Afternoon tea, that daintiest of snacks, eaten by people too weak to peel their own crusts from a cucumber sandwich; the types who argue over whether to put the jam on a ‘scone’ first or second and pour Lady Gray tea from nothing that isn’t sterling silver. Afternoon tea needs to be super charged. And how better to do that than in a 0-60mph in 3.8 seconds sports car? If you want to do afternoon tea properly, do so in a Caterham.
The Caterham Seven is a classic, with a design harking back to a golden age of motoring, yet without seeming twee or nostalgic. And it goes. The car boasts the 1.6 litre engine from a Ford, 152 brake horse power and a top speed of 127 mph, all in a lightweight chassis that weighs about as much as a Monster Munch packet. But this isn’t Top Gear, it’s The Handbook, so let’s stick to the important questions: does it look cool? Yes, bloody cool. And was it fun to drive? Absolutely! Its unfettered speed, loud-as-hell engine and thrill-inducing handling feels just like an unlicensed fairground ride, and with about the same health and safety concerns. Airbags are for wimps, power-steering is passé and your femur is all the crumple-zone you could possibly require is the theory. All of which make this an incredibly fun car to drive. Skill and luck are all that stand between getting to work on time and doing a Marc Bolan on the South Circular.
But of course this is, first and foremost, a food, drink and travel publication, and so it’s only fair that I shoe-horn the loan of this splendid vehicle into a familiar format. And yet, speeding through the Sussex countryside, on the way to an afternoon tea at one of the most venerable tea purveyors in the county, the hook for the article suddenly didn’t feel so tenuous at all as I realised this is exactly how afternoon tea should be done.
The drama of the Caterham is unmistakable. You don’t simply get in, there aren’t doors, you clamber in, locking yourself to the car itself via the four point harness before pressing the start button and the car roars into action. I’d booked the afternoon tea at Sussex country house hotel, Ashdown Park, for 5pm, giving me a day to really enjoy the journey there. Pointing the bonnet toward the A3, I stamped on the accelerator and watched the suburbs blur into an impressionist painting of semi detached hell before leaving London behind altogether. After trans-Atlantic steam ship and private jet, this really is the way to travel.
The dual carriageway is all well and good, a chance to maybe push the car to its limits, but it’s the windy country lanes where the Caterham is really put to the test. Whipping round corners it’s impossible not to be impressed at the car’s ability to cling to the road; perhaps it realises its passengers’ terror and doesn’t want to see the plastic seats soiled.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that any exposure to the countryside is exponentially improved with the addition of cider. So I set the sat nav to Stoughton, West Sussex, and the Hare and Hounds. Throwing the car round rural lanes is hard work and after a thrill-filled journey I was in need of a hearty lunch.
The Hare and Hounds is the quintessential English public house. The flint clad building sits on the edge of rolling fields, by a Norman church and within a village of approximately the same population as covers in the pub’s restaurant. The burger was excellent, but the ribs were divine. My travel partner for this particular trip hails from America’s deep south, and to his Mississippi tastebuds, brought up on a lifetime’s wet and dry ribs, these were not only the best rack he’d had in the UK, but vyed for an all-time top spot. The locals were friendly and the intimate back bar timeless.
But afternoon tea waits for no man, especially when you’ve booked into one of the last slots of the day. So it was back to being strapped into bucket seats 6” from the asphalt, a digestion aid I would absolutely not recommend.
Ashdown Park Hotel and Country Club, is the perfect country-house hotel. Set within manicured grounds, it’s surrounded by Ashdown Forest, AKA’d as AA Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood and home to Winnie The Pooh, Eeyore and the rest of them. Ashdown Park couldn’t have been more welcoming. The former convent is part of the Relais & Chateau family and as such is suitably sumptuous, with carpet so deep you feel like Theresa May skipping through fields of corn, it’s a lovely place.
And afternoon tea is their thing. You take it sat in winged armchairs so comfortable that most first airline cabins would blush in shame, and it really is fantastic. Three tiers of cakes, confectionary and sandwiches provides more food than you can possibly manage, especially so soon after a pub cheeseburger. The sandwich selection was perfect, we didn’t argue about how to apply jam to scones (it’s jam first, then cream) and the attentive staff waited on us hand-and-foot.
As I lounged, looking out across the carefully maintained grounds toward an ornamental lake dominated by a fountain, um, ‘founting’, the Caterham gently pinked as it cooled after being raced round the country lanes of West Sussex. And all at once it became clear that THIS is how afternoon tea should be done. Yes, the sandwiches were exquisite and the scones some of the best I’ve bitten into and oh-the-patisserie, but context is everything, and when the context is pulling up the drive at a grand country mansion in a bright red sports car, the afternoon tea bar is set pretty high indeed.
To anyone seeking to relive my day in the countryside, the car was a Caterham 7, I can’t recommend it enough as a driving experience. Meanwhile the tea, courtesy of Ashdown Park, was smashing too. You should genuinely go there!