Not Your Grandparents’ Tea Room

To know me is to know I’m somewhat of a cream tea aficionado ‒ and I don’t mean just the ‘life-as-an-expat-makes-me-crave-all-things-English’ kind. No, I’ve loved scones and jam and clotted cream since I was old enough to lick the inside of a jam pot. (Which, incidentally, is frowned upon now I’m older.) Anyway, in anticipation of my move back to England, I contacted one of the most iconic tea rooms in the United Kingdom to see a) if they’d let me in, given my penchant for licking the inside of jam pots, and b) if they’d show me the inner workings of my idea of Nirvana: a tea room. Surprisingly, they said yes. Enter Paul Gibbs and David Pollard.

A chilly autumn mist lingers over much of Porlock Vale as I negotiate the winding lane to Selworthy. I feel I’m driving through a portal, framed by arcing gold, russet and amber boughs. This much beauty is distracting, and I haven’t even reached the iconic Selworthy Green yet. Changing gear is trickier than I remember and I almost stall going around the 90-degree bend by the 15th century whitewashed church. Thirty years in America leave my left hand unused to such driving tasks. I pull into the car park and grab my journal, leaving my laptop under the front seat. I’d initially thought I’d carry it in for my interview with Paul and David, the dynamic duo behind Periwinkle Tea Rooms and Clematis Cottage Gift Shop and Gallery. But as I stand gazing across thatched rooves, the silent cemetery and striking views of the moors, high tech seems somewhat out of place. Maybe I should have brought a quill and parchment paper. And worn a bonnet. Too late now. Where does one buy a bonnet these days, anyway?

I open the gate to Selworthy Green and cross the threshold into a different world: birdsong, the brittle crackle of leaves chattering back to the wind, a stream gurgling towards the sea after a stint on the moors high above the village. A step back in time. Many a dream of moving to Exmoor begins at this gate.

Clematis Cottage greets me on the right. A lichen-covered bench sits in welcome under the diamond-paned cottage window. A riot of pink resurrection lilies keeps the bench company. Pyracantha and ivy cascade over the stone walls and steps. An ilex tree of some variety draws the eye through the bountiful berries to the fields and moors beyond. I feel no need to take another step. Surely this bench is as good a place to spend eternity as anywhere? But I take one more step because my nagging subconscious reminds me I have an appointment.

I pause again on Selworthy Green. I have no choice, appointment or not. Surrounded by burnt-amber cottages topped with mossy thatched hats, its grassy welcome is set in a frame of confectionary-coloured flowers, even in November. Picture postcard perfection. I inhale the welcoming scent of a wood fire, tendrils of smoke curling from a chimney into the air. A door opens. A cheery hello, followed by ‘Want a cup of tea?’ Why, yes. Yes, I do.

Paul Gibbs waves me into Periwinkle Tea Rooms. Paul and David are entering their second year as National Trust tenant operators here, though there’s been a tea room in this location for decades. Ducking under the thatched porch, I’m reminded of a hundred other entries into this hallowed place. As a teenager, sullen (until the cakes arrive), as a newly-wed, proudly presenting Exmoor to my American husband, as a mother introducing my US-born children to an important part of their cultural heritage – clotted cream, flapjacks and ploughman’s lunches. And now, as a homesick expat and empty nester, looking for all the comforts of home I just can’t replicate in America. The tea room had been closed for several years. Seeing it open again elicits more complicated emotions than I’d imagined. I thought I’d lost this part of my history.

With a grateful sigh, I take in another of my favourite Exmoor views: A sideboard groaning with cakes, a glowing fireplace, tea pots lined up like soldiers ready for the lunch fray. Wonky beams and low ceilings; all of it familiar. Yet, there’s something new here, an energy that belies the quintessential ticking-clock-sleepy-cat-on-windowsill expectations of an English tea room. This is no museum to the lace table cloth, encased in magnolia white walls, the hush broken only by the faint clatter of a stainless-steel teapot lid.

There’s new colour here. Plenty of it. In the seafoam walls, in the local artwork, in the cushions scattered around the bench seating. In the light reflecting from glistening ceramic tea pots and the quirky snail-shaped menu holders.

There’s music too, coming from sophisticated elec-trickery (remember the Cat Weasel TV programme?) flashing under the cakes. It’s my first clue this is a thoroughly modern operation wrapped in quaint trimmings. As Paul directs my tour – I’ve never been upstairs before ‒ I realise this is not your grandparents’ tea room. There’s a computer screen above the impressive commercial ovens in the bakery. Paul shows me detailed statistical analysis: every scone sold in 2018 (13,628), every cream clotted (33 kilos) every carrot grated (26 kilos), walnut halved (20 kilos), egg cracked (3,727), Victoria sponged ‒ sorry, your majesty, but that’s 7,453 total slices of all cake varieties for a total of 828 cakes. And finally, every dollop of jam (410 kilos). That’s a lot of jars to lick!

Where am I? This is not what I expected. I’m somewhere between below stairs at Downton Abbey and the bridge of the USS Enterprise. (Darn it. Should have brought my old laptop in with me, just to compete.) Pulling up more screens, Paul shows me social media has replaced the lunch gong here. The business twitter account has a staggering reach of up to a million a week. There’s Instagram, Facebook, a polished website and a blog, all responsible for an impressive increase in guests taking detours to visit. The only nod to custom in the kitchen is a binder full of recipes, including all the traditional favourite cakes, biscuits and scones, along with new inspirations, like smoked salmon, leak and potato soup. Paul tells me the recipes are followed precisely, every time. Nothing is left to memory or chance. A guest can return time after time for that favourite coffee cake and never leave saying it was better last time. This is all part, Paul says, of knowing your business, knowing your market, and never compromising on standards. This may explain why they won ‘Tourism Business of The Year 2018’ at the Best New Business Awards.

It all seems so … not thatched. I’m sensing SEO manipulation and business projections Amazon would be proud to call its own. Turns out, I shouldn’t be surprised. Paul and David also run Mill Close Solutions, a management consulting business specialising in leisure, tourism and hospitality start-ups. With their Selworthy businesses open seven days a week, eleven months of the year, when do they have the time, you may ask? I almost feel guilty interrupting their day for a cup of tea. Almost.

I’m honoured to be offered a seat in Writers Corner, designated for local writers who meet to share all things ‘Author’. (Authors eat cake too, I’ve heard.) I start by testing the tea. Periwinkle Tea Rooms uses Miles tea, a local supplier who blends tea and coffee specifically to compliment the peaty Exmoor water. I don’t know what that involves, but it tastes sublime. Of course, that could be as much a part of context as flavour. Hard to imagine not enjoying anything in this glorious setting.

Paul Gibbs and David Pollard in Writers Corner

Taking a break from his duties at Clematis Cottage ‒ the gallery side of the business featuring Exmoor artists ‒ David joins us for a chat about finding home. His journey to Selworthy started on a fruit farm in Kent before spending eighteen years on Sark, in the Channel Islands. He says he doesn’t miss Sark, mainly because it could take weeks to get off the island in bad weather. Paul, born in Devon and raised in Dorset, has a strong family tie to Selworthy. His great-great-grandparents worked on the Holnicote Estate, one as a woodsman, the other as domestic help. They even lived in one of the Selworthy ‘grace and favour’ cottages. They rest here still, with their youngest daughter, in the churchyard a few yards from where we sit. Paul recalls conversations with his great-grandmother about life in the village. Treasured memories.

Bringing his ancestry full circle to now live himself in Selworthy is profoundly meaningful for Paul. ‘Selworthy is such a special place for so many people,’ he says. But for him it’s more than that. It’s the beating heart of his family history. I wonder out loud if someone had to compromise to live here, the historical connection deeper for one half of the partnership than the other. After all, I have the same concerns about asking my husband to move to Exmoor just because it’s home for me. But neither Paul nor David struggle with the decision. They both cherish the opportunity to make Periwinkle Tea Rooms and Clematis Cottage ‘must see’ destinations. They’ve succeeded already. Trust me on that.

Their love and excitement at being here has led to phenomenal success, outperforming all expectations in their first years. They’re certainly willing to go out on a limb for their guests, even throwing an impromptu wedding reception for a bride whose ancestors lived in Periwinkle Cottage. They organized a meet and greet for me with other local authors too ‒ well above and beyond the call of scone duty.

I wonder what Paul’s great-great-grandparents would think of a world-renowned, technologically-advanced enterprise in Selworthy. It was, after all, just low income housing in an isolated village ‘back in the day’. Who knows? But certainly, this is not your grandparents’ tea shop ‒ unless you had state-of-the-art grandparents. That said, Periwinkle Tea Rooms still uses your grandparents’ recipes. Those delights, combined with time-honoured tradition, stunning scenery, the welcoming warmth of a fire cracking in the grate, and good old-fashioned hospitality will bring me back to Selworthy over and over again. No matter how long I’ve been away, this place is part of my family tradition. It will continue to be so thanks to Paul and David.

For more information, check out: https://periwinkletearooms.co.uk/clematis-cottage-gift-shop-gallery/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/author.traceygemmell/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/TraceyGemmell17

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/traceygemmellauthor/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tracey-gemmell/

Jingle Bells, Morris-Style

Jingle Bells, Morris-Style

‘I’m off to find England. MY England’, I announce to my American husband. ‘Great,’ he says. ‘Bring back some Club biscuits.’ Tut. Eyeroll. Like Club biscuits epitomise my national identity. (They’ll be in my luggage anyway.) But if not Club biscuits, what exactly is ‘My England’? I’ve met many Brits abroad who crave the comfort of all we left behind, without being able to pinpoint what that is. Hiraeth (or hireth, Cornish spelling) ‒ a deep yearning for home with a sense of loss ‒ has taught me to beware the rose-tinted dangers inherent in returning to the land of my birth. After all, what exactly do I think I’m returning to?

Sounds like a fieldtrip’s in order. I head across the Pond to search for …well, England. A white handkerchief flashes in my peripheral vision. Enter the West Somerset Morris.

Morris dancing, that most quintessential of ancient English folk dances, prances proudly through my youth. May Day festivities, royal jubilees, Christmas pub crawls, the Morris dancers were always there in sashes, tabards and tatter jackets. The sounds of the concertinas and fiddles blending with the bells attached to the dancers’ shins. To the rest of the world, the scene may be evocative of cosy murder mysteries; Morris dancers used as a cinematic cue we’re in jolly, quaint, quirky, hankie-flapping England. It’s bound to be one of the dancers who trips over the dead body.

But I digress. I’m here to discover my connection to this English tradition. The West Somerset Morris is brave enough to let me visit a practice session.

I drive to Sampford Brett, a village just outside Exmoor National Park. As I check directions to the village hall, a peal of bells makes me smile. I roll down my rental car window. The joyful tones cascade from the church belfry and wash over me; memories of childhood Sunday evenings. Nowhere else in the world do bells sound like this. But I mustn’t tarry. The Morris waits for no one. Gathering up my pen and camera, I pull open the door to the village hall, and step inside the beating heart of English tradition.

‘Bagman’ Ray greets me ‒ Bagman an infinitely more interesting title than secretary. Ray is also the Foreman of this Morris, aka the dance teacher. Next, I meet Squire Joe (the leader). Other dancers arrive. In a corner, the musicians set up: fiddle, concertina and flute.

I’m placed in a safe position at the side of the hall – there are spinning bodies to avoid after all. Members line up and the music starts. Foreman Ray names the dances for me: Maid of Mill, Banbury Bill, Nuts in May (this one involves chunky sticks. I’m here to tell you, they don’t hold back in taking swings at each other), Border Dance, Skirmish, Jenny Lind, to name but a few. It’s a chilly night but there’s soon a sweat on brows. This is a workout and then some.

I manoeuvre carefully round the perimeter to take photos as Foreman Ray calls out dance steps. Squire Joe wants more energy from the dancers. The dancers want Squire to take smaller lateral steps so the lines remain true. This is an art steeped in tradition, and members are sticklers for maintaining form. I try a discreet little hop step myself. It’s harder than it looks.

During the tea break, I ask the group about their own roots and ties, both to this dance and this part of the country. Members recount stories of global travel, coincidences and genealogical flukes. These stories follow tomorrow in Part II.

Members finish their tea. The fiddle, flute and concertina fire up, and they’re off again ‒ sticks clanking and whoops whooping. The steps have exotic names like Whole-Hey, Half-Gyp, Caper, Hockle Back and Cross-Hop. Handkerchiefs must be flicked outwards from chest level, no lower. Ray explains these little details distinguish one Morris from another and one area of the country from another. It’s fascinating. I’m so joining the Morris when I move back here!

Or so I think until Bagman hands me a pair of handkerchiefs and invites me onto the floor for the final dance. Let’s just say, it’s a good job I wasn’t trusted with the sticks. As I cavort gamely, trying not to trip anyone while flicking my handkerchiefs with abandon, I’m reminded of the description of Morris dancing in Cecil J. Sharp’s book, The Morris, written in 1907: ‘…the Morris dance is a bodily manifestation of vigour and rude health, and not at all of sinuous grace or dreaminess.’ I may have the rude bit down as I crash around. No one declares I dance with ‘sinuous grace’. Maybe I’m a natural after all.

All too soon, it’s 10pm and practice is over. Ray tells me I’ve only been privy to half the experience so far. It’s on to the pub for a pint, as much a part of Morris as anything, with its history steeped in ale since mediaeval times. Unfortunately, I have an early assignment tomorrow, so have to pass on the offer. Good excuse to come back for the rest of my education though.

I wind along the inky-black lanes towards Porlock, wrapped in a sense of history, of belonging, of roots. Was it the dance? The tea? The tradition? The comradery? Yes. Yes, it was.

I’ll never take for granted the work and dedication of individuals preserving traditions. They mean so much to the expatriate ‒ this one, anyway. Can I fully explain my connection to home? Not really. It just is. But I reconnected with part of my England in a tiny hall in a tiny village, dancing with people I’d never met. I found kindred spirits in the jingling heart of my home, complete with church bells and Morris bells. I can’t thank the West Somerset Morris enough for pulling me back into the dances of England.

For more photos and video from my visit to the West Somerset Morris: https://www.facebook.com/author.traceygemmell/

Here are some resources if you’d like to learn more – or even join the dance!

http://www.westsomersetmorris.co.uk/

https://themorrisring.org/publications/morris-tradition

https://www.rattlejagmorris.org.uk/history-of-morris-dancing

The Morris Book by Cecil J. Sharp, 1907

https://www.scribd.com/document/2397140/The-Morris-Book-Part-1-A-History-of-Morris-Dancing-With-a-Description-of-Eleven-Dances-as-Performed-by-the-Morris-Men-of-England-by-Sharp-Cecil-J