There’s nothing quite like the great British tearoom

A cuppa and a tasty teacake for Portchester sisters Eva Gaston (86) and Dorothy Stride (88)
A cuppa and a tasty teacake for Portchester sisters Eva Gaston (86) and Dorothy Stride (88)
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As traditional tearooms enjoy a resurgence in popularity, RACHEL JONES discovers the appeal of a good cuppa and a piece of cake.

The clinking of tea cups is joined by the hum of chit-chat as relaxed customers enjoy buttered teacakes and a morning brew.

Later, the afternoon patrons will be arriving for cakes presented on elegant stands, dainty sandwiches without crusts and scones with lashings of clotted cream. It brings to mind images of the past, when ladies lunched and young sweethearts met in traditional tearooms.

But the scene is also bang up-to-date as the cosy and polite atmosphere of the quintessentially English teashop is enjoying something of a revival.

A very British tea and cake trend is taking on the more American High Street coffee shop culture of the last few decades and is winning converts in their droves.

The customers at Lilly’s Traditional Tea and Coffee House in Wickham range from the elderly gentleman who comes in very day to talk to staff and enjoy a bowl of soup to young mums. But they have one thing in common. They love the atmosphere and simplicity of this vintage world.

Simon Daysh and his wife Karyn set up Lilly’s a couple of years ago and have found that some businesses boom even during a recession.

‘It’s a renaissance which has come about in the last few years,’ says Simon, sitting in front a wall of vintage adverts and a menu specials board offering local fare like watercress soup. ‘When we started I thought the customers would mostly be older people but come the weekend, all kinds are here – families, groups of young people, even the cycling group that meets in the Square.’

Lilly’s may be a new venture but there has been a tea house in Wickham Square longer than living memory. And the tea rooms, with their open fire, gingham seat covers and displays of period ads for the likes of Bird’s custard powder, hark to the old days.

At the same time, Lilly’s is a perfect example of today’s vintage style boom and cupcake culture. We’re embracing everything from faded lace in the fashion world to pretty cake designs not only on our plates, but also our walls and shelves.

But tea house owners say their businesses have far more substance and staying power than a style movement. Their premises have become quiet a hub of community life.

‘We’re quite lucky, Wickham has a strong community,’ says Simon. ‘We have loads of regulars. One old guy comes in every day for soup at lunchtime. If he doesn’t come we worry and now we have his phone number so we can check he’s okay.

‘We have some ladies who come in every Monday. They kicked up merry hell when we took egg sandwiches off the menu.’

The tea houses also seem to be filling a niche in our leisure lives. Finally cottoning on to the fact that we don’t have the climate for continental-style pavement cafes, tea and coffee drinkers still want pleasant surroundings – but indoors.

‘And I think we offer something that the High Street coffee shops can’t,’ says Simon. ‘They do a great job but I think they have their limitations. There’s more personality and atmosphere in an independent tea house.’

He believes another key factor is the simplicity of the food. ‘I think a lot of people want quite basic things done really well.’

The Lilly’s menu features English breakfasts, high teas, lunches and soups, cakes and a variety of teas and coffees and soft drinks including ginger beer and elderflower cordial. As much of the menu as possible is made freshly on the premises and produce is bought from local butchers, bakers and other suppliers.

Small independent businesses and regional produce are a big draw these days, but Simon says it’s the simplicity of what is on offer that seems to appeal to visitors. ‘People can’t afford big things at the moment so I think they’re enjoying the little treats again.’

Of course, Lilly’s offers far more variety than tea shop menus past would have displayed. A variety of unusual teas and the full range of coffees promptly pulls the visitor back into the modern world.

But there are a good many customers who go for that simple pleasure – a good old-fashioned cup of tea and slice of cake.