Bassenthwaite Lake Station in the North Lakes of Cumbria is not actually a working railway station. If you’ve ever tried living in this Unesco World Heritage site, this will be no surprise. There was once a very useful railway track linking Penrith, Keswick and Cockermouth that trundled through picturesque villages and served the local community but someone bright closed it down in 1966. So, for the past three and a half decades, transport issues around Embleton, Dubwath and Braithwaite have been mainly covered by a man called Colin in a Vauxhall Tigra, assuming he’s not at the pig auction.
Meanwhile, the station at Bassenthwaite Lake fell into disrepair. That was, until the arrival of Simon and Diana Parums’ project, with its full-sized replica of a French SNCF steam train that featured in the 2017 film version of Murder on the Orient Express. Inside the carriage, they’ll now do you a rather good afternoon tea while you sit parked by a newly restored 140-metre platform close to a nature walk; you can even hire one of the coaches for private parties. OK, it’s all quite idyllic, which is why I’m sharing the news today, and this despite several firm requests from my family, who love grabbing a table here, to, well, “shut your cakehole”.
As well as afternoon tea, they do generous sharing platters, lunch bowls and sandwiches, plus there’s a fridge heaving with cakes to buy by the slice (I’m particularly partial to the dark chocolate orange sponge). Yes, there is an irony about how this wonderful, totally cut-off part of the world now has a gorgeous fake railway station painted in the original official blood-and-custard Penrith-to-Cockermouth track colours, where visitors can take selfies next to a movie prop train, all the while imagining how marvellous it might be actually to travel somewhere, but let’s overlook the lack of local transport provision and concentrate instead on the two-tier afternoon tea. There’s a mini slider, a homemade sausage roll, a sugary macaroon, a raspberry mousse, a chocolate brownie and sticky toffee pudding cake with fresh strawberries, and large, plump fruit scones. This afternoon tea errs on the sturdy side, which I am heavily pro; dainty bites and tiny ramekins have their place, but I much prefer an afternoon tea that incapacitates.
Booking is advisable, however, especially if you want to sit in one of the carriages. That said, I like it as much in the old station booking office and waiting area, with the framed jigsaws on the walls. It’s all a bit Brief Encounter as you wait for your “platelayer’s salad”, which is a riff on the ploughman’s lunch, with sticky, glazed Cumberland sausage, chicken liver paté and miller loaf. The Cumbrian sharing platter, meanwhile, features local salamis and ham, Lakeland beef, baked brie from the fells of Torpenhow, and Cumberland sauce, which is a type of mustardy, redcurranty mush that Elizabeth David once described as “the best of all sauces for cold meat”.
If that all sounds rather meaty, I must also make a nod to the vegan brunch bowl, which is thoughtfully put together: slices of green lentil and bean roast, sauteed cavolo nero, roast spuds and sun-blushed tomatoes are drizzled with a bloody mary ketchup. It’s more evidence of how vegan food in the north has come on in leaps and bounds in the past five years. Gone are the days of the befuddled look and the offer of an egg bap or a solitary portobello mushroom served as a main course. Never in a million years did I expect to find crisp pulled salt-and-pepper seitan with chipotle vegan mayo in a casual cafe just off the A66, but magical things are happening.
Even so, I worry for the smaller Lake District hospitality ventures right now, because they, like many others, are being crippled by staff shortages. In Keswick, almost every cafe in town is currently begging for staff, with some spots no longer able to open full time; it was a worrying sight recently to see even the local Greggs closed because there was no one available to switch on the ovens. The Lake District has no shortage of visitors – Scafell Pike, for one, is teeming with them – but there are fewer than ever bodies available to serve them cream teas and ice-creams or to sell them Kendal mint cake. The reasons for this are varied and opaque, but it has nevertheless been satisfying to watch Bassenthwaite Lake Station go from strength to strength since it opened last summer. Yes, it’s a train that goes nowhere, but the food is wonderful. I’ve eaten enough pre-packed sandwiches on Avanti West Coast trains while whistling through Warrington Bank Quays to prefer the make-believe.
Bassenthwaite Lake Station Bassenthwaite Lake, Cockermouth, Cumbria, 017687 76599. Open all week, 9am-4pm. Breakfast from £5, brunch and lunch about £20 a head for three courses, afternoon tea £22, all plus drinks and service.
The next episode in the third series of Grace’s Comfort Eating podcast is released on Tuesday 21 June. Listen to it here.