The Lost Cafe Society, Tim Dawson (2010)

Original article first published in The Sunday Times 21 March 2010

Time was when the British countryside was dotted with “cyclists’ cafes”. Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC) members received a pocket-sized handbook each year listing dozens in every county. Every Saturday and Sunday, thousands of people would take to their bicycles and complete day-long circuits, punctuated by cafe stops.

Some of the cafes had fancy frontages, a few even hung the CTC sign outside their premises, in the manner of a pub sign. Others only gave away their locations by the jam of bicycles that were leant up outside them. The fare was the same at them all: tea by the gallon, a considerable selection of cakes, and a warm, noisy camaraderie.

A few famous establishments survive and flourish. The Wharfe View, in Otley, West Yorkshire, has been a stopping-off point for cyclists from Leeds and Bradford for decades, as they venture up or down the dales. The Eureka Cafe near Chester fulfils a similar role in the northwest.

But over the past 30 years, dozens of much-loved refreshment stops have disappeared. Roger St Pierre, the cycling author, estimates that nine out of 10 such cafes have closed since the mid-1950s. The printed CTC handbook was last mailed to members in 2003 — there is a web equivalent, but it is a diminished beast.

Why the decline? Participation in mass club runs and time trials has shrunk over the decades. The returns to be made from running a tearoom started to look piddling beside the redevelopment value of property in pretty villages.

And McFastfood drive-thrus have creamed off some of the non-pedal-powered trade.

Take to the back roads of Essex, however, and between Braintree and Coggeshall you will find reason to believe that there is mileage yet in serving up cuppas and cakes to weary road riders.

A little less than a decade ago, Sean and Carol Jein found themselves complaining to acquaintances about the demise of the cyclists’ cafes. When friends told them to do something about it themselves, the early-retired couple did just that. So, eight years ago, Specialities tearoom in Stisted opened for business.

From the off, the Jeins’ mission was to cater specifically for cyclists — and cater they have. More than 8,000 a year now stop by, with more than 80 a day calling at the busiest times.

London cyclists take the train to nearby Witham at weekends and sustain their circumnavigations of the north of the county with visits to Specialities. The homemade energy bars that knock commercial rivals into a cocked hat have become a snack of legend.

The success of Specialities does raise a question, however. With the CTC’s membership booming, interest in cycling at a new high and commercial property values depressed — might not a few more people copy the Jeins’ idea? Perhaps this is the moment for a country village tearoom renaissance to equal the urban coffee-house revolution of the past 10 years.

Tim Dawson March 2010

Update 2018 – sadly the Wharfe View has been demolished to make way for a care home.

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