Tuesday, 5 June 2018

More tea, vicar?

Last weekend saw most of us Brits basking in a long bank holiday; the second in May and the fifth of the year so far. Sadly, this is where it all goes downhill, as the next one isn’t until the fag end of August (Boo-hiss! - TE). Although I hear Labour are promising an extra four BH in their election manifesto (where's my poll card? - TE). First week in October sounds good (coincidentally also around my birthday), if you’re listening, Jezza (and first week in May...oh I forgot, I've already got one...TE).

Anyway, while I’m still basking in the joy of a four day week, it seems an apt time to take a break from my American adventures and write about one of my favourite ways to spend a sunny Sunday/bank holiday Monday; partaking in a cream tea in the Hughenden Valley.

Being lucky enough to have the Hughenden Estate on our doorstep, the Ewing and I - and on occasion the magical Stealth - can perennially be found traipsing around the fields and woods for various reasons. If it’s snowing, there’s normally a hip flask involved; spring is the perfect time to collect elderflowers for homemade cordial; and in autumn we head for the hedgerows laden with blackthorn bushes, to collect sloes for the annual batch of gin.

If that doesn’t sound quintessentially English enough (or like a bad version of the Good Life), on Sundays and Bank holiday Mondays between Easter and the end of October, St Michael and All Angels' Church also offer afternoon cream teas.

Adjacent to Hughenden Manor, the Grade II listed church is 12c in origin, but almost completely rebuilt in 1875. The interior impressively boasts a pulpit carved by Thomas Earp, floor tiles designed by Edward William Godwin and stained glass windows by Thomas Willement, and Clayton and Bell. Well worth a visit if you’re interested in the Victorian Gothic style. Or, if like me, you just enjoy poking about an old church on a sunny afternoon. My transformation to Officially Old is now well underway.

It’s also the final resting place of Benjamin Disraeli, who bought the Manor in 1848. While protocol did not permit her to attend the funeral, a memorial to Disraeli was erected by Queen Victoria on the north side of the chancel following his death. The only memorial to be erected by a reigning monarch to a commoner.

Anyway, I always save looking around the church for afterwards, always being in far too much of a hurry to race up the path to the church cottage next door, home of the aforementioned teas. You can eat inside but, if you’ve picked your day carefully, sit on the patio or in the lower walled garden, where you also get wonderful views of the church and across the Valley.

Normally the magical Stealth accompanies us, but on this most recent visit we were sadly without her company. While the quality of the conversation was diminished somewhat (you mean, one sided - TE), I was looking forward to actually being able to eat a whole slice of cake to myself. Until I remembered I was with my wife; and I had ordered chocolate cake…. Oh well, sharing is caring, although I notice it’s not quite as forthcoming in reverse (blah, blah, blah - TE).

For me it’s the perfect cream tea: a scone with cream and jam, a pot of tea and a slice of cake. All baked and served by the most wonderful volunteers and all still for a fiver in all the year’s we have been coming. The profits from the teas help to support the church and maintain Church House, and you can also leave a donation and buy copies of their recipe booklet, which I think the Ewing is currently building a stockpile of.

The cakes are all homemade and, certainly the ones I’ve tried, have all been wonderful. Proper slices of old fashioned loaf cake, slabs of tray bakes, and wedges of sponge in rotating flavours but sure to include a selection of classics including lemon drizzle, lime and ginger, victoria sponge and old fashioned fruit cake.

On our last visit my chocolate cake (there was also a fat-free version, which I politely declined, as nice as I’m sure it was…) was slathered in thick chocolate buttercream that shone in the afternoon sun and proved irresistible to the magpie-like attentions of my wife. Her slice of coffee and walnut may have been even better; the most fluffy of sponges with two different icings -  sandwiched with coffee buttercream and glazed with a carapace of coffee water icing - that showed commendable attention to detail.

But to enjoy tea here is more than just the sum of its cakes and perfectly risen scones adorned with clumps of clotted cream and raspberry jam (#creamfirst). It’s a place that feels so perfectly peaceful and welcoming; a spot untroubled by the world raging outside and immune to the passing of time. I very rarely feel patriotic, feeling these things essentially boil down to an accident of birth, but sometimes I do feel terribly lucky to be British. 

To be sat, peacefully in the church garden, red kites circling in the clear blue sky and the faint strum of a petrol mower in the distance. Even the enjoyment of fighting over the last forkful of cake with your nearest and dearest, though you know you’re going to come off second best, before the slow, contented tramp through the fields back home.

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