Back to my roots

The Preview Issue March 2001
The Preview Issue February 2001

I have spent the last few days meandering through the ‘tea’ archives to revisit the work I have been lucky enough to be part of, along with Whitehill Publishing, over the past years (quite a lot of years). The ‘tea’ magazine (Margaret Thornby’s Tea and Tea Room Talk) was the most recent publication but we produced a newsletter as far back as 2001. Why am I telling you all this, you may be wondering? The clue  is in the title of the blog, ‘Back to my roots’, in that my plan, over the coming months, is to produce an e-newsletter on a regular basis, bringing news and views on all things tea. From tea rooms to teas, tea paraphernalia to cake, and much more, I want to generate interest, talk, tweets, blogs about my favourite subject and one close to the hearts of many across the world too. I plan to make this available widely, to all those with an interest in the subject and to gain your views as well as share my own.

As I read through those past magazines and newsletters, I realised it was a precious record of how I developed on what began as an interest in visiting tea rooms with friends, at a time when e-books and magazines hadn’t even been thought of, to a long time passion and interest that I share with others on Twitter, through blogs, email … Times may have changed, technology has certainly come on apace, yet tea is a constant; there doesn’t need to be a new way to make or enjoy tea. It is what it is, as the saying goes and amen to that.

I have to say, though I say it myself, the preview issue and the subsequent issues of “Margaret Thornby’s Tea Room Society News” were cute. Low key, fairly basic in IT and printing terms, yet with a certain allure and charm evocative of a tea room itself. The Preview Issue February 2001, explained what the newsletter was all about and who we were targeting, how people could ‘join’ and what that membership would offer. The cost for quarterly newsletters and other member privileges was a mere £10 a year; £8.50 for early birds who signed up before April 27 2001. Everything was posted through a postbox with stamps affixed back then; no winging it off as an attachment to an email. We printed 650 copies and distributed them far and wide, to tea rooms in the latest of the Margaret Thornby’s Guide to Tea Rooms of Britain, to people who had bought this guide and to others with an interest in tea and tea rooms. And so an idea was born, a newsletter evolved and developed into a magazine with a wide circulation in the UK and beyond.

Looking back has given me ideas in terms of moving forward, it has energised me and it has also given me an excuse (like I need one) for many cups of lovely, lovely tea – and, sometimes, even a cake. I much enjoyed the letters pages in the newsletter – “Letters to Margaret” – and was always surprised when people actually took the time to write to me with their news and views on tea and tea rooms. Today, I might expect to receive emails or tweets but, I admit, there was something very special about those little missives popping through the door and the thrill of opening and reading them. I hope that people will still be inspired to write whether that be by email, tweet … I do enjoy hearing from others who share my passion for a good pot of tea and a stand out tea room. Let’s join forces and start a tea revolution.

A slice of cake with my tea please

Cakes are undisputedly an expected and essential menu item at any self respecting tea room. Battenburg, Victoria Sandwich or Sponge, Coffee, Dundee Cake, Carrot Cake, Lemon Drizzle, Chocolate Cake … So many cakes, so little time but what is the origin of some of those tea room specials?

Victoria Sandwich or Sponge is generally believed to have been named after Queen Victoria who was, reputedly, rather fond of a slice in the afternoon with her tea (we ARE amused). An alternative view of its origins is that it was a ‘plain’ cake deemed more suitable for children’s nursery tea, Whichever version you believe, Victoria Sandwich or Sponge is undoubtedly a tea room favourite and has the same basic elements of a two layered ‘plain’ sponge with jam and, sometimes, cream or buttercream ‘sandwiching’ the two together.

Battenberg also has royal connections, the first one of its kind believed to have been baked in honour of the marriage of Prince Louis of Battenberg to Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter. There is a counter argument to this belief that has the cake appearing much earlier in history and with nine squares held within the marzipan outer coating rather than the four with which we are familiar today. Bright and cheerful with its pink and yellow squares revealed once the marzipan layer is cut through, Battenberg cuts a dash on any cake table.

Dundee Cake, as its name suggests, originates from Dundee, Scotland. A rich fruit cake, what distinguishes it from any other fruit cake is the distinctive circles of blanched almonds adorning the top of the cake. The recipe is believed to date back to the late 1700s and is a cake fit to dress any cake table and to savour; recipes may vary but it always proudly bears its distinctive almonds.
Carrot Cake is believed to have begun life as a pudding in Medieval times, with George Washington having been credited as being made a carrot tea cake in the late 1700s. Though recipes may have changed and evolved over the centuries, its essential ingredient, carrot, remains that which creates a moist and tasty cake, enriched with dried fruit and spices to make it warming, if not a legitimate one of your five a day!

Chocolate Cake must surely be one of the most sought after delicacies to be found, rich and luscious, shouting out to us to try a slice, please. There are many variations, many different toppings and fillings but all bear the essential gooey-ness and sense of sinful pleasure synonymous with chocolate itself. Its origin is thought to date back to the mid-1700s when a Dr James Baker discovered the art of grinding cocoa beans between millstones to make chocolate. I wonder if he knew what he had started?

Tea – where would cake be without a pot of tea? Up the river without a paddle, I suspect. Different teas for different cakes; whatever your pleasure.
More cake please? Would you like to contribute your favourite cake, telling its origin and delights? Add to the blog by tweeting me @TearoomGuide or by commenting on the blog.

Tea leaves shout back

Bone china teacup with lid
Bone china teacup with lid

This week, tea has been in the news with the media reporting an apparent decline in sales of black teas (in the UK) in favour of herbal teas and tisanes. Interestingly, the focus has been on teabags, as if this is the only means by which tea is manufactured and sold. Agreed, loose leaf tea may still be consumed by the minority but, if you look around, this, in my opinion, is where the cutting edge of tea resides.

The media reported black tea as unexciting to the younger generation yet on my quest to recommend good tea rooms in Britain I increasingly see younger people leading the way in terms of loose leaf teas. True, they may be introducing many different blends, including those blended with white or green tea but black tea is definitely a staple. Where tea rooms have a large tea menu, they may well have a full and diverse range of teas but black teas predominantly appear in the first pages. Similarly, where tea rooms stock a small tea menu, they tend to have two black teas – generally English Breakfast and Earl Grey – plus a green tea and a flavoured tea or tisane. This trend does not seem to concur with the media reports. Is the difference whether you use teabags or loose leaf?

Personally, I don’t enjoy the ‘teabags’ filled with a range of flavoured ‘teas’ (strictly speaking they are not teas but tisanes); I accept that others do but they are just not, well, my cup of tea. I have, for many, many years been clear in my preference for loose leaf teas. I like the range, the quality, the lack of taste of the bag, the way the tea brews – I could go on. Considering the range of people using Twitter to share news and views about tea, there is most definitely an interest in tea and much of that interest focuses on loose leaf tea.

So, for the love of tea; the sheer pleasure, the history and tradition, let the tea leaves shout back and invite you to join them in a drink that is known and enjoyed worldwide and which, I very much doubt, will ever go out of fashion.

From B to TEA – the tea exchange

Bizarre by Clarice Cliff (Wedgwood)
Bizarre by Clarice Cliff (Wedgwood)

I introduced the TEA EXCHANGE a few blogs or so ago and swapped the letter D in words to make them begin with TEA; subsequently creating a definition. EXAMPLE: DELICIOUS would become TEALICIOUS, with the meaning ‘a good pot of tea’. So, here we go with B.

TEAHIVE – an industry of busy tea brewers

TEADEVIL – a little imp that keeps putting tea into bags

TEAWITCH – enchant someone over a pot of good tea

TEAMUSE – entertain over a pot of tea

TEAMOAN – grumble about lack of good tea

TEAGRUDGE – animosity between tea merchants

TEALONG – a sense of community among tea drinkers

TEACOMING – a tea that suits

TEATWEEN – mid one cup and another

TEAFRIEND – one with whom to share a pot of tea

TEAFUDDLE – unlikely home blends

Got any to add? Tweet me @TearoomGuide or add a comment on this blog 

Anagrammatea-cally speaking . . .

Caddies galore
Caddies galore

I love a good anagram and working out the answer to a wordy puzzle is a great partner to a pot of good tea (loose leaf, of course). With this in mind, I thought I’d set some tea-related anagrams; can you work them out? Tweet me @TearoomGuide and I’ll RT all the right answers; alternatively, you can add your answers in comments. The anagrams below are all tea blends, tea regions, or names of specific teas. Have fun.















Tea at the deli, the pub, the cafe …..

White fine bone china
White fine bone china
Striped teapot for one with cup beneath removed
Striped teapot for one with cup beneath removed

I have now been visiting, reviewing and recommending good tea rooms for over twenty years. In that time, the question of what a tea room is, is one that I have often been asked to comment upon. Today, more than ever, this is an interesting and multi-dimensional question. Let’s start, however, by going back in time as history can help us to understand where we are today and, perhaps, why.

According to tea shops originated at The Aerated Bread Company where, in 1864, the manager began to serve food and drinks to customers; she gave tea to those she favoured so the story goes. This began a craze and they quickly popped up all over Britain. In those times, of course, they provided a safe haven for women to meet with their friends unchaperoned without loss of reputation. Going back even further, however, coffee houses were responsible for the introduction of tea as early as the 1600s. Wikipedia ( cites Thomas Twining as opening the first known tea room in 1706, at 216 Strand, London. Already you see we have different names for places where tea and food may be served; tea shops, coffee houses, tea rooms. Herein lies the multi-faceted factor and may begin to address the dilemma of what a tea room is. Most dictionaries seem to define the term tea room as small cafe or restaurant serving tea and other light refreshments. Some also say these are also known as tea shops.

When I began my research into tea rooms of Britain (and sometimes further afield), I felt I needed to consider not only the above factors but, also, what potential readers would be looking for in a tea room. As well as having been asked the question, “so what IS a tea room?” myself, I have also asked the question of many other people to ascertain their views on the subject. The answers have been as interesting as they have been varied. Some consider a tea room a very traditional affair with lace tablecloths, fine bone china cups and saucers, classical or 40s music playing, table service, loose leaf tea and glorious cakes, whilst others may have a wider view that incorporates delis that serve good tea and good food; chic, modern and comfortable places where they can meet with friends. What I have found over recent years is, as new tea rooms emerge, the values remain traditional but the set up may vary. There has been great interest recently in all things vintage and shabby chic; this has provided popular for many establishments and makes a great style. Interestingly, thinking about the safe haven for women back in history, many offer a haven for parents with young children; a safe place to go with young children, meet up with other parents or simply feel comfortable on your own as a man or woman.

What I have found fascinating over, perhaps, the last 8-10 years is the emergence of deli tea rooms. At one time delis were largely places to buy quality food and drinks but not a place to consume them. Nowadays, the deli tea room, or cafe, seems to be ever growing in popularity and most that I have visited serve wonderful food and loose leaf teas. With a range of home baked cakes always on display also, it would be hard to argue that these were not, in fact, tea rooms in all but name. I have also visited a number of places such as converted pubs serving a range of food, including cakes, that serve loose leaf teas as standard. Though these may not be considered tea rooms, they certainly seem popular and are holding up the torch for good tea in food establishments, which I applaud. On Twitter, @brewteapub is taking tea drinking seriously by raising funds to open somewhere with the feel of a pub that serves loose leaf tea by the pot, alongside tea cocktails; now that’s innovation.

History has shown us that tea rooms, cafes, tea shops, coffee houses have in common the serving of fine food and drinks. In the 21st Century we are continuing that trend, whether we call it a deli, tea room, cafe … And then, of course, there is the pop up tea room, which is another whole blog in itself . . .

A quick word about tea

Sri Lankan Teapot and caddy
Sri Lankan Teapot and caddy

Sometimes my blogs are for making a pot of tea, sitting down and relaxing over. Others, like this, are a quick read but please do still have a cup of tea because having a cup of tea whilst reading a blog about tea is, frankly, the only way to go.

So, a quick word (or two) about tea. The more I read about tea, the more tweets there are about tea, the more I try different teas, the more I learn about different tea customs and traditions, the more I fall in love all over again and am inspired to try even more, learn even more …

What inspires you about tea?

If I could share a pot of tea with ..

Pottery teapot with cups and saucers; just enough for two.
Pottery teapot with cups and saucers; just enough for two

I have asked the question, “If I could share a pot of tea with ..” to a number of different people via Twitter. I posed four questions:

Who would you want to share a pot of tea with?
Why this person?
Which tea would you choose?
One question you would put to them.

It was brilliant to read the varied answers and I felt I learnt a little of the contributors through their choices.

Starting with Northern Tea Merchants – @TeaMerchant
“It would have to be Stephen Hawking because of his amazing mind and, therefore, we would need the largest pot of tea. We would need to drink something quite heavenly so I’d choose a high grown Chinese Green Tea from the Wuyi mountains so that it would have a bit of character. I would have so much to ask him but would start by asking him about the trousers of time and whether they were flares : )

Rutland Tea Company – @RUTLAND-TEA-CO
Would share a pot of tea with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as the greatest engineer. Sikim tea would be the choice of tea. And the question? What was his favourite engineering discipline – railway, ships, bridges, tunnels?

Anne Mulhern, owner of The Willow Tea Rooms – @willowtearooms
Anne would share a pot of tea with Charles Rennie Mackintosh because she loves his work and it would be just amazing to spend time with him, talk to him and hear his thoughts on why he did what he did. The tea would be Pekoe Tea – this was CRM and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh’s favourite tea and is one of the blends of Willow Tea Rooms.  Charles and Margaret enjoyed this tea with a meringue (Willow’s signature cake). The question Anne would ask is ‘What is the favourite building that you designed and why?’

Photographs courtesy Anne Mulhern – Willow Tea Rooms

Willow Tea Rooms - Owner Anne Mulhern and waitress Kendal Morgan.
Willow Tea Rooms – Owner Anne Mulhern and waitress Kendal Morgan.


Sarah Bailey – author of the CookerEbook @layingthetable
Sarah would like to share a pot of tea with Jenny Eclair and says this is “because she is someone I could sit down with over a pot of tea for a good old natter and a laugh. In her zany way Jenny talks a lot of sense.” Sarah would choose Iron Goddess of Mercy Tea and would ask Jenny; “Can you think of a better way to put the world to rights than over a shared pot of tea?”

Little Yellow Teapot – a little yellow teapot that tries new teas and reviews them @LittleYelloTpot
“I would share a pot of tea with me Mum, who was a British made fine bone china teapot and alas did not survive an ocean voyage to go visit the folks back in the old country “across the pond.” Why: She taught me everything I know about steeping a good cuppa for my humans, so I’d like to show her that I had learned well.
Tea: Lots of options here. For Mum, it was usually a good strong English Breakfast blend, but I think she’d like a nice roasty oolong or even a Second Flush Darjeeling.
Question: “Mum, why did you think you could go waterskiing behind that big ship?”

Barbara Howard – collector of and blogger about tea towels @myteatowels
“I’d share a pot of tea with Audrey Hepburn because I found her to be an enigma and delightfully charming. I can imagine her drinking out of fine bone china cups. We’d have Lady Grey tea and my question would be how did she keep so slim?”

Brenda Flannery – Independent Tea Consultant @flannery-brenda
Brenda would share a pot of tea with her husband on Valentine’s Day. The tea would be Cinnamon Hearts and she would ask him; “do I still make your heart flutter?”

Croft Tea Room – a catering social enterprise @crofttearoomcic
Croft would share a pot of Lapsang Souchong Tea with Muhammed Ali because he was an inspirational and principled fighter in and out of the ring. The question to him would be; “would you do anything differently?”

I would be happy to add to the blog and look forward to hearing from more contributors. In the meantime … from me
Margaret Thornby – tea room researcher and loose leaf tea only kind of woman @TearoomGuide
I would share a pot of tea with Anne, Duchess of Bedford, because she is recognised as the creator of the British tradition of Afternoon Tea. We would share a delicate Margaret’s Hope, my namesake, (Darjeeling Tea) and I would ask her if her lifelong friendship with Queen Victoria was nurtured over tea.

Today (30 July 2015), I have received a new “If I could share a pot of tea with …” from Bruu Tea – “great tea delivered every month” @BruuTea

Bruu Tea would share a pot of tea with Richard Branson because he is a real inspiration and remains smiley and happy. The tea would be BRUU Mango loves Yoghurt. And the question would be what are his top 5 goals this year?

From D to TEA – the tea exchange

I like having fun with words, especially if they are words associated with tea. With this in mind I am creating my own tea dictionary. “From D to TEA – the tea exchange” is about swapping the first letter of a word to make it TEA, for example DELICIOUS would become TEALICIOUS, with the meaning ‘a good pot of tea’. So, here goes with my list for today. If you would like to tweet or comment with your own, please do so. Have fun.


TEACON – a minister of tea

TEALERSHIP – a tea franchise

TEATOX – drinking tea to flush away the trials of the day

TEABATED – talked heatedly about tea (over a pot of tea, obviously)

TEACANT – the art of pouring tea from pot to cup

TEAFLATED – travelling miles to a recommended tea room only to find it is now a burger bar

TEAFUSE – the art of calming a situation down (over a pot of tea, obviously)

TEAGENERATE – leaves left in caddy with metal spoon (go back to tea lessons)

TEAHYDRATED  – not had a cup of tea for at least two hours

TEALAYED – tea order hasn’t arrived

TEALECTABLE – good quality tea

TEACOY – lure someone away with the promise of a cup of tea

TEACREE – order that someone must drink at least 4 cups of tea a day

TEADUCE – work out the tea you are sampling by smell and taste alone

TEADED – left all tea and tea paraphernalia to friend in will

TEAFEND – sticking up for your local tea room

TEAFIANT – sticking to loose leaf tea because its what you love and believe in

TEACATHLON – trying 10 different teas in a 2 days (no problem)

TEACEIVE – telling customers you sell loose leaf tea when you don’t (grr)

TEACENT – keeping to the standards of behaviour expected for Afternoon Tea

TEACLARE – admitting you love tea (go on, you know you do)

TEACIDE – agree on where to go for tea

TEACLINE – turn down the offer of a cup of tea (highly unlikely unless it was just plain bad tea)

TEACOMPOSE – the art of composting your tea leaves

I do hope you enjoyed this light hearted tea dictionary? Watch out for more exchanges – maybe F will be next, or B, or R . . .

Not for all the tea in China . . .

I was sitting in a tea room today when I heard one young woman say to another:

Oh no, I wouldn’t go out with him; not for all the tea in China. No way.

I had to smile to myself though the thought that she was 18 going on 40 only made me feel rather ancient so I just smiled instead and deleted those thoughts from my mind. Anyway, to the point, it got me thinking about how many different sayings there are like that related to tea and what they all mean/ their origin.

NOT FOR ALL THE TEA IN CHINA (according to originated in the late 19th/ early 20th Century, coming from the fact that China was known for the large amount of tea it produced and, thus, basically, the phrase means, as my young woman pointed out at the end of her sentence, no way, a determination not to do something. Hard luck to the lad of whom she spoke!

She might have said he’s NOT MY CUP OF TEA – the positive of this (it’s my cup of tea) has been in use since the late 1800s when British people used the term to describe things they liked. By the 1920s ‘not’ had been added to describe the opposite. (

Then there is a STORM (OR TEMPEST) IN A TEACUP – making a situation seem worse than it really is. This particular saying’s storm has had a number of locations, from storms in cream bowls to glasses of water, to a hand-wash basin no less. The  TEMPEST IN A TEACUP is more commonly used in the USA, the British version becoming a storm.

Know any more? Tweet me or comment and we will keep adding to the blog together . . .