My best friends from school live a long way apart, but we always try to meet up for each other's birthdays. This year we picked a weekend in April that was half way between my birthday and one of the others'; but I live in Surrey and she lives in Devon. Rather than toss a coin to decide who got to host and who got to travel for five hours each way, I thought it would be better to meet up half way.
Another friend lives in Andover so we decided to stay the night at her house but not expect her to lay on a party and instead go out. I had the idea of going for afternoon tea but didn't know anywhere around Andover; one of the first places that came up when I searched online was the Esseborne Manor hotel in the village of Hurstbourne Tarrant.
We were a group of eight and were showed into a private sitting room which was lovely as it felt like we were the only people there - until we found that this room was the main route into the garden and people kept walking through!
I was a bit dubious about the old fashioned decor to start with the mismatched chairs and tables but it started to grow on me - if you are a smaller group and its a nice day though I would definitely sit outside.
We were offered a choice of tea or coffee to drink - straightforward and fuss free, unlike the tea menus you get in London hotels. One friend asked for rooibos tea which they had, though another who is vegan asked for soy milk, but they didn't have any. That was a shame as I had asked the hotel if they could cater for a vegan and they did provide her with a very good vegan afternoon tea - just no milk.
We began with a selection of finger sandwiches - ham, smoked salmon, cucumber and beef and horseradish. The vegan selection included mushroom which I have never come across in a sandwich before!
That was followed by a basket of some of the best scones I've ever had, served with jam and cream - I was definitely impressed.
The cake came on a three tier cake stand and wasn't particularly exciting in that it consisted of squares of bake well slice, squares of carrot cake and triangles of chocolate brownie. The vegan had fruit loaf instead of scones, a fruit platter and chocolate brownie.
It may not have been exciting but very enjoyable. The bake well slice was beautifully light, the carrot cake so moist and the brownie was perfect - really squidgy and gooey. One thing I also liked was that for afternoon tea elsewhere you often get a two hour slot as they need the table for the next guests - we were there for three hours and in no way felt rushed; we only left when we did as my friend felt her nine month old could use some fresh air.
We took a stroll around the gardens which are very pretty, and were pleased to find a giant chess set which kept us amused for a while; benches where we took some group photos and a herb garden with paths you could follow around as we tried to identify different herbs (some were labelled and some weren't, leading one friend to declare a particular bush was stinging nettles until another bravely picked a leaf, rubbed it and declared it to be lemon balm!).
The hotel has plenty of parking and is very pretty from the outside; I would highly recommend coming here on a sunny day and sampling the afternoon tea.