement of features of general public amenity or historic interest.
(d) To pursue these ends by means of meetings, exhibitions, lectures, publications, other forms of instruction and publicity, and promotion of schemes of a charitable nature.

Nowhere in the charitable objects is there any mention of our being a membership organisation (this comes later on in the Society’s constitution) and we could arguably deliver our charitable objects without the need to recruit lots of members. All we really need is enough people to form a committee.

What I’m getting at here is that the society could meet its charitable purposes with just a handful of really committed people serving as a sort of ‘think tank’. Say we had around ten people willing to serve. They would need a mix of skills and local knowledge, including some experience of design, planning and architecture but, with the right mix, they could review planning applications, offer advice, write position papers and even organise the occasional public event, exhibition or lecture.

They would still need money, of course, but not so much. There are certain things you just can’t get away from paying for (such as insurance!). However, there are other ways of raising money than membership subscriptions – donations, grants and sponsorships, for example – but the ten people or so willing to serve on the committee could also offer to pay some of the costs out of their own pockets (anything to make it easier!). I suspect that many civic society committee members already do this to some extent – spending money that they don’t necessarily claim back on the work of their society.

I remember one year when we organised an annual dinner at Wakefield which made a surplus of around £200 – a tidy sum that was paid into our general funds. The dinner had been very hard work and there were some sleepless nights: we’d signed a contract with the venue to pay for a set number of places but then the bookings were very slow to come in and it was touch and go as to whether the event would break even, let alone generate a surplus as a fund-raising event, so it was relief all round when we achieved the result we did. In fact, we were in celebratory mood until one of the committee pointed out that if each of the committee (20 strong at the time) had paid £10 each directly to the Society, we’d have achieved the same result without the stress or the fuss. This was rather deflating but was a point well made, especially when you realise that we had each paid around £25 for our tickets to attend the dinner!

The learning point here, of course, is that our desire to put on an event for the members had taken a toll in time, effort and stress to achieve a result that could have been achieved without any of the fuss and hassle.
Before we all rush to dispense with our members though, we need to remember that we all have our written constitutions to follow and that, for those civic societies which are also charities, care would have to be taken to ensure that the charitable aims were still delivered. While it might even be worth considering doing away with the charitable status – it removes the need for all those pesky compliance issues, after all! – there are advantages to being a charity that should not lightly be tossed aside. These include the impact on fund-raising activities when some donors will only consider giving to charities and, of course, the ability to claim Gift Aid.
Now, I’m aware that some very small civic societies might already be the position of having a total membership of just a handful of people – and they might even feel that they are failing. They look at other societies with larger memberships and spend hours worrying over how to recruit more members of their own, almost to the point that the search for new members becomes a millstone around their necks when, according to my argument here, they should be celebrating the fact that they don’t have to spend time and effort servicing a large membership! Surely, that thought alone should be positively liberating!

I know that having members can be rewarding and there are many positives about being a membership organisation. Members provide income and, to a degree, credibility. They can help to spread the news about what the society is doing and what it stands for. They can act as eyes and ears, reporting back to the society on threats to the buildings and public realm in the area. Members will also usually form the pool from which your future committee members will emerge. Running events brings people together and helps strengthen community links; friendships are developed and networks enhanced. I personally have had a great deal of fun from being in charge of an active membership organisation – but it has been exhausting.

So, there we have it: let’s pause and re-think how our civic societies should operate. Do we really need to be large membership-based organisations running events primarily to keep our members entertained? Can we meet our charitable purposes in other ways – and if we can, do we really want to change the model?

Provocative enough?