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/

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