The Mad Garden Tea Party

The was a time in England when it was an awfully long time between lunchtime and dinner.  A stomach-rumbling eternity.

That was back in the horrid 1700s. Mercifully, in 1830,  Duchess Anna Maria, wife of the 7th Duke of Bedford, created an ingenious solution, in her Blue Room at Woburn.

Tea. Afternoon tea. Tiny sandwiches and impossibly intricate cream cakes, rounded off with scones, jam and cream, all served on a three-tier dish for maximum accessibility.

Afternoon tea was an instant hit, because not only did it fill a lady’s stomach to prevent it making loud and brash observations in the early evening; it filled a spiritual gap, too.

Four and six in the evening, in England, is an odd time. It can drag its feet somewhat. Gape, even.

I have a feeling that was  in the mind of Lewis Carroll when he wrote about that famous tea party hosted by a mad milliner around 1865. The Mad Hatter’s tea party has a nightmarish quality. It is endless, with a garrulous host who will not shut up and another guest who keeps falling asleep. It has a familiar ring to it; I surmise that Carroll was no stranger to the Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.

These days, though, the afternoon tea is Heritage. It can set you back more than £50 at some of the big hotels, and even the English occasionally succumb to the inflated prices for a plate of sandwiches and cakes and a hired pianist. It is teatime theatre: porcelain, hats, raised pinky fingers. Classic.

A word in your ear.

If you head out of London towards the M3 you wil happen upon Kew Gardens.

A horticultural feast, Kew is full of the wondrous. The architecture alone causes gapery, with its steampunk Victorian palm house and temperate houses, great 19th century glass habitats; a treetop walkway affords views across gorgeous mature forest and that area of London; there are installations and a boating lake and a towering Chinese pagoda and suchlike.

But ignore everything except the path to the Palm House. Look not to left or to right; climb the winding white stair to the first floor walkway and look out over the back lawn.

And you will see a tea party in full session.

Gracious, I though; I had no idea you could hire this place for events on the lawn outside the Palm House!

And then I looked closer. People were milling around the table for 28.

How impertinent, I mused.

I forgot about it until later, when I ambled straight into the table. It is part of the Incredible Inedible  festival at Kew. I was ambling absent-mindedly back from the Temperate houses, on the phone to my mother, and there it was: a tea party in session. But in every teapot was a plant growing, in every cup an enchanting English country flower.

The Rose Garden Tea Party is an installation by Kirsti Davies. Every piece of porcelain has been collected especially for this table, and especially to hold the plants which are used to create an English afternoon tea party.

It is, quite simply, delectible. And though one does not get cream cakes, the visual feast is sumptuous.

I took pictures and pictures and pictures. And now I want to go back and take more pictures. Everlasting, sunkissed, al fresco, porcelain teatime.

And then I pottered off to the Orangery for afternoon tea.

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37 thoughts on “The Mad Garden Tea Party

  1. Fabulous idea. We lived very near to Kew Gardens at one point in our lives – just off the Green on the road parallel to the river – and we spent a lot of time there with our children. In fact we discovered our son’s fear of heights in the green house! That new installation is excellent.

    1. Kew have been very canny, Roger. Their grasp of the tourism market is perfect. Adults pay a whopping £16 – but kids go free. It still, after all these years, makes for a great family day out.

  2. What a wonderful installation! This will certainly be part of a (future) itinerary, followed by propah English tea at the Orangerie. Thanks Kate 🙂

  3. Lovely – it just epitomises this summer to a “tea!!!”
    If you do return try and make time to visit the wonderful Marianne North Gallery at Kew and see Marianne’s exquisite botanical paintings.

    1. I saw signs for that, Rosemary, but it was Mad’s day and she had a packed itinerary planned. Yes: when I sneak back on my own to photograph the tea party, I shall make a special timeslot for Marianne and her paintings. Thank you!

  4. I have done 26 cruises of all types and the thing I look forward to the most is the afternoon tea. So elegant and refreshing and serves as a respite from my helter skelter goal of doing a thousand things a day.

    1. Welcome back! We have missed you! You have to have experienced a Sunday afternoon in the dull light of January to know the full horror of the Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, Andra. I think Sunday shopping has put paid to it to a certain extent; there’s more bustle about the time now.But there have still been times when it was grim.

  5. Love your photos of the installation, particularly the serving pieces with text on them.

    I’ve always wanted to attend a genuine tea, but I don’t care for any tea except iced, and I suspect it would be impolite to request coffee with my tea cakes and watercress sandwiches? 🙂

  6. Synchronicity! Just thinking I’m a bit parched when I click on your post and, lo and behold! It’s just gone four o’clock! I’m popping the kettle on.

    1. It is after four, though the time check for my previous post insists it was 3:11 pm. Don’t believe it. Anyway, the sun’s just come out, pretty much at the time yesterday’s local weather report told us the weather would clear. So there.

  7. How exquisite, Kate. We don’t do Afternoon Tea as a rule . . . but we’ve stayed at some wonderful B&B’s that put the kettle on each afternoon.

    At the Balance Rock Inn in Bar Harbor, Maine, we enjoyed a sumptuous Tea each afternoon after hiking around Acadia National Park. Just a delight.

    1. Exercie always heightens the pleasure of teatimes, Nancy, even in the dark of winter. Many’s the time I remember coming home after an icy wet walk to buttered crumpets and jam in front of the fire!

  8. My cup of tea, you know that, don’t you Kate? Gardens and tea and flowers – and Kew, which is on my bucket list. This was wonderful. I’ve been to teas and hosted teas, but, none would be as elegant as this. I want to like you twice, but, wordpress won’t let me.
    My internal clock always tells me I need refreshment right around 4, and it is often to tea that I turn.

    1. Thank you, Lori: I do hope you come. It really is a blast, I’m not making it up. Meanwhile: I shall be coming to find some of the stories in the US this time next week. I am extremely excited…

  9. What a lovely idea. Thank you for the visuals, Kate.

    When we were in London, many years ago, we stayed at The Limetree Hotel – a bed and breakfast near Victoria Station. One evening, our eldest daughter prepared tea and brought it down to us in the garden. Very civilized. We had a wonderful time – and that tea in the garden holds a lasting, wonderful memory in my heart.

  10. At first I thought you had made a typo “incredible inedible” as we have just embarked on incredible edible in my patch of sunny south London. Looks and sounds wondrous.
    If you are in London, strolling near parliament, or maybe Tate Britain, nip over to Vauxhall and enjoy real tea in real teapots with real tea cosies at the Vauxhall Teahouse Theatre. And say I sent you…

  11. So lovely. Please don’t mind this faux pas – but is it a faux pas to drink coffee in England? Not that I would dare ask for it during tea (do enjoy during cold months) but coffee – sigh – do adore it too much!

  12. Brought up as a heathen in Texas. Would have an afternoon Dr Pepper break with my granny. But I do like tea and scones. What a lovely tea table. Did I spot marigolds there, or is that a New World flower?

  13. I can easily see why this would be a very special treat for the eyes, Kate. Maybe nothing to eat or drink, but sometimes creativity and art feeds the soul. I think a lovely formal tea is an elegant way to slow down! We all ought to follow your lead!

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