WE’D been up the dale to traipse along an old railway line. I tried to enthuse my party with the fascinating fact that it is almost 150 years to the day since the Tees Valley Railway opened.

Then I tried to entertain them by tumbling into a brick-lined tunnel that still to this day channels a crystal clear stream beneath the trackbed. And finally my excitement overflowed when we discovered four strange octagonal stones embedded in the dead centre of the track – whatever could they have been for?

But it was no use. It was a damp, chill Teesdale January Sunday, with a wicked wind. Faint rays of setting sunlight caught on the distant daleside which, I thought, would make an interesting photograph with a grey stone barn in the foreground, but as I stopped to take it, snapping through the prickly twigs to get the perfect clear view, all I could hear were the urgings to hurry on up.

So we returned to Barnard Castle, the capital of the dale, in search of refreshment, and alighted upon Penny’s tearoom in the shadow of the Buttermarket.

Downstairs was full – of adults, kids, buggies and even a well behaved dog – so we went upstairs, tripping over near the top, even though someone has written “big step” in big letters on the carpet so there was no excuse.

The big step is because this is an elderly building, and the upstairs is full of an ancient charm. There’s a light front room overlooking the Buttermarket so you can see the latest damage inflicted on it by passing lorries, but we opted for the intriguing panelled rear room, with a low ceiling, lost fireplaces, comfy sofa and ridiculously tiny cupboard.

A note on the door lists all of Penny’s local suppliers – even the cooking oil comes from Kirkby Stephen – and the menu offered items like “Peat’s Bangers, mash, onion gravy and peas” with the sausages made by the butcher up the road.

Penny’s is a tearoom, so it does sandwiches, paninis, baked potatoes, rolls and omelettes – the height of sophistication is a fish finger baguette, which very nearly tempted my wife, Petra.

However, her eye returned to the main meals section of the menu, and she chose the “homemade fishcakes with chips and salad” (£8.50), while I opted for the “homecooked ham with egg and chips” (£7.95) while young Theo opted for a cheese sandwich (£4.95) with a bowlful of chips (£2.75).

Fortunately, as we’d ordered a gallon of deep fried potatoes between us, the chips were excellent: golden brown on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside, and piping hot.

Petra’s “homemade fishcakes” were good and fishy – not bland and potatoey – and came with a teacupful of fresh salad and a shotglassful of tartare sauce, which was also probably homemade.

My “homecooked ham” was genuinely homecooked and huge in size. Two cleanly fried eggs with runny rich yolks complimented it, as did a little mustard which came out of a devilishly-difficult-to-open sachet and so was neither homemade nor homecooked.

When Theo decided he didn’t like the coleslaw that came with his sandwich, I hoovered that up as well. It was a good coleslaw, creamy and crunchy, undoubtedly homemade, and it nicely completed a large course.

Penny’s does sell hot puddings, but as it is a tearoom we tried out the cakes (£2.50 each). Petra had a good carrot cake with nice frosting, Theo zoomed through his flapjack, although I found my pecan toffee flapjack mightily substantial – the half that I ate rattled round my stomach on the journey home just as the half I didn’t eat, but took for later, rattled around Petra’s handbag.

Our bill for three drinks, three main meals and three pieces of cake came to £39.35.

Penny’s is a tearoom. With the cutlery served in old Tate & Lyle syrup tins, it can be said to do exactly what it says on the tin. The food is not flash and fancy, but it is reliable, dependable and homely, and the young staff were pleasant and attentive.

The meal was the highlight of our day out, although I would still be very excited to learn why those octagonal stones were dug deep into the middle of the isolated Tees Valley railway trackbed all those years ago.


Penny’s, 4 Market Place, Barnard Castle, DL12 8ND

Tel: 01388 637634

Ratings (out of ten): Surroundings 7, Food quality 7, Service 7, Value for money 8