My friend and I planned to have afternoon tea at an historic estate during colder weather. It’s known for its grand mansion, beautiful gardens and tearoom.
The day before, she sent me an email. “The tearoom is open but the online reviews were kind of nasty, which is sad.”
But we had fond memories of tea in the conservatory attached to the mansion.
“How can they mess up tea?” I argued. “Let’s go anyway.”
The estate’s enormous black wrought-iron gates were wide open. A sign pointed the way to the tearoom – not in the conservatory, but a small 2-story house on the grounds.
We pushed the heavy wood front door, but it did not budge.
Hmmm. The sign clearly indicated the tearoom was open.
We knocked. Then knocked again.
Through a glass section of the door, we saw a woman’s face, grimacing with the effort to unlock the door. We almost cheered when she succeeded but settled for thanking her, warmly.
It was colder inside than out.
“But the tea will warm us up,” I said.
“The place is empty.” My friend raised her eyebrows.
“But we have our choice of table!” I said.
We chose one beside the window overlooking the grounds. We kept our coats on.
We admired the view, then the table-setting: crisp white tablecloth, pretty vintage teacups and saucers.
“Would you like some tea?” Our server asked, shivering, despite her thick sweater.
“I’ll have coffee — if you have it, please,” my friend replied. She was taking nothing for granted.
“I’ll have Earl Grey tea, please,” I said. Tearooms always have Earl Grey.
“I don’t think we have Earl Grey”, our server replied. “We only have Tetley.”
Shorthand for orange pekoe, we guessed. But tearoom staff should know that Tetley makes many teas. This was not a good sign.
Our cups were frozen.
“Could you please warm the cups?” my friend asked. “Just some hot water should do it.”
The server removed our cups and disappeared into the kitchen.
Minutes later, she returned with coffee, tea and a teapot. She also brought scones.
“I warmed them up for you,” she said, eager to please. “And I warmed the butter too.”
The scones were indeed warm; the butter was frozen solid.
But by now we knew: we liked her. She was an older lady, maybe close to 80; a volunteer, likely filling in for someone else. Here alone, freezing in this icebox, she clearly didn’t know tea. But she was friendly, polite and trying her best. So would we.
Coffee and tea served, my friend and I were just about to begin sipping, glad for some warmth, when we noticed — coffee was seeping out of her cup. Rapidly.
We grabbed our napkins, sopped and dabbed and wiped. It was no use. My friend rushed to the kitchen.
“She’s knitting,” she whispered when she returned.
“I’ve never seen that before,” the server arrived and said, staring as if the leaking cup was an alien creature.
“No worries,” we said, consoling her.
She returned with the coffee in a different cup, and waited, shivering.
“It’s cold in here,” I commiserated.
“The furnace broke down”, she replied.
Two women and a girl arrived and sat at the next table. The server greeted them warmly and left to fill their orders.
A few minutes later, a loud clatter and men’s voices; the furnace-fixers appeared in the hallway.
Nearly an hour passed before the room warmed. We spent the time sipping, chatting and giggling.
“I wouldn’t trade this for the world,” I told my friend.
“Imagine if we’d gone somewhere else. How could it possibly be more interesting?”
We giggled some more.
A frightened shout came from the next table. One of the women jumped up, shook herself and stared in horror at something on the floor. A long brown bug.
Their unwelcome guest dispatched, the women settled down again. The server brought their order and their chit-chat turned to knitting. The server showed them her blanket; the women oohed and aahed. It was a lovely thick wool, in shades of blue.
Two new customers arrived. The server placed her blanket on a nearby table and hurried off to greet them. It slowly slipped off the table and onto the floor. My friend jumped up to rescue it.
“I seem to remember telling you this place got some bad reviews,” my friend said as we drove away.
“And I said: ‘How can anyone mess up tea?’ I replied. “I think we just found out.”
But what an adventure.