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Sometimes we tend to overlook great things just because we perceive them to be intended for something, or someone, else and not for us. Here in the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley (#deanwye if you tweet by the way) we are blessed with a number of very good cafes indeed; award winning Aunt Martha’s at Steam Mills for a Victorian high tea experience, or Dean Forest Cycles at Parkend for a good honest tea and great cake hit or The Good News Centre at Newent for spiritual reinvigoration through the medium of great café food, Taurus Crafts cafe in Lydney, The George Cafe at Newnham………
How many of though, would include in our list of top ten cafes those outlets based in some of our best known tourist attractions. Would those of us who are lucky enough to live locally think that they were intended for us to use as well or just for visitors? It doesn’t work like this if you are a visitor of course. You may be taking the kids for a fun day out at an attraction and choose to have lunch there, or you may pick a likely spot along your walking route or your town or village visit it doesn’t really matter to you. But if you do live locally there is a tendency to forget about the attractions cafes. Some of them are open to the public (without having to pay for entrance), have great parking, and offer a really full daytime menu. Outside of peak times and school holidays they can also be nice and peaceful and who knows you may even get a thing some people in the Forest call, wi-fi!
Visiting Clearwell Caves – we had just such a lightbulb moment. The Caves are one of our top tourist attractions (visited lots by local people too) and a magnificent natural film set for countless TV programmes and feature films. Our top snapper happened to be there again shooting pictures for their new brochure – and there it was, right under our noses all along!
Clearwell Caves café space is light and airy with a homely and old world feel to it. The café tables and church pew seating are solid and reliable and on cold days the log fire might be glowing and creaking in the background (the Forest of Dean has had fantastic weather this Spring, ideal for taking tea on the patio). The ceiling is a hanging museum of miner’s lamps through the ages, and the walls form the basis of a gallery of Freeminer portraits whilst other assorted mining memorabilia is displayed throughout the café.
But, less history and more food! There are lovely homemade cakes to suit everyone’s cake peccadillos, sandwiches made on the premises by the girls behind the counter and light lunches galore. And of course, that archetypal and very British institution – the cream tea. Chantal was busy making the fruit scones in the tiny kitchen by the deli counter faithfully following the Clearwell recipe and then 20 minutes later the golden brown scones were cooling on the cooker top. With the judicious application of clotted cream and jam, and yes we are aware that some of you just can’t agree on the right order – but we don’t care, we able to tuck into a lovely cream tea. Jonathan, the boss and mining magnate, loves a nice cuppa himself and so he and café manageress Kim keep the lid on their selection of fine leaf teas. So if you prefer an Oolong to a Darjeeling, we think that you’ll find something there for you. We were very tempted to try the “Gunpowder” but were a bit worried about the possible results underground!
Next up we were treated to the Courgette and Brie homemade soup with a dark nutty granary roll to go with it. The soup, a lovely summer light green, was exceptionally tasty and roll had a really deep and satisfying flavour and together – really filling. Just the thing you might need to keep you going if you get lost for a few days in the fantastic underground caverns right beneath you (joking – there are only a couple of people who’ve never been seen again!).
We think we know when somewhere is going to be good before we ever set eyes on the food. The secret? It’s nothing to do with an innate Derren Brown style super-powers. It’s just enthusiasm and pride. The enthusiasm of the owners and staff of café, restaurant or hotel and the sheer pride in what they do that, actually, is impossible to hide, even if they wanted to project a modest public image. You know that things are going to be good when you sense this pride in the staff that “hey – we did that”. It doesn’t have to be Michelin starred to be good. It just has to have been made by someone who cared and who wanted you to like it and have a great time.
You can of course read the fascinating history of Clearwell Caves on the world wide interweb if you want, and it’s true you’ll be able to see great pictures and learn lots, but it won’t be the same as being there and you won’t get to enjoy tea and cake or soup of the day unless you actually Go!
*Freeminers is the term given to men born within the “St Briavels hundred” who hold the historic rights to mine coal and iron ore within the Forest of Dean http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeminer.Follow us
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