Pontefract is forever associated with liquorice. But a bit like with Southwell and the Bramley Apple, we didn’t find any of the local cafés and tea rooms making the most of that connection with interesting liquorice sweets or cakes on their menus.
I guess the thing is they don’t actually grow liquorice in Pontefract anymore. And the company that produces the Pontefract Cakes now might have a factory and retail outlet on the outskirts of town, but it is just an international business, with few local roots to the original Yorkshire product.
I’m actually not even sure what kind of cakes or desserts you could make with liquorice, though I have been known to enjoy a liquorice tea in the past in my herbal tea collection at home, so I think I’d give that a go if I ran a tea room in Pontefract…
Liquorice was not the only black product to come from Pontefract down the decades, mind. Coal mining was big around here and like many former mining towns, Ponty has probably seen better days.
The pick of the town’s tea rooms, in our view though, is the Cromwell Tea Rooms in Maud’s Yard.
Now, this place has a bit of history to it. It’s not just the fact that the tea room has been here 26 years (and so survived the closure of all those pits round here), but they reckon parts of the building itself were constructed using stones from Pontefract Castle.
The tea room’s name derives from Cromwell’s connections to the town, since he besieged the place several times through the Civil War. Of course, this leads to a bit of ambiguity for the tea room’s identity and loyalties, though. They share Pontefract’s traditional allegiance to the monarchy so, to balance the chosen name of the tea room, they have portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother…
There’s a good range of tea and coffee on the menu from Taylors of Harrogate, but since they only do tea bags, I opted for a cafetiere of coffee, choosing their Java blend over the six others on the menu.
If you’re keen to try only cakes baked in-house, it’s always worth asking, I find, so I ended up with a rather delicious Bakewell Tart, very nicely presented. And if you’re there after 1.30pm, you can always go for the set afternoon tea, with a pot of Yorkshire Tea and a tiered tray of sandwiches, scone and cakes.
Good service here, willing to deal with all my foibles and questions, and clearly a favourite with the many regulars who were having their mid morning cuppa on the morning I was there.
It’s definitely worth a wander round Pontefract Castle if you have a chance. Apart from its place in English Civil War history, this is the spot where Richard II was supposedly murdered (and interestingly, it’s in Shakespeare’s play of the same name that the term ‘Pomfret’ comes, from which of course some liquorice was once called Pomfret Cakes…).
The castle was demolished during the Civil War in 1649 and some of the stones then used to build our tea room, of course!
The remains of the Castle provide great viewing points for the scenery around Pontefract, which must once have been thick with colliery dust and grime. There’s still the enormous Ferrybridge Power Station in view, but the pits are all closed now, sadly.
Now, the visit to Pontefract was timed to coincide with a day at Pontefract Races, so we can continue our efforts to find a good cuppa before the off on every UK racecourse.
So, I allowed myself a rare excursion outside the town boundary in an effort to find loose leaf tea. I found some Ringtons loose leaf just a mile or so from town and a short ride to the racecourse at the Moo Café along the Wakefield Road.
I don’t normally go for big places like this (and it’s true it was extremely busy, with lots of screaming mums and babies – yes mums making as much noise as their kiddies), but for the sake of loose leaf tea, I was prepared to sit it out and wait my turn.
The good thing about these tea rooms on farms is that you get fantastically fresh food usually. Eggs laid on-site probably, meat (if you’re carnivore) straight from farm to fork, and all sorts of other goodies produced from the fields nearby.
So if you’re near Pontefract and you’re into your loose leaf tea, this is the place to go. Hey, and time your visit right and you’ll even get up close and personal with the local lambs (though no touching, OK?).
From there, it was a short hop to Pontefract racecourse, which must be one of the nicest tracks in the UK. It’s retained many of its old features and buildings, it has a wonderful cosy atmosphere and, as I discovered on this trip, there’s a guy serving coffee from a van by the parade ring that comes from one of my favourite Yorkshire coffee roasters: York Coffee Emporium.
So, unlike most racecourses in the UK where the coffee is overpriced and virtually undrinkable, at Pontefract, you can get a decent brew if you don’t have time to take in the town beforehand. (And I’m told the same guy serves up at Beverley, Thirsk and York, though we haven’t tried those courses yet).
I also love Pontefract racecourse for its views over what were once coalfields, but even now feels like you’re watching a US road movie, as cars fly by on the horizon on the M62 and trains scurry along just in front on the Leeds-Wakefield line.
Ah, Wim Wenders, you should have come to Ponty.