One of the greatest traditions my mother ever passed on to me is that of the ‘Sticky Bun Moment’, the ray of sunshine that came out of the gloom of shoe-shopping in Newcastle when I was a child, and my oddly shaped feet took literally hours of searching to find anything that fit properly. We would revive ourselves with a Sticky Bun Moment, usually in Bainbridge’s restaurant (now John Lewis), and it became an indispensable part of any shopping day.
I have now, in my wisdom and generosity, passed this on to my husband and children so we are always looking out for cafes when we are out for the day. There is always of course the ubiquitous Costa, which is fine and great if you know exactly what you want – very reliable, but lacking in charm and individuality. Our local favourite, just a handful of miles up the road from us, is Vennels on Saddler Street in Durham.
The trick is first to find Vennels – there are two narrow, winding alleys (which apparently give the cafe its name, in a nod to its very, very old roots) which lead you up and into a courtyard, crammed with bistro tables under a large canopy (according to the website, this is heated – we haven’t yet put enough faith in the North Eastern weather to find out). It’s rare, especially in the summer, to visit Vennels and not find the courtyard bustling with customers.
Once you’re inside, this is ancient Durham captured in wood and stone. There are nooks and crannies and steep curling staircases leading to the upstairs seating area, as well as several tables downstairs – but upstairs is our favourite. The tables are almost all recycled sewing machine tables – watch your knees on the wheels! All the wood, on chairs and benches and tables alike, has the old, familiar and comforting patina that comes with long use and warm varnish, and it all feels like a welcoming Granny’s kitchen. This is helped, of course, by the decor; a huge fireplace is adorned with a giant brass pot, and brass jelly moulds lining the mantelpiece while shelves above doorways hold vintage and novelty and chinoiserie teapots. A small door to one side is unobtrusively signposted ‘The Loo’ (and is itself spotlessly clean and beautifully done out).
Our favourite seats are near the window; if you get one on the left as you arrive upstairs, you can see Durham Castle rising above the medieval rooftops of Waterstones and the other shops that climb up the hill to Palace Green. The windows are nice and large so they let in plenty of light, but it is the North East, after all, so it’s nice that dull grey skies are offset by the cosy interior of the cafe.
And then back to the point of it all, the Sticky Bun. When you enter, you queue, cafeteria-style, and pick up your tray from a pile in front of the first cabinet – the cakes. If you don’t crumble here, you’re made of stronger stuff than me. We personally recommend the chocolate cake – real homemade chocolate cake – the carrot cake and I love the sultana tea bread, of which you get a huge thick slice and a little pat of Lurpak. The second cabinet is savoury, with moutnhwatering baguettes and paninis, ridiculously chunky quiches and there are plenty of vegetarian options. Best of all is the classic North Eastern delicacy (and I use that term with irony): spectacular, deep dish corned beef pie which you can get hot or cold with a small side salad. Like anyone eats the salad. There are also hot sandwiches available, including bacon and sausage sarnies, and of course a good range of hot drinks. The cappuccino is highly recommended, especially as it comes with real chocolate shavings on rather than cocoa dust.
When you indulge in a Sticky Bun moment at Vennels, the world stops. You sit with your book or magazine or paper, or just watching the world go by, and there is no hurry, no stress. No wonder it’s our favourite little local luxury.