New Year’s Eve to us felt like Christmas Eve. There was no room at the inn.

Like half the county, we’d visited the majesty of High Force, the wetness of the season allowing its waters to plunge in a double drop, cascading either side of its imperious, impervious rocky head.

We’d paid the £3 charge to take the gentle path down to the viewing area on the northern side, along with waves of carloads of others, and we could see high on the south side the silhouettes of the scores of people who had taken the longer walk over the Holwick Head footbridge.

But this meant there was no room for lunch at the High Force Hotel, where trade was roaring just like the fire.

High Force had a double drop on New Years Eve

High Force had a double drop on New Year's Eve

We headed into Middleton-in-Teesdale, where there was a half-hour wait for tables in our usual café, the Tees’Pot, and people were queuing on the Horsemarket pavement to get a table in Samuel James’ café, which has opened fairly recently in a former haberdashery shop.

There used to be a second countrywear and haberdashery shop just a couple of doors down, JE & V Winter, but nowadays there is obviously no dash to buy haber in the dale because it too has gone and has been replaced by another café.

With a nod to the old days, the new café is called Winter’s and it only opened in early December.

We got a table in the window where once had been displayed tough rural shirts and sturdy working shoes.

Horsemarket in Middleton-in-Teesdale on Google StreetView in 2009 when there were two countrywear and haberdashery shops: both are now cafes. Picture: Google StreetView

Horsemarket in Middleton-in-Teesdale on Google StreetView in 2009 when there were two countrywear and haberdashery shops: both are now cafes. Picture: Google StreetView

The menu was presented on a clipboard, and our cutlery was presented to us in an old Tate & Lyle syrup tin, so although it was a new tearoom, it felt very familiar – although it took a long time for the penny to drop.

The clipboard offered all day breakfast, scampi, burger, sandwiches and toasties, while other clipboards on the wall promoted specials, and a display cabinet tempted with cakes at only £3.25 each.

Many of the items, from the vegetable curry to the coleslaw, were prefixed by the word “homemade”.

Petra, my wife, chose the homemade soup of the day – leek and potato (£5.50) – which was thick and excellent and came with a couple of rolls.

Leek and potato soup at Winters in Middleton-in-Teesdale

Leek and potato soup at Winter's in Middleton-in-Teesdale

Theo, our son, had chosen a sausage sandwich with a portion of chips (£9.75), while grandma had gone for the homecooked ham, double fried egg, garden peas and chips (£11.50), and I had the farmer’s platter (£11.50), which featured the homecooked ham, homemade coleslaw, plus cheddar and Wensleydale cheese and a cup of the leek and potato soup.

Homecooked ham, egg and chips at Winters in Middleton-in-Teesdale

Homecooked ham, egg and chips at Winter's in Middleton-in-Teesdale

The homecooked ham was great and tasty – thick slices of it, rather than the wafer-thin curls you get in a supermarket – and the chips were universally praised: thin, hot, golden-crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside.

My platter was a fine compilation: plenty of ham and cheese, plus pickle and chutney, a little salad, a bread roll and a good homemade coleslaw that was crunchy and creamy. And the hot cup of soup.

I’d never encountered a hot soup on a cold rural labourer’s lunch before. I’m not one to question a dairyman’s diet, but they’ve been dining in the fields on cheese, bread, butter and beer for centuries. The term “ploughman’s lunch”, though, is a 1950s invention by the Cheese Bureau to promote cheese sales in pubs, and the ingredients have been open to interpretation ever since: pickled onions or eggs were an early addition, pork pie and ham were obvious enhancements, but soup is not usually mentioned.

However, as the Thermos flask was invented in Germany in the 1890s and went into mass-production in America before the First World War, it is perfectly plausible that an early adopting ploughhand authentically augmented his lunch with some hot soup.

And on a dreich December day in Teesdale, it was very welcome.

The Farmers Platter at Winters in Middleton-in-Teesdale

The Farmer's Platter at Winter's in Middleton-in-Teesdale

Although all the main courses were large – grandma’s handbag was groaning with the amount of homecooked ham she took home, wrapped in a napkin – Theo and I still investigated the cake counter. Theo chose a huge piece of pecan and toffee flapjack while I had a large chunk of salted caramel and cappuccino cake – it was a little dry on the outside but contained all the flavours and so was good value at £3.25.

It was only as we paid our bill that the penny finally dropped. Penny’s tearoom in Barnard Castle, opposite the Butter Market and reviewed here in 2018, closed in October, driven out by rising energy costs. Penny’s proprietors have moved up the dale to Middleton, where there’s no gas, and opened in the old haberdashery shop – bringing their clipboards, Tate & Lyle syrup tins, and homecooked ham with them.

They’d yet to install a card machine when we barged in on New Year’s Eve, so payment was either bank transfer (hampered by a lack of wifi signal) or cash – fortunately, between the four of us, we managed to scrape together £57.75 in that strange, old fashioned money stuff that is fast going the way of haberdashery.

Just like in Penny’s, there are no pretensions: it is simple, genuine and tasty homecooked food, and on a holiday in upper Teesdale, there clearly is a demand for such places to eat.

Winter’s Tearoom

7, Horsemarket


DL12 0SH

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