- Created on Thursday, 17 April 2014 10:07
- Written by Christine Beech
CEF Level B2
Nothing could be more British than a nice cup of tea in a tea room..... could it?
I pondered this as I contemplated the scenic Warwick tea rooms , within spitting distance of the historic castle. Outside the street was cobbled and the cottages built in the traditional black and white style of the Warwickshire countryside, inside was all beams and bone china... and the chatter was all in Chinese.
Why were there only tourists in the tea room? Surely the good people of Warwick enjoy a cuppa as much as everyone else? Certainly no native Brits were to be seen- and in most towns teas rooms just don't exist any more either, going the same way as Steak Houses and Internet cafes- out of our everyday lives. This isn't really surprising, as no-one under the age of 70 would be seen dead in a tea room...
When Catherine of Braganza from Portugal introduced tea drinking to the court of Charles 11 in the 17th Century, few could have imagined the pain and the pleasure it would bring over the ensuing centuries. At first a drink enjoyed by the aristocracy, tea was prohibitively expensive and a luxury to be indulged in on special occasions. Wealthy men met to discuss business in London Coffee Houses, where tea became a popular offering, despite the fact that it was brewed only in the morning and re-heated to be served. The reason it was all brewed in one go was that the commodity was heavily taxed in its liquid state. Soon the coffee houses began to sell tea leaves as well, so the men could take it home for their wives.
Whilst men drank tea in the Coffee Houses, their wives started to brew up at home, and invited their friends around for tea parties, which became a fashionable part of the social scene for the well-to-do. As well as being an opportunity for women to chat and network, society ladies also had the satisfaction of showing off their wealth and knowing the working classes couldn't afford to do the same.
By the 18th Century everyone wanted to get in on the act, and demand for tea rose across the social spectrum. Like anything where demand outstrips supply, soon smugglers were bringing in tea from the continent to avoid the heavy taxes and tea became part of everyday life. So much tea was smuggled, in that in 1785 the tax was slashed and Britain's love affair with the brew really took off. Arguments ensued as to the wisdom of letting 'persons of inferior rank and mean abilities' ( Hanway 1785) drink the infusion, with debates as to whether it could be 'injurious to health'. Interestingly, the upper classes had no problem with drinking it themselves, they just didn't want the masses to join in!
Debates raged on into the 19th Century when the church concluded tea was generally a good thing, mostly because it was better than gin, and that tea rooms and coffee houses were more acceptable venues for the lower orders than pubs. Tea was often served after church services and generally boosted morale in times of trouble.
And so to the Warwick tea rooms- why no locals? Simply because the coffee house is back big-time. Tea rooms may be an endangered species, but Britain is back in love with the coffee house, turning the clock back full-circle to the 17th Century. Our forefathers would recognise the offerings of coffee and tea, the place to chat, the meeting house for the business discussion, the convivial atmosphere. However, they might be perturbed by the women and the wi-fi....
So if you're looking for tea-room on your next visit to the UK, don't bother- just head to a Costa, Cafe Nero or a Starbucks cafe instead ... and don't forget to order a nice cup of tea.
to ponder- to contemplate- to think about
a cuppa- colloquial British English- a cup of tea
to indulge in- to enjoy as a treat
to brew up- make tea, as in ' let's have a brew'
smugglers- people who bring goods into a country illegally to avoid tax
the masses- the common people
convivial- sociable, lively
to perturb- to disturb, to trouble