IS this the future? Once an Easter bank holiday would have been meant a country walk followed by a retreat to a tea room as soon as the snow flurries started, but this year, at least for the next couple of months, there is no indoor dining.

So we ordered a Raby Castle hamper at £12-a-head, plus £8 each entry into the gardens and deerpark, for a picnic in the walled gardens.

It was booked through an events website, which was a bit of a clunky experience. Two types of hamper were offered, one being vegetarian, but the website didn’t give you the option to book the veggie so I wrote my request in a “dietary requirements” box.

Other people had not been deterred, as Easter Saturday was already full by the time we came to book. Despite a chill forecast, we risked Easter Sunday afternoon – and spent the whole of Easter Sunday morning turning the house upside down to find our picnic blankets. We have two, and after many hours of searching, one was located where it should have been – downstairs in the big cupboard – while the other mysteriously was found upstairs in Theo’s bedroom.

When we arrived at Raby Castle, everyone was there. In front in the queue was a young mum whose daughters were dressed as Easter princesses in flowing ballgowns and rabbit ears. She was sipping a can of Red Bull, and then in front of her was a disorganised man in a lime green jacket and faded salmon pink trousers. His white shirt was too large for his thin neck and so was not buttoned in the conventional style but instead had been elaborately origami’d around his Adam’s apple.

We collected our hamper from the tearoom, which was open for takeaways – sausage rolls and cakes – and hot drinks. The message had got through and the vegetarian one was successfully in our bag.

Buffeted by a strong wind, we wandered into the walled gardens. Just as we entered, a family departed from a long bench on the lawn and we hurried over to claim the prize. It faced south, over the grass, over the wall, over the gatehouse and towards the towers and turrets of the castle, and straight into the warm sun.

Darlington and Stockton Times: The Raby Castle Easter hamper

We looked up, hoping to see the osprey that was reported over the castle last week – but there wasn’t even a buzzard to be seen.

Each hamper was in its own cardboard box. On top was a cardboard tray of four sandwiches, wrapped in cellophane; beneath was a cardboard tray of scones and cakes, wrapped in cellophane.

There was a good chunk of strong Teesdale ham in one sandwich, and another featured a strong piece of oak smoked salmon – it is great to have sandwiches packed with flavour. The cucumber, dill and cream cheese sandwich was a diverting combination of the crunch of a cucumber with the wet smoothness of the cream cheese, and then we came to the free range egg mayo and mustard cress sandwich.

Is there anyone on the planet who would name egg as their favourite sandwich? Is there anyone who really enjoys, looks forward to, has their mouth watering at the prospect of, an egg sandwich?

Theo, our son, immediately rejected his from his box.

The cucumber and egg sandwiches were also on the vegetarian tray, along with a well flavoured cheese sandwich and a chargrilled doorstep of aubergine accompanied by humous – the sandwich makers had not scrimped on their fillings.

On the lower tray was a huge fruit scone with a plastic pot of Cornish clotted cream and a tiny jar of strawberry jam. The scone, if we are truly critical, was a little dry and crumbly, but it contained lots of juicy raisins and, slathered in cream and jam by the accompanying wooden knife, no one complained.

Also on the lower tray was a half-a-strawberry and cream tart, a very nice finger-sized chocolate éclair, and a square of frangipane. The freshness of the half-a-strawberry showed that the hamper was recently made and hadn’t been hanging around since before Good Friday.

It was enough to fill: Theo consumed all of his scone; Petra and I managed half of ours, and grandma took hers home untouched for her tea. I still had a little room to sneak in my first Brymor ice cream of the new season.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Two hampers: the vegetarian on the left and the normal on the right

With the walls protecting us from the worst of the wind, with children happily running around the lawn hunting for Easter eggs, the south-facing bench was pleasant enough to dose off on in the warmth of the sun. However, had we been 24 hours later, in the snow-winds of Easter Monday, with frostbite gnawing at our fingers as we layered up our clotted cream and jam, it would have been a very different story.

And we did create a mountain of rubbish – although, on inspection at home, it was all, apart from the cellophane, recyclable cardboard. Even the hot drinks cartons were completely compostable.

The Raby Castle hamper was a special for Easter – there are some available for this weekend as the school holidays come to an end – but this sort of imaginative response to the pandemic must surely be the future for those visitor attractions which, for the next couple of months at least, still want revenue from their tearooms.

The good news for us is that we have already done the hours of hard preparatory work and located our picnic blankets, even if on this occasion our backsides were saved by a bench.

Raby Castle, Staindrop, DL2 3AH

Phone: 01833-660202


Deerpark, walled garden open 10am to 4pm, with the Stables café open for takeaways. Easter hampers are available this weekend

Food quality: 7

Value for money: 7

Recyclability of packaging: 9

Covid safety: 10 (in the weekend’s winds, the virus didn’t stand a chance)