Anyone who thinks this is not worth a post will have to indulge me on this, it is a touchstone of that quintessential Englishness that survives by its fingernails in this modern day.
No doubt those who frequent the likes of McDonalds will pass this place by without a thought of what it represents, a last bastion of a rapidly disappearing age.
We came across it some years back when travelling the coast road in north Norfolk. Having failed to find a parking spot in nearby Cley-next-the Sea (pronounced Cly as in spy, yes and believe it or not there is a place called Cley Spy) we travelled on. All these small coastal villages are solid in the summer months and we normally go there out of holiday times and out of season.
But this time no, so we were looking for somewhere to stop and get a cup of tea and a bun and though we had passed this place numerous times had never stopped as it is not instantly appealing, and its placement means you are past it before you can make a decision to stop; but needs must so this time we made the effort.
The car park is a pretty good indication of what is to come: not exactly accessible and shared with the staff of the village school directly opposite. No space this time so we parked in the road of the T junction, itself a challenge as there is no pavement and you get out on the passenger side straight into a running ditch if not careful.
Everything about this place is of a time. The outdoor tables and benches have seen better days yet are full of on a sunny day of fellow travellers eating and drinking, yet it is when entering for the first time that you are taken aback by what appears to be not a cafe but an antiques shop, library and art gallery all in one untidy heap. After going there for years nothing seems strange any more, the half price book sale has been going on since that first visit and before, some of the 'antiques' gather dust with time and I have never seen anything sold but I could be wrong.
Several local artists have their works on the walls and unframed works and photos are in racks to browse through. I often browse these and they do sell as I notice certain favorite pieces are missing each time I browse.
The Old Reading Rooms is laid out with an entrance and food counter plus seating and tables and you then go through an arch to another room that has a divider of books and antiques down the middle, you really can’t escape anything in the back room. To the left is another room crammed with works of art, antiques etc in a totally shambolic arrangement, sort of early Tescos where all is shoved in your face, though in this case I don’t think that was the intention, more the case of finding a space and filling it.
The toilets are to the rear of this room at the back of a smaller room that used to have outdoor walking gear for sale - hats, shoes, coats, rainwear. Not much of that left now, a couple of all weather hats and a small asst of anoraks, perhaps this side of the business has not been a roaring success or just forgotten it is still there ? The gentlemen's toilet completes the tour: a long thin room with a hand basin on entry, then for reasons unknown a five-foot metal filing cabinet with a padlock, then the toilet. I have never had the nerve to ask about the placement of the filing cabinet, but I should for the sake of my sanity as every time I go there I ask myself why !
The real reason for any visit to the Old Reading Rooms is naturally not books, antiques or art works but the food and drink, and this is where it gets good. The display in the food cabinet gives a clue to what's on offer: all is made on the premises. You give your order to the always jovial Mine Host, ably assisted by family and some others in the high season; the tray of goodies is brought to your table, a table I might add covered in a plastic tablecloth depicting fruit from probably the fifties. All the chairs fail to match which gives the place a certain frisson; nothing is too much trouble for the owner who will get cushions for those with ‘problems’ and the like, without ever a hint.
To start you get a pot of tea of a standard rare these days, it actually tastes like tea and you get a pot plus hot water to give you about four cups should you need it. The food is on a fairly short menu: sandwiches, toasted sandwiches , panini, jacket potatoes, quiche, pasties (all their own), the list you can see in the photo, even the menu is utilitarian. But the cakes and puds are what make this place stand out - as I said, all made on the premises: deep filled apple pie, lemon meringue, cherry tart, and more; cakes are Victoria sponge, carrot cake, coffee and walnut, two types of chocolate cake and on and on, all are delicious all have that lovely moist texture and all come with cream if you so wish.
The story would not be complete without giving a run-down on the clientele. It has to be said that this part of Norfolk is full of retirees and many frequent this place, you can tell as all are greeted with first names and on occasions the people coming through the door resemble that outing in Reach For The Sky when the injured patients from the hospital go out to the tea rooms complete with plastered limbs and crutches. By the same token a lot of bikers use the place and others but mainly it is the older section of society, as myself these days, that know a good thing when they come across it and fill the tables on a regular basis.
It is always fatal to say there can’t be many places like this left, but reality says they must be a dying breed, rather like the clientele, still at least the cakes have been appreciated by many and with luck will be for some years to come.