Tuesday, June 27, 2023

More Interested in Tea

Anyone who reads much mid 20th century fiction cannot avoid noticing that, as well as the pub, another place of refreshment frequently resorted to by characters is a tea shop, sometimes called a tea house or tea room.

This being England, a ‘tea shop’ is not a shop that sells tea. That would be a tea merchant. A tea shop serves tea. It may also serve coffee, cocoa, cool drinks (what were once known as ‘minerals’), crumpets, muffins, toast, sandwiches and cakes. It might stretch to soups and salads. But not, I think, anything too much more substantial, for then surely it becomes a café. There may be a hazy borderland between the two.

Ideally, the tea should be loose-leaf, the cakes home-made, various and vast, and the crockery either fine china or earthenware with Celtic swirls. Purists maintain that a tea shop, to be a tea shop, must have at least one customer who is an elderly lady wearing a hat and sipping slowly and thoughtfully while watching the rest of the clientele with a beady eye. But we live in an imperfect world and must sometimes accept derogations from such necessities.

They may still be found, but tea shops of this sort are perhaps and alas not quite as in evidence as once they were. I was reminded of this recently when I found a booklet called Rambles in the Chiltern Country, describing 365 miles of rambles in the beautiful Western Chilterns, the Penn Country and the Thames Valley by Hugh E. Page

I have been looking out for books about wanderings in Britain in the interwar period and this seemed distinctly of interest. It was issued originally by the Great Western Railway in 1931 and priced then at one shilling. But the copy I found is a revised edition of 1949 from the much less resonantly-named Railway Executive (Western Region). Mr Page also wrote similar guides to the Cambrian Coast, South Devon, Somerset, East Cornwall, the Wye Valley, Shakespeareland and the Cotswolds, and St Ives (Cornwall). He seems to have got out and about a fair bit.

The author has a sound sense of priorities, for on every walk he tells you where you can get tea, or might be able to get tea. In some cases the wayfarer has barely set off before a tea stop is offered. He notes with approval those towns where there are plenty of tea rooms, and with a slight hint of wariness the places where tea is by no means certain. ‘Meals are available at fairly reasonable intervals’, he assures us on Walk 15, which admittedly does extend to twenty one and a half miles at its fullest stretch (there are shorter options). It is hard to avoid the impression that for Mr Page, or the readers he envisages, a walk is merely an inconvenient interruption between bouts of bun-scoffing and Darjeeling-quaffing.

For example, on Walk 2, from Gerrard’s Cross, we are advised that just beyond the Druid’s Oak in Burnham Beeches ‘will be found Wingrove’s and Macro’s Tea Houses, which will be convenient for lunch if it has not already been partaken’. Five miles further on, we enter Beaconsfield, ‘which has a noticeably broad High Street and some interesting historical and political associations.’ Never mind all that nonsense, though: ‘The rambler, however, will probably at the moment be more interested in tea, which can be obtained at several places in the town’.

To be fair, Mr Page is equally assiduous in noticing inns and pubs, so tea may not be all that is quaffed on his excursions. Indeed, my copy has been annotated by a past rambler with the names of several pubs where no doubt they intended to stop, including the Drover’s at ‘the little village of Southend, about as different from its namesake by the sea as it could possibly be,’ as the guide reassures us. Here, too, tea may be obtained. The annotator has also sketched a windmill on the back of the folding map fixed to the rear endpaper, and from another marginal note I think this must be the one at Turville.

The guide’s gustatory vim is not the only attraction of the booklet. Some of Mr Page’s directions have their enigmatic elements. On a walk near Mapledurham, ‘one is liable to be rather startled at the sight of a curious tall statue up on the right and to look round for hobgoblins. This is not fairyland, however, but only a bit of bygone England left here in the woods.’ It is an ancient statue called ‘The Spirit of the Thames’, possibly marking a manorial meeting place.

On another walk, we are told to ‘take a path on the right, opposite a telephone call box, to what is known as Egypt’. This seems a somewhat ambitious direction, even for one well-nourished by tea and cake, until we gather that Egypt is the name of a hamlet near Burnham, in the parish of Farnham Royal. 

Still, who knows? That call box sounds suspicious. You wonder whether, if you dialled a different number, you would end up in Abyssinia or Tibet, Avalon or Atlantis. It might be a psychic exchange attuned to a celestial topography quite different to any known to the Great Western Railway. Better find somewhere for a fortifying brew and a crumpet or two, just in case.  

(Mark Valentine)


  1. Wonderful and I can't help but notice the freakishly long arms of the gentleman in the cover illustration.

    1. That tree looks a bit sinister too. And I'm not sure about the flowers either. . .

  2. If you want to extend your exploration, you can also visit Formosa in the Thames near Cookham.

  3. I've always assumed that teashops were really all about the pastries, and that people ordered a cup of tea because one does need something to wash down the crumpet, biscuit or cake. It also allows one to linger--and consequently rest up--a while longer before heading back into the outside world. Of course, I speak as a coffee drinker. I admire the fastidiousness of serious tea drinkers but I make a cup at 4 or 4:30 when I'm working by plunking a sachet of Constant Comment into a mug, then adding cold water from the kitchen tap, followed by heating it all in the microwave for two and a half minutes. More often than not, I then forget about the tea until it's cold and black, at which point I reheat it and sip the contents. It may be that I'm not giving tea appreciation a real chance.
    A lovely piece, Mark, as usual.

    1. I fear, Michael, that Jeeves would somewhat deprecate your tea-making technique.

  4. I fear my previous post may have gone astray. Sigh. too late now. But a delightful piece, Mark.

  5. Still quite a lot of tea rooms in England. The trouble is they tend to close at 5 o’clock exactly at the point when you actually want to cup of tea! Hard not to think of the tea room scene in Withnail “we want the finest wines available to humanity.”

  6. Such delightful tea excursions and joyful commentary, thank you all.

  7. In my long experience of visiting tea rooms in England I have found that they generally close at 4.00 p.m. I enjoyed reading Mark's piece, and look forward to a future article from him which attends to the much more complicated matter of the High Tea.

  8. (They drunkenly barge into some tearooms)

    Withnail : [pointing at a table] All right here?

    Waitress : What do you want?

    Withnail : Cake. All right here?

    Waitress : No, we're closing in a minute.

    Withnail : We're leaving in a minute.

    [he sits down and picks up a menu]

    Withnail : We want cake and tea.

    Tea Shop Proprietor : Didn't you hear? She said she'd closed. What do you want in here?

    Withnail : Cake. What's it got to do with you?

    Tea Shop Proprietor : I happen to be the proprietor. Now, would you leave?

    Withnail : Ah! I'm glad you're the proprietor, I was gonna have to have a word with you anyway. We're working on a film up here. Locations, see. We might wanna do a film in here.

    Tea Shop Proprietor : You're drunk.

    Marwood : Just bring out the cakes.

    Withnail : Cake and fine wine.

    Waitress : If you don't leave, we'll call the police.

    Withnail : Balls! We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!

    Tea Shop Proprietor : Miss Blennerhassett, telephone the police.