IT could be the passage of time, which over the course of 2020 somehow became weirdly distorted, but it seems as though the garden centre cafe is a relatively new phenomenon. Not that they have suddenly sprouted during lockdown, but when I was young, I remember garden centres as selling more plants than cakes. We were thrilled enough during childhood visits to Strikes when it was on Boroughbridge Road in Northallerton, to get an iced lolly, never mind the offer of a full Sunday dinner, or 12 different types of coffee.

But then again, maybe the cafes did exist, just our mam was wise enough not to venture in when accompanied by her four children.

Now at the ripe old age of 37 and a half, I love garden centres and I love garden centre cafes. It could be the fact that they almost always have vast car parks, but I tell myself it is down to the much more romantic idea of combining food with the opportunity to delve into untapped horticultural potential – plants to buy and nurture, bulbs for the promise of springtime cheer, and every kind of decorative pot you could need to brighten drab corners.

Thirsk Garden Centre is a favourite, as it's handy for post-hockey match bits and pieces, and often team debriefs over slabs of cake. Strikes, now on Darlington Road, Northallerton, was a common stop-off point for last-minute birthday presents in the days when I used to drive to the office to work (remember offices?!), but my current centre of choice is the slightly more off the beaten track Whitegates Nursery at West Rounton.

Set up more than 50 years ago by the Grainge family with two-acres of greenhouses, it originally operated as a market garden, before focusing on cut flower production, and then more recently, moving solely into plants. Many of the original greenhouses have been replaced with modern polytunnels, and over the last decade, the business has changed from wholesale into retail, and alongside many expansions, the cafe has grown to become one of its main attractions.

When I visited for this review, I was on a Christmas shopping mission, and as my colleague Malcolm Warne noted on this page two weeks ago, a hearty breakfast is essential before launching into present purchasing.

Since Covid, Whitegates has operated a new one-way system through the shop into the cafe, and diners queue, two metres apart before being greeted at the door, details taken for track and trace and being shown to a table. On this occasion, it was a quiet, wild and wet Tuesday morning, with only a few others venturing out – perhaps put off by the weather, or perhaps by the Tier Two rules which prohibit meeting up with members of a different household indoors.

The opportunity to eat out at all when so many people and hospitality businesses are under tighter restrictions seems like an absolute luxury, and with the tiers always seeming imminently moveable, it felt like the right thing to do to choose a full breakfast, albeit the "light bite" version, which gets you a slice of dry cured bacon, a pork sausage, a fried egg, baked beans and brown or white toast for £6.75.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

The Whitegates menu is extensive, with separate breakfast, lunch, afternoon and children's options, plus some seasonal fare, including festive drinks such as a gingerbread latte and Baileys Irish cream hot chocolate. Not quite ready for that level of Christmas, I ordered a pot of tea and a glass of tap water.

The cafe has tastefully rustic decor, and is bright, cheerful and airy, with plenty of greenery so you know you are still in a garden centre, while the outside terrace gives the option to meet in a gathering of up to six with people from other households. The service at Whitegates never falls short of excellent – on a previous visit one of the staff volunteered to get me the recipe they use for their superb tomato soup – and this occasion was no different, even with all the added complications of maintaining Covid security.

My breakfast arrived promptly, and was piping hot, with the bacon crisp, but not too crisp, the sausage packed with pork and the fried egg plenty runny enough. As the name suggests, it was filling, but light, and not greasy at all in the way some versions of a full English can be.

The tea at Whitegates is (glory be) actually served with a proper tea cup, not the type of coffee mug us tea drinkers are so often forced to endure. If there has ever been a scientific study into why tea tastes better from an actual tea cup, I'd be very interested in the results.

The bill, including a takeaway cheese scone for later (shopping is hungry work), came to £11.30. I left, ready to tackle the nearest high street, secure in the knowledge that I was likely to make much better choices on a full stomach, and grateful that garden centre cafes are most definitely here to stay.

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 9 Service 9 Surroundings 8 Value for money 8

Whitegates Nursery

West Rounton,



Cafe opening times: Monday to Saturday 9.30am to 4.30pm, Sunday 10am to 3.30pm

01609 882355