Rating: *** It has the most impressive setting of any of Shropshire's eateries,
. The Castle Tea Room, in Ludlow, is located in the grounds of a former Norman Fortress that became a fortified Royal Palace during the 15th century.
The Tea Room was converted from buildings that were formerly put to a different use and the castle's architects deserve all credit for overseeing a sympathetic and sensitive revamp.
Wood, glass and light neutral colours have helped to create a bright and airy space that provides a welcome retreat from the hurly burly of life in south Shropshire's biggest market town.
Competition for tea rooms in Ludlow's is as intense as the duel for takeaway customers in Tipton. Every nook and cranny provides a home for an olde worlde cafe or black-and-white-timbered tea room.
Rival businesses distinguish themselves by the quality of their cuisine, with proprietors offering fine blends of teas, a dazzling array of delicious cakes or 'Fancy Dan' coffees that aficionados can boast about to friends.
"It was ground from beans roast over the flames of an Ecuadorian peasant who lives on the banks of the Amazon, Quentin."
"How marvellous. Pass the sugar."
Ludlow Castle's Tea Room stands toe-to-toe with local rivals, trading blows with a phenomenal menu of cakes and scores.
Ding ding: Round One – Lemon Drizzle. Round Two – Bara Brith. Round Three – Shrophsire Apple and Sultana Cake. Round Four – Chocolate Fudge Brownie. Round Five – Carrot and Walnut. Round Six – Litle Gran's Sticky Ginger Bread. Round Seven – Victoria Sponge. Boom – it's a knock out blow.
There are more scones than you can shake a stick at, with savoury varieties like Shropshire blue served with a chive butter and interesting sweet varieties, like apple and cinnamon providing a welcome variation on the norm.
And then there are the teas: Cream teas, champagne teas, house teas, herbal teas, Ceylon, Darjeeling, China Sencha, Earl Gray, Camomile, Nettle and Peppermint top the list, though it continues for several years as the venue lists its fruit tea selection.
The array of sandwiches is equally impressive, from staples like Roast Herefordshire beef with creamed horseradish and North Atlantic prawns in a marie rose sauce to slightly more exotic fayre including home-made hummus with salad leaves and tomato or bacon, brie and cranberry.
I met a friend for a light lunch and though hot dishes were available, including a thick and chunky pottage, soups and similar dishes, I opted for a Welsh mature cheddar cheese sandwich with home-made balsamic onion marmalade on granary bread.
My friend opted for the locally oak-smoked salmon with cream cheese on granary. Both of our dishes came with a small side salad, with raspberry vinaigrette and hand-cooked crisps.
The cheese selection was pretty good, better than a Waitrose or M&S offering, but nothing to write home about. It didn't elevate the humble sandwich to a higher plane, as an offering from Heston or Jamie might. It was a damn good sandwich: no more and no less.
My friend's salmon with cream cheese was similarly appealing. The ingredients used were good, the bread was fresh and the portions generous.
We duelled over the cakes:
"I'll go Victorian Sponge."
"Then I'll take the brownie."
"Fine, well if you're taking the brownie, I might switch to Bara Brith."
"Fine, then I'll swop to Lemon Drizzle."
Eventually, we settled on a Shropshire Apple and Sultana Cake and a Carrot and Walnut slice, with a tacit agreement that we would share one another's, within reason.
They were pleasant, but not great. The carrot and walnut was a little dry, while the apple and sultana lacked a sufficient quantity of warming spices. As with the sandwiches, they were better than those on offer on the High Street, but not a patch on those made by good home bakers.
The service was pretty good. A well-mannered head waitress was in control of the dining room and two young male waiters were both attentive and polite. It was a pretty good show, without being overly polished.
In the final analysis, however, eating at Ludlow Castle Tea Room is about one thing and one thing alone: the location.
The venue is divided into a number of different rooms and a covered hallway, where guests can enjoy their food on sturdy tables that are placed beside the Castle's famous old walls.
It's curious to think that King Henry III once enjoyed the same view, or that Prince Arthur, the brother of Henry VIII and husband of Catherine of Aragon, once called the place home.
Chances are, he'd also have chosen a sandwich, made with local bread and cheese, or salmon caught from the River Teme.
In a world that is constantly changing, the Castle Tea Room is a welcome reminder that though the years may pass, some things stay the same.
Ludlow Castle Tea Room and 1086 Restaurant, Castle Square, Ludlow SY8 1AX
Tel: 01584 876796
At a glance:
Food: A cornucopia of lunchtime delights
You really must try: Although the cakes would appear to take top billing, it was the sandwiches that were more impressive. Local ingredients on local bread with local accompaniments - what's not to like?
Service: Warm and friendly
Local/seasonal: Ticks all the boxes. The Castle appears to have a good food-sourcing policy and flavours of Shropshire appear on most plates.