Gardens to Gables

The misbehaving teapot at Fortnum’s

I was not a tea drinker until my junior year of college. Through genetics, I’ve been lucky (or cursed?) to be fairly energetic most of the time, so a need for caffeine wasn’t established – and even then, when I first embarked on my tea journey, it wasn’t because I needed a stimulant – I was just SO COLD. As in aching, shivering, cold to my bones cold. Coffee wasn’t an option – one, while I enjoy the smell, the taste…there isn’t enough milk and sugar in the world to make it palatable. Secondly, I was in England, suffering through the cold (outside and inside), and then we went on a canal trip.
Canals are lovely. The pastoral landscape entrances and inspires. The meandering, slow place of travel is a refreshing respite from the chaotic pace of life in London. Canal trips in the spring in England are also lovely, but when it rains, and you are outside and wet, it is cold…and you might turn to drink. Alcohol works fine at night, but when you are walking along the towpath, you need to be alert and not soddenly inebriated. PG Tips came to the rescue, and since then I’ve been a convert.
The Shirley Drawbridge at Majors Green, northern branch of the Stratford to
Avon canal (photo courtesy Wikipedia commons)
Although I try to not buy lots of “stuff” anymore on my trips to England, preferring to spend my meager funds on travel and experiences, I make allowances for tea (and Cadbury Bourneville chocolate bars). In addition to lugging lots of tea home in my luggage, I make it a point to “have tea” as often as possible. I usually make it to Fortnum and Mason in London at least once.
Fortnum and Mason’s flagship store at Piccadilly
The Queen, Camilla (Duchess of Cornwall) and 
Kate Middleton (Duchess of Cambridge)
 examine some Fortnum’s Hampers
Established as a grocery store in 1701 by William Fortnum (one of Queen Anne’s footmen) and Hugh Mason (Fortnum’s landlord), Fortnum’s is located at 181 Piccadilly in West London. Now famous for its loose-leaf tea and luxurious hampers, the genesis of Fortnum’s stems from Mr. Fortnum’s habit of selling the Queen’s used candles….a spurious sounding practice, somehow.
The iconic, six-story building was constructed in 1917. The neo-Georgian building, with its stone trim work and restrained façade, is perfect for the upper-crust ambiance of the store. The famous façade clock, constructed in 1964, chimes every 15 minutes. On the hour, figures of Mr. Fortnum and Mr. Mason emerge, and bow to one another, with a background of chimes and 18th century music. The clock weights four tons, and has 18 bells, which were cast at the same foundry as Big Ben.

 

The clock on the façade
Afternoon tea tray in the Gallery

A renovation, carried out around the 300th anniversary of the store, dramatically opened up interior spaces. In the November 4, 2007 edition of The Guardian, Jonathan Glancey (who, at the time, was the architecture and design correspondent) reviewed the renovation in the following vein:

“At the core of the building, a sweeping, pure white stair spirals up through a new four-storey atrium, allowing all the various floors of the shop, once hidden, to be seen in one glance. The stair is lit by a glass dome. The whole thing, designed by the architects Jestico and Whiles, looks as if it has been stripped from a Las Vegas shopping mall, or some new Middle Eastern airport.”

I can’t say that I have an informed opinion on the renovation, since my first visit to Fortnum’s was in 2010, after the afore-mentioned work. (and a thank-you to my tea-loving friend Amelia, who introduced me to the seductive tea selection at Fortnum’s!) What I can hold forth upon is…the tea. And it is fantastic!

So much tea from which to choose!

And having tea at Fortnum’s is also delightful – although my last experience bordered on convulsive hilarity. London was really hot last summer, with the grass in the parks resembling crisp brown spikes – and any excuse to duck into an air-conditioned building was a good one. So hot tea on a hot day? Of course!

The ground floor of Fortnum’s, with all the tea, coffee and hampers you could desire…

 

 

My new teapot, after the tragical events unfolded.
Fortnum’s serves their tea in silver teapots, which give the impression of solidity and graciousness. The solidity slipped when, mid-pour, the handle broke off of my teapot. I am not quite sure how I managed to catch the teapot and prevent steaming Earl Gary from descending into my lap – but several items from the table went flying and met the floor with a loud clamor. Despite the renovations, designed bring some hipness into what might have been perceived as a stuffy interior, the general air at Fortnum’s remains…august. Even at the Gallery, where we were enjoying our afternoon tea, and is somewhat more relaxed than other spaces in the store, my teapot disaster brought heads whipping round. 
Our waiter, a very charming young man from Europe, rushed over (as did the manager), and I would have made my mother proud, as I brushed aside their concern, and laughed. I venture to say many folks were expecting an angry and outraged response from me, but I escaped being burned, our delicious tray of treats was unscathed, and all I really wanted was…my tea. Of course, given my somewhat frugal nature, I wouldn’t have minded if our entire tea was gratis – but I was happy that the bill was cut in half due to the errant teapot. And we made lots of friends after the drama of the tea debacle…nothing brings strangers in London together like a misbehaving silver teapot. Speaking of tea, I have a hot mug to finish right now…
A tasty, tiny treat at Fortnum’s afternoon tea…

 

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