Downton Abbey is a wonderful world to step in. A changing world, where servants start cultivating their own dreams, lovers are torn between family traditions and authentic feelings, women drive and get interested in politics. The first world war breaks into the quiet life of the families living at Downton, taking their men, leaving the women of the house with the fear of losing the ones they love. Things won’t be the same when the war will be over. And as time passes, feelings might change – or they might not, as it happens to Matthew and Mary, the protagonists of this tv series which has quickly become my favourite. And it encourages me to have endless cups of tea.
The secrets of tea
The characters are always having tea. Low tea, high tea. The experts know the difference. I found it out when I visited the British Library bookshop, a wonderful place where I bought a book dedicated to the history of tea. So I learnt that “low tea” is a definition that comes from the habit of sitting in comfortable armchairs with low-side tables for the teacups.
It’s also the classic 5 o’clock tea, one the most important rituals in upper class British life in the late 1850s. It was served with shortbreads, butter, teacakes, eclairs, cream jumbles, and scones. According to Victorian etiquette, the milk or cream was added to the tea, but later the reverse became the fashion. High tea, by contrast, began as a working class meal, and later evolved as a Sunday meal for the upper classes, because their servants had a day off. The tea was served with pies, cheese, potatoes, oatcakes and bread.
Downton Abbey’s world
Downton Abbey splendid house is in Norfolk, but the characters often go to London and Mary’s aunt lives in Kensington. I wish I could see those places one day. Meanwhile, when I am in London, I like imagining to jump in the past and enter one of those lavish residences, to admire the paintings, the tapestries, the fireplaces, the marble stairs and the carpets. We might not be able to time travel, but we can look for places where we can feel like we’ve gone back in time.
One of these places are the Mews. In the small streets between Gloucester Road and High Street Kensington we can still find the traditional mews, built in the 18th century as spaces for horses, coaches and servants. Now mews houses are charming and cozy, much sought-after, little islands of tranquillity in the most fashionable areas of London.
An old-fashioned tearoom
In Wrights Lane, just around the corner from High Street Kensington underground stop, there’s a small place called The Muffin’s Man, a pillar of tradition in a moment when raw-organic-minimal cafés mushroom everywhere. Take a table and have a cup of Ceylon tea and a muffin or a slice of cake in the aquamarine atmosphere, among ladies and gentlemen who come here to chat and spend a rainy afternoon. This is not a cool place, and you might feel a little old-style. But we’re traveling through time, aren’t we?
A luxury High Tea
In Mayfair, a perfect high tea is served at Claridge’s hotel. Needless to say, this is a luxury hotel where everyone would like to stay once in a while, even to just have a look at the interior. Without spending a fortune to pretend like we’re Lady Mary for one night, we can still book a table and enjoy our cup of tea with all sorts of pastries.
In a sunny weekend, it’s worth taking the tube to Greenwich and reach the Fan Museum, where afternoon tea is served in the orangery of a Georgian townhouse which houses a collection of fans – an indulgently nostalgic experience in a Downton Abbey-like London.
The world of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes
The true history of tea by Erling Hoh & Victor H. Mair – I found it at the British Library Bookshop, a refined edition, a real must for tea lovers.
The Muffin Man Teashop, 12 Wrights Ln, London – an old style café in the heart of Kensington. They don’t offer a great selection of teas, but Ceylon is really good. And so is their apple pie, and the caramel and white chocolate muffin.