Steeped in coffee’s heritage


I was so pleased to find myself in the Music Room today, after a problematic, almost comic morning of failed attempts to make it into the city. I heard about Atkinsons when I was at an event at the university well over a year ago, when Ian Steel of J Atkinson & Co spoke about the history and ethos of the company and also brought along some fabulous coffee for us to drink – you can get a sense of how passionate he is about coffee in these articles here and here.

The cafe is housed in an elegant, high ceilinged building with a mezzanine floor and large windows that lightened up the place even on a grey and rainy day like today. Upstairs on the mezzanine was my favourite spot – cosy, with beaten up a beaten up sofa and armchairs that are extremely comfy – perfect if you want to hide away for a few hours. One member of staff says he tries to get a little bit of time up there when he can… When I came in there were two women sitting curled up and relaxed, chatting on the sofa, while a man and woman sat opposite them having what looked like a relaxed work meeting, and another man was sitting working on his laptop at one of the tables.

Reading about the passion that Sue and Ian Steel have for coffee and seeing the care that goes into preparing it here, confirms to me that cafes where it really is all about the coffee are distinctive. Not only in the quiet reverence for making it, but knowing that the quality of the coffee is part of the reason at least for being there – and therefore it’s something everyone shares.

A woman with vibrant red lipstick and nail polish came in and sat on a stool by the window outside. After a while she got out a box containing postcards that looked like a fat Penguin novel – called One Hundred Writers in One Box and started sifting through them. One by one she looked at the picture, checked the name on the back and put them in one of two piles. Among those I recognise are James Joyce, George Orwell, Hunter S Thompson, and Virginia Woolf was the only woman I saw, although I imagine there were more. Now the barista is testing her to see which ones she knows – one pile she said is of those whose books she has read, although she didn’t recognise all of them in their photographs.

In a cafe which has a history of serving tea and coffee in Lancaster that dates back to 1837, it was interesting that this game developed. The coffee part of cafe culture is developing fast, but the postcards flagged up how intertwined the history of cafes and literature are.