Whatever has happened to that quintessential treasure of Englishness the tea room? Years ago they were in abundance, but now they seem to be on the decline.
In the middle of the 18th century, coffee houses were prevalent, but they faded out as tea became more popular and tea gardens came in. These were real social events, with music, dancing, walks along flowery tree-lined avenues and fireworks in the evenings.
Did you know, apparently the custom of tipping was created through tea gardens. If a guest wanted his waiter to hurry up, he dropped a coin into a small locked wooden box on the table. This box was inscribed with the letters T.I.P.S. which stood for 'To insure prompt service'.
Among the most famous tea gardens, were Vauxhall Gardens, where the Tate gallery now stands, and Ranelagh Gardens, which was in the grounds where the Chelsea Flower show is held. Mozart performed at Ranelagh when he was nine years old. These gardens eventually gave way to tea rooms.
The first tea room emerged in London during Victorian times, when it became fashionable to 'take tea'. The idea quickly caught on; and tea rooms, or tea shops, sprang up all over the country.
Take your pick!
During the second half of the 19th century, afternoon tea became part of Victorian life. Tea parties were a social occasion, when not only could a lady show off her best cups, saucers, jugs, spoons, tongs and napkins, she could also dress up in her tea gown. Many lasting friendships were formed at these gatherings.
By 1900, tea consumption was more than a hundred million kilos a year. All the good hotels started providing light meals to go with tea, and around 1910, with new dance styles such as the Tango coming in, the tea dance was born. They grew in popularity through the 1920s and 1930s in seaside resort dance halls, as well as in London's Covent Garden. They continued right throughout the war, and tea dances are still held in some venues around the country today.
Mouthwatering selection of cakes!
As for tea rooms, there is nothing nicer on a sunny day out, than stopping in one of these quaint old cafes for a delicious cream tea. The anticipation of a cup of the refreshing beverage, and the scone with a little pot of jam and thick clotted cream, is worth waiting for. Or in the winter, a nice warming bowl of home-made soup, and a chunk of fresh bread sets you up nicely, ready for your journey home.
They all seem to have lovely old-fashioned names too, like 'Pollyanna's' 'Lilly Langtree's,' or simply 'Ye Olde Tea Shoppe'.
What do you think constitutes a good tea room? For me, top of the list has to be home made food – none of that pre-packaged, sterile, tasteless stuff thank you! A selection of different teas should be on the list too I suppose, along with a choice of cakes. I'm a sucker for a traditional fruit cake or Victoria sponge, but I've also tried more elaborate flavours such as elderflower and gooseberry, fig and peach.
How can one resist a cake!
We don't see many tea rooms on our travels anymore; maybe it's because we often use motorways, and no longer drive through the villages and market towns, so don't come across them. We should try to take a more leisurely approach to driving, and explore some of those little villages in search of one. They're much nicer to stop in than a motorway service station.
I expect that as with all tourist places, those few tea rooms that are left, get most of their trade in the summer months from visiting holidaymakers, but not a lot in winter. And with the economic climate the way it has been, I suspect many have had to 'shut up shop' permanently.
I think it is a real shame. It's a pity we can't do something to preserve this part of English heritage, and encourage people to frequent these little treasures so that they don't disappear forever.