An Older Lady’s Reflections [2013]

Nov 30, 2013

Llewella Jenkins

Judges’ comments: Llewella Jenkins sheds a late-afternoon light on an almost forgotten ceremony. This celebration of a ritual that once helped bind together the world-wide British diaspora derives its charm from an understated certainty that small things matter.

An older lady’s reflections (on an under recognised aspect) regarding the positive heritage of British culture in Australia, by Llewella Jenkins (Queensland)

What is it that has a civilising effect, is quietly reassuring and is quintessentially British? It has to be the traditional afternoon tea! As a young Aussie living in England I remember being a waitress at Fuller’s Tea Shop.

I wore a royal blue long sleeved uniform and a white apron with red polka dots.

It was my first job and I worked after school, at weekends and bank holidays to supplement my pocket money. I can still remember the heavy feeling of a pocket filled with threepenny bits and sixpences, my tips from serving old ladies their tea and cake … toast and cream cakes. It is hard to believe that I am now as old as they were, and with grand-daughters of my own serving fast food in an even faster world.

Sharing afternoon tea gives us an opportunity to socialize, sate hunger, gossip and sort out life’s problems. Through the inheritance of this custom it is also a reminder perhaps, from across the world, of what seems in retrospect, a kinder, slower and more gentle time.

We have either Charles II’s wife. Catherine of Borganza or Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, to thank for introducing afternoon snacks to tide us over until the evening meal. The formal afternoon tea ritual has since remained virtually unchanged since popularised in the 1840’s.

Nowadays it may involve use of the finest flower be-decked china, a three tiered cake stand complete with tasty morsels, silver pot and spoons and a small vase of pretty flowers all set out on a snowy white cloth. The food should start off with small warm savouries, a selection of ribbon sandwiches, scones, jam and clotted cream … then if you have room … bite sized delicious cakes! Tea from a pot and may I suggest an upsize, to a glass of champagne for the indulgent: now that’s a High Tea! A Palm Court string quartet playing discreetly in the background can only enhance a feeling of well-being.

Once, I crossed the world to Brook Street, Mayfair. Believing as I do, that a wicked witch swapped me at birth, I felt obliged to regain my rightful place, however briefly, for just such an experience at Claridges. I’d been shopping at Harrods with my sister, and High Tea seemed an appropriate decadent finale to our overseas trip. So the Teddy I had just bought sat with us in his own chair. I still remember the Art Decor interior, massive marble columns, the black and white chequered floor, the elegance and sheer beauty of our surroundings. Our waitress had noted we were Australian so brought out the pastry chef, creator of the mouthwatering treats. He came from Sydney! Our visit had been spontaneous but I see on the Claridges’ website bookings now must be made months in advance for this experience.

At the other extreme I have also been fortunate enough to travel across the harsh Australian outback where mile after red dusty mile creates a thirst for a different afternoon tea ritual: a smoko ‘bushman style’. (First boil your billy over an open fire, gumleaf optional, throw in a handful of tea leaves then swing it aloft for a couple of rotations.) Sit under the shade of the nearest tree, if you can find one, then watch the sun go down.

Whilst I gain immense aesthetic pleasure from my cup, plate and saucer collection, supplemented by discoveries from op shops and garage sales, I now find I am running out of room to create effective displays. Precious china overflows from the mirror-backed cabinet, trails down the passage on shelves and will soon reach the bathroom. The nearly best drawer in the kitchen stores some use-able pieces that won’t cause me too much distress in the likely event of being accidentally smashed by my heavy handed husband.

I enjoy preparing afternoon tea for my daughters, usually to celebrate their birthday. I have been known to prepare a special treat just for myself as I did to celebrate the Royal Wedding. High Tea for one, in front of the telly, dressed in my nightgown, with pearls and flower corsage. I didn’t want to miss a moment.

These days tea has become quite trendy with shops dedicated to selling hundreds of blends from around the world. I’m even branching out myself with herbal infusions and a newly acquired taste for aromatic and spicy chai. But nothing will ever beat a British cuppa!

© Llewella Jenkins, 2013