Monday, 5 October 2009

No. 33, Norwich

If, as I do, you subscribe to the view that if a place is good then it'll be busy, then No. 33 is among the very best of the tea shops on this website. If you should visit on a Saturday morning, be prepared to wait for a table... but rest assured, it is worth the wait.

Since you've come to this website, you'll be interested in the quality of the tea - it's good, really good - even the pots for one have little infusers that sit beneath the pot lid, allowing loose leaf tea to be used without the need for strainers. And the tea is perfectly enclosed too - there's never any of that nonsense of stray tea leaves soiling the dregs of your cuppa. Good job too. Not only that, a pot for one will do you nearly three cups! And if English Breakfast isn't, well, your cup of tea (I had to use that pun on here eventually), you'll be pleased to know that decaff, Earl Grey and fruit teas are all available, as is the obligatory range of coffees (perish the thought).

The service is exemplary too, by the way - it's hard to imagine how the staff could be friendlier. Even when they have to tell you there's a wait for a table, you don't mind because they're so apologetic, and you know it'll be worth the wait.

So what else makes it so good? Well, it's great for a breakfast bite: personally, I'd recommend the bacon sandwich (the menu proclaims "the best bacon in Norwich" and you know what, I think it's right), though the eggs benedict always looks pretty darned good too. And then there are the cakes... the pick of which is, undoubtedly, the Victoria sponge, topped with little chunks of strawberry. They put something, as yet unidentified, in the icing on top that makes it... well, almost indescribable. You'll have to try it for yourself but trust me, you won't be disappointed. They'll box a slice if you want to take some away too.

As if all that wasn't enough, there are newspapers (national and local) and magazines to sit and read as you chill with your cuppa, and there are artworks on the walls from a local artist, some of which are for sale if they take your fancy.

No. 33 is truly great, the dictionary definition of what great tea in a great tea shop should be all about. If you go there on a Saturday morning, there's a fair chance you might see me in there too and really, what better recommendation than that can I give?

Contact them: 01603 626097 | www.no33cafe.co.uk

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Comfort Café, Little Abington

Started in 1922 by the splendidly named Albert E. Puddlethorpe, the Comfort Café has since welcomed over a million customers through its doors. After a visit there, I can see why. As you can probably gather from the first line of its address, the Comfort Café is what my family, when I was growing up, would have confusingly called "a services". Ignore this dubious linguistic coupling of singular and plural - if you just think of it as an alternative to the Motos, RoadChefs and Welcome Breaks that litter our major road network, then you'll get the idea.

It sells itself as being at the gateway to East Anglia, and that's fitting given that it's the first services you come to on the A11 after leaving the M11. Once you've peeled off the dual-carriageway, follow the Services roadsigns but don't be lured by the Little Thief Chef, Travelodge and petrol station you come to first, but carry on just a few short yards past these and you'll find the Comfort Café.

They're very welcoming here - the big car-park is an indication that truckers, coach parties and convoys of bikers are all frequent visitors. But they're just as welcoming to you and me in our humble cars too. Which is just as well, because the tea, though simple, is excellent - hot and strong, just the way your reviewer likes it. Served with a big smile too, which always helps. There's some choice too - fruit teas and decaff are available if memory serves, as are (perish the thought) all sorts of coffees. The food menu is also very comprehensive - huge breakfasts, lighter bites, burgers, muffins and cakes, chocolate... all the sort of stuff you want from a service station but without the rip-off prices that the corporate chains charge. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is a good thing.

Then there's the actual building itself. No, it may not be much to look at from the outside, but trust me... There's a range of seating, from the conventional caff inside, to the glass-topped conservatory-style annexe on the side, to the large patio out front (heated in Winter, sheaded in Summer). And there are plenty of newspapers (not just red-tops but "proper" papers too) and magazines on hand for you to read as you eat your cake and drink your great tea.

Yes, it's a services, as my dad used to say. But we don't do snobbery here, and it's a place that serves great tea in a warm and refreshingly honest way. Why would you ever go to a Little Chef again?

Contact them: 01223 837891 | www.comfortcafe.co.uk

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Café 171, London

You might think that a city the size of London is awash with great tea. Not so. What it is awash with is Starbucks-clones, over-priced tea and disinterested service. Hooray, then, for places like Café 171.

A stone's throw from the Tate Modern (admittedly you need a good throwing arm), Café 171 sits on the side of the Jerwood Art Space and Gallery. And if you think that's going to make it a very civilised, chilled place to have a cup of tea, well, fortunately for us all you'd be right. That's not to say there aren't some populist touches, because there are: if you want a chocolate muffin with your cuppa, you can, but equally if you're the kind of person who'd prefer a delicate croissant with your breakfast beverage, well, you're catered for too.

As you might expect, varied tea tastes are provided for - as well as reliable English Breakfast, decaffeinated, Earl Grey and a range of fruit teas are on offer. Cakes, pastries and light snacks are on offer too, and there's a short, basic but nevertheless satisfying lunch menu too. In short, everything you want to be on the menu is on it. Not only that, it's all very reasonably priced too, especially when you remember how close you are to the very pulse of the throbbing metropolis. And my cuppa was good and strong, in a lovely big bowl of a cup - who could ask for more?

Then there are your surroundings. You've got a choice of seating - indoors or in a small courtyard that, again considering your position, is surprisingly quiet and peaceful. And there is some sculpture on display too, in keeping with the artistic purposes of the Jervis Space itself.

As if all that wasn't enough, there's plenty of reading material to accompany your cuppa too - decent newspapers, magazines aplenty, and more. It's worth rifling through some of the Jervis Space's promotional material too.

All in all then, a great cuppa at a great price, a hop and a skip from the Tate and the Southbank - well worth seeking out if you're in that neck of the woods.

Contact them: 020 1654 0171 | www.jerwoodspace.co.uk/about_cafe.html

Monday, 6 July 2009

Café Cenno, Durham

Café Cenno's menu bears the proud slogan "a local business with a worldwide audience". Well, I don't know about that, but since it was opened by Tony Blair back in 1996 and has since won Durham's Tourism Partnership Quality Award, well, perhaps they're justified in making such lofty statements.

Speaking of lofty, a good part of the appeal of this place is its location - on the first floor of Durham's lovely indoor market, overlooking all the stalls below (as you might be able to make out from the photo). This gives Café Cenno an atmosphere that buzzes with the hustle and bustle of the market, yet somehow also manages to simultaneously lend it an air of detached tranquility - it's a haven from what's going on below. Whatever - regardless of the deathless prose with which I describe it, the café offers a great perch for people-watching.

They're also rightly proud of their use of local ingredients - Café Cenno's menu told me exactly which butchers provide their meat products. Since I had a truly excellent sausage sandwich to go with my pot of English Breakfast tea, this was a good thing.

Speaking of the tea - and we should, given the name of this website - all the right boxes were ticked. Firstly, there was a good selection, including decaff, fruit teas, green tea, and Earl Grey. Secondly, though my English Breakfast needed a little while to mash in the pot, it (eventually) had reasonable colour, taste and strength. And it was all served with a cheery smile, the importance of which cannot be overstated.

Of course, being located within the market, this is one tea shop that doesn't open on Sundays, except in December when there are more shoppers to feed and water (it's opening hours are constricted by those of the market, see?).

All in all then, this is a good showing for Café Cenno - great tea, great sausage sandwiches and great people-watching!

Contact them: 01913 831113

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Orkney Fossil & Vintage Centre Community Café, Orkney

The Community Café attached to the Orkney Fossil & Vintage Centre is, on the quiet, a very special little place. For a start it is, unlike the vast majority of establishments featured on Great Tea, staffed and run by local volunteers. As far as I can see, they do this for the love of the place and the love of their community. How brilliant is that?!

I'm not going to go into the fossil and heritage centre itself - I didn't have time to go in and have a look around, so it would be unfair of me to review it here, though I will say it looks very interesting, and it has a nice little shop. No, let's concentrate on the Community Café itself - after all, that's what you're here for!

The usual range of teas are offered and, of course, they're properly served (teapot, milk jug, cup and saucer - check, check, check). The tea itself is good enough, especially if you let the pot brew for a while, and the service is warm and very friendly. But what makes this place stand out, I here you ask? Well, it's the food you can have with your tea - specifically, it's the cakes.

For starters, there's a truly excellent chocolate cake that I can recommend (which is also relatively low-cal, for a chocolate cake - this is something to do with it being made with mayonnaise, incredibly). Better still, though, is the marmalade cake - this is the sort of cake that makes you reminisce about being a kid and being spoiled by mothers/grannies/aunties and their amazing baking powers. First it makes you reminisce - then it makes you pause to consider whether you could squeeze another slice in.

The Community Café, then, is a great endeavour that serves great cake and, best of all, you can wash it down with great tea. I look forward to a return visit.

Contact them: 01856 731255

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Gerri's Ice Cream Parlour, Orkney

As you might have already guessed from the name, I didn't just go to Gerri's Ice Cream Parlour for the tea...

...but since this is a tea-themed website, let's talk about that first, before we move on to the other aspects of Gerri's that warrant its inclusion here. There's a fair range of teas on offer, most of it Twinings. As with most of the tearooms featured here, fruit and herbal teas are offered, as are two brands of green tea and even Tetley decaff! And all the other boxes are properly ticked too: it's served in a pot, there's proper milk in a jug, service is fine.

So far, so good. But nothing out of the ordinary, you might think. Well, you'd be wrong. Great Tea seeks to find good places to have a decent cuppa, unusual locations, features or selling points that you just don't get in a Starbucks or Costa Coffee. Gerri's has... ice cream. And plenty of it.

Take a look at the picture on the left. All those menu options dislpayed on the wall are different ice-cream sundaes and dessert options, flavours and concoctions. Since they're made with Orkney ice cream, they all taste great too. The real selling point though, the real draw, is the Stenness Monster!

The Stenness Monster is an enormous cone, I'd estimate around 15 inches in length, that is filled with seven large scoops of ice cream, any combination of flavours the customer desires. As the name suggests, it is something of a monster - a behemoth, in fact. If you manage to eat it all (and plenty do) you get your name on the wall. The youngest person to achieve this feat was 3, the oldest 80. A very few people have their own section on the wallchart for managing to eat two Stenness Monsters back-to-back...

So it's worth taking a trip out to Gerri's for the Stenness Monster, and whilst you're there you might want to buy some sweets too, since they are sold from the jar as all good sweets should be. But remember, the Stenness Monster is a loss-leader for Gerri, so whilst you're there have a cup of tea or two and help keep Gerri in profit!

Contact them: 01856 850668

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Birsay Bay Tearoom, Orkney

How far will I go to sample great tea in great surroundings? All the way to the end of the country, and then a bit further!

The Birsay Bay Tearoom lies at the western tip of the Orkney Islands "mainland", near to the spectacular Brough of Birsay and the remains of the historical Earl's Palace. Both of these are worth some of your time (especially the Brough, which is beautiful, though you might want to time your visit with the tides, so that you can get out across the causeway, but that's another story...) Anyway, once you've worked up a bit of a thirst, why not retreat to the Birsay Bay Tearoom for some light refreshment?

The tearoom itself is accessed up the small lane that runs past Earl's Palace - at one point you come to a little sign that informs you the tearoom is 100 metres further on - well, if so it's the longest 100 metres I've ever walked, but it really isn't far, and is certainly worth the stroll.

In common with much of the more recent building in the Orkneys, the outside of the tearoom really isn't much to look at (see picture, left) but don't let that put you off. Inside, a fine range of tea is served, with fruit and herbal teas offered, green tea available and, yes, decaff too. The nice thing about these is that they are all offered in pots for 1, 2 or 3 people. Other drinks are served as big or "peedie", peedie being Orcadian for small. There's a reasonable selection of cakes to accompany your cuppa too, plus a snack food menu, with jacket potatoes and the like (or baked tatties, as they are called in that part of the world). A word of caution if you opt for a baked tatty - you get to choose three options of accompanying salad, which sounds great. In reality, the portion of each is tiny - one of my choices was cucumber... and I got three slices of it. Oh well. Too much of a good thing, maybe...

In addition to the food and drink, artwork is displayed on the walls - this is available to buy from a nearby gallery. The tearoom also sells produce from the adjacent farm shop too. All well and good...

...but what really makes this place stand out, and quality it for inclusion here, is how it makes the most of its location. Big windows look out towards the Brough of Birsay, and binoculars are lined up along the window-sills for patrons to look out and watch the wildlife. Little guide books are also provided, so you can identify and learn about what you're seeing. You're certainly see plenty of oystercatchers at this time of year, but beyond that it's a real wildlife haven - for some, sitting in the warm and dry with a cup of tea and a slice of cake is probably one of the better ways to watch wildlife.

Pretty fine tea then, in a great natural location, with bincoluars and spotters' guides thrown in. Don't forget to take your camera.

Contact them: 01856 721399 | www.birsaybaytearoom.co.uk

Monday, 22 June 2009

Café Délice, Norwich

Café Délice, as the name suggests, is a lightly French-themed establishment that serves good, honest, affordable light meals and snacks... and, of course, great tea.

Speaking of which, let's start with the tea - there isn't a massively wide range to choose from, but there is, at least, some choice: Twinings Everyday Tea (which I had), Earl Grey, Chamomile, blackcurrant, peppermint and lemon. Green tea and iced tea are also available (though not on the menu, oddly). One notable omission was decaffeinated tea, of which there was no sign. Now this isn't a problem for me, but if you're one of the decaff crowd then maybe you'd better stick to coffee here, as that is served in a jolt-free version.

There are plenty of other alternatives too: there's a decent selection of Smoothies, plus Café Délice stocks Purity Soft Drinks, which are quite refreshing. And on top of all this, there's a decent range of food too: baguettes and sandwiches, pastries, cakes.... I had a croque monsieur (see, I told you it was French-themed). Although basic, it was tasty and filling. They also had some little tarts topped with fresh fruit which looked gorgeous but, since I'm back on a diet and I had only gone in there for breakfast, I can't report how good they tasted, only that they looked great.

Back to the tea though. Served in a proper cup and saucer, with a little of jug of milk on the side and with brown and white sugar cubes in a bowl on the table, this more than met the minimum standard for inclusion on Great Tea. Twinings Everyday Tea is good anyway - a good flavour without being over-strong. A nice touch is that Café Délice serves its tea with a little biscuit on the side - diet or not, I enjoyed that with my cuppa.

Another good sign is that, despite being very busy (a plus point in itself), service was fast, efficient and friendly - something that is increasingly rare these days. And, for a sit-down establishment, prices were very competitive. The only down-side is that it is quite a small sit-down establishment, so at peak times you might struggle to find a table. It's worth a little wait though. Café Délice is, ahem, délicieux...

Contact them: 01603 633912 | www.delicenorwich.com

Monday, 8 June 2009

Station Approach Coffee House, Sheringham

Don't be put off by the name - this coffee house serves mighty fine tea too, otherwise it wouldn't be on here!

Firstly, there's the selection of teas. No, I don't mean there's a wide range of different brews available for the tea connoisseur to luxuriate in. There is plenty of choice though. Besides "ordinary" tea, there's decaffeinated, Earl Grey and herbal tea to choose from. Then each of these varieties is offered in small/cup, large/mug or pot servings. For the purposes of this review (and to slake a thirst) a large mug of the ordinary tea was consumed which, happily, was both strong and full-flavoured. Exactly what you want to wash down your breakfast... the options for which were plentiful, by the way, as you might imagine from the size of the menu chalkbaords in the photo. My partner in tea had a large mug of the decaff, and that looked pretty good too.

The café itself offers a range of seating choices, including a sleep-inducingly warm conservatory and open seating which looks across towards the North Norfolk Railway steam trains as they pull into Sheringham station. Indeed, the size of the seating areas suggests that Station Approach might get very busy in peak tourist season, when the great and the good are piling into Sheringham for its old-school seaside charms.

Service is friendly and the menu, as I've already suggested, is broad, ranging from breakfast specials to lunch meals and all manner of snack items too. It's not going to win any culinary prizes, but it seems to be good, honest food and you can't say fairer than that. My breaky was good anyway.

A couple of other things to note if you're in Sheringham. Firstly, have a wander down the high street. Nice, isn't it? Lots of local independent shops. Well, the good people of Sheringham have been engaged in a long battle with Tesco, trying to prevent the supermarket behemoth from opening a store there, a move that would surely spell the end for the high street as it is now. To support the campaign against this retail empire, check out the TescNo blog. And secondly, when you get towards the bottom of the high street, keep an eye open for Ronaldo's ice cream parlour - they really do have the most excellent flavours and again, as you lick your cone of toffee & banana or raspberry & champagne or whatever, you can bask in the warmth of knowing you're supporting another local independent business. That, and have an excellent ice cream too!>

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Has Beans, Edinburgh

Don't be put off by the name - "Has Beans" might suggest a coffee house but, fortunately for us all, it's a mighty fine tea shop too.

Nestling towards the slightly less glamorous end of the Royal Mile, and a very short walk from the democratically significant (but architecturally bizarre) Scottish Parliament building, Has Beans serves good strong loose leaf tea. Okay, so it slightly betrays its coffee house roots by serving the tea in a cafetière but actually that works really well - I'm surprised more places don't do this. It precludes the need for a separate strainer and limits the extent of over-brewing for the second cuppa once you have plunged the leaves for the first. It might not be a traditional tea ritual but it works.

Of course if you want traditional, Has Beans caters for that too - the little bay window at the front of the shop if full of a slightly random, but nonetheless impressive, array of tea pots. And the friendly welcome and serivce from the old guy behind the counter (could this be the Graham mentioned on the menu?) is decidedly and pleasingly trad too.

In addition to the excellent tea, Has Beans also offers a selection of snacks and cakes. They even advertise a very reasonably priced cream tea, with what the chalkboard charmingly described as "a wee pot" of tea. You are in the heart of tourist Scotland, after all.

On a warm day though, the best accompaniment for your pot of tea is almost certainly a small tub of the award-winning Orkney Ice Cream that Has Beans sells - truly great. I can personally attest to the excellence of their Toffee Swirl flavour...

Contact them: 07810 477265

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The Gallery Café, Edinburgh

How fortunate is your reviewer? Not only did he get to enjoy the work on display at this interesting modern art gallery, he got to top off his visit with some great tea too!

The Gallery Café resides on the basement level of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, so you'd expect a relatively classy effort from them. They do not disappointment. Crucially, their tea is very good - just asking for a plain, ordinary tea for one results in a large (three cup) pot of loose leaf tea and, best of all, a lovely big strainer is served with it too. It's nice (and vaguely nostalgic) to be able to enjoy the ritual of swirling the pot, pouring the tea and then returning the strained leaves to the pot to augment the next cuppa.

There are other nice touches too. The smiley and helpful girl behind the counter pointed me towards the sliced lemon, in case I would like to take that with my tea. Not an option often available... and not one I took up either, being a milk-no-sugar man. It was nice to have the option though.

With regard to what else is on offer, well, I saw no sign of decaff but fruit teas were available - I saw both ginger and camomile teas on the chalkboard on the day of my visit. There's a comprehensive hot food menu too and, best of all, an array of cakes that looked to me like they may very well be home-made. I had the millionaire's shortbread and it was... well, I'm mentially salivating as I write this.

There's plenty of indoor seating in what is a bright, airy space - if the weather is fine, as it was on the occasionally sunny Spring day of my visit, there's also a patio you can sit out on, and get a bit of fresh air with your tea whilst also being within sight of some of the sculptures in the Museum's sculpture garden - what could be finer?

And one final thought, though it's not really tea-related - if you're on foot, you could do a lot worse after your visit than walk back into Edinburgh along the Water of Leith footpath, following the river - it's beautiful, peaceful and at times hard to believe you're in the city.

Really great tea, then, in a great location, with great support from the cake cabinet too... just don't forget to look around the Museum whilst you're there, okay?

Contact them: 0131 624 6219 | www.nationalgalleries.org

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Britons Arms, Norwich

Norwich is a picturesque city. Tombland is one of the more picturesque districts in Norwich. And Elm Hill is just about the most picturesque street in Tombland. So you get the idea - it's all cobbled streets, leaning half-timbered buildings, antique shops and lantern-styled street lights. Quaint doesn't even come close.

On a street corner at the city end of Elm Hill, you'll find Britons Arms coffee house and restaurant. A tea shop, to you and me. And what a tea shop. In the dim and distant past this place was, as the name suggests, a pub but now it plys a different trade, yet still serves a good brew. Indeed, at the time of writing Britons Arms serves the best tasting tea of any establishment listed here on great-tea.blogspot.com - and that's saying something!

The café itself offers a choice of different teas, including fruit and decaff, but you're best off sticking with the traditional English breakfast blend in my view. It's served in a small pot, with a top-up jug of boiling water provided on the side - a nice touch, especially since the tea in question is strong and flavourful enough to bear the top-up without the second and third cups tasting like dishwater.

Service is refreshingly friendly and there when you want it, without being intrusive. There's a fine lunch menu too, that seems to chage daily - there are no menus as such, it's just all on a chalkboard on the wall. Plus there are deserts that you wouldn't believe - I had a small yet rich chocolate and vanilla tart, which was a perfect counterpoint to the good strong cuppa I was washing it down with.

On top of all this, it's a nice building too and, as I mentioned earlier, it's in a lovely part of the city. Add this to the fact that there are newspapers (quality ones to boot) and books (mainly food related) provided for you to read, and it's easy to see how you could lose a whole chunk of time here, with pot after pot of excellent tea. Especially when you factor in the little garden you can sit out in, when the weather's nice. Perfect!

Footnote for grammar pedants (of which I am one, if I'm honest): I've included no apostrophe in the name of Britons Arms because the proprietors don't... plus I don't know whether there were one or many Britons, so can't say whether it should be Briton's or Britons'...

Contact them: 01603 623367 | www.britonsarms.co.uk

Thursday, 2 April 2009

The Buttery at The Crypt, Chichester

If you've ever spent any time in Chichester, chances are you've seen The Buttery already, because it's slap-bang next to the town's main tourist attraction, the cathedral. And if you didn't know that already, the café's full name, The Buttery at The Crypt, kind of gives a big clue, don't you think? You can't blame the place for making the most of its prime location and past - "come and sample a piece of history", their website says - and parts of the building date back to the 12th Century. This, together with the tea shop's vaulted ceiling (it really is a crypt!), lend The Buttery an appropriate air of gravitas.

All well and good, but what of the tea? Well, fortunately that hits the spot too. Okay, so maybe the cost is at the high end of what's acceptable - you're paying a premium, I reckon, for the surroundings in which you find yourself - but it tastes good and strong, and is served by cheerful and efficient staff. There's a pretty extensive menu served throughout the day too - sandwiches and cakes are especially good, and the cream tea on offer is, calories aside, as fine as you could wish for.

So, it seats 60, is open seven days a week and sits in the shadow of a beautiful and historic landmark. Add to this the fact that they serve a range of fine teas, accompanied by a more-than-satisfactory menu of light meals and snacks, and you have all the ingredients for great tea in a great location. If you're in Chichester and looking for somewhere to have a cup of tea and a slice of cake, this is the place. And, despite the date of this review, that's no joke!

Contact them: 01243 537033 | www.thebuttery.org

Thursday, 26 March 2009

The King Of Hearts, Norwich

I know this is just supposed to be a website extolling the virtues of great tea, served in great surroundings, by great people. But whilst it has all of this in abundance, there's so much more to The King of Hearts than these wonderful things!

Reopened in 1990 after a major restoration, TKOH (as I'll call it from here on, to save us both a bit of time and effort) occupies a beautiful old Tudor building next to the river. And although the café is the first thing you see as you approach it from Norwich's Tombland, TKOH also houses a contemporary art gallery, a music room, a craft shop and four meeting rooms. I should also add that admission to all exhibitions at TKOH is free, so there's no excuse not to have a wander and explore before or after you've had your cuppa. Speaking of which, let's get back to the tea...

As you would expect from any establishment receiving a Great Tea thumbs-up, TKOH serves nice strong tea in a proper pot. There is a decent selection of tea blends available too (14 varieties all in all), including decaff and fruit teas. Coffee (if you absolutely must) is fairly traded. Service is welcoming and cheery - despite the fact that I went there when it was really quite close to closing time, staff were happy to toast me a teacake to go with my tea. From the looks of the menu, TKOH offers a wide range of keenly priced cakes, pastries and other tea-accompaniments; from the fact that they had virtually all sold out by the time of day I went suggests to me they must be pretty tasty.

The café itself is a bright space, with lots of natural light and decor that is heavy on the pine. A nice touch is the way in which TKOH's status as an arts venue finds its way into the café too - their Arts In The Café programme sees work being displayed on the café walls. Selected works are sometimes for sale too, if something really catches your eye as you sip your tea.

Another nice aspect of TKOH is how it encourages a visit to become a social event. In addition to the reading materials that are available, there are board games to be played and chess is positively encouraged - there is quite an established chess scene at TKOH! Just turn up at the right time and get a game, who knows whom with...

The King of Hearts then - more than just a great tea shop, a bona fide arts hub... and still selling great tea!

Contact them: 01603 620805 | www.kingofhearts.org.uk

Friday, 20 March 2009

Lounge's, Lymington

Lymington is a lovely little town, right on the edge of the New Forest. If, like me, you're interested in cars, it's only a few short miles from the national motor museum at Beaulieu too. The town itself is a bustling place with some excellent shops and a lively high street... and slap bang in the middle of that high street is Lounge's.

The modern decor of Lounge's is complemented by great natural light from the big shop-front windows; this, together with a array of comfortable seating options, makes for a very relaxed place to spend a while. In fact, it's so relaxing, it's a good job that newspapers and magazines are laid around for the clientele to read, otherwise there's a very real risk the place would soon be full of snoozing patrons!

Tea is good and strong, and served in a proper pot by smiling staff (and I cannot over-emphasise how important smiling is - if you own or work in a tea shop, please take note). There's a bewildering array of munchables to go with your tea too - proper cakes, biscuits, sandwiches and a limited hot food menu (paninis, jacket spuds, that sort of thing)... all are present and correct.

One menu addition that does deserve a special mention, however, are the milkshakes in Lounge's. These are made with the kind of flavour syrups that are normally added to coffee (indeed, Lounge's use them for that too), and plenty of ice cold milk. The result - and this is a phrase I never imagined I would use - is a milkshake of biblically good taste! So if it's a really hot day and you fancy a break from the tea, or are just really thirsty and need two drinks, then a milkshake is the only choice - it's that good.

Fortunately for you, me and this website, so's the tea!

Contact them: 01590 671122 | www.loungesoflymington.co.uk

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Kitty's Café, Framlingham

It's a curious little place, Kitty's Café. First of all its location, in a tourist draw like Framlingham, is far from ideal - rather than being central, near the excellent Castle or charming square, Kitty's is sort of on the road out of town. Then there's the premise - Kitty's is not the main focus of the business, but instead seems to be a bit of a sideline to the excellent Kitty's Home Store and, in fact, can only be reached by climbing a narrow flight of stairs from the back of the store. And finally there's the café itself... which is tiny! Maybe four tables of seating area, and you're virtually sitting in the kitchen!

All of which sounds like a recipe for disaster but guess what? It isn't! In fact, it's quite the opposite. Maybe it's the fact that there are newspapers strewn around for you to read as you sip your tea (and decent titles too, like The Independent - no tabloid tat here). Maybe it's the fact that you have a choice from the wonderful range of Tea Pigs tea. Or maybe it's the fact that, because you are virtually sat in the kitchen (not true actually, but that's sort of how it feels) there is a feeling of popping in to visit friends when you go to Kitty's for a cuppa. And I must emphasise that this was not the case for me - I don't know Kitty, or any of her staff, from Adam, yet I still felt more welcome than I had any right to expect.

The accompanying menu is superb too. As you would expect from a business empire that also includes Kitty's Cakes, well, the cakes are excellent. And sandwiches are tasty and freshly made to order (well, mine was at least). And most importantly, the tea is excellent, as you would expect from a Tea Pigs reseller. There's plenty of choice, with decaff and an extensive range of tea blends and fruit teas all available. Good stuff.

Maybe it attracts a different crowd in the summer months, when tourist numbers heading to and from the Castle are at their peak, but on the drizzly spring day I visited it truly felt like locals, most of whom knew and were known to the café staff, were popping into Kitty's as a part of their routine - you know, read the paper, have a cuppa, catch up with people. All in a tiny café that feels like a tidy corner of a friend's kitchen. Truly social tea. There can't be too many better environment for drinking a nice cup of Rosie, can there?

Contact them: 01728 723444 | www.kittyshomestore.co.uk

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Clockhouse, Southwold

The Clockhouse forms part of the truly wonderful Southwold Pier. I could enthuse at length about the Pier's excellent Under The Pier arcade, or the Water Clock but I won't, because what we're here to talk about is great tea. Lucky for all concerned then that The Clockhouse, halfway along Southwold Pier, has this by the bucket-load.

The Clockhouse is slightly odd (as is much of the Pier but relax, it's odd in a good way) in that as well as being a tea shop it also sells unusual toys and children's clothes... but let's concentrate on the tea shop bit. I had a pot of Pier Blend tea, which tasted suspiciously like English Breakfast to me, but let's not split hairs. The tea was served (with a smile, I might add) in a reassuringly heavy pot, with a proper cup and saucer and a matching jug of real milk. No UHT cartons here!

The accompanying menu is pretty good too. In addition to the standard fare of biscuits, cakes and pastries there were muffins, waffles and ice cream sundaes to be had too. And for the less parochial tea drinkers amongst you, decaff was available, as was an extensive range of tea blends and fruit teas. Spoiled for choice really.

And then there's The Clockhouse's other great selling point - it's location. Once you've got your tea, you can either take it out onto the pier to drink in the sunshine, or pull up a stool and sit inside (out of the wind or rain, if British weather is conforming to type) and have a nice warm view of the sea rolling gently up onto Southwold's sands. It's almost like being in someone's conservatory, with lots of natural light in a very cosy, almost sleep-inducing setting. I can't prove that such a location adds to the taste of the tea, but it certainly adds to the enjoyment.

There are other food/drink concessions on the pier: the Promenade Café does fish and chips and ice cream, whilst The Boardwalk restaurant does sandwiches, scones and cream teas. But if you just want a proper cup of tea, and maybe a little something to nibble with it, then The Clockhouse is the place to go. And once you've had your fill, really, walk just a few yards further up the pier and take a look in the Under The Pier arcade - you won't regret it, and you may even laugh so much you need another cuppa on your walk back to the mainland...

Contact them: 01502 722105 | www.southwoldpier.co.uk/

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Deb's, Norwich

In the heart of Norwich city centre, you'll find Britain's largest permanent open market... and in the heart of that open market, you'll find a plethora of food and drink outlets. Really, there's something for virtually every taste, from the hog roast stall to the Chinese noodle bar, and everything in-between. But if you just want a really excellent cup of tea, the best place to go to is Deb's (straddling rows E and F of the market).

There's nothing pretentious about Deb's Tea Stall, to give the place its full name. Tea is hot, wet and brown, made in an industrial-sized stainless steel pot with unbranded tea bags and with water from a boiler. The only choice you have if you want a cuppa is whether to add sugar or not. Yet somehow... somehow, this all works out okay. The tea tastes great. It's served to you in a proper mug, by upbeat staff who seem happy to see you. And you can drink your tea leaning on the stall's little bar, watching life ebb and flow around you, as the citizens of Norwich throng around and through their market. It's brilliant, if I'm honest. The best time to go is a couple of hours before kick-off on a match-day, when a satisfying proportion of Deb's customers seem to have Norwich City scarves around their necks, and talk is of the Canaries' prospects for the afternoon ahead.

And that's the point of somewhere like Deb's really. In addition to the big mugs of strong tea they serve, you can actually just talk to random people over your cuppa, and that's got to be a good thing, hasn't it? The tea "bar" lends itself to having a chat with other customers and, even more so, with the staff behind the counter. So even if you go on your todd, having a cup of tea from Deb's can be a social experience. Even if that isn't your thing, and I know it isn't everybody's, there's no better place to peoplewatch in the city than the market... and here, you can do that over a proper cup of tea.

On top of all this, Deb's serves good, honest market stall food too - their bacon baps are particularly good, especially when washed down with a mug of tea. There's a smattering of cakes and biscuits in the cabinet too but these are pre-packaged and pretty ordinary, to be honest, so if you're hungry whilst you're here you really are better off getting something where freshly cooked bacon is involved.

So, this is an unashamedly downmarket, budget tea shop - sorry, stall - but that doesn't matter. Cast aside your prejudices and head to Deb's for a proper cup of tea at a bargain price... and get a slice of Norwich life for free.

Contact them: 01603 ??????

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Café St Pierre, Canterbury

It should come as no surprise that in a town as overrun with French tourists as Canterbury is in the summer months, a French-themed teashop should thrive. And thrive it does. But this is no half-arsed stab at a Gallic teashop - it isn't France-lite. For the owner actually is a French gentleman (pardon, monsieur) and many of the staff are genuine French speakers, which lends great authenticity to the situation. If you're so inclined, you can ever order in French. Sacre bleu!

Enough of the Gallic angle though - what of the fare? Well, the tea is good and strong, served in a small cup/saucer combo that is as far removed from the Anglo-Saxon mug as it is possible to be. As you would expect, the baguettes and pastries (croissants, pain au chocolat, and so on) are top-notch too, especially when washed down with such decent tea.

One slight drawback of Café St Pierre is its size - it really is rather diminuitive. To combat this, some tables make it out onto the pavement in warmer months - very European - and there is a little patio at the back of the premises, so you can drink your tea in the fresh air: always a winner!

As is the case with many of the teashops here on Great Tea, food and drink can be ordered to take away too. In addition, Café St Pierre also sells speciality breads, giving it something of a boulangerie feel. Plus they have some sort of connection with a local French language course that aims to teach the language (and socialise) whilst baking French bread - a brilliant idea.

All in all then... si vous aimez le thé, allez à Café St Pierre tout de suite!

Contact them: 01227 456791

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Byford's, Holt

There is so much to like about Byford's. Yes, they have a tremendous deli adjoining the café. Yes, they have a wonderful "posh" B&B upstairs. Yes, they have a proper restaurant too. And yes, the whole kit and kaboodle is situated in the heart of that most charming of Norfolk market towns, Holt. But the café is what I want to talk about here.

There's a healthy selection of tea blends on offer, though your reviewer stuck with the conventional English Breakfast for his taste test. I'm happy to report that this more than measured up - good and strong, with proper colour - a nice opaque brown, with none of the "dishwater" transparency you often get with weak teas. Plenty of taste too.

Beyond all this, Byford's must get a special mention for its afternoon tea package, though be warned: this takes a lot of eating! At the time of writing, a pot of tea, scone with cream and jam, cakes and a selection of finger sandwiches will set you back £10.95 for one person, £16.95 for two. And it's fantastic! A particularly nice touch is the way in which the cakes and sandwiches are served on proper tiered cake plates. It's almost like we Brits are still a civilised lot... Speaking of which, for the more high-falutin', there's a champagne tea package too...

The café is a little bit of a warren, to be fair, with entrances from both the street and the deli. If you can, try and sit near the front - the room has more character than the refurbished area near the deli entrance.

In summary, Byford's serve tremendous tea, and can offer a bewildering array of lovely things to eat too (their Millionaire's Shortbread defies belief). The staff are uniformly friendly and, crucially, smile at the customers. Produce, wherever possible, is locally sourced, some of which you can buy in the deli afterwards to take home with you. And they run a lovely pub called The Pigs in nearby Edgefield too. What's not to like? In other words, then, if you find yourself wanting a cup of tea in or around Holt, this is the place to go.

Contact them: 01263 711400 | www.byfords.org.uk

Great Tea goes live... tentatively

Great Tea† has but one purpose in life: to make it easier for you to find a decent cup of tea! The traditional British teashop, whilst not quite a thing of the past, is increasingly under threat from global coffee-house chains like Starbuck's, Costa Coffee, Caffe Nero... well, you get the idea. And whilst these all sell tea - in some cases, even a half-decent cup - you won't find any of them on here. No, no... for this is a personally researched and independent review of the finer tea shops of the land, providing great tea in great surroundings, with great service! All sounds good, doesn't it? The downside of all this is that because I have to do the research myself, the number of great tea locations at first will be small, and will only grow slowly. Not only that, there will inevitably be some geographical bias. I just can't get round the whole country quickly enough! But I will in time, so check back often...

† Great Tea is, in fact, the blogged remains (and future) of greattea.co.uk - the simple fact is domain names cost money, and Great Tea makes precisely zero, so a no-cost format had to be found. A blogging platform seems the obvious choice, and provides rich functionality. Let's see how it goes. (Ed. 2016)