When partaking of a piping-hot cup of tea and a crumblingly delicious slice of cake, where better to indulge than in the Cotswolds? Kevin Pilley takes a tour of the region’s finest teashops.
Traditional British teashops are booming and the Cotswolds, acknowledged hub of ye olde afternoon twee, offers some of the country’s most historic places to partake of refreshment. Gloucestershire and Worcestershire are the places for a traditional tiered-cake-stand crawl and there’s a story behind every teapot.
Taking afternoon tea is a very British artform—some would even call it a ritual. There is a definite etiquette to proceedings and, at Aunt Martha’s tearoom in Drybrook, Gloucestershire, there are small tomes on the tables instructing customers on their behaviour: ‘Of paramount importance, one must ensure that your hostess remembers your attendance because of your repartee and not because of the stains you left on the tablecloth.’
It isn’t only the bigger picture that’s of concern at Aunt Martha’s either: ‘First and foremost never hold your teacup with your little finger extended. This is improper. The bottom of the handle should rest on your third finger.’ The card further counsels adding milk first to save the bone china and always taking the cup to the pot, not the pot to the cup. You must stir soundlessly. And never swirl. Or slosh.
When performing such a ritual, setting is everything and the staff at this Forest-of-Dean establishment take their role very seriously indeed. The moment you step through the door, you’re transported back in time to 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and greeted by proprietress Mrs Martha Treherne and her workers in pinafores, petticoats and mop caps. An offering of parlour-made, crustless cucumber sandwiches—quite the status symbol—Welsh rarebit, scones, fruit stacks, sugar-crafted cakes and light viands is accompanied by Saxe-Coburg and Empress of India teas.
‘Aunt Martha’, is, in fact, Ontario-born Nadine Carr, a former dog behaviourist and supplier of bloomers and knee-length pantaloon knickerwear for her waitresses. Inheriting seamstress skills from her grand- mother, Aunt Martha handmakes all her own work clothes. Husband Philip plays the tearoom’s ‘Old Ned’ gardener/handyman character, as well as regular customer ‘Prof Cruikshank’, in this re-created world in which taking tea was the height of fashion.
Much thought has gone into the design of the couple’s establishment—the walls are covered in courting toile and tea is served in blue-willow china—and it’s an immersive experience not just for the clientele, but also for the employees.
‘I hated history at school,’ remembers Mrs Carr. ‘I’m into nuts-and-bolts social history. Each member of staff has a backstory: our treasured maître d’, “Miss Hillary”, we rescued from Burton. Her dear daughter, “Gabriella”, is another waif.’
Hillary Doyles has fond memories of visiting the Snookey Tearooms in Portsmouth as a child and has always waitressed, but not always with the element of escapism: ‘I come into work from modern England and spend the next eight hours in another world and another century.’
Aunt Martha’s (www.auntmartha.co.uk; 01594 824 514)
‘Teashops are museums as much as pubs,’ declares Mark Taylor of Bantam Tea Rooms, opposite the Market Hall in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. Formerly The Guild House, the 1693 Cotswold-stone tearooms were once Grandfather Izod’s Dairy and a butcher’s shop. Named for the Golden Cockerel Hotel opposite, it was renowned in its 1960s heyday for The Bantam Babes waitresses.
‘We particularly enjoy serving overseas visitors who haven’t experienced a cream tea—I let them decide whether to put the jam or cream on first,’ says Carolyn Taylor, who owns the teashop—one of few that also offers accommodation—with husband Mark. ‘We’ve had some unusual requests, such as clotted cream in tea and half an egg scrambled.’
Bantam Tea Rooms (www.bantamtea-rooms.co.uk; 01386 840 386)
Seventeenth-century Tisanes Tea Room on the green at Broadway, Worcestershire, used to be a petrol station—the tanks were removed to create the 36-seat back garden. ‘I’m one letter away from being a scone,’ laughs owner Tracey Sone, who runs the business with her driving-instructor husband, Steve, and previously worked for Whittard of Chelsea as a warehouse manager.
‘We serve coffee and milkshakes, plus staples such as Eccles cakes, Bakewell tarts and caramel slices. The cakes are locally produced, but you can’t beat Warburton’s crumpets. I’m a sucker for our chocolate tiffin, so I play netball for Stratford Comets to burn off the calories.’
Tracey bags her own tea as ‘loose leaf is very nostalgic and emotive. People love using a strainer’. This attention to detail has earned the establishment a solid reputation and celebrity customers include actor Andy Serkis, football manager Roy Hodgson and Slade guitarist Dave Hill.
Tisanes Tea Room (www.tisanes-tearooms.co.uk; 01386 853 296)
Over in the square at Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, Anna Bennett named Lucy’s Tearoom for her sister and the establishment is even more of a family affair. ‘It’s
a hands-on business,’ explains Mrs Bennett. ‘Mum’s the chief kneader and I share the scone-making with auntie Judith.’
She believes that homemade food, friendliness and a natural atmosphere make a good teashop and cheerily demonstrates her giant fireplace tea kettle, which holds 20 cups, but has a word of warning for aspiring cake purveyors. ‘We all suffer from teashop owner’s knee because of the flagstone floors.’
However, it surely must be worth it to spend your days in a building with such great character: dating from the 1600s, there is an ancient cellar with old gravestones for steps.
Lucy’s Tearoom (www.lucystearoomstow.com; 01451 830 000)
This exotic-sounding tart is perfect for afternoon tea.
Rich, unctuous and wickedly good, clotted cream is the pride of the West Country.
These delicious scones from the former Great British Bake Off champion are absolutely delicious and perfectly timed for summer.