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Still time for tearooms

After being eclipsed by trendy US-style coffee bars, the traditional teashop is staging a refreshing revival. Barry McLoughlin tells the tearoom tale and visits some of the best

Like an infusion of freshly brewed tea slowly permeating through the pot, the question gradually took shape on a visit to one of Britain’s great cities... Is the party over for the tearoom?

All we had wanted was afternoon tea yet we couldn’t find a single tearoom in the city centre. Eventually we had to settle for the café in a well-known department store, where the food – but not the atmosphere – was a reasonable substitute.

So is that great British institution, the traditional teashop, in terminal decline? Thankfully, the answer is no – though these days you have to go into the rural and coastal hinterlands to find the best.

When Thomas Twining opened the first tearoom in the Strand, London, in 1706 – it’s still there – he launched a tradition that has survived for more than 300 years, and in many rural areas historic tearooms – often in ancient buildings – still serve traditional teas with pride. The intoxicating deep-brown liquid is poured from ornate teapots; there are pristine lace doilies and gleaming silverware.

Afternoon tea itself is also enjoying a renaissance. Irene Gorman, head of the delightfully named Tea Guild, said: “Afternoon tea is enjoying a well-deserved resurgence. It is an increasingly fashionable way to catch up with friends, take a break from shopping, or conduct a business meeting. Modern life can be hectic; taking afternoon tea is the perfect way to slow down and relax.”

Tearooms strove for gentility. Elegant lace curtains hid the diners from the gaze of passers-by, and the name of the café was often written over the door or in theglass pane in a rounded, florid, copperplate hand. Waitresses wore white caps, well- laundered aprons and starched collar and cuffs. Inside were booths or tables, highly polished and with elaborate crockery to match. There was the gentle tinkle of silverware on plates and a low hum of restrained chat. Tea was served on three-decker stands, sandwiches at the top with scones below.

Today preserved railways, museums and galleries, cathedrals and stately homes are some of the best places to find a decent teashop. Indeed, there’s the famous description of one leading cultural centre as a ‘lovely café with gallery attached...’

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Do you like going out for afternoon tea? What's your favourite place to go? 

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