If Northampton Cathedral opened a tea room, they’d surely have to call it ‘All Soles’.
After all, one of the cathedral highlights in this former centre of the English shoe-making industry is the window depicting the patron saint of shoemakers, Saint Crispin, as he bashes a few soles into place and then wears his spanking new blue boots. I kind of like this guy, even though I’d never heard of him before.
Northampton itself suffered like many other British towns from the zealous 1960s and 70s urban developers. It’s hard to make car parks attractive, but wow these guys must have had warped minds to design such monstrosities in so many beautiful historic towns and cities.
Fortunately, large chunks of Northampton’s centre have survived and right in the middle of the main shopping street today sits our favourite place for tea and cake. ‘Are You Being Served?’ is run by two wonderful women (Wendy and Chris) who used to be teachers, but have now taught themselves how to bake a mean cake and serve up fabulous food every day.
They get their tea (and coffee) from a local blenders just up the road in St Giles Street called…Blenders. It’s great quality and a delight to the palate. So nice to see one of these local roasters and blenders still going on the high street, and a pleasure to meet Tony who runs the place now.
There’s a wonderful, lively atmosphere in AYBS?, which makes me think that being in their classroom as a school kid must have been a lot of fun. And in a sense you could say that they still have their class of boys coming in regularly, because the local Northampton rugby team (including the England captain, apparently), are regular customers and have even left a signed rugby ball in the window.
In fact, Are You Being Served? is possibly the first tea room I have seen since I went to America last year with more men in it than women. Proof if ever it was needed that tea is not the ‘girls” drink and coffee not just for the ‘boys’. (Oh and by the way, the rugby team drinks green tea too – very healthy, huh?).
It took me a while to track down the best coffee in town (and don’t forget, Fancy a Cuppa? is looking for personality and atmosphere as much as taste), but I should just have gone to the BBC website to find the place.
Back in the spring it seems that Russell Crowe was filming in the area (Les Miserables, apparently) and he dropped off at Caffe d’Italia in Fish Street for a quick coffee. He liked it so much he signed a note to owner Emanuele, which is now on the coffee shop wall (and on the Beeb website!).
Russell Crowe clearly has good taste. This was an excellent coffee, and you know, the place actually felt like a little coffee bar in a small Italian town: packed with Italian photos and memorabilia; friendly, talkative barista; seats out on the terrace; and that small, dark interior packed with locals who all know each other.
So glad I found this place, and thanks to the locals who steered me in this direction.
Loved Emanuele’s latte art, too!
Northampton was actually full of surprises: old shoe shops still there decades after most of the cobblers left town; the house in Derngate, which is apparently the only building in England designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (and so sorry not to try the lovely looking tea room here too, but I’d just eaten too much by the time I got to this place – next time, I promise).
And there’s a smell around town at certain times of the day. I guess at one moment in history, it would have stunk of tanning and leather, but today as I wandered down the high street after tea, all I could think was…malt…
Yes, Carlsberg has its UK HQ in Northampton. Ah, it took me back to my childhood days in Hull, when a westerly wind would bring the smell of fish over the house and a wind from the east would bring in the smells of Hull Brewery.
You know, I think I’d be quite at home in Northampton. Coffee every morning with Emanuele and tea every day with Wendy and Chris. Then off to the rugby on Saturday. God, I’d never get any work done. Help me, St Crispin…