“Afternoon tea should be provided, fresh supplies, with thin bread-and-butter, fancy pastries, cakes, etc., being brought in as other guests arrive.” ~ Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management
Several years ago, when I was still toiling away every working day in an office, chained to a desk and a telephone by a headset cord and staring at a computer screen with dry, unblinking eyes, I was delighted to learn that the office space next door to ours was being turned into a tea room. My co-workers and I were filled with delighted anticipation at the thought of a peaceful haven of tranquillity at such close proximity, a place where we could retreat for a quiet lunch hour on hectic days. We watched with unveiled curiosity as work crews appeared and began ripping out carpet and cabinets. We peeked through the darkened windows, trying to catch a glimpse of the mysterious remodelling job going on. Tempers grew short for a time as the cacophony of hammering and sawing drowned out our attempts to maintain modulated, professional speaking tones; and for several days after the wood floors were varnished we staggered around dramatically, throwing open windows and doors and claiming that the noxious vapours drifting through the heating and cooling systems were killing off vital brain cells.
Americans like to dress up
when they go to tea…
Finally came the day when the din of the contractors ended and peace and quiet once again reigned. New sounds could be heard in place of the old. Amplified by the newly varnished wood floor, we could hear footsteps moving back and forth, chairs being slid, furniture being arranged. Then came the day when instead of being assaulted by the smell of noxious floor varnish we were tantalized by a whiff of something warm and delicious. Someone was baking in the new kitchen next door, and the scents that wafted through the office vents caused a collective growl from all of our stomachs and a stampede for the break room in a desperate search for something – anything – to assuage our sudden desperate hunger for cake.
When the tea room finally opened my mother and I eagerly met there with some friends to share an elegant afternoon tea, happy that at last our small town had something approximating the tea rooms we had fallen in love with in England and Australia. The first impression lived up to our hopes. The boring office had been transformed into a Victorian parlour, with antique tables and chairs, luxurious fabrics, and a small corner area selling tea-themed gifts and cards. Fancy hats were available on a hat stand for people who wanted to get well and truly into the afternoon tea spirit.
British people may not realize this, but a lot of Americans like to dress up and wear ornate, old-fashioned hats when they go to tea. I don’t know why, but we do. In order to satisfy this compulsion many tea rooms in the US will provide fancy hats for those who forget to bring their own.
I am sorry to have to say that after all the weeks of anticipation our hopes were dashed as soon as our afternoon tea was brought to the table. The sandwiches were tiny, and consisted of flavoured cream cheese and a thin slice of deli meat. The scones were button sized. The cream came out of a jar. The cheese, crackers and fruit promised on the menu were a couple of Triscuits with a small slice of cheese on them, and a tiny cluster of grapes. On the bright side, there was a good selection of teas to choose from, and it was served in individual pots, but it could not make up for the stingy, warmed-over offerings of predominately store-bought convenience food. We were sadly disappointed.
Our dreams of a pleasant, British style tea room on our doorstep turned to dust, and we resolved never to darken their door again. Better to make a proper tea at home than waste our money on such lacklustre fare.
Is it any wonder, then, that when friends from the US come for a visit they will often ask me to take them someplace where they can have an authentic afternoon tea? There are some excellent tea rooms in the US, but unfortunately, not where I used to live. After the sad, uninspired offerings available back in my old home town I know exactly where to take visitors to give them the experience they are hoping for: The Bridge Tea Rooms in Bradford-on-Avon.
Bradford-on-Avon is a pretty Cotswold town of golden stone buildings just a short, 15-minute rail journey from Bath. The River Avon flows through the centre of town, as does the Kennet and Avon Canal, both with pleasant walking trails alongside them affording scenic views of this beautiful valley. Situated by the oft-photographed Town Bridge spanning the Avon, in a building dating back to 1502, is The Bridge Tea Rooms. The Bridge Tea Rooms has won numerous awards and accolades, topmost among them the honour of being called ‘near perfect’ and awarded the UK’s Top Tea Place by the UK Tea Guild.
I first visited the tea room with Mr. H on a chilly February day. Drifts of snowdrops were blooming along the roads and waterways, giving the appearance of spring, but the temperature was still wintry. As we ducked through the low doorway and stepped down inside it was like stepping into the past. We were greeted by the warming glow of a wood fire. Thick, rough stone walls, low beamed ceilings, and tables clothed in white intensified the cosy appeal. The ambience drew us in, cosseted us, and made us want to settle down for a long stay. Peaceful classical music provided a backdrop to the happy hum of conversation. All the tables on the ground floor were full of smiling, chattering people, but after a brief wait we were led up a narrow staircase to an equally quaint and comfortable room upstairs.
The waitresses were all wearing Victorian costumes of long, ruffled white aprons over simple black dresses, and ours looked like she had stepped out of a book. With her old-fashioned costume and her pixie face she looked like Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden – the happy Mary at the end of the book, not the miserable Mary at the beginning.
While we waited for the cream teas to arrive I surreptitiously eyed the orders being brought to our neighbouring tables. Some people had opted for the full afternoon tea, others had upgraded to the fancy tea with champagne. The tiered serving trays being brought to the tables were loaded with mouth-watering delicacies. The cakes and sandwiches were all generously proportioned, beautifully served, and scrumptious. Others were having one of the savoury lunches of soup, jacket potatoes and hearty sandwiches. Our cream tea included two warm scones served with Somerset strawberry jam, black current jam, organic Jersey clotted cream, and our choice of tea from the menu.
The most important aspect of afternoon tea is the tea itself, and The Bridge Tea Rooms gets that right, as well. They serve proper loose leaf tea in individual pots, with a silver strainer for pouring it into the china teacups. Mr. H chose Empress of Peking, a medium blend with the aroma of orange blossoms and citrus. I went for the Jane Austen blend, purely and simply for the name. Mr. H’s tea was quite nice, refreshing and light, and it has become one of his favourite afternoon tea choices. My tea had too much of a smoky taste for my liking, I’m afraid, and I have to confess that I ended up drinking more of Mr. H’s tea than my own.
The Bridge Tea Rooms does not have any of the pretension, glitz and glam of high tea at the Empress Hotel in Victoria. What it does have is a perfect blend of cosy, comfortable, quaint and delicious. Small wonder that this is the place I will bring all my American friends and family who come for a visit and say, “Take me someplace for a proper, traditional afternoon tea.” I can guarantee it will not disappoint.
But if they want to wear a silly hat they’ll have to bring their own.
“In nothing more is the English genius for domesticity more notably declared than in the institution of this festival – almost one may call it – of afternoon tea… The mere chink of cups and saucers tunes the mind to happy repose.” ~ George Gissing
If any of you have a favourite tea room where you live I would love to hear about it. Post your comments below. Maybe we can discover some hidden gems.