English tea and containers – does that make you think of getting your pretty tin down, boiling the kettle and making yourself an extra special luscious thirst quenching cuppa? Have you chosen Chinese or Indian tea, green or breakfast tea or perhaps English tea – did you know we have a tea plantation in England? It surprised me, but then Cornwall is a special place and there probably isn’t anything that happens in the land of the pixie that should surprise us.
Tea we imagine being grown in far off lands not locally; but I see tea also grows in the Seattle region of the States. The teas we know today have been consumed, in China for thousands of years, the earliest records dating back to the 10th century BC. Japan caught the influence of tea when the Japanese priests and envoys sent to China to learn about its culture brought back some tea bushes.
Note the "Digestible" Tea tin of 1895.
The tea plant, Camellia Sinensis, originated in southeast Asia and has now spread from there to most regions of the world. Catherine de Braganza, a Portuguese Princess, who married King Charles I brought the court habit of drinking tea with her to Britain in the 1660s: Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary “I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before”.
Interestingly the British ‘exported’ the pleasure of tea drinking to India, where it had been used medicinally for millennia, and from there it spread to Sri Lanka, via the shipping routes round the Cape in the late 1800s. The four major tea growing nations now are China, India, Sri Lanka and Kenya, with most of the tea we drink in England coming from Kenya.
The Old Kea Mission Church
On the Fal estuary in Cornwall, is the Tregothnan Estate, home since 1335 to the Boscawen family, where tea plantations spill down the hillsides, plum trees straggle in the orchards, bees hum, the botanical gardens flourish in the temperate Cornish climes. The estate, a living testament to custodianship, where their stated intention is to ensure its continued existence for another 700 years.
The incongruence at what they find at the bottom of their garden is a sign of the times, not tin tea caddies ready to be filled with fresh English tea, but huge containers usually used as car transporters – a sign of the recession – anchored in the deep water. Large blots on this exquisite landscape of rugged inlets, where the land reaches practically into the deep water, the buckled windswept trees bent towards the earth, amidst the sailing dinghies bobbing up and down – these hulks of metal stand out like sore thumbs.
Because of its depth and close links to major Atlantic shipping lanes, in times of economic crises, the Fal estuary is also a cheap place to park massive container ships: they can be mothballed here far cheaper than they can be in a port, perhaps waiting indefinitely for a non-existent cargo.
The Cornish economy benefits from the monthly charges each vessel pays for being laid up, as well as local mariners checking the sea worthiness of each ship, ferrying the crew and delivering groceries as required. The estuary is also a barometer of world trade: “when the Fal is empty, trade is buoyant. When it is full, as now, times are tough”.
In 1940 the Tregothnan estate decided to see if the garden could make money and sent up two camellia bushes, including pruned cuttings to Covent Garden market and earned £100 from them! Another advantage of Cornwall, despite its distance from London, is the main railway line, for a while called the Flower train, as it collected all the early flowers and vegetables for the distribution from the London markets.
A gated entrance at Tregothnan with vistas reaching down to the sea.
Tregothnan continues to seek out niche markets, keeping the estate private, offering private days, but only being open to the public for charity events. The garden area is extremely small between 60 – 100 acres, so they are reviving the Kea plum, probably a cross with a damson, which are found scattered in the hedgerows, but possibly being crossed with a plum brought in by the seafarers. The orchard has been hidden for over 300 years, but the estate now is grubbing out the old wood, beating and clearing the brambles and recreating the Kea orchard as a working plum garden.
A day's course mastering the origins, process and planting of teas, together with some insights into the garden at Tregothnan.
Can you keep entrepreneurs canned? The Boscawens seem to have kept themselves quietly to themselves, just building their various businesses – the Falmouths, the seat of the Boscawens, developed wood interests in the time of Henry VII and Henry VIII, when oak was required for warships, purchasing extensive estates in Kent – the garden of England – where the Royal Chatham dockyards are situated.
This is an extraordinary mix for Cornwall – English tea, organic florestry, Kea plum ice-cream from a tiny estate with a huge vision to be around long after those floating container ships have gone off into their world of scrap metal. We cannot beat the longevity of careful management, however we need to ensure that their landscape is around for us all to benefit.
Today Mr Postman you must have been sweltering on your rounds, it is very hot, a mini last burst of summer, though we haven’t had it too bad here in the south – in fact I was noticing that some of the chestnuts seem to be suffering from drought, with burnt leaves. My mother was asking me the subject of today’s story – she does know what is going on .. and doesn’t seem to miss a trick!
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