Malcolm Warne enjoys booking himself into the festive spirit at Duncans Tearoom, Richmond

THE Christmas tree lights twinkled in the window behind me; tasteful wreaths hung from the walls, a two course turkey lunch was on the specials board for £12.50, and classic seasonal songs filling the air with snatches of well-remembered refrains that are heard only at this time of year.

I settled happily into my corner, and opened my book – no dining companion today, just the life story of “the remarkable Janet Taylor, mistress of science” who hailed from Wolsingham in County Durham.

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On the first page, I learned that in December 1840, the visibility in the thick fog on the Thames was so poor that ships were colliding into each other, so perhaps December 2016 hasn’t been so bad – on my way into Richmond, Skeeby had been smothered by a blanket of greyness although I could still see well enough to avoid being thrown overboard by the village’s notorious speed bumps.

Tempted by the tartiflette on the online menu, I had decided to visit Duncans first floor tearoom just off Richmond market place. Normally, the tearoom opens from Wednesday to Sunday, but in December, they are also doing Tuesdays to sustain Christmas shoppers.

On Tuesday, I was the first to arrive. I was greeted warmly, offered a newspaper and given the wifi code without having to ask for it.

For a tearoom, Duncans’ menu is ambitious. Yes, there are sandwiches, quiches and cakes, but also for lunch is eggs benedict with ham, creamy mustard mushrooms, homemade salmon fishcakes, vegetable tagine, pork and prunes, braised beef and onions…

The wifi enabled me to google “tartiflette” to see if I was still tempted by it despite the stiff competition.

It is from the Savoy region of France where the word for potatoes is “tartifles”. The Duncans’ version promised “sliced potatoes with sautéed onions and garlic, home roasted ham and brie combined with a cream sauce and baked in the oven until bubbling”.

Having ordered the tartiflette (£7.95), opened my book, and the snatches of Jona Lewie and Bing Crosby made me feel quite seasonably jolly.

The next arrivals were not quite so joyful. “All the mystery has gone out of Christmas,” complained one of them, as she took her place at the table beside me. “We used to get the boys to shout up the chimney to Santa and my husband, upstairs, would bellow down – and they believed it.”

“No, not any more,” replied her friend. “All I got was a walnut, a hazel nut, a brazil nut, an orange, an apple…”

She dredged up her list from her memory as if she were a contestant on the Generation Game conveyor belt game.

“…a tangerine, if we had one, a colouring book, some pencils, oh, and a pencil sharpener. I just don’t know what they put in stockings these days.”

One of them had even brought her own teabags just in case Duncans, which boasts 16 speciality teas, didn’t have one to her taste. “You just can’t tell with cafes these days,” she said. I guess she also had a plate of sandwiches in her handbag just in case there was nothing on the menu to her fancy.

The tartiflette would have tickled it. Nicely creamy with just a hint of melted Brie and chunks of more strident ham, it was an excellent combination. It was served with sweetheart cabbage which added a good green crunch to the dish.

Despite the potatoeyness of the tartiflette, I had ordered “a pail of chips” (not cheap at £2.95), just to check them out. I really didn’t need them, but they were really good, irregularly cut chunks of potato.

By now, every table in the Tuesday tearoom was full, and the happy hubbub drowned out the seasonal songs and, unfortunately, the ladies on the next table.

From a fine display of cakes, I ordered a Mississippi mud pie (£3.95) for dessert, and it was a grand mix of chocolate and walnut sitting on a bed of digestive biscuit, although I was glad I opted for a little jug of pouring cream to help lubricate proceedings.

Duncans is a family-run tearoom serving honest, homemade food with an inventive tweak to it. Service was extremely helpful throughout. Tuesday opening is regarded as an experiment which is seems to be working as they were expecting a party of 24 for Afternoon Tea and, when I paid my £13.40 bill, a couple arrived to claim my table.

Such was the distracting conversation of the ladies, I hadn’t got as far with my book as hoped, but Janet Taylor defied her background and gender to become a world-renowned inventor of early Victorian nautical aids.

Duncans is tucked away above Angus Morton’s butcher’s in a lane which is remarkably straight given it is called Finkle Street – perhaps Mrs Taylor’s famed Mariner’s Calculator, the satnav of its day, would help navigate a way to its door.

Duncans Tearoom, Finkle Street, Richmond DL10 4QF

Website: duncanstearoom.co.uk/

December opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 4pm (closed from December 25 to January 11)

Ambience: 3/5

Food quality: 3/5

Service: 4/5

Value for money: 3/5