At the end of last year, not long after M had been discharged from GOSH, my Aunt celebrated a milestone birthday and my Mum started talking about a trip to the Celtic Manor in Newport for a celebratory afternoon tea. Fast forward 9 months that have taken us even closer to her next birthday than the one we were actually celebrating and with Mike organised at home to do the school-run and sort the children for the day, the three of us finally managed to become “ladies who lunch” as planned. We booked a table for their Autumn Afternoon Tea at 2pm and arrived a little earlier* (*for little, read 1 hour) than necessary due to my Mum’s anxiety of being caught up in the Rugby World Cup traffic and the pressing need to arrive early, no matter where we’re going.
We spent the first 20 minutes wandering the grounds and browsing in the shops before kicking our celebrations off with a glass of prosecco and a chat until it was eventually time to venture a little further to the Olive Tree Garden Room. As a family we are now well-versed in the world of disability and additional needs due to not just EGID and multiple food allergies, but also the presence of T1D, Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis amongst our members. Everywhere we go is assessed on their ability to cater for all these needs and I’m sorry to say that here the Celtic Manor failed at the very first hurdle. The Olive Tree Garden Room is a stunning place to relax and enjoy the treat of an afternoon tea, but from every approach it is only accessible by steps and whilst a portable ramp is available, the staff were slow to offer help when it was so obviously needed.
These things aside, we made it to our table in one piece and couldn’t wait to get started on the tempting and extensive menu that formed our afternoon tea. The meal began with a glass of warm Winter Pimm’s – delicious – and the Harvest hamper filled with 4 bite-size savoury treats that tantalised our taste-buds and gave us an inkling to what to expect for the rest of the meal. The detailed menu impressively showed the allergens present in each of the different items on offer and I was pleased to see that gluten-free alternatives were available. On this occasion, we didn’t test their allergy offerings, a real treat for me, but I’d be keen to return to see whether they could cater for G with her gluten- and dairy-free needs and if they favourably compare to the “normal” dishes. The sandwiches that followed were equally good and sized perfectly so that we could manage the cakes that came next.
The cakes were a sight to behold and it was really difficult to decide exactly where to start before trying each and every one. It was at this point that we all were finally beaten – well 5 cakes and pastries, however mini, is an awful lot for one person – but the Celtic Manor is obviously well-used to this experience and were able to offer us cake boxes to transport those extra ones home to enjoy at a later time. I cheerfully packed my remaining 2 away and eagerly looked forward to the final part of our tea, the scone. After all the other mouthwatering courses, I couldn’t wait to taste the scone with jam and clotted cream, which has to be the best bit of any cream tea in my opinion and I was confident that this one could be nothing short of exceptional.
Sadly I was very wrong and we were massively disappointed with the freshly baked Cherry Bakewell scones that arrived. The scones appeared to be so freshly baked that they were, in fact, under-done and tasted stodgy and sticky in the mouth. The Cherry Bakewell embellishment was a complete step too far and did nothing to add to the taste experience as it consisted purely of a sticky cherry syrup thinly spread across the top and a few flaked almonds added for effect. I struggled to eat it and gave up half-way through as it really wasn’t edible. To make matters worse, our disappointment with the scones was compounded by the poor quality of the tea served with the meal. I’m not sure who had trained whoever made the tea, but my Mum’s Earl Grey was the colour of a strong builder’s tea when poured and even our request for a second pot and then a pot of boiling water, did little to improve the flavour. In comparison, the coffee I had was fantastic and my Aunt much preferred the coffee to her original and fairly unpalatable English Breakfast tea.
I would love to be able to say that my review ends there, but I just can’t. Scones and tea aside, even though they’re fairly integral parts of any afternoon tea, the rest of the food was delightful and we really enjoyed everything else we had to eat; but – don’t pretend you didn’t sense there was a “but” coming – the service we received just didn’t match our expectations of the Celtic Manor. The staff members were not overly attentive and I found myself almost constantly having to grab someone’s attention each time we needed anything, however small. They forgot to take our orders for tea and coffee and excused this surprising fail by blaming it on the “..very busy room..”, even though it was never more than 1/3 to 1/2 full during our visit. I flagged down our requested additional pot of hot water when it was delivered to the next door table, helped myself to extra knives from an empty table behind us when our clean cutlery ran out and even ended up asking the staff to clear our table of empty glasses and dishes to allow space for the cake stands, teapots and cups and saucers still to come.
The last straw really came when I asked for a clean cup for my Mum after her second pot of Earl Grey was delivered to the table and the waitress reached over and removed her cup. Just. her. cup. Not the saucer, not the spoon and certainly not all 3 items together, but the cup on its own and swapped it for a clean one, still swinging the old cup with its remnants of tea sloshing around it from her other hand!
Let me be clear: in no way did this spoil our enjoyment of the afternoon at all and in fact it gave the three of us a fit of the giggles, much to the bemusement of our unsuspecting waitress. We loved our table, even though it was tucked away in a far corner, as it gave us an uninterrupted view of the rest of the room and we all enjoy participating in a spot of people-watching whenever we can. However, given the Celtic Manor is described as a “luxury resort” and has 5-star status, the service was not what we had been expecting or hoping for our birthday celebrations. Would I recommend a visit? Yes, I think, but be warned about their scones and hopefully their service might have improved by the time you get there.