A COLD, grey Saturday lunchtime, with a light, chill rain falling softly. A crowd has gathered in a lay-by on the edge of Darlington. Bubbles of people in twos, threes and fours are sensibly queuing without spitting distance beneath the trees, 25 or more of them in total.

Several people have woolly hats pulled down against the weather, but a brave couple are wearing shorts. There are cyclists in their helmets, joggers in their dayglo, workmen in their white vans and a family with five dogs – I was going to add “in tow” but the dogs are actually towing the little family members all over the grass verge.

Cars pull into the layby to see why the queues exist. “It’s worth waiting for,” shouts one of the queuers at a driver.

For most food-related establishments, lockdown has been disastrous. But for Harvey’s, it has been “tremendous”. They used to cater at events, but when there were no events, they stationed themselves in a dogwalkers’ favourite layby, beside the Baydale Beck pub, and, with classic 1970s hits like Hotel California pumping out, have become an event in themselves.

Tragically, traditional pubs are closing down, but it has been fascinating watching Harvey’s grow. Over the course of the summer and autumn, handwritten signs have begun spreading along the A67 advertising their presence, and now as we move into a Tier 3 winter, there’s a professionally painted inn sign swinging from a tree, advertising that they are there from Wednesday to Sunday, from 7.30am to 2pm. Here, in this layby beside the main road to Barnard Castle and a building site, there is no romantic ambience of a sophisticated eaterie people can still, literally, eat out.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

It is just a van with a hot plate serving bacon butties and no pretensions. “Sorry,” says a blackboard leaning on a wheel, “no posh coffees or fancy infusions. Just good old Yorkshire Tea and Nescafe, £1.”

Darlington and Stockton Times:

But in these troubled times, we have to take our dining experiences where we can find them, and Harvey’s is a bit more than just a burger van – it even has a card reader so I could pay by tapping my phone on it.

Although it was lunchtime, I had a full breakfast box (£5). Other countries think they are so sophisticated with their bolognaise and dauphinoise but, on a dank misty Saturday after a soggy muddy bike ride, there is nothing more life affirming than the power of an all-day English breakfast. In my box, I had a layer of beans and mushrooms, and a rather disappointingly mushy round of black pudding, but there was a salt kick of bacon, a rather good homemade sausage and a fried egg which, magnificently, was still runny when I got it home. It oozed into the bean juice to create a yolky marriage that is heaven itself.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Theo had a thin but wide, juicy and not dried, quarter pound homemade steakburger with a layer of cheese on it (£4.50).

We both had a portion of fries (£2), which had a hint of rosemary to them, which we could taste through the dollop of tomato ketchup we’d asked for. Such delicate herbiness was most unexpected and rather nice.

Genevieve had chosen the special: sweet chilli chicken on pitta bread and salad (£6). For a burger van, this was artistically presented on a bed of green leaves with a sprinkling of spring onions over the top. The nicely moist chicken was in a sticky red sweet sauce that didn’t have much of a kick to it but was quite charming nonetheless.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

For vegetarians, the chicken could have been replaced by halloumi, although Genevieve had chosen a portion of halloumi fries (£3). The halloumi was deep fried with the chips until everything was golden, and it pleasantly lifted the overall taste.

Harvey’s specials are becoming the culinary talk of, well, the Coniscliffe layby at least – someone in the queue said they had had an “amazing” kedgeree the other day, and on Sunday, the menu was promising 28 day matured roast beef, and a meat free option of butternut squash curry with coriander and garlic naan bread.

We finished up by choosing a couple of cakes, homemade in Barnard Castle, for £2 each. To be frank, the Bakewell Tart was just about alright – too much cakiness and not enough jam – but the Millionaire’s Shortbread had a lovely gooey layer of toffee, and Theo crunched through his Biscoff Rocky Road in no time.

In these terrible days of tiers, when from the Tees north to the Scottish borders, we are forbidden from dining out in a restaurant, hanging out in a misty layby is as good as it gets.

Harvey’s Food Truck

Baydale Beck layby, the A67, Low Coniscliffe, Darlington

Food quality: 6

Service: 8

Covid-security: 9

Ambience: 4

Value for money: 8