Stokesay Court is a beautiful, country house with extensive gardens 6 miles outside of Ludlow on edge of the village of Onibury. The house is privately owned by Caroline Magnus who spent over a decade undertaking extensive infrastructure repairs and refurnishing the interiors.
During the summer of 2006, Stokesay Court was used as one of the principal locations for the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s best selling novel, Atonement and has since become a pilgrimage for fans of the film.
In a bid to bring in more visitors to tour the house and gardens, Caroline teamed up with Helen Benbow, a well-known, local chef, to create afternoon teas.
On a gorgeous summer’s day, LGL met up with Helen at Stokesay to chat about her own foodie journey (and yes, we couldn’t resist sampling the lunch too!)
Food and cooking are clearly a big passion and you are a familiar face in the foodie world in Ludlow. Tell us about the journey that led you to Stokesay.
Cooking and food has always played a major role in my life, from a young age, working in pub kitchens, washing dishes and working my way up to being a head chef.
I am self taught and am still constantly learning, I think you have to have a natural passion for food to understand flavours and textures, how they combine to make the perfect dish. A Lot of patience, trial and error and a bit of magic thrown in.
My main area now is baking, which I owe to my Gran, I still use her mixing bowl to make my scones.
In my early 20s, I took a break from cooking to pursue travel, university and various careers around the UK. After returning to Ludlow and having my first child, I gave up my career in television production, and decided to embark upon a lifelong ambition to open up a restaurant, in partnership with Simon King. We opened The French Pantry in 2011 and ran it very successfully for 7 years and gained a great reputation both locally and nationally.
After selling the French Pantry, the next transition was to help open and establish Local to Ludlow HQ in Castle Square, with Tish Docherty. The ethos of the cafe is in the name everything is local (within a 30 mile radius). It is run as a community Interest company, so all the profit goes back into the community, mainly working with local schools, passing on our passion for food and seasonal produce.
Through Local to Ludlow, I was recommended to Stokesay Court, to cater their Afternoon Teas, which are included in the house tours. When Covid came we decided as with every other business, to adapt and came up with the idea of portable Afternoon Teas. I also deliver afternoon teas to people’s houses, and do other catering services.
So this is where my food path has led me to, a long way from a television studio in Birmingham!
There are an amazing number of local producers in the area, how important is it for you to source your ingredients locally?
We are so lucky to live where we do in Ludlow, with so much fresh locally produced food on our doorsteps, we really shouldn’t have to travel at all to purchase our food. If we buy food seasonally then it becomes a treat, something to look forward to, asparagus in April, strawberries in June, food can then become an event.
When creating the Afternoon Tea boxes I was very conscious of using local producers and businesses. Primarily for quality and also to promote the producers themselves. For those visitors coming from afar it helps them to see all the fabulous producers we have in Ludlow and the surrounding areas.
The local businesses i use are:
- Lane Cottage Produce, amazing salad leaves, which really are a summer treat
- Keysells Farm sausage rolls — all handmade with pork from their farm
- Bread from Waltons Bakery, which is vegan too
- Meat from either Francis or Walls, the butchers
- Salad ingredients from farmers at Ludlow Market
- Free range eggs from Linda at Ludlow Market
- Milk and butter from Mawley Oak
- All the cakes are home baked by myself
- The packaging is also purchased from local businesses and is all biodegradable.
What inspired you to start creating afternoon tea boxes and when did you decide to start selling them?
As Stokesay Court is no longer able to be open to the public due to covid restrictions, we decided to make the gardens the focus for visitors. A homemade Afternoon Tea or Lunch in a box means visitors are free to roam the gardens and take their picnic box with them, dine wherever they choose at their own leisure. We also have live cello music which makes for a very soothing background sound in the grounds. We built a Shepherd’s Hut to welcome guests and distribute teas and it is now a permanent feature in the garden landscape.
The teas and the location are the perfect recipe for family reunions, who are your main visitors to the gardens? Do you cater for children too?
The days that we do are popular but we would love to see more people enjoying what Stokesay Court has to offer. It has recently hosted events for Ludlow Fringe, with many locals and visitors attending, many of whom are surprised at its location, having not realised it is here! Close to Ludlow but tucked away in the Shropshire countryside.
It truly is a perfect afternoon out, all you have to do is book tickets and arrive. It has proved to be a perfect setting for family reunions, families who have not seen each other for months, have had emotional get togethers. You can also have a quiet catch up with your friends.
There is so much space for children to run free and games for them to play, quoits, badminton and bowls. I am also currently working on a children’s trail.
The stunning gardens, the incredible house, being serenaded by a cellist, what is your one favourite thing about working at Stokesay?
When you are at Stokesay Court (even when working) you feel like you have escaped the humdrum of the modern day world, It is a peaceful tranquil setting, The gardens are forever changing,
It’s a great place to forget your everyday worries, relax and importantly take some time for yourself.
Helen will be running garden ‘Picnic Lunch in a Box’ and Afternoon Teas on selected dates throughout August.
To find out more about Stokesay Court Gardens and to make a booking, visit their website
To order a boxed tea direct from Helen, call: 07976847299 or visit her on Facebook