Sunday 8 February 2015

Tea the Fortieth

Saturday, 15th November 2015 - The Gatehouse, The Old Palace, Mayfield, East Sussex

It was now the hour when the fragrance of tea and
the warm, heartening scent of buttered toast
begin to float like a benediction over the English home

Full Moon - P. G. Wodehouse


Tea Takers

Sarah Ryan
Paul Ryan
Olivia Ryan
Kate Taylor


Well, it's about time... What on earth took so long? Tea the Thirty-Ninth took place in August - never has there been so long a gap in the odyssey.  Additionally, this tea took place in November - an entirely different year. What possible reason can there be for this failure to blog?

There might be a number of reasons... The blogging has been delayed and delayed through school busy-ness, illness (minor, snotty but inconvenient) Christmas and more school - and a general feeling that if I had any time it should be spent on work that needed doing rather than the frivolous enjoyment of playing with photographs and waxing self-indulgent about my enjoyment of tea and cake. But I would also admit there has certainly been a barely subconscious resistance to finishing - the thought of the 'last' blog has been a rather melancholy one, and also there is a pressure to make it a good one (don't hold your breath). But as the 8th February, the second anniversary of the beginning of the whole enterprise, loomed it struck me as an auspicious date to post. I do enjoy a significant date.
So let's get on with it - at last!


Choosing the location, the date and the company for Number 40 started to take on a much deeper significance than it should. By far the majority of the teas took place in the first year - at one point I thought we might make them all. Then Paul's fortieth seemed like an option, but in the end I did feel that it was better to have each tea important in itself and not just chalking up the numbers - for once the significant date itself couldn't rule the decision making.

Then to decide where to have it. There are numerous places that didn't make it into the odyssey that I would have liked.  I had a great yearning for Claridges but the time was never right, or I never organised myself to book far enough in advance. At one point I toyed with trying to arrange tea at Cricket St Thomas in memory of the filming of To The Manor Born. Various other Somerset locations appealed - Bruton, the Pump Rooms in Bath, Yeovil - starry birthplace of Olivia. We missed one Betty's, at Harlow Carr gardens in Harrogate. We had a couple of abortive attempts to take tea in Cambridge (but maybe that was the Lord reminding us of where our loyalties lie...) or at The Orchard in Grantchester.  So many other ideas too.

Perhaps another plan has to be hatched.... because there are also many people who I would really have loved to take tea with - some very dear and old friends, not to mention a sibling and sibling-in-law.

It was never realistically going to be a tea that encompassed everything that was missing from the odyssey, and once I accepted that it became much less of an anxiety. In the end what became the over-riding priorities in my mind were that it had to be with my two most loyal tea companions and there needed to be something special about it. Then a message came that gave me the very best reason for tea.

In their great wisdom the University of Melbourne decided to send the remarkable Kate Taylor on a management course in Oxford, and whilst she was in the appropriate hemisphere she suggested gracing us with her presence for a weekend. This was delightful news in any context, but then we realised that tea potential. Tea the Fortieth it is then.

Readers of earlier blog posts may recall that Kate (on that occasion with her boife, Greg) has had the unique role of being an honorary tea taker - this was Tea the Twenty-Third at the Savoy, over a year ago, which was a tea that they very generously gave me as my fortieth birthday present.  Thinking that the many thousands of miles that separated us might prevent actual participation we had a framed photo of them with us on that occasion.  I wrote then about what a very fine and special friend Kate is, and so it was extremely joyous that this unlooked for opportunity now arose.

It was very fabulios to see Kate and we had a lovely weekend. She was able to come to hear Olivia's school chamber choir singing the Faure Requiem, must to Miss Ryan's delight. Then on Saturday sampled the cultural opportunities of East Sussex with a trip to Ditchling and its excellent Museum of Art and Craft, via the retail excitements of Brighton, before heading home to light the fire, put the scones on to bake and to prepare enjoy the delights of tea.



With Kate coming to stay with us here at school, it became apparent to there was a very obvious and significant tea location too. Home. We have lived in Mayfield now for four years, and due to our love of York and the joy of going back to Emerald Street in the holidays, we are mostly only here in term time, when life is pretty much immersed in school activity. However, this very much is our family base, and we have a lovely flat, where we as a family we have lived through very important years. Olivia came here, aged 8, still very much a little girl, and now aged very nearly twelve and what seems like several feet taller, she is moving on with great excitement to her growing up.

St Leonards-Mayfield, the school where I work, and the Ryan family resides, comprises central buildings which were originally a pre reformation summer palace of the Archbishops of Canterbury, parts of which date back to the 13th Century.  Lived in and visited by the great and the good from medieval times to the Tudors, it is thought that St Thomas More and Erasmus may both have visited (one source suggests More may have held heretic courts here). Post-reformation, the Old Palace came into the hands of Thomas Gresham the financier who created the stock exchange. Romantic legends suggesting Elizabeth I visited him here are enjoyed by some of the more fanciful historians on the staff.  The place fell into ruin over the centuries and eventually became a picturesque site for Nineteenth Century trippers, including one Princess Victoria, who left her riding crop behind (which remains one of the school's great treasures). Another visitor was a strong-minded and remarkably forward thinking American nun, Mother Cornelia Connelly, who came with a group of girls from her school in St Leonards-on-sea for a picnic amidst the ruins.  A benefactress, the Duchess of Leeds, bought the ruins for her and she then raised the money to restore the buildings, developing the medieval banqueting hall into a remarkable chapel, with the restoration overseen by Edward Pugin (son of the more famous Augustus).

The Gatehouse, in which we have our flat, is a Fourteenth century building with Nineteenth Century extensions at either end. Our part is mostly Victorian and features a large and striking Pugin staircase - sometimes I wish we had a dining room instead of so much space being used up in a glorified ladder, but mostly I just love the staircase itself and find it remarkably pleasing to sweep up and down it at those times when a bit of dramatic emphasis is required.

It is a truly remarkable place to live and also remarkable is the story of Cornelia and her inspiration in founding the order (the Society of the Holy Child Jesus). She was also extraordinary in developing a system of education that was unusually forwarding thinking and emotionally intelligent and empowering for women.


Tea at home also means that you can choose to have whatever you would most like and, for Olivia and I, planning this allowed us to give reign to our basic tea desires.  Crumpets and muffins - perfect for winter tea in front of the fire; Mary Berry's recipe scones (see Tea the Fourth) and home-made jam tarts (complete with home-made jam). Fairy cakes and chocolate brownies were also augmented by a very swanky selection of Fortnum and Mason biscuits which Ms T presented to us.

Another pleasure of domestic tea was the inclusion of familiar and story laden objects, from randomly acquired and eclectic crockery and implements, to the room swamping sofa (fabric named Elgar) that we bought when we lived in school accommodation with much more space. The latter is an ark of comfort when arriving home after a manic day of school and it could take up the whole room but would still be our furniture priority. The tray we used was one I bought in a kitchen shop in Leeds in 1992 to take with me to college - I'm glad to remember that even at nineteen I thought a vaguely Edwardian looking tray would be useful in life.

It was nice for the wedding gift butter pl├Ątti to make an appearance - I know Bronwyn will be especially pleased....

The joys of the fire (have I mentioned that yet?...); obligatory tea-pouring photos; posed eating; these are a few of my favourite tea things.


Fortieth Tea - Fortieth Year


Style was taken very seriously:

Kate: glamorous in Vivienne Westwood

Paul: heritage-minded in tweed waistcoat

Olivia: slightly surreal in Sainsbury's hosiery

It was an afternoon tea typical of all the fabulous things of the odyssey -  scones and cream, crumpets and cake, clinking china, roaring fire, entertaining people, and then the day ended with port and board games - leisure at its finest.


So here we are; the fortieth tea draws to a close and the great experience is complete. It was the most entertaining birthday celebration and absolutely fabulous way to spend time with people I love and care about, to catch up with people I don't see often enough, to reconnect with people after long years.

Ninety-two tea takers, over six countries, ten counties, three capital cities, one bailiwick; from windswept Northern islands to the Mediterranean; from stately homes to suburban terraces, from the grandest hotels to tiny cafes; historical curiosities, personal memories and a lot of fun. Thank you everyone. Right, time for a cup of tea, I think...



Tuesday 15 July 2014

Tea the Thirty-Ninth

Epicures drink it for want of an appetite; bon vivants, to remove 
the effects of a surfeit of wine; gluttons, as a remedy for indigestion;
 politicians, for the vertigo; doctors, for drowsiness; prudes, for the vapors; 
wits, for the spleen; and beaux to improve their complexions.
Arthur Gray - The Little Tea Book

Peacock Alley, The Caledonian Hotel, Edinburgh - Friday 11th July, 2014


Tea Takers

Sarah Ryan
Paul Ryan
Olivia Ryan
Bronwyn Henderson
Philip Henderson
Agnes Henderson


Summer holidays having finally arrived we headed Northwards for a wonderful week on Lindisfarne with the Hendersons. Inspired by our day trip at Easter (Tea the Thirty-Sixth) we had little difficulty in persuading them to join us for a longer stay and with a cottage rented in the centre of the village we mostly enjoyed time on the island and in its immediate surroundings.

However, at the end of the week we made a more intrepid journey up the coast and into Scotland for a trip to Edinburgh. This seemed an excellent opportunity to add another country to the odyssey in excellent company.  A little research found significant recommendations for The Caledonian (now officially the Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh) but particularly in its favour was the fact that tea is taken in a part of the hotel called Peacock Alley.  Given my great liking for the peacock (as a bird and as a design feature) the combination of this with tea was clearly irresistible.


It turned out to be a rather longer walk than we had anticipated... We knew that walking from Holyrood Palace to Princes Street was something of a way (a mile, or something similarly royal), but hadn't quite reckoned on The Caledonian being right at the other end of Princes Street on the far side of the castle. It was a warm day and Edinburgh was thronged with tourists and so we were in significant need of refreshment upon arrival. To enter the stylish cool interior of the hotel, and the beautiful airiness of Peacock Alley itself, was a particular joy.

The Caledonian was built in 1903 by the Caledonian Railway Company, and Peacock Alley is actually a glassed in courtyard between buildings and was originally the platform and concourse of the station which the hotel was built to serve, still featuring over it the original station clock.

It is a very attractive space with the wonderful outdoor architectural features of the striking Victorian red sandstone building combined with elegant and comfortable lounge furniture and design. I particularly liked the very fine art deco style light fittings.  Paul and Olivia, through striking up conversation with a member of staff discovered that all Waldorf Astoria hotels have a Peacock Alley and why not, especially if they are as fine as this one.


The tea was excellent - generous, stylish and of a very high quality.  The service was friendly and obliging, and we enjoyed the whole experience enormously from the arrival of pots of tea and glasses of iced water to the ceremonial placing of the cake stands (anticipated from affair as our smily waiter Vasilis carried them over).

They have no qualms about shop-bought jam here...

The sandwiches were lovely. Olivia was able to have the child's tea, which featured jam sandwiches to her delight, and meant that I was able to enjoy the peanut butter sandwich which she avoided - another first for the odyssey, even at this late stage.

The scones were good (if not the very best) and cream and jam were in generous supply, and the cakes and pastries varied and lovely, and supplemented by a plate of fruit cake and pecan cookies, just in case we were not already amply supplied.

It certainly held its own with many of the best teas in the odyssey and was much more reasonably priced than its London counterparts.


Tea with friends

It was very fine to be taking tea with Bron, Philip and Agnes again, after our last tea outing in Guernsey (Tea the Twenty-Second). They are such very fine tea and holiday companions and very understanding of general Ryan chaos.  It would be fair to say that Agnes is the most changed since our last official tea event - the difference nine months makes when you are only thirteen months old is pretty considerable. 

She is now walking and laughing and generally charming at every turn, and is doing a good job of coming to terms with her god-parents. We all loved having so much time with her last week, but very especially Olivia who was thrilled to be able to help with bathing, pushing push-chairs and generally entertaining. Thank you so much to Bron and Phil for sharing her with us, especially in their precious family holiday time.

It should also be conceded that Bron and Philip, in their own right, were reasonably charming too.

Agnes worked her particular charms very effectively on all the staff - melting hearts and being generally winsome. It turned out that she was more than a little partial to the berries that were decorating the cakes, so, when Bronwyn asked if it might be possible for us to have a few more, she was swiftly supplied with an enormous bowl full - which, to her credit, she worked through very seriously.  Another big tick for the staff and general helpfulness of the hotel.


Thirty-Ninth Tea - Thirty-Ninth Year


As a child I was acutely aware and deeply proud of having Scottish ancestry. Three of my Mum's grandparents came from Scotland and she had still regularly visited family in Edinburgh as a child. In that way that children have, I attached a great deal of significance to this seemingly exotic otherness and  considered this as an important part of my identity (despite the fact that a couple of day trips and short family holidays were as near as I had ever come to living this particular dream). Growing up rather relieved me of all that sense and I had almost forgotten how very attached I used to feel to the place. So I am very pleased that Scotland did just make it into the 40 and additionally to rediscover how much I like Edinburgh. I look forward to more such excursions when we are holidaying in Northern parts again.