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Stepping back to 1897: etiquette and style

Aunt Martha’s time-travel Victorian Tea-rooms Experience in Gloucester

A selection of sweets and sandwiches. Photos: Stuart Abraham

A selection of sweets and sandwiches. Photos: Stuart Abraham

For the rest of the world it is now 2018.

But in a tea shop on the edge of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire it is 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Silver Jubilee. And it will be forever.

Martha with Hilary.Martha with Hilary.

At Aunt Martha’s Tea Room and Restaurant in Brook Cottage, Drybrook, you go back in time to sip Saxe-Coburg and Empress of India teas with scones.

The decor is late Victorian and the staff all wear white gloves and period costume; and speak for an era when “taking your refreshment” and “kind intercourse” was the height of fashion.

And a crustless cucumber sandwich was a status symbol.

The menu is quite specific. It informs patrons what to expect and what is expected of them.

“First and foremost, never hold your teacup with your little finger extended. This is improper, and in most social settings considered rude. The bottom of the handle should rest on your third finger. The fourth and fifth fingers  should curve towards your wrist.”

Afternoon tea is a very British art form; according to the 185-year-old lady who runs the world’s only time-travel tea shop.

Says veteran tea-taking etiquette expert Martha Treherne: “Of paramount importance when taking high tea one must ensure that your hostess remembers your attendance because of your repartee and not because of the stains you left on the tablecloth.”

Greeting her guests, Miss Hilary, the maitre d’, says: “Aunt Martha would like to request that her patrons observe certain elements of dress and decorum. While guests are not expected to be wearing their formal attire, she would request that they are smartly presented. If you have been walking in the woods then please ensure that evidence of this exercise is left at the door.”

The unique tea rooms are run by the Carr family. Says Philip (an ex-Nat West Bank productivity manager aka gardener/handyman Old Ned and tea room regular Professor Cruikshank): “We have tried to recreate the atmosphere of tea rooms which were found across Britain in Victorian times.

Drew Carr is the cake maker: Without love we perish.Drew Carr is the cake maker: Without love we perish.

“We do not profess to be a living museum, but we do try and maintain impeccable manners. We do have a microwave. But use it only to melt chocolate in our icing room. We also have a postcode for Sat Nav use. Although weren’t computers invented in Victorian England; by Mr Babbage?

“For the benefit of her patrons in her emporium, Aunt Martha has invested in further modern world science in the form of Edison incandescent light bulbs.”

Philip’s wife Nadine, a former canine behaviourist, is Aunt Martha, and she is in character from noon to 5pm at weekends and noon to 4pm on weekdays, except Tuesdays. She makes her own clothes.  

“In consultation with my dear cousin Lady Atherton, I have chosen ‘Courting toile’ as the design for the wall-coverings in my tea-rooms, as I believe this embodies all the finer aspects of life and rarefied, civilised society.

“For the china, it had to be blue Willow, satisfactorily portraying that much-needed touch of elegance. Space is not finite. We can take a maximum of 32 select patrons, which I feel is a number that engenders a friendly atmosphere. Naturally, our teas come from across the Empire. Twenty-two are available, including Assam, Oolong and Rooibos,” continued Miss Hilary, peering haughtily over her lorgnette. “As well of some Tisanes.”

The menu helps you ‘practise being proper’

Sensing her callers may not have been conversant, she pursed her lips and her nostrils flared. “Health-giving infusions. Aromatic decoctions. Herbal teas.”

The menu helps you ‘practise being proper’ and has advice on how to eat a scone and use sugar tongs without disgracing your family, as well as how to avoid the embarrassment of ‘sticky fingers’.  

Further educating you in the social graces, the card advises you not to swirl your tea and refrain from drinking from the lemon dish; and counsels you to add your milk last, always take the cup to the pot and not the pot to the cup, stir soundlessly and leave your cutlery at four o’clock.

Sandwiches are cut according to the tea served.Sandwiches are cut according to the tea served.

Miss Gabrielle Doyles, Miss Hilary’s daughter, appeared and gave a curtsy. She waitresses and helps with the sweets. “If you please, custard tarts are very popular around the Commonwealth. And our house savouries commemorate the fourth Earl of Sandwich, the Postmaster General and First Lord of the Admiralty John Montague, who invented the sandwich so his cards wouldn’t get greasy while playing cribbage. A singular gentleman by all accounts.”

She gave a prim smile before continuing: “The set tea menu is inspired by those Aunt Martha holds in high esteem. M’Lady’s Brigadier’s Tea reflects military service in India. The sandwiches are cut with military precision. It concludes with lemon pudding.”

She adjusted her white mop cap and brushed down her pinafore apron. “We further offer Her Ladyship’s High Tea, similar to the Brigadier’s repast excepting that the cucumber sandwiches are cut more daintily; Viscount’s Young Tea reflects his love of gambling which culminates in lovingly moulded jelly or a well-marbled blancmange.

“Our Aristocratic High Tea caters for the dowager duchess within all of us. Cinnamon scones are served with apricot and almond jam and the finest Herefordshire clotted cream.

“Weather permitting, sir, to aid digestion, M’lady also recommends you might like to stroll through our grounds or maybe, weather further permitting, take tea ‘al fresco’, as the Italian would have it.”

The Victoriana includes a rare cherry-stoner. The teapots are not Brown Betty. But the white version. The menu doesn’t feature treacle tart (Scottish cooper Adam Lyle patented his syrup in 1883) or any mincemeat (originally “from the humbles of deer”).

Another cake by Drew Carr.Another cake by Drew Carr.

Nor  any  typical Victorian fare like plum duff, spotted dick, ‘Humbugs’ (boiled sweets), Cabinet or  Chancellor’s pudding, donkey or rice milk, bloaters (herrings), eels, ‘saloop’ (orchid root or saffafras bark broth), calves’ foot jelly, flour soup, soused pig’s face, pressed duck, ‘broxy’ (diseased sheep meat), ‘talmouse’ (cheese-filled pastry),  mock turtle soup, ‘dariol’ (castle cake), crumpets or pikelets.

Although all the bread is homemade by Gloucester-born Andre Pierre. Drew Carr is the cake-maker.

The message is simple. Remember your ancestors by remembering your manners.

Miss Hilary returned to our table; at her imperious best. 

“I hope my girls gave you satisfaction. Finding suitable staff these days is, I frankly own, an anxious and onerous undertaking. But I view mine as little gems of many virtues; and graces innumerable.

“So we hope you have enjoyed our arts and crafts. And shall leave replete. And we can expect the pleasure of your return.”

She inhaled loudly. And sighed.

“Then again, if you are seeking any of that ghastly quick food as provided by the street chop houses and chip butty establishments one finds in the larger towns and cities or those meat tea establishments run by businessmen from the United States of America, then I am afraid you will need to go elsewhere.”

Aunt Martha’s Victorian Tea-rooms Experience is at The Branch, Drybrook, Gloucestershire GL17 9DB; tel: 01594 824514; e-mail auntmartha@hotmail.co.uk.

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