As you follow the curve around Ellenborough Park’s long sweeping drive it’s easy to forget that you’re in the busy Cotswolds’ spa town. The golden stone of the Manor House and its modern extensions (including a spa and some 61 rooms and suites) sprawls across its 90 treasured acres of land, in a prime spot, overlooking the equally historic Cheltenham racecourse. A stone statue of a filly breaks the view from the drop off, outside reception.
Afternoon tea is to be taken in the tudor-inspired Great Hall. A double-height ceiling makes room for grand chandeliers, oil portraits and a deep-set fireplace that was still being lit even in late April when we visited.
Try and nab a seat in the nook if there are only two of you – this part of the building dates back to the 15th century – otherwise make yourself comfortable on one of the pristine sofas.
The tea menu, from Newby London, is succinct and crowdpleasing – from assam and lapsang souchong to chamomile and rooibos orange – but is brought out as a scent box, with test tubes of each blend filled to sniff before deciding. There are more homemade infusions on the main menu, too. We chose an aromatic and delicate green jasmine and fresh mint, along with a glass of Champagne Billecart-Salmon (for an extra £12).
The classic afternoon tea on offer here features a selection of sandwiches, a choice of two freshly baked scones and an assortment of cakes and pastries – but we wanted to try the ‘Royal’ afternoon tea now on offer until the end of June, in celebration of the Queen’s official 90th birthday.
A polished silver, three-tiered stand is brought out and placed on its own stool, a crisp piece of white linen to catch the crumbs beneath, and we hungrily worked our way from the top to the bottom. Geometrically perfect sandwiches sat stacked, like edible building blocks – honey-roasted ham with Tewkesbury mustard, smoked salmon and cream cheese, egg mayo with cress, and crisp cucumber with tomato and spicy relish in white and granary.
Up a tier and we’re met with the scones – the kitchen here make a variety of fruit-studded beauties. The best is the classic, with juicy currants – it broke apart with only a nudge and is so light an over-aggressive spread of Devonshire clotted cream (first, naturally), followed by strawberry preserve, caused a near disastrous breakage. Cherry is good, too, but blueberry and buttermilk, and strawberry and chocolate compromise on texture for their extra boost of flavour.
The crowning glory, the top tier, is inspired by some of the Queen’s favourite teatime treats. Elegant meringue swans were filled with sweet, early summer strawberries and cream. Salted caramel Tudor rose chocolates looked good but didn’t deliver on mouthfeel, while chocolate cake was a sticky, rich affair, heavy on the frosting, which is no crime in our book.
Star of the show: ‘The Queen’s passion fruit hat’, a sharp fruity mousse atop a sugary shortbread base, covered with a bright passion fruit glaze, sugar flowers and a border of dark chocolate. Pretty, elegant and with bags of flavour – it delivered everything an afternoon tea mouthful should.
Scone rating: 7/10 – the classic scones are the best!
Perfect for: Dining in style in the British countryside.
Price: £25 per person.
Ellenborough Park, Southam Road, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL52 3NJ
Words by Laura Rowe, May 2016
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