This past Saturday was one of those perfect, late summer days—sunny, mild and full of promise—and it so happened that we had plans to meet up with some friends at the Chalky Pits Museum.
The Amberley Chalky Pits Museum is one of those things that the British do so well. It was an active chalk and lime quarry for about 150 years, then an abandoned pit in the ground for another 50 or so, but now it is a working museum, and a great, educational day out. And this weekend it just happened to be hosting a cider and ale festival.
ASIDE: When I say “Cider,” I am referring to British cider, the inexpensive and highly alcoholic drink popular with impecunious college students and out-of-work alcoholics. It has no similarity at all to the cider I grew up with and don’t get me started by trying to insist it is the same as the cloudy apple juice you can buy in some shops here; I know cider, it is not the same, end of story.
Now, the museum is a wonderful place, and you should bring your children there immediately so they can appreciate just how hideous, strenuous and dangerous life was before the 24-hour coddling of H&BS (Health and Bloody Safety). And the atmosphere—especially when they are having a special festival, as they were that day—is something out of Midsomer, but without the paedophile parson and the spinster librarian with the drinking problem, dark past and a half dozen bodies mouldering in her basement.
But that’s not what I want to talk about; I want to talk about the restaurant.
One would think, with the price of admission and the well-run exhibits, that having the food concession there would be something of an honor, something to excel at. I could (and if fact I have) assemble a better meal at a petrol station forecourt. To rival the food and the ambiance you would have to return to your school cafeteria, and even then it would be a toss-up.
Where they have really swung for the bottom and hit dead on, however, is with their coffee.
My wife and I arrived early and we felt like sitting with a cup of coffee while waiting for our friends. I ordered two cups, was charged £3.80 by the young lady at the till and directed to a machine. At the machine, I got two Styrofoam cups, put them under a nozzle and pressed a button. Sludge—no, honest to Christ, it was sludge—came out, then a bit of hot water and prefabricated milk mixed with it, leaving a half cup of, well, what do you think it is:
The only reason it looks as good as it does in the photo is that I confiscated some real milk earmarked for the tea drinkers and filled the rest of the cup up with it. The result still tasted just about as good as it looks. And we paid nearly £2.00 a cup for that. Usually we have to go to London to get ripped of that badly.
But the day has a happy ending. After a diverting afternoon of wandering about the exhibits, talking with the craftspeople and sampling the cider (I said it wasn’t like American cider, I didn’t say it wasn’t tasty) we decided to call it a day. The prospect of capping it off with another coffee at the official restaurant was just not something we could fathom, so we left the compound and went to the tea shop across the road.
Here, on the banks of the River Arun, in the late afternoon sun and with the loveliest view of Sussex spread out before us, we dined on fresh scones with jam and drank pots of tea out of (matching) china cups.
It was oh, so civilized in a way that only tea and scones in England can be, and it almost made up for the awfulness of the coffee.