The South Terrace, Blackwell Grange, Darlington

Tel: 01325-509955


Tables must be pre-booked. No inside dining is available, despite what the weather might throw at the marquee

Food quality: 8

Ambience: 9

Service: 6

Covid-safety: 9

Value for money: 8

IT felt like the first day of the new cricket season. The yellow sun was shining in the blue sky, the green grass had been freshly mown into strips, the white stones on the boundary edge were newly painted brilliant white and a marquee flapped gently in the slight chill breeze.

On the breeze was an air of hope – hope of warmer weather and of better times just around the corner – and of excitement at all the potential that comes with the fresh start, an unblemished scorebook and the first ball of a new season.

It was the first day of life after lockdown, Monday, April 12 – the glorious 12th. Blackwell Grange, on the southern outskirts of Darlington, had painted the stones on the sides of its long driveway, cut its lawns and installed a new marquee, with heaters, on its south-facing terrace.

It was here that we had the first fixture of the new eating outdoors season.

Grandma took up the offer of the hotel’s large blanket and Theo – for whom Monday was the last day of the school Easter holidays – had brought a throw from home. We could have sat in the marquee or directly on the lawn, but we chose to go in the cream and mint green bandstand. It didn’t offer the protection of the marquee, but when the sun shone in, it was beautiful.

We were just out of earshot of the piped music and instead had stereophonic nuthatches on either side of us hammering out their metallic song, and percussion was provided by a woodpecker drumming in a tree.

In the south-facing suntrap, with the elegance of the early 18th Century mansion on one side of us, and the openness of the parkland on the other, it was an idyllic setting.

Until a cloud passed over the sun, when it became quite chill, but at least the app on my phone said there was a zero per cent chance of snow.

For the new venture, the Grange has devised a simple menu: three sandwiches – ham, cheese, salmon, from £5.95; a couple of jackets, from £6.95; four gourmet sandwiches, from £9.95; a couple of pizzas, from £13.25; and six steady main courses – fish and chips, parmo, steak, halloumi burger, from £13.25.

There was also a Sharing Graze Box, for £20, of hams and cheeses and breads to go with the picnic blanket spread on the lawn, but Theo and I decided to share a Munchie Sharing Box, for £30, while grandma opted for a posh fish finger sandwich (£9.95) from the gourmet list.

Service was slow, more than 45 minutes before the food arrived, but the atmosphere was relaxed and this was very much the first session of the first day. Signs were still being sellotaped to doors and staff working out to deal with the kitchen on the other side of the Georgian mansion. Even a slow bowler needs a couple of warm-up deliveries…

And, when it arrived, the Munchie Sharing Box nearly bowled us over. It was the first one the kitchen had prepared, and it was gargantuan: a pizza, a burger, a parmo and a bowl of chunky chips loaded with cheese and bacon.

We faced the pizza first. We could have had a goats cheese pizza but instead opted for the hot and spicy, with pepperoni, chorizo, peppers, red onions and jalapenos. It was superb. Its rich tomatoey sauce was generously packed with the vegetables and sausages, all sitting on an “artisan flatbread” and topped by a layer of mozzarella. The jalapenos give it a bullish touch of heat, which Theo avoided, but he adored the rest of it.

The more delicate flavours of the parmo struggled in the pizza’s shadow. It was a nice thin escalope of white chicken, traditionally topped in bechamel and cheese, enlivened by a good garlic mayonnaise. The parmo is much maligned as food for a Teesside drunk on his homeward stagger but it can be quite a delicate, well balanced dish, like this.

And then we moved on to the classic burger: two patties served with cheese plus powerful red onion, crunchy lettuce and discs of moist tomato.

“Beautiful,” said Theo, and I realised it was the only word that had passed his lips while the food was going the other way.

Grandma enjoyed her goujons of fresh white cod, although she noted that there was too much batter, too much bread and too many French fries – a Monday lunchtime isn’t her usual dining time.

But she enjoyed the experience, going out to bat in the sun, with the park rolling away from the hah-hah, a crow patrolling the outfield and a couple of wagtails, all Randallesque movements – a fidgety flick here, a bend and bounce there – in the covers.

Lockdown has brought us closer to nature through walks. Perhaps the next step is for us to become more continental and embrace outdoor dining. We’d never have chosen to eat in an exposed bandstand on an early April lunchtime, but covered in blankets and warmed by the sun, in this setting, it was a very pleasant experience.

As Theo and I struggled through the last of our cheese-and-bacon topped chips, we knew we had no room for dessert: there was Brownie, cheesecake or ice cream for £5.95 on the menu. So we declared our innings over – it was good to get off the mark and now hopefully a long hot summer of fifties and centuries lies in front of us all.