The Courtyard Café, at Wythenshawe Park, is a tale of community spirit and social enterprise. But first a history tale.
For centuries, the “lords of the manor” in this part of what was North Cheshire were the Tatton family. They were an influential family right across the county and, in 1503, John Tatton was the Sheriff. It was his son, Robert, who decided to make his home at Wythenshawe and build the house which forms the original part of Wythenshawe Hall. It was probably on the site of an older building.
During the Civil War, the Tattons were Royalists and the family at Wythenshawe built defences at the Hall and prepared for an attack by the Parliamentarians. They brought in men from the surrounding area, including three men from my village, some miles away, to assist the defence. In due course, the Roundheads arrived and laid siege from November 1644 until the following February when the defenders surrendered. Casualties were minimal – six defenders and Captain Adams, who was commanding the Roundheads. A statue of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, now stands outside the Hall, having been moved here in the 1980s from near Manchester Cathedral.
The Hall and surrounding countryside remained in the family’s hands for centuries until, in 1926, another Robert Tatton sold the estate to pay debts and death duties. Manchester Council bought most of the Wythenshawe land to build social housing (it’s now home to around 100k people). But the Hall and surrounding parkland was separately purchased by Ernest Simon (later Lord Simon of Wythenshawe). Simon was a successful industrialist and Liberal politician, serving as Manchester’s Lord Mayor and a Member of Parliament in the 1920s. He donated the Hall and parkland to the Council for use, in perpetuity, as an open space for the people. And so it’s remained. As an aside, I sort of knew his wife, Lady Shena Simon. When I left school, aged 16, I started work in the Education Department of the Council. She was a member of the Council’s Education Committee which oversaw our work and would often pass by the office I was in on her way to meetings
Over the years, the Hall had been extended and other “service buildings” erected. At the back of the walled garden, is what is now referred to as the courtyard, with a U-shaped building, almost certainly where the horses and carriages were kept in the 19th century. It’s now home to the eponymous Courtyard Café.
When we came for a walk in the park during the first lockdown, we took a look at the café but it seemed a grubby uninviting sort of place. But there are now new operators and what a turnround there’s been. It’s reaching out to the community. For example, it runs baking classes for kids. Only ingredients need to be paid for, at cost, and the kids get to take home what they’ve made. Then there’s the “free coats” initiative. Think a food bank but for outerwear. Folk are invited to donate coats and jackets. Just bring them in and hang them up on the hooks near the toilets. And , if you need a coat, just go in and take one. No need to ask or anything. And, the reason why we were here today (apart from a walk). They had invited food donations which they will use, next week, for making up lunch boxes for kids who get free school lunches (but it’s a school holiday next week, so no free lunch). We’d called in to the local supermarket and bought a couple of carrier bags worth of stuff to donate.
But this is a food forum, so I must mention our own food. Well, it was too late for breakfast and too early for lunch. So, we just ordered coffee but one of us (yes, that’s me) spotted something that might fill a little corner. A blondie with a Jammy Dodger baked into the top. Inspired. And just sugary deliciousness.