While my Irish ancestry runs deep, I had never experienced the traditional Irish-American meal of corned beef and cabbage until college, when my friend Beth hosted an elaborate St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Years later we still reminisce about her amazing and authentic feast, which included one St. Patrick’s Day tradition that was familiar to me from childhood: Irish soda bread. Beth recently shared her recipe with me, and I am now inspired to start my own tradition of making this bread every St. Patrick’s Day!
Beth is an interior designer with wonderful creativity in the kitchen. Her recipe, which she learned from her grandmother, includes buttermilk, sour cream, raisins, and baking powder instead of baking soda. Beth recommends enjoying the bread with a cup of Irish breakfast tea. One option is Mark T. Wendell’s Irish Breakfast Tea, which Bonnie recently reviewed at Thirsty for Tea. I have not yet tried this tea and am looking forward to enjoying some in the near future.
For anyone seeking a bolder accompaniment, Beth has another suggestion. The other day she hosted an Irish coffee social, where she and her neighbors enjoyed her Irish soda bread with Irish coffee: a mixture of coffee and Irish whiskey (Beth used Jameson’s) topped with freshly whipped cream and a dash of cinnamon and/or nutmeg. Coffee-flavored drinks don’t appeal to me (not even whiskey!), so my tamer option was a nice cup of herbal tea, Mint Medley from Bigelow Tea.
Grandma’s Irish Soda Bread
3 cups of flour
3/4 cup of sugar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
4 teaspoons of baking powder
2 tablespoons of shortening
1/4 cup of buttermilk
1 cup of raisins
3/4 pint (1 1/2 cups) of sour cream
Preheat oven to 350º
Sift together flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder.
Add shortening and buttermilk. Mix until well blended.
Mix in sour cream until dough forms.
Grease and flour cast iron skillet.
Add dough to skillet.
If desired, carve an X into the top of the dough.
Bake in skillet for 30 minutes. Check on the status.
Bake for another 20-30 minutes.
If needed, cover with foil for the last 15 minutes or so to prevent the raisins from burning.
Since I did not have a cast iron skillet, I substituted with a round cake pan. Also, raisins are not my favorite flavoring and were omitted. And my overall presentation, including my attempt to draw an X on top, needs work. Yet even with my little flaws and adjustments, the outcome was a delight. My bread was moist and sweet and dense, with a taste that was familiar and yet still a revelation. Making this Irish soda bread left me even more in touch with my Irish and Irish-American roots and the traditions of St. Patrick’s Day. Thanks to Beth for sharing her grandma’s recipe!
Despite my still questionable scone-making ability, I requested Sara’s recipe. Trying to bake like her would be impossible for me, but I welcomed the challenge.
And the challenge started with the ingredients. Sara’s scones include three of her baking staples: organic flour, plain yogurt, and crème fraîche. I forgot to buy organic flour, so all-purpose flour had to serve as a substitute. And crème fraîche was a mystery to me. Fortunately her recipe listed milk as an alternative. (I now know that crème fraîche would have been easy to make: combine 1 cup of heavy cream with 2 tablespoons of buttermilk, cover, and let sit at room temperature for 12-24 hours. Click here for more detailed instructions. I’ll try this next time.)
At her tea party Sara served two types of scones: almond and cranberry. The almond scones were especially popular. Since I don’t eat nuts, her cranberry scones were my choice. But I did not choose cranberries for my own scones. Instead I added the baking staple that is never missing from my cupboard: chocolate chips.
So while my version of these scones lacked all the elegance of Sara’s baking, her tea party, and the tea and scones culture, I enjoyed the effort. Next time I’ll use the proper ingredients, including homemade crème fraîche.
Scones made with yogurt and crème fraîche
This recipe is tea-party sized (32 scones). The ingredients can be halved.
4 cups of organic flour
1/2 teaspoon of salt
2/3 cup of sugar
1 teaspoon of baking soda
2 sticks of butter, softened and cut into small pieces
1 cup of any of the following: broken almonds or other nuts, dried cranberries or other dried fruit, or any other desired add-in
1/2 cup of plain yogurt
1/2 cup of crème fraîche (or substitute with 1/2 cup of milk)
Fancy sugar (optional)
Sara uses a stand mixer to combine ingredients.
Combine flour, salt, baking soda, and sugar.
Blend butter into the dry ingredients until beads of dough form.
Mix in almonds, dried cranberries, or other add-ins.
Add the plain yogurt and crème fraîche (or plain yogurt and milk).
Mix until dough forms.
Divide dough in half.
Turn out one half of the dough onto a floured surface.
Roll or press dough into a square about 8 or 9 inches on each side, about 1/2 inch thick.
Slice dough into 4 quarters, and then create triangles, like this:
Separate scones onto parchment lined baking sheet.
Sprinkle with fancy sugar, if desired.
Bake at 425° for 10-12 minutes.
While first batch is baking, repeat steps 8-11 with the other half of the dough.
As expected, my scones lacked the elegance of Sara’s, and not just because of the substitutions. My precision when rolling and cutting the dough needs improvement.
Still, I was satisfied with the result. These scones are moist and flavorful with the crumbly texture typical of scones. Despite appearances, I feel as if great scones, or at least good ones, are within my reach.
A year and a half ago, a batch of homemade scones would have been made in someone else’s home, not mine. Now a year of experimenting with homemade scones has created a small sense of accomplishment for this tea and scone journey of mine. Just a small sense, though, because scones humble me as well. Despite the relative simplicity of the ingredients, the process of combining cold butter into a flour mixture remains my nemesis. Yet scones are part of my life now, and the experiments continue.
My latest scones were based on a recipe for Buttermilk Scones, with the option to substitute for the buttermilk with plain yogurt. A substitute for cold butter would have been more welcome, but this recipe is intriguing nonetheless. While the yogurt does not make these scones healthy, this recipe inspires me because of its connection to four women who share a commitment to natural, homemade foods.
The first inspiration is my friend Sara.
Sara is the mother of three who makes her meals from all-natural ingredients and uses local and organic products whenever possible. In her ideal world, Sara would live on a farm and grow all of her own ingredients. When I asked her for a scone recipe, she referred me to celebrity chef and modern pioneer Georgia Pellegrini and her 2010 book Food Heroes:16 Culinary Artisans Preserving Tradition.
One of the culinary artisans featured in the book was Sue Forrester from Cumbria, England. Sadly passing away at age 63 shortly after the book appeared, Sue Forrester was known for her hand-made Cream of Cumbria butter, as well as for her “Butter Poetry,” which she enjoyed composing during the butter-making process.
A chapter about butter, poetry, and England of course must include a scone recipe. Georgia Pellegrini adapted a recipe from Cumbria’s celebrity food artisan and one of Sue Forrester’s customers, Annette Gibbons OBE (Officer in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). Annette Gibbons is author of Home Grown in Cumbria and has been recognized for her services to Cumbria’s Food and Farming Industries.
To do justice to these women and their commitment to natural, locally sourced food, the butter and buttermilk should be homemade (Food Heroes includes instructions for both), as well as the yogurt (my friend Sara makes her own yogurt). I’m satisfied with working on scones for now and saving butter and yogurt making for another time. As a compromise, I shopped at Whole Foods and bought Kate’s Homemade Butter (produced in nearby Maine) and 365 Organic Low Fat Plain yogurt.
In this recipe (used with permission), Georgia Pelligrini adds prunes to the scones and suggests cooked and crumbled bacon, grated cheese, or any other dried fruit as alternatives. My fruit additions paid tribute to a scone I discovered last year at a farmer’s market: strawberry and coconut. Again, I should have dried my own strawberries and coconut, but since I have no idea what that involves, I turned to Whole Foods for freeze-dried strawberries and shredded coconut, both free of additives and sweeteners.
Buttermilk Scones (made with yogurt)
3 cups all-purpose flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons powdered sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) cold butter, cut into small pieces
½ cup prunes, coarsely chopped, or any other flavoring tidbits (using my version, ½ cup of dried strawberries and ½ cup of shredded coconut – more of each if desired)
About 1½ cups plain natural yogurt or buttermilk
1 large egg white, lightly beaten (Optional)
Preheat the oven to 425º F.
Combine the flour, baking powder, powdered sugar, and salt in a large bowl.
Rub the butter into the flour mixture with your fingers until it resembles fine sand.
Toss in the prunes or other flavorings. (Dried strawberries and coconut for me)
Gradually stir in the yogurt (or buttermilk), stirring until the dough just barely comes together. If you find you need more yogurt, add a teaspoon at a time so you don’t overdo it.
Turn the dough out onto a floured board and press down gently. Lightly roll or use your fingers to flatten the dough to about ¾ inch thick.
Using a ⅔-inch round cutter or an upside-down cup, stamp out scones and place them on a baking sheet. (If you use dried strawberries, push the fruit deeper into the scones. Some of my strawberries were sitting on top and got a bit burnt.)
Brush the tops with egg white, if you’d like, for a shiny touch. (I skipped this step)
Bake for about 20 minutes, until golden brown. Eat immediately to enjoy them at their best, or let cool completely and freeze. To serve, thaw at room temperate and fill with fresh whipped double cream and thick strawberry jam.
These scones have a fluffy texture with a moist and buttery taste that lacks the crumbly quality of many scones. Even though the taste and texture may differ, the effect of spreading jam and cream and serving with tea creates a wonderful scone experience. While I’m far from mastering scones or qualifying as a food artisan, this recipe inspired me to continue my efforts and also to consider more deeply the rewards of natural, homemade foods.
While I’m a long way from being considered cosmopolitan, traveling in Europe over the last few years has changed my perspective on the world and my appreciation of other cultures. Even the Tour de France feels different to me now. Not that I had watched it in recent years after all those scandals. But my trips to France this year (more on that in future posts!) and England in 2013 have compelled me to tune in a few times, both for the race and for the atmosphere and scenery. The second stage was of particular interest since it started in York, England, the final city that we visited last year and home to the famous Bettys Café Tea Rooms.
Located in northern England, about 200 miles from London and a couple of hours away by train, York was founded by the Romans in the first century and over the next thousand years served as an important city for Anglo-Saxons, early Christians, Vikings, and Normans. Its significance continued to grow during the medieval period.
York has several museums focusing on different aspects of its history, and many buildings and structures remain from various eras, including:
The medieval City Walls and gates (known as bars). The well-preserved walls circle the city center and can be walked, with a few gaps along the way.
Bootham Bar. Photo by Dorene
York City Walls. Photo by Diane
The Multangular Tower (left), part of which is an original Roman structure, and Clifford’s Tower, a remnant of the medieval York Castle.
Multangular Tower. Photo by Dorene
Clifford’s Tower. Photo by Dorene
Medieval houses and streets, including Goodramgate (left) and The Shambles.
Goodramgate. Photo by Dorene
The Shambles. Photo by Dorene
And the most famous site, York Minster.
York Minster. Photo by Dorene
York Minster. Photo by Diane
As one of Europe’s largest Gothic cathedrals, York Minster takes a couple of hours to explore, with stained glass windows, religious artifacts, monuments, an undercroft, a tower, and more. (The Great East Window remains under restoration until 2016.)
Chapter House ceiling. Photo by Dorene
Altar. Photo by Dorene
Rose window. Photo by Diane
View from lower tower. Photo by Dorene
Tower view of York. Photo by Dorene
And just a short walk from York Minster is Bettys Café Tea Rooms.
Swiss immigrant Frederick Belmont opened the original Bettys Café Tea Rooms in Harrogate in 1919, with the York café, now the flagship, opening in 1937 in St. Helen’s Square. Apparently the identity of “Betty” remains a mystery. (To read more, visit Bettys’ website.)
There are three ways to enjoy Bettys in York: the flagship location, which was our choice; the more upscale Art Deco Belmont Room, which has a separate entrance; and a smaller café on nearby Stonegate. We learned of Betty’s through our travel guidebooks, which said that there would be a line. And there was.
On the day of our visit, the line moved quickly. Many people chose to sit in the windowless lower level, known during World War II as Bettys Bar (for a story about the Bar, click here). We waited for an opening on the main floor and were seated within 15 minutes.
Bettys Café Tea Rooms offers a varied menu (click here for links to the menus). Dorene ordered her usual Afternoon Tea.
Afternoon Tea at Bettys. Photo by Dorene
Bettys pastries. Photo by Dorene
Tea – Bettys Tea Room Blend, a non-flavored black tea described as a “traditional rich blend of top-class African and Assam teas.” Tea was served with extra hot water, always a plus.
Sandwiches – There were four on brown and white bread: salmon, ham, chicken, and egg & mayo. All were very good.
Scones – A medium-sized sultana scone served with strawberry jam, Yorkshire clotted cream, and separate serving spoons for each! As I mentioned in a previous post, using the same utensil bothers me because, as a jam-first person, I feel bad about sullying the cream. Dorene does cream first, so it matters less. Anyway, the scone had some substance and flavor, and it was not too sweet. “Sultana” was a new word for me. It refers to the fruit: raisins from white or pale green seedless grapes.
Pastries – This doesn’t happen often, but the scone was not Dorene’s favorite part. The fruit tart, mini-cake, and especially the lemon macaroon (a bit hidden in the above picture) were winners, an unexpected result.
Decor – Decorated in the Art Nouveau style, the windows are the highlight. A tree motif runs along the sides and top, reflected inside by mirrors. A high shelf of teapots identifies this as a tea room.
Service – Polite and efficient staff. However, the wait for the food was long. Fortunately, the desserts alone made the wait worthwhile.
Atmosphere – With a crowd packed into the large, bustling room, there was little atmosphere to complement the food and decor.
While waiting in line to be seated, I had time to study the cake menu. That’s when I decided to order a light lunch of soup and bread so that I could indulge in a Chocolate and Raspberry St. Honoré. It looks small in this picture, but each bite of chocolate, raspberry, cream, and pastry produced a series of delights. Sadly, it is not listed as an option on the 2014 Summer Menu.
During the wait for food, I did enjoy the chance to look around and appreciate the effect of the windows and mirrors. While Bettys Café Tea Rooms may not have the sense of character that we encountered in other tea rooms, its history, decor, and food created a wonderful experience.
Along with York, Harrogate (home of the original Bettys) also hosted the Tour de France, providing the finish line for stage one (Le Grand Départ). Of course the English found a way to celebrate the rare appearance of the Tour de France in their country with…tea. Bettys is part of a larger firm called Bettys & Taylors Group, and one of their brands, Yorkshire Tea, served as Official Tea Partner of Le Grand Départ and created a commemorative tea, or rather Thé, for the event.
Apparently, the fans loved it. I saw posts on Twitter from people looking for the tea, and according to the Yorkshire Evening Post, it has even sold on eBay. I think the U.S. should take note!
A short visit to Bath, England creates lasting memories of both the uniformity of the cream-colored buildings and the diversity of the city’s historical contributions, including the nearly 2,000-year-old Roman Baths, Bath Abbey, Georgian-era architecture, and Bath’s culture. Yet for many of us, Bath’s most compelling legacy is the 5-year reluctant residence of Jane Austen. And considering the role of tea rituals in each of her novels, Bath offered a fitting venue for combining this beloved author with our pursuit of tea and scones.
By using Bath as a setting in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, Jane Austen (1775-1817) forever linked herself with the city. At the same time that these novels bring Bath to life for readers, they also suggest some unfavorable opinions of the city. Her letters provide additional insight into these opinions, while the other four novels, which all include at least one mention of Bath, further hint at Jane Austen’s feelings through the characters associated with the references to Bath (Wickham, Willoughby, the Eltons).
Without hiding from these feelings, Bath has embraced Jane Austen and built a tourism industry around her. The Jane Austen Centre at 40 Gay Street preserves Jane Austen’s presence in Bath through guided walking tours, a permanent exhibition, gift shop, tea room, and the annual Jane Austen Festival (the next festival is September 12-21, 2014).
We began our Austen-related sightseeing with the Walking Tour of Jane Austen’s Bath. The tour starts in the Abbey Churchyard at 11:00 a.m. on Saturdays, Sundays, and bank holidays. (The website lists the cost as £12, although I don’t remember it being that expensive in 2013.)
Just prior to the start of our tour, a cold and relentless rain began. With one partially broken umbrella to cover us both, this was not how we had envisioned our Jane Austen journey. Fortunately our tour guide was delightful and accommodating, trying to find covered spots for us to stand wherever possible while keeping us entertained by reading scenes from the books, providing details about Bath society during Jane Austen’s time, and sharing stories about the Austen family, including the shoplifting scandal involving Jane Austen’s aunt, Jane Leigh-Perrot. (Visit the Jane Austen Centre’s website for an article about the scandal.)
Our tour guide had a special fondness for Northanger Abbey, and shortly after beginning the tour, he brought us to the Pump Room, now a restaurant, and explained its significance for Catherine Morland (visit Jane Austen’s World to learn more).
Pump Room. Photo by Dorene
Pump Room and Clock. Photo by Dorene
The rest of the tour was outside. Even though better weather would have been welcome, the tour guide was a fine companion and effective in sharing his perspective on the era and recreating scenes from the books. Perhaps because of the rain, the tour extended slightly past the scheduled 90 minutes before ending at the Jane Austen Centre, which is located a few doors down from what is now a dental office at 25 Gay Street, where the Austens lived for about 6 months following the death of Jane’s father.
Inside the Jane Austen Centre, there are three places to visit. On the ground floor is a delightful gift shop. The main section of the Jane Austen Centre is the permanent exhibition. Before entering the exhibition, a costumed staff member gives a 10-minute talk about Jane Austen, and while some of the information was shared during the walking tour, one can never hear enough about Jane Austen. While the exhibition is not large, the displays include many interesting objects and details relating to Jane Austen, the books, her family life, and the era, society, and culture that would have influenced her. (Exhibition fee is £8. We received a 10% discount because we had been on the walk.)
Tea exhibit at Jane Austen Centre. Photo by Dorene
Placard for tea exhibit. Photo by Dorene
Jane Austen portrait. Photo by Dorene
Emma – Dedication page to the Prince Regent. Photo by Dorene
Finally, on the second floor (Americans would call it the third floor) there is the Regency Tea Room. Not that we saved it for the end. After almost 2 hours of walking in the cold rain, we deferred our visit to the gift shop and exhibition in favor of the tea room.
The Regency Tea Room offers lunch items and other treats, but we were there for afternoon tea (click here for the menu). Dorene selected the traditional Ladies Afternoon Tea (tea, finger sandwiches, and a scone). My selection was Tea with the Austens. Along with a better name, Tea with the Austens included a piece of cake instead of a scone. I would have enjoyed a scone, but the cakes were on display behind Dorene’s seat, and the chocolate cake looked irresistible.
Tea – There was a good selection of tea, and we both chose the Jane Austen Blend, “a light blend of China black teas popular in Regency times.”
Sandwiches – They were nicely prepared and included cucumber, ham with mustard, smoked salmon, and cheddar with chutney. The smoked salmon and cheddar with chutney were especially good.
Scone – The scone was very good, of substantial size, with no sweetness (a good thing), and served with ample clotted cream and jam. Notice the jam and cream are missing from the picture above. Dorene had to request them.
Decor – There were two rooms with hardwood floors and red walls above white paneling. The larger room had windows, a fireplace, and a portrait of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy. The smaller room by the entrance had just a few tables, the cake display, and the cash register. This is the room we were in.
Service – The staff was pleasant and friendly but also seemed frazzled. In addition to forgetting the cream and jam, our waitress spilled my tea while pouring it.
Atmosphere – Because we were near the cash register and the entrance, the activity of the staff was visible to us. There was a mildly heated discussion between two of the waitresses, which created tension in the room. The weather could have affected their moods, but we were distracted, and the tea room’s charm was diminished for us.
After years and years of reading and re-reading Jane Austen, I had hoped that the Regency Tea Room would transport me to another era. This didn’t happen. Perhaps with lovely weather and a seat in the room dominated by Mr. Darcy’s gaze, the experience may have been different. At least the tea, sandwiches, and especially the chocolate cake were wonderful.
The ultimate destination for a Jane Austen pilgrimage is the village of Chawton in Hampshire County where Jane Austen lived from 1809-1817. Since our visit to England would lead us in the opposite direction, Bath needed to suffice, and while the experience could have been better, overall this Jane Austen journey did suffice.
The walking tour did not travel to all of the Jane Austen sites, so we visited several places on our own, including another Austen residence and the site of her father’s tombstone.
The Austens lived in a few different buildings in Bath, with their longest residence at 4 Sydney Place near what is now the Holburne Museum. The building is privately owned and can be viewed only from the outside.
Door at 4 Sydney Place. Photo by Dorene
4 Sydney Place. Photo by Dorene
During our walking tour we learned that Jane Austen’s father was buried in St. Swithin’s Church, which is just north of the tourist section of Bath, but still within walking distance, with a slight uphill climb. The following day while in the area of the Assembly Rooms (more on those in a subsequent post), we decided on a whim to visit St. Swithin’s.
St. Swithin’s Church. Photo by Dorene
St. Swithin’s Clock. Photo by Dorene
We thought the tour guide had said that George Austen was buried inside the church, so when we found the church locked, our side trip had seemingly ended. Then a church member arrived a few moments later and offered assistance. She did not know where George Austen was buried, but she let us enter the church to look around. Scanning the plaques on the walls with no success, we had little hope of finding anything.
As consolation, the woman showed us a replica of the 1764 marriage record of George and Cassandra Austen. The church had been torn down and rebuilt several years after their marriage in order to accommodate Bath’s growing population, but church records were retained. The church was also known as Walcot Church or the parish of Walcot, which used to be a hamlet just outside of Bath and is now part of the city. George Austen once served as curate of Walcot.
Joined by a second church member, who also did not know where to direct us, the first woman ended up calling someone who solved the mystery. The tombstone was outside in the small yard on the side of the church. We had arrived from the opposite side and had not seen the yard.
Originally George Austen’s tombstone was in the crypt, but it was moved outside in 1968, and the memorial plaque was added in 2000.
There is a more proper way to visit St. Swithin’s. The inside of the church is open to the public during the summer months on Wednesdays from 11:00-3:00. There’s also a crypt café open Wednesday through Sunday (visit the website for more details and some history about the church). As two clueless tourists, we were most fortunate to encounter such kindness from a stranger and bring an unexpected yet fitting end to our Jane Austen journey.
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.
Photo by Dorene
Photo by Dorene
Parade Gardens pet cemetery. Photo by Diane
Parade Gardens pet cemetery. Photo by Diane
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.
Photo by Dorene
Photo by Dorene
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.
Photo by Dorene
Photo by Dorene
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Theatre Royal stage. Photo by Dorene
Theatre Royal ceiling. Photo by Dorene
Bizarre Bath and Noël Coward on consecutive nights: an unusual but entertaining example of what Bath has to offer.
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.
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.
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.
Bath Abbey. Photo by Dorene
Inside Bath Abbey. Photo by Dorene
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.
Bath Abbey and Orange Grove. Photo by Dorene
The Orange Grove. Photo by Dorene
In the building seen in the photo on the left, we found the Mad Hatters Tea Party.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.