Jonathan Schofield is bewitched by a real North West treat and ashamed for not visiting before

The cucumber fingers were so British they should have been wrapped in a Union flag. The whole experience was so country house I wanted to dress up in a Regency costume and invade France. 

France was too far away so I was invading the Tabley House Tearoom near Knutsford.

It’s been a long time, but I fell in love, once more, with cucumber sandwiches in finger form, smoked salmon ditto, cheese likewise and, of course, egg mayo, because really that's part of the afternoon tea squad.

Around the time the present Tabley House was being built Samuel Johnson wrote: 'A cucumber should be well-sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out as good for nothing'. Sammy lad you were wrong. 

Anyone reading this should get down there grab some food and drink and take a spin around the house with its rich collection of art

But why hadn’t I been here before?

I’ve been a tourism professional since 1996 and I am a qualified Blue Badge guide for the North West. Tabley House, from the 1760s, is a wonder built by the Leicester family, a real beauty with an art collection to match. It's very easy to reach too, only three miles from Knutsford and a mile south of Junction 19 on the M6. Given my job I'm supposed to have the North West knowledge. The shame of it. 

Tabley House Afterboon Tea
The facade of Tabley House: perfectly Palladian Image: Confidentials

Attached to the west wing of the house is the restaurant/café which occupies the OId Hall Room, built in 1927. The Old Hall once resided on an island in Tabley Mere but was abandoned due to dampness. All the salt extraction around these parts would have done for it eventually through subsidence. The fireplace and overmantel in the tea rooms dates from 1619, a spectacular marriage piece marking the wedding of Sir Piers Leicester and Elizabeth Mainwaring.

The tea room provides access to the family and estate chapel, originally from 1677, which was also moved from the island in 1927. This has a superb stained-glass window from Edward Burne-Jones, perhaps the finest of the Arts and Crafts practitioners. 

Tearooms Tabley 2
The Tea Rooms with the 1619 fireplace Image: Confidentials
Tabley House Afternoon Tea 16
The 'sward' for afternoon tea Image: Confidentials

Outside the tea room the green sward (sward is the only word that can be used) provides a splendid space for outdoor dining. There is plenty of choice on the menu too but the setting demands guests to take the afternoon tea at £19.95 per person. We added a good carrot and lentil soup for £3. There's wine and beer available but I glugged on an excellent strawberry milkshake like a child, not stopping until the squeaky noise from sucking up the dregs with a straw started to disturb the songbirds, the staff and the other customer.

Everything worked with our meal including the English breakfast loose leaf tea which arrived in charming crockery. I drank the tea with my little finger cocked. I affected the accent of a character in an Evelyn Waugh novel. I started saying 'I say', 'yes, quite', 'indubitably', and 'quintessentially' in clipped patrician tones. 

Tabley House Afternoon Tea 19
Stack it high, the afternoon tea Image: Confidentials
Tearooms Tabley 1
A milkshake in the sunshine Image: Confidentials

The sandwiches were fresh, lively, sunshine food. The homemade cakes, Victoria sandwich, coffee and walnut and lemon drizzle were generous in scale and flavour, with the pick being the lemon drizzle. Images of my late mother baking rose to my mind’s eye. She would have thought this experience a certain sort of heaven. 

The scone with jam and cream was perfect. That’s scone to rhyme with bone, if you pronounce it to rhyme with gone then you are a knave and should be marched out of town.

Tabley House Afternoon Tea 22
Fresh and lively sandwiches Image: Confidentials
Tabley House Afternoon Tea 20
The soup and the enchanting crockery Image: Confidentials

Do not leave without visiting the house. The ticket price is £7 and worth every penny and the room attendants are delightful, full of knowledge and wit. On our visit there were only four other visitors. 

Tabley House is a classic Palladian-style building by John Carr of York for Sir Peter Leicester. Externally there's the large central house with its recessed wings. A big columned portico with stairs leads to the piano nobile, aka the posh rooms.

All of these, the Drawing Room, the Octagon Room, the Dining Room and the Gallery, are filled with an astonishing amount of art, artefacts and furnishing. 

The art includes a painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner, one of the great British artists. It features boats on Tabley Mere with Tabley House visible to the right of the folly of a castle tower. 

There are portraits by seventeenth century artist Peter Lely, a grotesque by crazy Henry Fuseli and a painting I adored as a kid from a book about ancient Rome, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum by John Martin.

Tabley House Afternoon Tea Rooms
The Gallery in Tabley House Image: Confidentials
Destruction Of Pompeii And Herculaneum
The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum by John Martin Image: Wikimedia

Many of the artworks were collected by Sir John Fleming, a proper roué but also a proper connoisseur of art. After numerous love affairs he married Georgina Cottin when she was sixteen and he was 48. It suited her to marry into wealth and she also provided the family with two sons which suited him. 

After the wedding Sir John hid the many portraits he had commissioned of his mistress Emily St Clair, including the naked one. He had not allowed this to be displayed in public as he didn’t want anybody ‘to see all the charms of his Venus even upon canvas…imagination must have something left to make the thing complete'.

In the Gallery there's a curiosity of a 1780s Sir Joshua Reynolds oil portrait of Sir John. This is odd because only the head survives by Reynolds. When Sir John received his peerage in 1826, a year before his death, he had his lordly robes painted over the rest of the portrait aside from his head, the head of a young man. Sir John clearly had another mistress, vanity. 

Georgina lived as interesting a life as Sir John and when he died she eloped with his nephew. 

Che Tab 212 1 001
Young head on an old body, the repainted portrait of Sir John Leicester Image: Tabley House Collection
Georgiana Maria Lady Leices Med
Georgina Cottin and her marriage portrait by William Owen showing her walking in the park Image: Tabley House Collection
Tabley House Afternoon Tea 4
The chapel from 1677 moved here in 1927 Image: Confidentials

It’s all fruity beauty at Tabley House aside from one issue. 

The property owner is the University of Manchester which needs to pay more attention to the property. The university is notorious for not looking after its historical assets, the prime example being Gaskell House on Plymouth Grove before it let it go. The university rents out the upstairs areas of Tabley to a care home but more revenue needs to make its way downstairs. Repairs need to be carried out on the sash windows and also to some of the stone and brickwork.

That caution aside this overlooked jewel of the Cheshire crown with its equally fine tearooms deserves more renown, although, selfishly, not too much. To have this amount of time and space to enjoy a historic house and its amenities is rare, considering the thousands that would have been assaulting the Tatton estate five miles away on the same Sunday. 

Anyone reading this should get down there grab some food and drink and take a spin around the house with its rich collection of art. 

The Tabley House Tea Room, Tabley House, Tabley Lane, Knutsford WA16 0HB.

Open: Thursday-Sunday 1pm-5pm. 

You can follow Jonathan Schofield @JonathSchofield

Tearooms Tabley 2
The Drawing Room in Tabley House Image: Confidentials
Tearooms Tabley 1
Another view of the Tea Rooms Image: Confidentials
Tabley House Afternoon Tea 9
The Dining Room in Tabley House Image: Confidentials
Tabley House Afternoon Tea 18
The bill Image: Confidentials

The scores

All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidentials and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgeable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.

Venues are rated against the best examples of their type, so tea rooms are measured against other tea rooms, casual dining against other casual dining, fine dining against other fine dining.

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 himself.

  • Food 8/10

    Sandwiches 8, cakes 8, scone 8, soup 7

  • Service 4/5

  • Ambience 5/5