Garden Cafes: Boon or Bane?

The Loggia cafe area at Hanham Court, July 2009
Last week Threadspider and I attended a most interesting talk at Bath University Gardening Club given by the Head Gardener (Catrina Saunders) at The Courts. I'll have more on that in a later post: today I'd like to focus on an interesting discussion we had during question time at the end.

Up until 5 years ago The Courts had no cafe facilities and a lady asked how much of a difference having one had made to the garden. Catrina immediately picked up on the hidden agenda within her question: she didn't really like the additional people the cafe brings and wanted her garden back.

Catrina said initially as Head Gardener she hadn't really liked the idea of having a cafe at The Courts as she wanted people to visit for the garden itself, not just a nice place to have a cup of tea and cake. She then went on to say when she visited other gardens, how much she appreciated having a cuppa on arrival, particularly after a long journey.

The discussion then touched on the tensions between the increase in visitor numbers that having additional facilities brings, the need for income to keep gardens going and how more people can potentially destroy a garden's aesthetics and mood. There was some inference in the discussion that people requiring facilities somehow aren't real garden visitors.

Threadspider and I chewed this over on our way home together. I'm firmly in the pro garden cafe camp. I've come to realise they not only ensure a pleasant visit, they're also an essential component of my appreciation of the garden I'm visiting. After a long journey, I can recover from my travels and get in the right mood. Whilst going round the garden they also provide an opportunity to pause and take stock of what I've seen. It means I can appreciate the garden in its entirety as well as in detail. As a result I spend far longer on my visit and that's not just the additional time spent in the cafe.

Last year, my friend S and I visited Stoberry near Wells when it opened for the NGS. This garden is well worth a visit, has bags of atmosphere and has spectacular views towards Wells Cathedral and Glastonbury. We spent over an hour taking our refreshments because the light that day was constantly changing and we were observing how it affected the mood of the garden and its surrounding landscape. If there'd been no coffee and cake we would have missed an entire dimension to the garden.

What do you think? Does providing additional facilities cheapen a garden in some way, or are they an essential component to a visit?


  1. I wish we could do it but it's just too much work, too expensive and ambitious for us as we only open for an afternoon a week for three months and for coach parties. But people have driven off when they found there were no teas..

    We think about it nearly as often as thinking about not opening any more!(Every year..)And we could definitely do with more visitors - the garden is expensive to make and maintain.

    But we have a lot of comfortable seats which people often sit on for long times...

    When we visited the Courts we always got an ice cream from the newsagents across the road. Was quite a nice ritual. And the garden was always quiet and peaceful.

    Heigh ho: maybe none of us can do perfection.

    PS At Stockton Bury they told us they don't do Gardeners World 2 for 1 because they like to be sure people come for the sake of seeing the garden. This while serving us lunch....

  2. I am absolutely FOR garden cafes. If it is feasible for a garden to have one, I think it would be a good idea. It just makes the experience for the visiotr all that much more enjoyable.

    As for wanting HER garden back, I find that comment strange. Why would we want to exclude people from gardens? So there are people who might come to the garden for tea or lunch who might not otherwise come...isn't that the point? To get people to come in the first place? Isn't that why it is a *public* garden?

    As for the increased traffic causing more work and the need for facilities, I'm sensitive to that concern, but it seems to me that a balance could be struck somehow.

    All that said, I'll confess to a bias in that my favorite public garden experiences always *also* involved eating at the cafe with friends--and I'm a gardener who would have gone tot he garden anyway. Having lunch there simply puts the visit over the top in terms of pleasure.

  3. i'm in the pro-garden cafe camp. i think that the more people enjoy gardens, the more support people will give for public green space as it is something they have accustomed themselves to. however, i find it vital that businesses first determine that they are able to fiscally support such additions. the gardens are an expensive undertaking, & an unkempt garden drives people away.

  4. Dear VP, Your posting raises a very good point and one of the dilemmas facing garden owners in wishing to open to the public and attract visitors.

    In recent years The National Trust has, whether one supports this institution or not, set very high standards in the way of visitor facilities to their properties and in doing so have raised expectations amongst the visiting public. It is, I feel, against this background that others are judged.

    Sadly, it appears to be the case that 'just a garden' is an insufficient draw these days whether we like it or not.

    Whilst my favourite garden in Britain was, until very recently, without a tearoom [and actually attracted very few visitors], I can also say that one of my most memorable garden experiences included a large slice of chocolate cake and a pot of tea. If garden owners want or need visitor numbers to offset high maintenance costs, then I believe that a tearoom is probably a necessity.

  5. As someone relying on public transport, there are two essentials anywhere I go -- toilets and a cafe. Typically I end up walking for a good part of the day, and it really is difficult to enjoy a visit without a place to sit and have a proper rest. My definition of a proper rest includes a hot drink and something to eat! I'd like to feel that people who run these gardens understand the needs of their visitors (and not just the ones with cars).

    I also have several elderly neighbours who are unable to walk very far. One neighbour likes to "park" her husband in a garden cafe while she has a walk round. I'd like to think they're both welcome at these gardens as well.

  6. If you have a cafe, you can use some of the garden produce in it -

  7. Love the Courts, and reasonably disabled friendly for poor walkers like me. I'm all for a good cafe. Tea and cake definately works in a lovely garden for me.

  8. A good garden is significantly improved with good refreshments, particularly for the die hard gardeners who are likely to have spent a considerable amount of time wandering through the shrubbery.

    I love to sit on the lawn at The Courts with a coffee ice cream during my summer visits, it completes the afternoon out for me.

    What I do object to though is having to take out a small bank loan to be able to afford the refreshments. I took a trip to RHS Wisley for the first time last Friday. I did not manage to get any lunch before I went and had intended to get some there. After a couple of hours in the grounds I was feeling very hungry. I made my way to the coffee shop to discover that the only sandwiches they had left were sausage mayo and they wanted £3.95 each for them. I refused to pay the best part of £4 for a cold sausage sandwich. I considered a lonely looking piece of shortbread for a minute but at £2.50 I decided against that too.

    After leaving without any lunch I spent 4 hours parked on the M25 and M4 trying to get home. Next time I'll take a packed lunch!

  9. I am in the pro camp too. I like to take quite a while and always get hungry. Sometimes I even use the refuelling stop to give me the energy to go round again. I certainly would never refuse to go to a garden because there wasn't a cafe but it is a very welcome bonus.
    Mind you, I have a serious weakness for cake!

  10. I can only dream of visiting gardens like the ones in England, but if or when I do, I would love the idea of having a place to sit for a coffee. Having facilities seems like a good idea ~ as one ages, it becomes important. (I've discovered this with my parents and my neighbour in spades.)

    If only I lived nearer, I would definitely be attending Malvern Meet. What a fun time you'll all have.

  11. I'm there first and foremost for the garden but if there's a good tea room that's a bonus :) A sit down and refreshments are especially appreciated if it's a large garden.

  12. I'm definately in favor of having refreshment in a garden. The trip to can be long and walking about can be tiring too. But with a break you can enjoy the tour the garden longer. Especially for the elderly who need a break more often.

  13. I am in the pro-tearoom camp, especially if I have traveled some distance.


  14. So - has anyone got any ideas how we might provide teas? We have no building where people could sit out of the rain. No staff. Only open three hours a week + appointments.. Other work to do and garden to try to maintain.Neighbours who complain if we get too much traffic down one track lane..

    Of course it's great to have good tea - surely no question about that - so any suggestions, please?


  15. I'm pro garden cafe too. I can't imagine dozens of people swanning into a cafe and then leaving without bothering to look at the garden. Are people who have coffee and cake not proper gardeners? Some complainers are downright strange at times.
    Besides after a coffee I can tackle the second half of a large garden and the sugary cake provides essential energy :-)
    If Anne's garden has no cover for teas then people will have to do without(as they should). The most basic I had was self service tea and coffee in a little summerhouse - hot water in a insulated jug, tea bags and instant coffee plus biscuits and an honesty box. It very thoughtful - but still required a covered area.

  16. Thanks for your comment on my blog, VP - I've replied there :)

    I've already given my views about the cafe at The Courts ;)

    On the whole I am in favour of cafes in gardens, but I think loos are a lot more important! I am there primarily for the garden, and I certainly wouldn't refuse to go in because there wasn't a cafe, but I might not be able to go in if there weren't a loo!

    We always have a flask and a packed lunch with us wherever we go because of my allergies, but if there is a cafe we generally stop there for tea, and if possible cake, as well (we often have our sandwiches in the car before going in, walk round the garden, and then head for the cafe once the lunch crowds have left).

    I don't think cafes need to be particularly luxurious to be worth visiting though. In fact, the Courts cafe is a good example of a posh one which really isn't! I do like the cafes at places like Ryton organic garden, which make a big effort to sell quality cakes made from home-grown produce - but I've also been pleased, when visiting a garden, to find the self-service summerhouse type of thing Easygardener mentions (The Dingle, which is one of my favourite gardens, has just such an arrangement, with bottles of organic fruit juice and packets of biscuits as well as tea and coffee), and in that sort of situation I'm happy to take my drink out to sit on a bench in the garden or wander with it round the plant sales.

  17. I think the lady complaining is an elitist, akin to those Americans who bought houses on lots carved out of cornfields who complain about new housing developments destroying the rural character of the area. (I just want to slap these kind of people.) If the concern is about the gardens being damaged by too much foot traffic, the solution there is to sell a limited number of tickets each day.
    I think a cafe is a boon at a large garden, allowing people to spend more time there, rather than cut the visit short because of hunger pangs, or worse, bring their own & make a picnic on a garden bench.

  18. Well, here it is March and I don't know if anyone is going to re-visit this post but me, but I've been continuing to mull this question.

    Anne Wareham wanted to know how to offer tea with their limitations. I did have this thought: Perhaps instead of offering the covered facilities and the tea itself, maybe there is a way to encourage more picnicking at the garden? Encourage a tradition of "bringing your own" to flower. It might even start a trend...

    I'm thinking of the Sanat Fe Opera, which does not serve refreshments, but it has become quite the tradition for people to arrive early in the evening, well before the show, and bring a picnic supper. There are the requisite tables, of course, but not much else that is provided. Still, the tradition seems to have bloomed. Perhaps you could host specific "picnic days" to start it off?

    Anyway, don't know if you'll ever see this comment, but I kept thinking about the plight of your little garden and wanted to respond.

  19. Hi everyone - thanks so much for your comments. This generated a heap of debate on Twitter and also over at Gardeners' Click.

    The conclusion for Anne's garden was to feature the picnic facilities more prominently in her advertising.

    Overall the consensus was cafes are a good thing as they allow a more diverse set of people to come to the garden and also means that for couples where one of them's not such a keen gardener, there is something for them to do whilst the gardener happily goes off to explore.

    Some of you questioned the original comment from the lady in the audience. I think she really wanted a quiet, peaceful garden to visit. At the time the HG mentioned that she was pretty flexible re opening, so it was worth popping along of an evening in the summer or to get a small group of people together to go out of hours. The garden's also opened much earlier than usual this year (see subsequent post) and it's been a real treat to see the garden at a different time of the year than what's usually on offer. It shows that with some flexibiity and imagination from both gardener and visitor, a diverse range of visitors (and visits) can be made to feel welcome.

    The HG also went on to say that she wants people to feel really engaged with the garden - critique it, enjoy it, really be there. For her the worst kind of visitor was one who said the garden was OK or just spent 5 minutes there.


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