We are in search of a tea plantation. It’s here somewhere.
Four miles to go, and we were ten minutes before our allotted time. Should be easy. We turn off the smallish highway into a quite small road.
“In 100 yards, turn right”, squawked Google Maps.
I know what you are thinking at this point: “Miles? Yards? What’s with all that old-fashioned stuff? Is this a story from the 60s but with added Google?”
No, it wasn’t the 60s, it was October 3rd, 2012. And it was England, where despite being reasonably metric in some things, they cling to miles and yards and feet and inches as though they make sense in a metric world.
So, even without the benefit of the remarkably easy metric maths – (We’re six and a half kilometres away so if I do 65 kph I’ll arrive on time) it still sounds quite achievable.
And then there’s two signs. One says “St Michael Penkivel” and that’s a good thing. The other is a sign I have come to hate in England. It says “Oncoming vehicles will be in the middle of the road.”
WHY? I want road signs to offer me solutions, not just inform me that for the foreseeable future, every turn could be our last.
Of course, it’s a country road with a twisty turn every 100 metres (109 yards) and oncoming trucks. They may only be doing 20 kph (12½ mph) but it’s straight at our windshield. There is, of course, not a single solitary sign anywhere between us and our destination, and when we finally crawl into the main gate, we are already late.
Now, you might think being slightly late isn’t a big deal, but that leaves out three factors:
(1) the schedule for that day was to leave Plymouth in Devon, skirt through Somerset (where Lady Devotea translates every road sign into the local accent, to much mirth) and then visit this site at Tregothnan near Truro in Cornwall, before continuing on see Chysauster, an archaeological site near Penzance that should be one of the high points of our trip, then swinging northwards to our B&B booking at Tintagel. We have a lot of ground to cover. We’ve already shelved Exeter that day as we can’t remember why we wanted to stop there.
(2) Jonathan from Tregnothnan Tea is also on a tight schedule, as he has to leave for London straight after our visit. And it’s a working estate. It’s not they are just waiting around for a visit from us.
(3) I hate being late. I just hate it. It makes me feel like the rudest person ever.
Sadly, once we got to the estate, it took another ten minutes of trying different buildings, car park and offices to find our where we were supposed to be.
So, twenty minutes late, we were greeted with “Hiya” when we found the right office. This is because every conversation in Cornwall starts with “Hiya”. Every shop, every service station, everyone everywhere. It must be a law or something.
We explained we were there to see Jonathan, and promptly waited.
It’s a big place, and if the person who you want is not where you want them to be, it can take a while.
And this place is big. Even by Australian standards, where we have farms bigger than whole countries, this place is huge – it’s a tea estate, a flower growing operation and sundry other businesses set in the grounds of a huge, 13th century building complex. It is amazing. I can’t tell you the size but it’s clearly well into a five figure number of acres.
So, we twiddled our thumbs for quite some time.
And then, Jonathan turned up.
He is of course, slightly mad; as the whole enterprise suggests. This also suggests we would all get on exceedingly well.
Did we go and stride the fields, looking every inch the colonial tea barons? I bet you bet we did.
We talked about tea in its many forms, the state of the UK and Australian markets, marketing strategies; all manner of tea-soaked conversation. As though we had all the time in the word.
And then we did it.
In the drizzling rain we wound our way to the tiny little spot where the first tea bushes ever planted on the estate still stand, an English country garden kind of spot; not a hillside covered with camellia sinesis as that was just too far away to see in the time we had left.
Lovely estate, wonderful plants and an incredible mansion house; all faded into the background as Lady D and I stood right there, where a plantation was born.
And we had enjoyed this very tea; at Brown’s Hotel in London, where we partook of scones and cakes; cream and jam; armchairs and fireplaces; friendly waiters and alleged tea sommeliers. It was a nice drop; mildly fruity and somewhat malty.
Tea is all about stories; as as we watch Tregothnan’s progress over the years, I’ll remember standing in the shadow – or where the shadow would have been, had the sun been shining – of truly English Tea.
In a country where so many are conspiring to make tea into a homogeneous pap; where words like “traditional” are misused and where market power is everything, this sprawling estate is in fact “the little guy”; the underdog; the rebel, and I”m happy to cheer them on from the sidelines.