The rise of the bike and hike café
- Credit: Simon Voysey
A social hub out in the sticks might seem an odd choice for a business, but what started as a café for cyclists has evolved into a destination for a whole community enjoying the outdoors.
'With a focus on cycling and healthy living, we've been a lifeline for many of our customers during the pandemic.' So says Simon Voysey, co-founder of Musette Café in the picturesque village of Aldbury, amid the hills and woods of the National Trust Ashridge Estate.
The venture, founded as a cycling destination in 2018, has evolved into much more than a welcome pit stop for thirsty bikers.
'I’m an avid cyclist and love everything about cycling,' Simon explains. 'It started when I was bought a road bike when I was 10 and I cycled to school six miles away every day. My sister and I rode everywhere on our bikes when we were younger.'
When he moved to Berkhamsted six years ago, Simon set up Berkhamsted Cycling Club, now a thriving group of more than 200 members, which he jokingly describes as a 'drinking club with a cycling problem'. When asked by a friend to jointly set up a cycling café in a barn on Church Farm, Simon jumped at the chance.
'We used to ride around the area together and found there was a gap in the market for a cycling café. There were a few raised eyebrows when we decided on this site because it’s tucked away and off the beaten track, but we actively market to specific audiences - cyclists, walkers and hikers, trail runners, mums with kids, families and the surrounding villages.
Church Farm is a former stable yard for racehorses, so there's lots of outside space.
'Even before the pandemic, we found people were really happy to mill around outside. For mums with babies, for instance, trying to meet other mums by squeezing into a high street coffee shop isn’t ideal. This gives them space. The outside space has made a massive difference for us - it’s been the difference between surviving and not.'
Also key to the café's success is the high standard of its coffee and cake, After much research into suppliers, Simon plumped for independent Kings Langley coffee roasters Campbell & Syme and a talented home baker for the mouth-wateringly good cakes. 'If you don't have good quality coffee and cake, cyclists just won't come,' he says. 'It's make or break on the reputation side.'
Musette Café's offering extends well beyond just refreshments though, with regular art exhibitions, live music, guest speakers, Vietnamese food and a shop selling everything from cycling accessories and snacks to art and ceramics. Many of the products have a unique selling point - an extra special twist. A newly-launched cycling clothing range, for example, is by Tring-based Wearwell - a 1889 company resurrected in 2017 by the grandson of the founder. Another example is an exclusive limited edition run of ceramic mugs with a bluebell pattern by Berkhamsted artist Sunil Pawar, celebrating the stunning annual display in the surrounding woodlands. An exhibition of Pop art by Furmie currently adorns the walls, alongside work by 12 other artists.
'We want to enrich people's cultural lives through collaborations with artists,' Simon explains. 'We try to give people things to talk and think about. It keeps us connected with the community and it keeps people coming back.'
The Vietnamese food is headed up by Tring chef René in Mai's Viet Kitchen - a business within a business. With his mum hailing from Vietnam's capital Hanoi, René cooks the food he grew up with, including Banh Mi - a type of filled baguette - and the noodle soup Pho. 'Fresh and vibrant,' Simon describes it.
Musette Café, which derives its name from the traditional bags used to carry food and replenishments for cyclists on long races, has become a hub for the community says Simon, who has a hospitality background, having previously worked in a series of pubs.
'For a lot of people, this has been their only outlet during the pandemic. It's been a lifeline for some. We feel we have managed to give back to the community in some small way, just by being open. It's a good place to meet people outside, socially distanced, and there's a great atmosphere - buzzing and vibrant. As well as indoor seating, we have a takeaway counter and a sun deck with beautiful views of the Ashridge Estate, so people still nervous about Covid-19 can come and enjoy the atmosphere and be part of it with peace of mind.'
On the pandemic's impact, Simon says: 'It's not been easy on the business, and it hasn't been without its stresses, but we feel like we have weathered the storm and we are very grateful. I'm constantly encouraged by the support we get. It's so rewarding.'
Nine more brilliant bike and hike cafes in Hertfordshire:
Courtyard Café, Ashridge House, Ashridge
Set amid the beautiful architecture of Ashridge House (above), this makes for a grand pitstop on a weekend walk or cycle in the surrounding Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. ashridgehouse.org.uk/the-courtyard-cafe
Emily's Teashop, Whitwell
On a small working farm close to the Chilterns Cycleway, this quaint café is often awash with cyclists and offers homemade cakes, Fairtrade drinks and light lunches. emilysteashop.com
The Garden Gate, Oughton Head Farm, Hitchin
After an invigorating walk on Oughtonhead Common, indulge in a generous slice of homemade cake at this popular garden tearoom. 07969 621223
Wiggington Community Café, Wiggington
This great café is nestled in the idyllic Chiltern Hills, which offer an abundance of walks, rambles, bike and horse riding routes. wiggintonshop.org.uk/the-cafe
Brewery Tearooms, Walkern
An award-winning retreat offering a warm welcome and plenty of homemade treats, beverages and light lunches. There's even a gift shop tucked away at the back. brewerytearooms.co.uk
Hitchin Lavender, Ickleford
Take a stroll through the breathtakingly beautiful lavender fields before heading to the converted barn for refreshments. hitchinlavender.com
The Bull Pen, Battlers Green Farm, Battlers Green
Traditional tearoom ambiance and rustic charm make this a popular choice. thebullpenrestaurant.co.uk
The Potting Shed, Sandridge
In a converted barn with views over open countryside, relax and enjoy a well-earned drink and slice of cake after a walk in Heartwood Forest. pottingshedcafe.com
The Hub Coffee and Cyclists' Refuge, Redbourn
In a building dating to the 17th century, the atmosphere is warm, snug and friendly. hubcoffeebikes.com