Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea. Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And, with each swallow, time is sublimed. –Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (part 2 of quote)
Visiting English country houses was one of the themes that Dorene had proposed for our travels in England in 2013. If this brings to mind a quaint English cottage nestled in a bucolic landscape, well…not quite. Dorene was talking about the ancestral homes of dukes and earls, houses with wondrous designs, architecture, interiors, furniture, artwork, and landscapes that would help to define aristocratic families for centuries. Still, the quaint English cottage has an authentic appeal, and we were fortunate on our second day in England to experience both types of country living. A full-day bus tour out of London brought us to the grandeur of Blenheim Palace and the picturesque scenery of the Cotswolds.
The final stop on our tour was Blenheim Palace. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the historical significance of its architecture and landscape, Blenheim Palace is home to the Duke of Marlborough and notable as the birthplace of Winston Churchill.
Afternoon tea is served at Blenheim Palace, but we would not have had enough time for it. Bus tours carry the risk of unpredictability, and our tour was no exception. Between traffic delays caused by road construction and a tardy tour member whom the guide did not want to leave stranded, we had limited time to explore the house, gardens, grounds, and gift shop. Fortunately, we had already stopped for tea in the Cotswolds.
The Cotswolds are a range of hills west-northwest of London, about 2 hours away. Our tour guide translated the word to mean “sheep farms in the hills,” although some websites suggest that “Cot” refers to Cod, a 12th-century Anglo-Saxon chieftain. (By the way, our tour guide was not really a guide. He shared some facts and history, set the timetable, took lunch orders, and arranged tickets. Otherwise, we were on our own at each stop.) Among the facts that he shared: While 60% of England is made up of farms, 80% of the Cotswolds is farmland. The region has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the bus tour rewarded us with views of expansive fields, rolling hills, grazing animals, and, of course, Cotswolds cottages, all made from stone that was mined in local quarries. (For a comprehensive website about the Cotswolds, visit Cotswolds.info.)
Our first stop was the village of Bibury, with highlights including Arlington Row, a series of cottages that originally stored wool and were later converted to weaver’s cottages; a water meadow; the River Coln; “oreo” cows; and other picturesque scenes.
Next we visited Burford, which was once named by Forbes Magazine as one of the top 10 places in Europe to live. A highlight for tourists is the church of St. John the Baptist.
The third village that we visited was Bourton-on-the-Water. With stone buildings overlooking the River Windrush and several footbridges crossing the river, Bourton-on-the-Water is sometimes referred to, with a touch of imagination, as the Venice of the Cotswolds or Little Venice. This is where we had tea.
Lunch had been served earlier at The Mermaid, a pub in Burford, so we were not looking for the full afternoon tea experience. We just wanted a snack, or more properly, “cream tea”: a pot of tea and a scone. This was not a challenge. Everywhere you turn in Bourton-on-the-Water, a tea room is in sight. The one we chose, the Green and Pleasant Tea Rooms, happened to be in front of us when we decided to stop for tea.
Dorene obviously wanted to order cream tea, and a server waited on her as soon as we entered. When the server asked whether we would like to sit inside or outside, “outside” flew out of my mouth before I remembered that I needed to check with Dorene. Inside was her preference. The afternoon was cool and breezy, not ideal conditions for eating a scone. Besides, Dorene felt satisfied that she had seen and photographed enough of the Cotswolds. All that remained for her was to have tea and then finally move on to Blenheim Palace.
- Tea – Enjoyable, standard tea fare.
- Scone – There were three options for flavored scones, but no plain scone, Dorene’s preference. She chose the fruited scone, and fortunately there was not too much fruit. The scone was extra large and fluffy with good volume. As at Selfridges, the scone was a little sweet. Dorene is more accustomed to U.S. scones, which are less sweet. The clotted cream and jam were in containers: Rodda’s Classic Cornish Clotted Cream and Robertson’s jam, which both seem to be popular brands in England.
- Service – Friendly staff. The tea and scone were brought to the table within a minute or two.
- Atmosphere – Pleasant and peaceful. We were seated alone in the front room, near the door and windows. There were people in the back room and at the tables outside by the river. It was worth sitting inside for the comfortable environment.
- Decor – There was a pretty French/Provence theme to the decor, with both natural and artificial plants and flowers. The tea room must also serve as an art gallery, because the paintings on the walls were for sale. There were additional paintings on the floor resting along the walls.
- Overall grade – A-
Now I must make a confession. Unlike Dorene, I sometimes stray from the purpose of the Tea and Scone Hop by failing to order tea and scones. I could claim that I want the blog to include other options available at tea rooms, but in reality my devotion to tea and scones still needs to grow.
During the bus tour, our tour guide had mentioned three times that we would be able to get Winstones (pronounced Winstons by the guide) Cotswold Ice Cream in Bourton-on-the-Water. When I discovered that the Green and Pleasant Tea Rooms carried it, I could not resist. I ordered chocolate ice cream, which was served in a plain cone and produced an extra delight: It had chocolate chunks as well.
If I had committed myself to drinking tea, either within the lovely tea room itself or outside in the cool breeze beside a river named Windrush, would I have approached the noble and spiritual experience Muriel Barbery depicts in the quote at the top of this post? Probably not, mainly because we were part of a bus tour, where time is of the essence, not sublimed. Still, even though I was only an observer, I was able to appreciate the quiet pleasure that the tea experience brings, especially when sitting in a quaint English village and not next to a department store escalator.
While I was still deciding what to order (there were also cookies to tempt me), an older couple came in and requested two scones to go. The server asked whether they wanted clotted cream and jam, and the gentleman responded, “What is a scone without jam? Or ‘scon,’ as my mother used to say.” The server noted that she always pronounced it as “scone” (rhymes with “stone”), although the alternate pronunciation made sense to me since our tour guide had pronounced “Winstones” as “Winstons.” (Keep in mind, these people are all speaking with British accents.)
I checked the OED, and both pronunciations are correct. I was curious whether the pronunciation varied by region and found this definition, which indicates that the “scon” pronunciation is associated with northern England and the working class, while what I thought was the standard pronunciation of “scone” is associated with the south and the middle class. However, the OxfordWords blog on the same website has a post How do you pronounce scone? that tells a different story.
According to a poll they did, a slight majority of the respondents from the United Kingdom voted for “scon,” while Americans overwhelmingly favored the pronunciation that rhymes with “stone.” Several British commenters, but not all, insisted that “scon” was the correct pronunciation. One commenter even invoked Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song to make his case. Yes, Monty Python.
So a simple pronunciation inquiry triggered by a kind British gentleman in a Cotswolds tea room ended up leading me to watch TWO versions of an imaginary, tea-drinking, scone-eating (or rather “scon”-eating) lumberjack who sings about cross-dressing. So much for the spiritual side of drinking tea. I’ll include a link to one version of the song on my Twitter feed on the right side of the blog, but be warned, it is typical Monty Python.
As for “scon” or “scone,” I’m definitely going to stick with the American pronunciation.