An Age Old British Tradition Gone Cold?

Bit awkward me posting this on a .com website but what the hell! I really enjoyed writing this article and it started off from a small section I saw today in the tabloid newspapers. Anyway hope you enjoy!

In days gone by, there was nothing more satisfying than gently warming a teapot, adding the tea and boiling water and then leaving it to brew until it’s just right. For over 400 years the British culture has embraced a good old cup of tea as the answer to anything but in a modern world of pot noodles and take-away, does a simple pot of tea still bare the same significance? Or is it now the time for popping a teabag in a mug and trying to grab a quick brew when you can?

The idea of enjoying a pot of tea and a cucumber sandwich or slice of carrot cake is one that dates back to the 17th century. While tea is considered an icon of Britain itself its popularity can be traced back to the Portuguese Princess, Catherine of Braganza who came here in 1662 to marry Charles II.

From this first tea aficionado tea became popular in the courts and amongst the upper classes, until it finally trickled down to the masses. Of course at that time tea was very expensive to import for the far away and exotic lands of Asia and reserved for those in courtly and aristocratic circles. In 1664 the East India Trading company placed its first order for 100lbs of tea to be shipped to Britain from Java. By the 18th century tea drinking took hold as a common activity for all of Britain and the East India Trade Company’s sales rocketed, annual imports reached 4,727,992lbs.

However, at that time tea still remained very expensive because of the Company’s monopoly of the trade and the high taxes imposed upon it. To satisfy the demand of the less wealthy tea drinker’s tea was smuggled into Britain and sold illegally. This trade thrived until William Pitt became Prime Minister in 1783 and passed the Commutation Act of 1784, this new law cut taxes on tea so dramatically that it wasn’t worth smuggling anymore.

Since then tea has gone from strength to strength in Britain, with around 165 million cups or mugs of tea consumed every day. In British homes it is considered good manners to offer a house guest a drink – in particular, a cup of tea. Most Britain’s drink black tea with milk and perhaps some sugar and tea bags are almost always used, with PG tips being the most popular brand.

However, even with this seemingly high tea consumption of tea in Britain the popular store Debenhams (considered another British symbol) reports an all time low in tea pot sales. Debenhams has recently announced that tea pot sales are down by 39% compared to five years ago, while sales of traditional cups and saucers have suffered an even greater decline of 44%. However by comparison, sales of mugs have leapt by 59% in the last 5 years and Debenhams has reported that its restaurants also sell around 5million cups of tea each year.

Debenhams, a British retailer operating under a department store format in the UK, had a net profit last year of over £97 million and is now fighting to restore the teapot to its former popularity with the launch of a campaign for Civilised Tea Drinking. This means it will only serve tea in its restaurants in a traditional teapot, cup and saucer. Alison Hill, head of home design at Debenhams has recently said that: ‘Tea has always been a feature of British life – it’s as famous as Big Ben or Buckingham Palace.’

Where teapot sales have declined drastically for Debenhams, for Ali Miller business is booming. The crockery designer combines art and functional kitchen ware in her latest tea sets which are stocked by Selfridges, Paul Smith and the Tate. Her ‘map of the British Isles’ fine bone china teapots sold out within an hour after featuring on the final episode of the Sherlock Holmes series on BBC last month.

Since the broadcast, which was seen by a reported 8million viewers, Ali has been over-run by email orders and all her stockists have sold out. There is now a four to six week waiting list for this teapot and a number of other items in her extensive range in order for more of them to be produced and sent out to customers. So it’s not all doom and gloom for the teapot world!

The majority of the Great British public undoubtedly lead busy lives and often struggle to find time for a meagre cup of tea made with a tea bag and a mug. However, how can we let this quintessential element of our society disappear because of expediency? Many adults reserve the cup of tea for early morning or a quick ‘coffee break’ at work in between a meeting and yet another meeting. Then choosing something a little stronger when work is done for the day – opening a bottle of wine with dinner or an aperitif before hand to unwind after a long day.

To my mind the best part of a good day is the morning, even if I’m rushing round the house trying to get ready, gather up my things and rush out the door. On a cold, frosty morning in the winter it is particularly important to start the day right, for some people that means a Weetabix or toast with a glass of OJ, but for me it’s that simple, honest cup of tea – whether it’s a teabag and a mug or the most splendid of high quality tea leaves brewed to perfection. The Great British ceremony of making a pot of tea is infinitely adaptable.


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