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
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 plätti 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
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...