Sightseeing in Bath and Cream Tea at The Bath Bun

During our visit to England in 2011, Dorene and I experienced a week and a half of rain-free days. Not so in 2013. While the rain was not constant on our first day in Bath, showers would be followed by sunshine before another cluster of clouds would blow in with more rain. And there was wind. At least the weather gave us a perfect excuse to visit two of Bath’s tea rooms in one day — not that an excuse would ever be needed!

While we spent some time indoors (visiting Bath Abbey and the shops in Guildhall, where we each bought a much needed scarf), most of our sightseeing on this adventurous weather day was outdoors. We walked through the Parade Gardens during one of the sunny breaks. Non-residents must pay a small entrance fee, which is unfortunate but worth it. With beautiful plants and flowers, interesting statues and monuments, lovely views, and a few surprises (an old pet cemetery!), the Parade Gardens offer a wonderful outdoor experience.

Bath also has City Sightseeing hop on/off buses with two routes from April to October. The City Tour passes by or near most of the tourist attractions. Since Bath is walkable, the bus is not necessary for anyone comfortable with walking the slightly hilly streets. Instead, we used the City Tour as a convenient introduction to Bath. The other bus tour, the Skyline Tour, travels out to the surrounding hills. The lovely views of the hills and the city offer a wonderful sense of Bath’s architectural beauty as well as its place in the bucolic Cotswolds. While the exposed, slightly wet top deck of the bus gave us the best vantage point, the wind up in the hills could be fierce.

The Skyline Tour ended a few blocks behind the Roman Baths. There we found St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church on a quiet side street, South Parade. The church celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013, and while it does not have the historical significance of Bath Abbey, the beautiful and quiet interior has several highlights, including the altar, stained glass windows, and memorials for both World Wars. Like many Bath buildings, it suffered damage during the bombings in World War II and was subsequently restored. The church has Bath’s tallest spire, and later in the day, the crazy weather rewarded us with a rainbow over the spire.

Rainbow over St John's spire

After leaving St. John’s, Dorene decided that it was a good time for tea. Earlier in the day we had enjoyed afternoon tea at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, so now we were in search of cream tea. Down a side street near the Roman Baths we arrived at Abbey Green, which has a small green with a very large plane tree that was planted more than 200 years ago. In one of the buildings surrounding the green we found The Bath Bun. While we did not order a bath bun, which is a type of sweet roll, The Bath Bun’s website includes a bit of history about the treat.

Dorene’s Assessment

Photo by Dorene
Cream Tea at The Bath Bun. Photo by Dorene.
  • Tea – There was a good selection of tea. Dorene ordered Lapsang Souchong, and it was served with additional hot water to add to the teapot, which Dorene always appreciates in case she wants more tea.
  • Scones – There was a choice of fruited and plain, and Dorene chose the plain. The large scone was not too sweet and was served with Wilkin & Sons Ltd strawberry jam and clotted cream topped with a tiny strawberry. The scone was excellent, and I love how it looks in the picture above!
  • Service – The servers were pleasant and dressed in black and white maids outfits. Service was quick.
  • Atmosphere – There were two floors, and we were seated at one of the few tables on the ground floor. With the takeout counter, cash register, and door nearby, there was plenty of activity, but it was not too distracting.
  • Decor – Pretty place settings, flowery table cloths, and wooden chairs all invoked a pleasing sense of the English countryside.
  • Overall rating

    Wonderful Experience
    Wonderful Experience

Diane’s Thoughts

While I would not have minded eating scones twice in one day, a list of tea cakes on the wall caught my attention as soon as I entered. Chocolate sponge cake was one of the options, and while not my preferred cake style, I could not resist. The lightness of the cake was actually very enjoyable, as was the chocolate flavor.

Our table on the ground floor offered the chance for some people watching, an interesting activity, especially when traveling. Among the unexpected sights for me: five men in their twenties and thirties who stopped in for tea. Dressed in jeans and sweatshirts or t-shirts, the men had a ruggedness about them, and two were so undaunted by the weather that they were wearing short sleeves, which revealed tattoos covering their arms. I loved these guys! They illustrated that despite its aristocratic origins, afternoon tea has a universal appeal. As I continue with my journey into the world of tea, I enjoy the traditions, but I also appreciate that the tea-drinking culture is about far more than expensive tastes, formal rules, and dress codes. There’s also room for tattooed men and novices like me.

Side Hop

We would return to Abbey Green a couple of times, including once as part of an evening comedy walk called Bizarre Bath. A combination magic and comedy show that moves at a leisurely pace around the center of Bath, it’s unlike anything I had attended before. With a suspension of disbelief and a willingness to laugh at silliness, the 90-minute show (there are no shows during the winter) is worth £8.

More traditional and expensive entertainment is at the Theatre Royal, where we went to see the Noël Coward play Relative Values.

Photo by Dorene

Our seats were on the right side of the royal circle (equivalent to mezzanine level), with a good view of the stage. Originally built in 1805, the building was destroyed by fire in 1862, rebuilt in a year, and then renovated in the 1980s.

Bizarre Bath and Noël Coward on consecutive nights: an unusual but entertaining example of what Bath has to offer.

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JFK Birthplace and a Teapot

Like any year, 2013 saw a number of milestone anniversaries, a few of which involved books (Pride and Prejudice – 200 years), speeches (I Have a Dream – 50 years, Gettysburg Address – 150 years), poetry/translation (Eneados – 500 years), and the anniversary that only I seem to be celebrating: the literary debut of the scone in Eneados.

Then there was the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which revisited the shock of that day, stirred memories, and touched many people, even those of us who were not alive on November 22, 1963. The front page of the Boston Globe this past Friday reproduced the original front page from 50 years ago, with a headline that still resonates today.

Boston Globe 11-22-13

Among the places that honored the anniversary was JFK’s birthplace at 83 Beals Street in Brookline. Normally closed for the winter, the JFK birthplace reopened for the weekend to also commemorate the National Day of Mourning on November 25, 1963, when thousands of people gathered outside the house, a private residence at the time, to pay tribute to JFK. In 1966 JFK’s mother, Rose Kennedy, repurchased the house, and in 1967 it was established as a National Historic Site, opening to the public in 1969 as the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site.

Just outside Boston near Coolidge Corner, the house is located in a tree-lined, residential neighborhood. There is a sign at the end of the street pointing towards the house, but for the next quarter of a mile, there are no other indications that a presidential birthplace is nearby. Then the flag pole comes into view.

JFK Birthplace

The house was restored by Rose Kennedy, who lived there after her 1914 marriage to Joseph P. Kennedy. In 1920, the family moved to a larger house a few blocks away. JFK was born on the afternoon of May 29, 1917, and the clocks within the house are all set to 3:00, the time of his birth.

Only about 19% of the objects inside were originally used by the Kennedy family when they lived here, so the house is not really a museum of Kennedy artifacts but instead reproduces what family life would have been like in the home during the first three years of JFK’s life. Both Joe and Rose Kennedy came from well-known political families, and life in this house reflected their status as upper middle class. With the images of Kennedy wealth and privilege that we know today, seeing that JFK’s early years were defined by comfort rather than opulence can be surprising.

The house has three floors and a basement. The two servants lived on the top floor, which today holds staff offices and is not open to the public. The basement has been converted to a gift shop with some additional photographs on display. A tour of the house visits the first and second floors, and the rooms themselves are gated off and can be viewed only from the hallways. Especially on the second floor, being limited to the narrow hallway leaves an impression that the house is small, and since there were four children by 1920, it is understandable why the family had to move to a larger house. I had visited the house a couple of times over the years and decided to see it again Saturday morning.

Most tours are led by a National Park Service ranger. The knowledgeable rangers describe the origins of the house as a historic site, share stories about life for the Kennedy’s during JFK’s first three years, and talk about the significance of many of the objects in the house.

Among the objects which would have been in the house when JFK lived there, highlights include the bed where Rose Kennedy gave birth (closest to the window), the children’s bassinet, and Rose Kennedy’s piano. (Dorene was not with me, so I had to take photos.)

The dining room is on the first floor immediately on the left when you enter the house. Of all the rooms, it holds the most original objects. Several pieces of furniture, china, and silver would have been used in the house. The china and some of the silver pieces were wedding presents, including the teapot displayed on the buffet/sideboard in the photo at the bottom. Not surprisingly, Rose Kennedy was a tea drinker. The small table in the photo on the left was where JFK and his older brother Joe sat, with JFK’s original porringer on the left. Here is the view from left to right of the dining room.

Buffet with silver, including teapot

The house is now closed for the winter and will not reopen until May. Visit their website for more information.  While there is an opportunity to view a film in the basement about JFK, this is not the primary site for learning about the president’s life. The house instead is a simple, quiet place that offers a glimpse into JFK’s early years and the origins of his legacy.

Visiting Bath and the Mad Hatters Tea Party

When Dorene and I stayed in London in 2011, we ventured outside the city for a day on a bus tour to Bath, Stonehenge, and Salisbury Cathedral. This seemed like the perfect way to visit some of England’s most famous sites, but our plan had one problem. We didn’t realize that the schedule for Bath would allow time for only a tour of the Roman Baths, a brief glance at some of the buildings, and lunch. This was not a satisfying experience of Bath. Disappointed by all that we missed, we decided in 2013 to enjoy Bath properly over three days.

View of Bath from the Parade Gardens. Photo by Dorene

Bath is about 100 miles west of London, and we traveled by train from Paddington Station, a trip that lasted just under 1.5 hours and included many scenic views of the countryside. Located at the Southern end of the Cotswolds, Bath was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 for its cultural significance. (To read about our earlier visit to the Cotswolds, click here.) Like the rest of the Cotswolds, the buildings were constructed from locally mined stone, in this case a type of limestone known as Bath stone. As a dense city on the slope of a hill, the uniformity of the cream-colored buildings creates a memorable impression.

View of Bath from North Parade Bridge. Photo by Dorene
View of Bath from North Parade Bridge. Photo by Dorene

Bath has almost everything that Dorene and I hope to experience when we travel:

  • Historical sites – Including the nearly 2,000-year-old Roman Baths, Georgian-era buildings (the Circus and Royal Crescent), the reconstructed Assembly Rooms (destroyed during World War II), and more.
  • Religious buildings – Bath Abbey, St. John the Evangelist Church, and a few other interesting churches.
  • Literary significance – Jane Austen! (Check back in December for much more about our Jane experiences in Bath.)
  • Museums – Along with the Holburne Museum and the Victoria Art Gallery, we also visited the Fashion Museum and a unique industrial place called the Museum of Bath at Work.
  • Photo opportunities and general sightseeing – Bath is enjoyably walkable, and bus tours within and outside the city provide additional vantage points for seeing the sights.
  • Evening entertainment – We saw a play at the Theater Royal (Noel Coward’s Relative Values) and also experienced something completely different, the Bizarre Bath comedy walk (I’ll try to describe this in a future post).
  • Shopping – Bath has typical chain stores, souvenir shops, and a mall, and also plenty of independent and local businesses, including those in Guildhall Market, the Corridor, and on Pulteney Bridge.
  • Tea and scones (of course) – On our final day in the city, we discovered what would turn out to be our favorite tea room of all the ones we visited in England (I’ll share this experience in December).

During our brief visit to Bath two years earlier, we had rushed through afternoon tea at a little restaurant with an Alice in Wonderland theme. We decided to revisit the place and enjoy it at a relaxed pace. Remembering little about it, we knew that it was somewhere behind Bath Abbey.

In a compact city with buildings made from the same colored stone, Bath Abbey stands out as a dominating structure that serves as a beacon from various vantage points. Once the site of a monastery dating to the 8th century, a Norman cathedral was built there in the 11th and 12th centuries. After the Bishop’s seat moved from Bath to Wells in the 13th century, the building slowly began to decay. The current building, a parish church rather than a cathedral, was started in 1499. This was not good timing. With religious upheaval soon arriving, the building again fell into ruin. After being salvaged in the early 17th century, significant restorations occurred in the 19th century and late 20th century. For its history, stained glass windows, interior and ceiling, monuments, memorials, wall tablets, and even contemporary artwork, Bath Abbey provides a worthy opportunity for a leisurely stroll.

Dorene at Bath Abbey
Dorene outside Bath Abbey

Behind Bath Abbey (the East End), there is a small circular park called the Orange Grove. Could there really be an orange grove in England? A nearby sign cleared up this question for me. It was named for the Prince of Orange to commemorate his visit to Bath in 1734.

In the building seen in the photo on the left, we found the Mad Hatters Tea Party.

Outside sign and seating area. Photo by Dorene
Outside sign and seating. Photo by Dorene

There are only four tables inside, two on each side of the door, and a few more outside. Given that it was a cool day with off and on rain showers, sitting outside was not an option. There was one available table inside, so we sat down to order Afternoon Tea for Two.

Dorene’s Assessment

Afternoon tea at the Mad Hatters Tea Party. Photo by Dorene
Afternoon Tea for Two at the Mad Hatters Tea Party. Photo by Dorene
  • Tea – Standard, enjoyable tea fare.
  • Sandwiches – Afternoon tea usually includes a few varieties of finger sandwiches, but at the Mad Hatters Tea Party, we each had to chose one sandwich. There were multiple options listed above the counter, which caused us a bit of confusion as we tried to decide which ones to order, finally selecting one with chicken and one with brie. The sandwiches were served on soft, thick white or brown bread, and the quality of both sandwiches was excellent. However, as an afternoon tea traditionalist, Dorene would have preferred finger sandwiches. With scones still to eat, we did not finish the sandwiches.
  • Scones – Medium-sized with plenty of cream and jam. They were not too sweet, which is how Dorene prefers scones.
  • Service – Quick and efficient.
  • Atmosphere – The small space is slightly uncomfortable, but there is an enjoyable brightness and color throughout the room.
  • Decor – The many decorations relate to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books or to the spirit of the books, including backwards clocks, a trick teapot, and reproductions of John Tenniel’s illustrations from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (there are just a few references to the 1951 Disney film). The plates and teapots coordinate nicely with the theme. Visit the Mad Hatters Tea Party website for photos of the decorations inside.
  • Overall Rating

    Good place to visit
    Good place to visit

Diane’s Thoughts

As part of my ongoing initiation into the world of afternoon tea, I discovered what now seems obvious: I should not expect traditional afternoon tea at a place that pays homage to the unconventional world of Wonderland, the Mad Tea Party, and the Hatter.

The Hatter

Many tea rooms in England and the U.S. are named “The Mad Hatters (or Hatter’s) Tea Party.” Technically the term “Mad Hatter” never appears in the Alice books, although the Cheshire Cat does describe the Hatter as mad. And the Mad Tea Party occurs in front of the March Hare’s house, not the Hatter’s.

A Mad Tea Party

No matter. It’s the Mad Hatter who has survived in popular culture, and his tea party continues to inspire and delight. While there may be more traditional and comfortable places for afternoon tea, the Mad Hatters Tea Party in Bath is worth visiting for its tribute to Lewis Carroll’s books.

Even the small space may bring to mind Alice’s tendency to find herself not quite the right size.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland illustrations from www.alice-in-wonderland.net.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustrations from www.alice-in-wonderland.net.

Side Hop

Not far from the Mad Hatters Tea Party and Orange Grove is Grand Parade, which offers views of the River Avon. Since the original meaning of the word “avon” is river, several unconnected rivers in England ended up with the same redundant name.

Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon. Photo by Dorene
Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon. Photo by Dorene

Apropos of the unconventional, the bridge crossing the river in this photo is Pulteney Bridge, one of only four bridges in the world lined with shops.

Shops on Pulteney Bridge. Photo by Dorene
Shops on Pulteney Bridge. Photo by Dorene

While the bridge has architectural significance and adds to the beauty of viewing the river against the backdrop of the buildings, having only four of these bridges in the world sounds just right to me. Our inn was on the other side of the bridge, so we crossed it several times each day. Most of the time I forgot that I was walking on a bridge. Of course this illusion makes the architectural achievement even more remarkable, and without question Pulteney Bridge works as a tourist attraction. In most cities, though, I would prefer to feel the experience of walking over a river and enjoy views of water winding through a city.

Celebrating Gavin Douglas

As I wrote about in my previous post, 2013 is the 500th anniversary of Eneados, Gavin Douglas’s 1513 translation of the Aeneid. Because the OED cites Eneados for the first appearance of the word “scone,” I decided that the scone’s literary debut was a milestone worth celebrating.

Scone at Bath Bun

Of course, beyond the single appearance of scones in the book, the most important reason to celebrate this 500th anniversary is to honor Gavin Douglas, his Middle Scots poetry, and his great translation. Even though 2013 is nearing its end, there is still time to celebrate. Several Eneados 500 events have already occurred, including a celebration in Edinburgh at St. Giles’ Cathedral (aka High Kirk of St. Giles) on July 21st, just before the actual date when Gavin Douglas finished his poem 500 years ago (July 22nd, the feast of St. Mary Magdalene). Jamie Reid Baxter, who had organized the July event, is also the organizer of a full day of Gavin Douglas celebrations taking place on Friday, November 15th, and he was kind enough to send me details of the upcoming events.

The day will include the unveiling of a commemorative flagstone honoring Gavin Douglas, readings from Eneados, a Gavin Douglas conference, and a sung Mass. The Duke of Hamilton, who is descended from Gavin Douglas’s father, will unveil the flagstone.

A day with poetry, history, music, and a duke — if there weren’t 3,000 miles in the way, I would definitely be in Edinburgh on November 15th!

Here is the flyer for the celebration. The text within the flyer is provided below so that you can read it more easily. I have also included details for the Gavin Douglas conference, which takes place from 2-5 pm.

“Scotland’s Glory, 1513”:

 three events celebrating Gavin Douglas and his “Eneados”

On the Feast of St Mary Magdalene, 1513, six weeks before the catastrophe of Flodden, the poet Gavin Douglas completed his “Eneados”, a magnificent Scots-language translation of the Roman poet Virgil’s epic “Aeneid”. In 1513, Douglas was provost of the High Kirk of St Giles in Edinburgh.

Friday 15th November sees three events in the heart of Edinburgh’s historic Old Town, celebrating Douglas and his great poem.

11 am. – Makars’ Court, outside the Writers’ Museum in the Lawnmarket, off the High Street:  a commemorative inscribed flagstone honouring Gavin Douglas will be unveiled by Alexander Douglas-Hamilton, 16th Duke of Hamilton, a descendant of Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Angus, the poet’s father. There will be a short reading from the “Eneados”.

2 pm. – 5 pm.  Augustine United Church, 41 George IV Bridge:  conference “Gavin Douglas, Makar and Translatour”, with the participation of poet and academic J.Derrick McClure on Douglas as translator; scholar Dr Emily Wingfield on Douglas and Flodden; historian Dr Jenny Wormald on the culture of James IV’s Scotland; and award-winning poet Rab Wilson on Douglas as a poet.  Rab Wilson will also perform five excerpts from “Eneados” introduced and put in context by Jamie Reid-Baxter, the organiser of the Gavin Douglas celebrations. Tickets £5 (concessions £3) at the door.  There will be a short interval, tea and biscuits provided.

7.30 pm. – 9 pm.  High Kirk of St Giles: Sang Scule, directed by James Hutchinson, sing Robert Carver’s thrilling Mass for Six Voices, framed in a concert reconstruction of Procession and High Mass for St Mary Magdalene as it would have been celebrated by Gavin Douglas as provost of St Giles.  After the end of the mass, the singers will perform “The Flowers of the Forest: an Elegy on Flodden Field” (2004), by Sheena Phillips, an eight-minute piece juxtaposing the famous ballad with a Latin poem from 1512, praising the Scotland of James IV. Among the ten thousand Scots who fell at Flodden alongside their king were Gavin Douglas’s elder brothers.  – Full texts and translations provided. Tickets at the door, £10 (concessions £5).

Presented under the aegis of the Scots Language Centre/Centre for the Scots Leid, as part of Previously… Scotland’s History Festival: http://www.historyfest.co.uk/

***

Gavin Douglas, Makar and Translatour

A Conference at Augustine United Church, 2-5 pm. Friday 15th November 2013

Rab Wilson : Eneados Prologue 1, part one.

Jamie Reid Baxter (chair): welcome and link

Rab Wilson:  Eneados Prologue 1, part two.

Jenny Wormald on James IV and culture

Questions from floor

– interval (tea and biscuits)

Rab Wilson on Douglas as poet, followed by recitation of ‘Euryalus and Nisus’ from Eneados

Emily Wingfield on Douglas and Flodden

Rab Wilson:  Eneados ‘June Morning’ (Prologue XIII)

Jamie Reid Baxter on Douglas’s broader achievement

Rab Wilson : Eneados ‘Conclusioun’.

***

These impressive events speak to the importance of Gavin Douglas and Eneados, and Jamie Reid Baxter and all of the participants should be commended for their efforts in offering these events to the public.

Dr. Reid Baxter also shared with me that St Giles, where Gavin Douglas served as provost, has a crypt cafe with superb scones. How appropriate! I was pleased to learn that when he was at St. Giles for the July 21st celebration, he was able to enjoy a scone at the cafe. Though perhaps unwittingly, at least scones played a small role in the celebration that day!

A Scone Milestone – 500 Years

What is a scone without jam? Or “scon,” as my mother used to say. –British gentleman ordering scones in Bourton-on-the-Water

This quote originally struck me as little more than cute commentary from a distinguished-looking British gentleman visiting a tea room for take-out scones. As I waited behind him to order not even a scone but an ice cream cone, I had no idea that his words would send me on an unexpected journey in search of more than just the pronunciation, but also the history of a word that turned out to be full of surprises, at least for me, a relative novice when it comes to tea and scones.

Photo by Dorene

As I wrote about in the Side Hop section of my previous post, my curiosity about how to pronounce “scone” led me from the venerable OED to a divisive poll about pronunciation and then to the absurdity of Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song. And there’s more.

When consulting the OED regarding the pronunciation, I learned that “scone” was of Scottish origin and made its first appearance in Eneados, the 1513 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid by Gavin Douglas, the future Bishop of Dunkeld and a member of the powerful Douglas family.

From Wikipedia
Statue of Bishop Gavin Douglas at St Giles Cathedral. From Wikipedia.

Writing in the vernacular of his own language, Middle Scots, Gavin Douglas was the first to successfully translate the Aeneid into any Anglic language. The translation, which is considered generally faithful to Virgil’s 1st-century BC epic poem, includes Prologues written by Gavin Douglas for each of the 13 books (the 13th book is a 15th-century sequel by Italian poet Maffeo Vegio). Scholars continue to study Gavin Douglas, and this year there have even been celebrations for Eneados.

Why celebrate a book from 1513? Because 2013 is the 500th anniversary! And while scholars in England and Scotland celebrate Gavin Douglas for his influential literary achievement, there’s another reason to honor the Bishop: He introduced scones to the world of literature!

Copy of 1553 edition of Eneados. Courtesy of Special Collections, LSU Libraries, Louisiana State University.
Copy of 1553 edition of Eneados. Courtesy of Special Collections, LSU Libraries, Louisiana State University.

With a blog dedicated in part to the pursuit of scones, I felt that I must celebrate this literary debut by finding the original text. Trying to read Middle Scots is challenging, but at least the scene featuring the scones contains familiar words, although with different spellings. The scones are in the second to last line, and, yes, those double Ns seem to favor the argument for using the “scon” pronunciation. (The OED cites 1744 for the modern spelling.)

Eneas, and wther chiftanis glorious,
And the fresche lusty springald Ascanius,
Vndir the branchis of a semely tre
Gan lenyng dovn, and rest thair bodeys fre;
And to thair dyneyr dyd thame all addres
On grene herbis and sonkis of soft gres.
The flour sconnis war sett in, by and by,
Wyth wthir mesis, sic as was reddy; (Book VII, Chapter 3, lines 9-16)

Very, very basically, these lines describe Aeneas as he was resting under a tree with his generals and his son, “the fresche lusty springald Ascanius” (no translation needed!). They were having dinner, which was served on scones. So the scones were acting as plates and played a surprisingly important role in the story, which I’ll explain in a moment. The scones that Douglas wrote about would have been flatter and harder than those that we enjoy today, and modern translations tend to use “cakes” here. Since Douglas was translating the Latin text into the vernacular of his language, perhaps he chose “sconnis” because it was already a familiar word in Scotland.

Photo by Dorene

So then where does the word itself come from? The OED lists a couple of possible sources, and I had no plans to look further into the word’s origins. Had I taken the most basic step of checking Wikipedia, I would have discovered that there was more to the story. But that’s not what happened.

  • Here’s the etymology from the OED: “Perhaps a shortened adoption of Middle Dutch schoonbrot, Middle Low German schonbrot ‘fine bread’.”
  • Then I received from my friend, Beth, the delightful book in Sharon O’Connor’s Menus and Music series, Afternoon Tea Serenade (1997). O’Connor lists the Dutch origin as a possibility and also mentions a Gaelic word, sgonn, which means “to gulp or eat in large mouthfuls.” Scones? Eating in large mouthfuls? Well, there was no afternoon tea in medieval Scotland, and since we already know that the scones were different too, this Gaelic influence seemed possible. So I was satisfied with the theories about the word evolving from Dutch, German, and/or Gaelic. That is, until a grocery store flyer arrived in my mailbox.
  • It was the October edition of Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer. Instead of listing sale items, this creative and quirky booklet tells a story about the products being highlighted for the month. When I reached page 14, I could hardly believe the first sentence for the story about Pumpkin Cranberry Scone Mix:

According to lore, the crumbly quick bread known as the scone is said to have taken its name from the Stone of Destiny (aka Scone) where Scottish kings were crowned in days of yore.

Trader Joe's-pumpkin-cranberry-scone-mixWhat could be more fitting for a journey that started with an overheard conversation than to have it almost derailed by the menial task of reading my mail. Why derailed? Because I did visit Wikipedia’s “scone” entry after reading the Fearless Flyer, and, while mentioning the possible connection, Wikipedia omits any explanation of the relationship between the Stone of Scone and our afternoon tea treat. Did I have to seek out yet another path on this journey into the world of scones? Yes, but I feared I would never get back again if I pursued this further, especially since I would need to confront a third pronunciation for “Scone.” So my history of the word will have to remain incomplete. I will look into this in the near future, but for now, let’s finish the story about the scone’s literary debut.

In the scene quoted earlier, Aeneas had just arrived in a foreign land, Italy. I won’t include the subsequent lines, which are far more difficult to read, but essentially the men were still hungry after dinner and decided to eat their plates (the scones). “Obviously,” some of us may think, but not these men. Ascanius made a joke about being so hungry that they were eating their tables, which reminded Aeneas that his father, Anchises, had prophesied that Aeneas would know he had arrived in the land where he would settle when he was so hungry that he was eating tables. So according to Gavin Douglas’s take on Virgil’s mythology, eating scones helped Aeneas realize that this was where he would eventually build his city (Rome).

If only there had been tea! Even with no tea and with scones that differ from today’s treats, what a wonderful beginning to the literary life of the scone.

Photo by Dorene

As for Gavin Douglas, his life as a poet and translator ended with Eneados. Following the Battle of Flodden and his nephew’s marriage to the widowed Queen Margaret, Henry VIII’s sister, Bishop Douglas chose politics over poetry. Success was short-lived. He died of the plague in London in 1522. Click here for his Wikipedia entry.

Remarkably, 2013 is nearing its end, so there’s not much time left to celebrate this 500th anniversary. If you are ambitious and want to check out Eneados, there are a couple of online options. An 1874 edition is available on the Internet Archive. Look for Volume 3 of this edition to find Book VII. Also, the Scots Language Centre has an edition available to download with modern spellings, but it is still difficult to read. If you would like just a sampling of Eneados, a small group of writers put together a contemporary version of a brief excerpt from one of the Prologues. The original text is also provided. Visit Ken Cockburn’s Blog for the results.

Of course we need to celebrate the scone as well! I’m still growing in my appreciation for scones, so before 2013 ends, I’m determined to make my first ever batch of scones from scratch. I’ll probably use one of the recipes in Afternoon Tea Serenade, although I’ll take other suggestions as well.

And I may even try Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cranberry Scone Mix to acknowledge its role in this journey.

Tea Along the River Windrush

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.

The River Windrush in Bourton-on-the-Water, with the Green and Pleasant Tea Rooms in the background (left of center). Photo by Dorene
The River Windrush in Bourton-on-the-Water. Green and Pleasant Tea Rooms are in the background center/left. Photo by Dorene

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.

The Green and Pleasant Tea Rooms in Bourton-on-the-Water. Photo by Dorene
The ice cream window at the Green and Pleasant Tea Rooms in Bourton-on-the-Water. Photo by Dorene

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.

Dorene’s Assessment

Cream Tea at the Green and Pleasant Tea Rooms. Photo by Dorene
Cream Tea at the Green and Pleasant Tea Rooms. Photo by Dorene
  • 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-

Diane’s Thoughts

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.

Side Hop

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.

Tea with Mr. Selfridge…and His Mistresses

The tea ritual: such  precise repetition of the same gestures and the same tastes; accession to simple, authentic and refined sensations, a license given to all, at little cost, to become aristocrats of taste, because tea is the beverage of the wealthy and the poor; the tea ritual, therefore, has the extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives an aperture of serene harmony…  —Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (part 1 of quote)

In the spring of 2013, PBS aired Mr. Selfridge, a miniseries about Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American who went to London and opened a department store on Oxford Street in 1909. It was an 8-part series with Jeremy Piven playing the title character. I watch many of the Masterpiece series, but this one I skipped. Dorene did watch the series and, after just a few episodes, decided that we would visit Selfridges during our trip to England in June.

Only the first day of our trip would be spent in London, which we had visited two years earlier. With a midday arrival, we decided to keep the first day of our vacation simple with limited sightseeing. After dropping off our suitcases at our hotel in the Lancaster Gate/Kensington Gardens area, we walked down Bayswater Road, which becomes Oxford Street right around Marble Arch. There is a Tube station near Selfridges (Bond Street), but since we were not on a tight schedule, a 30-minute walk along the edge of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park was a welcome way to re-energize after a long flight. Speaking of walking, this is a good time to mention an important point about the Tea and Scone Hop. Because the scones, clotted cream, tea cakes, and pastries associated with afternoon tea may not represent the healthiest of choices, maintaining other healthy practices is key. We were fortunate that our vacation involved walking each day

Not long after we passed Marble Arch, Dorene caught sight of Selfridges in the distance.

Selfridges clock and statue of the Queen of Time. Photo by Dorene
Selfridges clock and statue of the Queen of Time. Photo by Dorene

The inside of Selfridges, which looks like a standard department store, does not mirror the grandeur of the outside. It nevertheless does impress, with 6 floors that total about 10 acres; large crowds of both Londoners and tourists; famous designer collections; the ever-present yellow shopping bags that advertise people’s willingness to spend lots of money there; and a surprisingly long line of people waiting just for a chance to view Prada products.

I am not a high-end shopper and would leave without a yellow bag, but I was looking forward to eating lunch at Selfridges. As we walked around, I had to reorient myself to English floor designations. What Americans call the first floor is the ground floor in England, while England’s first floor is what we would call the second floor. The store guide proved a struggle for me, so Dorene asked a salesperson if there was a restaurant that served afternoon tea. He directed us to Dolly’s on the lower ground floor (basement level) and told us, “It’s in the middle of the store.”

And it was. We had seen other restaurants along the sides, but Dolly’s is simply a section of the display floor, adjacent to an escalator, that has been gated off and turned into a small cafe. It opened in March 2011 and was named for Mr. Selfridge’s mistresses. “He had two mistresses named Dolly?” I asked when Dorene told me this. Not quite. Originally from Hungary, identical twins Jenny and Rosie became known as the Dolly Sisters for their vaudevillian act. Click here to see the menu, which includes a rather scandalous picture of the twins.

Sign at the cafe. Photo by Dorene
Sign at the cafe. Photo by Dorene

Dolly’s has an enclosed kitchen in the center and a display case of pastries on one side. This leaves limited room for tables in narrow passages on the remaining three sides of the kitchen. Our wait for a table was about 15 minutes, and one or more people seemed to be waiting at all times. Yet in the spirit of afternoon tea, the staff did not try to rush patrons in and out.

Dorene’s Assessment

Afternoon Tea for Two. Photo by Dorene
Afternoon Tea for Two. Photo by Dorene
  • Tea – an enjoyable, standard English Breakfast Tea. Dorene appreciated the strainer for the cup that captured the loose tea leaves from the teapot.  An attached tray could be moved under the strainer to catch any dripping liquid when moved to the side.
  • Finger sandwiches (4 for each of us) – smoked salmon, chicken, egg salad, and cucumber and cream cheese. The amount of filling in each sandwich was small, but they were all good.
  • Scones – one fruited and one plain. Dorene and I both prefer plain scones, but I took the fruited one since I know how much she loves her scones. Dorene thought that the scone was small and mildly sweet. She’s more accustomed to scones in the U.S., which tend to be less sweet than those in England.
  • Pastries – one lemon and one strawberry tart. We took half of each, although Dorene was too full to eat the strawberry tart.  The lemon tart had “citron” written on top in chocolate, and the amount of lemon flavor was just right. The strawberry tart had a generous amount of strawberries.
  • Service – pleasant staff. Our waitress knew that we were visiting Dolly’s for the first time, and when we were finished, she asked what we liked best. “The scones, of course,” was Dorene’s reply.
  • Atmosphere – noisy.  While there is a novelty to ordering tea while sitting in the middle of a historic department, there’s no way to escape that you are sitting in the middle of a bustling department store, next to the escalator for that matter.
  • Decor – Dolly’s is described as having an Art Deco design. Dorene is an aficionado of the Art Deco movement and did not think that there was much to say about Art Deco at Dolly’s.
  • Overall grade – B

Diane’s Thoughts

The first sandwich I ate was the cucumber and cream cheese. I was so hungry that I finished it in just a few bites – probably breaching some form of afternoon tea etiquette. I was also concerned about another etiquette issue. After spreading the strawberry jam on my scone, I dipped my knife into the clotted cream. The remnants of jam on my knife ended up spoiling the pure color of the cream in the dish, which I feared betrayed my lack of social grace. I asked Dorene whether there should have been a separate knife for the cream. She hesitated, said that there probably should have been separate knives, but clearly had never before put any thought into the issue. Later, I figured out why this was not an issue for her. Dorene spreads the clotted cream onto the scone first and then puts the jam on top. Her knife is clean when it touches the clotted cream.

Had I been eating my scones wrong?

I googled pictures of scones, and while jam on top of clotted cream seems the more common method for eating scones, there were some pictures with the cream on top of the jam. I guess I’ll stick to my way.

While afternoon tea at Dolly’s does not invoke the “serene harmony” depicted in Muriel Barbery’s quote above, there is at least the opportunity to step away from the bustle, excess, and, yes, the absurdity. As evidenced by the variety of customers we saw at Dolly’s that day, from businessmen and tourists to multigenerational families and single shoppers, there is truth to the idea of the universality of tea. The price of 28.95 pounds for Afternoon Tea for Two does not quite support the notion of “at little cost,” but given that everything in London is expensive, tea at Dolly’s was worth the experience.

Side Hop

Like a sidebar, this section of each post will include additional thoughts or information beyond our quest for tea and scones. Here are some options for learning more about the people behind Selfridges and Dolly’s:

  • For a history of the department store, visit the timeline on the Our Heritage page of Selfridges website.
  • For a brief analysis of the relationship between Mr. Selfridge and the Dolly Sisters, visit the Jazz Age Club website.
  • Gary Chapman, author of The Dolly Sisters: Icons of the Jazz Age, has a blog devoted to the sisters, dollysisters.wordpress.com.
  • The sisters were even the subject of a 1945 movie starring Betty Grable and June Haver. IMDb does not list Mr. Selfridge as one of the characters. For a synopsis of the movie, visit TCM’s website.
  • The book that was used as the basis for the miniseries is Shopping, Seduction, and Mr. Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead.
  • For fans of the miniseries, PBS has ordered a second season, which will air in 2014. Now that I know more about Selfridges than any other store I’ve ever visited, perhaps I may get on board.