Jonathan Schofield cycles to food with a strong northern accent
The pastries and cakes get you. They’re as good as my mum’s baking and it is a truth universally acknowledged that the late Mrs Schofield was the best baker in the world. Caroline Shaw at RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) Bridgewater Gardens is right up there with my mum, especially given the northern accent to her work.
Clever sourcing gives the catering identity and character
I’ve made two recent visits to RHS Bridgewater, both on my bike, testing out the new cycle and walking route from Worsley along the north side of the Bridgewater Canal (details after this story). This is becoming a habit because RHS Bridgewater is a supremely attractive place in which to lose oneself amidst all the carefully crafted natural wonders. You can even mess about with all those apps on your phone. I have a fungus app and had a good forage, giggling at the app's equally carefully crafted cautions about hallucinogenic toadstools.
There’s free access to the café, shop and garden centre but for the gardens, you have to buy a ticket, although it’s cheaper for people arriving on foot, bike or public transport. Here's our write up about the whole RHS Bridgewater site and a few points about how important it will be for regional tourism.
A couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t believe the weekday crowds at the cafe. This was a cliché made real. The queue was out of the door, literally. Coachloads of pensioners from all over the country were particularly thick on the ground waving their RHS membership passes and talking about begonias, armed revolution and where to find the best hallucinogenic toadstools. Something like that.
It wasn't all pensioners. RHS Bridgewater is no monoculture, if you forgive the pun, it has multi-generational appeal with loads of children around. Indeed this is very much official policy with educational workshops for kids by Petra Wilcockson. There are loads of other activities and courses. Glow in November and December should be good, when the gardens will be illuminated and open up to 9pm.
But what about the food? Well, first off, the dining area is attractive, either inside the superb main building from Manchester architects, Hodder+Partners, or outside, across the most generous terrace in the region.
The broccoli and Blacksticks Blue cheese quiche (£5) with its hefty accompaniment of tomatoes, olives and a million other whatnots was incredible value for money and very filling. Admittedly the dish looked like the ingredients had savagely attacked each other and none had survived, but the quiche was exceptional with its gentle pastry and its lush yet light filling, despite the inclusion of such big ingredients as broccoli and blue cheese.
The Eccles cake was £3.50 and came with cream. Of course, an Eccles cake has to have enough heft and substance to keep a person upright during long hours at the loom or the forge, but it doesn’t have to be all heft. Caroline Shaw shows exactly how it can have a less forthright character producing a buttery delight, gently spiced and filled with juicy currants, helped on its way by a fat dollop of cream.
The pud on the next visit was just as good and just as welcome. No bonfire night back in the day could call itself a real occasion unless there was parkin as part of the nosh. This baby, again £3.50, had all the ginger, molasses and sticky joy one would expect with a fancy topping that didn't detract at all. It did that thing food does so well, throwing me back in time to happy evenings as a carefree kid. Sitting on the RHS Bridgewater terrace in 2021 I could almost feel the heat of long ago fires on my legs.
What I also like about the RHS Café is the emphasis on bold local-ish products. The steak and ale pie (£6) from the Altrincham-based Great North Pie Co is a case in point and with fine homemade red cabbage (I’m guessing) was a perfect pick-me-up for a cyclist on a colder weather visit. Meanwhile, the beer available is even closer to the RHS’s North West home, coming from Salford’s Seven Bro7hers brewery.
This emphasis on the local is welcome as long as the products are good and hold their own nationally. These and others here do. It’s clever sourcing and gives the catering identity.
The hotpot (£10) was proper with lamb, thinly sliced spuds, carrots and a good stock. If you want to go exotic with a Lancashire hotpot then oysters are acceptable but the meat has to be lamb. This was an excellent version of the dish with one caveat, it was a couple of degrees too cool.
The other caveat at RHS Bridgewater is the wine selection. It consists of those little bottles you procure to help soften rail journeys after a long day's toil. The choice here is as dreary as Cheadle Hulme station on a wet Wednesday teatime.
Those minor points aside, for a café in a visitor attraction, RHS Bridgewater seems to be getting just about everything right. Could the organisation of prime service times be improved to cut the queues? Maybe, but people shouldn’t be put off dining there as overall the food and drink, from head chef, Matt Taylor, and pastry maestro, Caroline Shaw, is high quality. It’s hearty and skilful in a lovely setting, those beautiful gardens will tempt you. They really will. Of course, on occasion, you have to dodge pensioners from coaches talking about begonias but, if truth be known, probably not about armed revolution and hallucinogenic funghi. Well, not all of them, just the quiet looking ones.
RHS Bridgewater Cafe Occupation Rd, Worsley, Manchester M28 2LJ
Follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter @JonathSchofield
Some official info on RHS Bridgewater
The first phase of RHS Greenway, a traffic-free walking and cycling route is now open. The Greenway provides a new traffic-free route along the north of the Bridgewater Canal linking Worsley and Boothstown to RHS Garden Bridgewater, enabling cyclists and walkers to enter the garden direct from the canal towpath. More details about the full scheme can be found at salford.gov.uk/rhs-walkng-cycling.
Meanwhile, RHS Bridgewater has teamed up with Swans Travel and Manchester Sightseeing Tours to offer an express bus service. The service runs from Manchester Victoria and Manchester Piccadilly train stations direct to the garden. Visitors can book combined return bus travel and reduced-price garden admission tickets direct from manchestersightseeingtours.com.
PS: Close to the entrance to RHS Bridgewater there are multi-tools on a post for passing cyclists who want to give their machine a quick bolt-tighten or its tyres a quick air-boost. A wonderful idea. I used an Allen key to raise my saddle.
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Quiche 7, Hotpot 6.5, Pie 6, Eccles cake 8, Parkin 8
Canteen style but lots of smiles
Views, coach parties, casual visitors and chatter about begonias