Saturday, 21 September 2013

Epic Tea Adventure #1: Halsey's, Copper Beech, Westmill

The plan was a tour of tea rooms in Hertfordshire: as many as we could fit into one day. The criteria was that they had to be specifically tea rooms, and they had to offer a selection of teas. Offering a choice between English Breakfast and Earl Grey just won't cut it!

On starting to search for places to visit we discovered two things: that tea rooms, unlike many other types of business, aren't that easy to find in an online search; and that the ones we could locate were scattered all over the county. Although more prevalent in historic and market towns, we were still going to be doing a fair bit of driving between teas!

We decided to focus on a relatively small part of the county, starting in Hitchin, and working our way downwards and to the right.

Our first stop was Halsey's Delicatessen and Tea Rooms, in Hitchin.

We arrived just before midday. It was busy, but we only had to wait a few minutes for a table. There were five of us, but we squashed around a table made to seat four, excitedly grabbing the tea menus. After several minutes of pondering, complaints about too much choice, and weighing up the chances of what might be available to drink at the next few stops, we got around to ordering.

 A choice of over 40 teas! What should we have?

I opted for Russian Caravan, a blended tea that I hadn't tried before, aromatic and slightly sweet-tasting. Others in the party chose Rose Congou, Keemun, Nuwara Eliya (which needed sugar to counteract a slight bitterness) and Jasmine (which we might have accidentally overbrewed!).

 Russian Caravan, in an infuser cup, £2

Rose Congou, pot for two, £3.40

As excited as we were by the teas, it was lunchtime, and we wanted to eat too! Halsey's offer a varied menu, with a meal that will satisfy but not overfill you, costing from around £6 to £10. Room for dessert then?

Halsey's is a modern take on the traditional tea room. No doilies or cracked vintage china here: everything is modern and spotless, but with a rustic flavour to it. The food is served on wooden bread-board-like platters, and the cutlery comes in a syrup tin. 

We had wanted to set ourselves a challenge at each stop, so our tour leader, J, organised some tea-related activities to keep us occupied. At our first stop, this involved trying to identify the logos - with the names taken out! - of well-known tea companies. Fail! And then a quiz on drinks in general, at which I did a little better. 

Tea is the answer to everything, yes?

We spent around an hour and a half at Halsey's, and it was a good experience. The staff were friendly and helpful, the atmosphere pleasant, and the selection of teas excellent. We would happily visit again. 

Realising that time was getting on (and that a queue was forming for our table!) we left for our next stop: Copper Beech Art Gallery and Tea Room in Little Wymondley, near Stevenage.

This was a tea room that J and I had visited once before, and been impressed by both the setting and the size of the cake! A small outbuilding on a working farm, the art gallery/tea room is crammed full of vintage china, and beautiful things to buy. Impressively, it has managed to improve since our last visit, with the tearoom expanding further into the art gallery, and the offer of unlimited tea to tempt anyone who might be just browsing. 

The less formal part of the tea room!

Unlimited tea!

Whilst the tea selection isn't as extensive as I would have liked, with only a few loose-leaf options, this is more than made up for by the beautiful vintage teapots in which it is served, and the offer of as many pots of it as you can drink. Mindful of my caffeine intake, I went with a red fruit tea, enjoyable enough, although it took a bit of stirring to get it brewing, suggesting - perhaps - that the water wasn't quite hot enough. The others, who had chosen various loose leaf teas, had a better brewing experience. We all asked for refills, slightly in awe of the fact that we could pay once and drink all day!

A choice of 24 different teas

The tea room offers a selection of home-baked cakes: a slice for £2.50 or a whole cake for £10. But beware! Comprising two thick baked layers, with a filling of fruit and/or cream where appropriate, these cakes are not for the merely peckish! Each slice is around three times the size of what you would usually expect to be served for the price. J and I had warned our fellow tea-tourists, but there were still gasps of surprise when it was served. But with unlimited tea to wash it down, no one was complaining!

J with her cake. Yes, it is almost as big as her head. 
Yes, you can ask for a doggy-bag!

As we chatted and sipped, J presented us with our next activity: matching up a list of flowers to the meanings they would have had in Victorian and Elizabethan times. And then a true-or-false about how the Victorians used flowers. Not quite tea-related, but appropriately on theme for such a floral location!

Copper Beech is perhaps a little too relaxing: one tends to lose track of time. And so it was that we realised that it was 3.20pm, and that our next two targets, both of which closed at 4pm, were now off the table. However, the last stop on our map, Westmill Tea Room, near Buntingford, was open until 5pm. With a half hour drive to get there, that would leave us a whole hour of drinking time! Stuck behind two slow farm vehicles on the way, we finally made it to the delightfully picturesque Westmill Village Green, and the vintage tea room that we had been most excited about. 

We were welcomed in as soon as we arrived. Tables were cleared for us, and two were pushed together to allow us room for the collection of teapots, cups and plates that we would soon be ordering. With a choice of twenty different loose leaf teas, including a recommended 'tea of the day', we were again spoilt for choice. I ordered a Rose Congou, and a plate of sandwiches, and in my enjoyment paid no attention at all to what the others ordered!


Westmill is a lovely example of a vintage tea room re-imagined. With appropriately vintage posters and plaques, as well as vintage and retro bits and bobs for sale, it had all the olde-worlde charm that we were looking for. We sat at the tables in the window, but there is also a larger, and more secluded, tea area downstairs, as well as tables at the front and back for when the weather is fine.

A panoramic view of downstairs

We were having such a lovely time that - once again! - we didn't notice the time. So when five o'clock arrived we were rather surprised to find ourselves still drinking tea. The proprietor - unlike the managers of many a high street cafe - was more than happy to let us drink up at leisure, and then to take a group photo for us, outside of the shop. 

As we left, J announced that she had totted up the scores of our quiz sheets, and that - with a very narrow margin! - there was a winner. And then she produced from her magical handbag a tiny trophy with a teabag inside: the Tea Cup! This she presented to S, who has recently been improving her tea knowledge by ordering and drinking large quantities of blended teas. A well deserved win!

Thus ended our Epic Tea Adventure. It was a splendid day of treats and laughter, and of friendship strengthened by sharing the age-old activity of drinking a pot of delicious tea. There are many more tea rooms in Hertfordshire, and many more lovely days to be had together. We encourage you to throw off the chain of big-brand cafes and to explore your local independent tea rooms. Go on - it will be an adventure!

With thanks to Tea-Rex & Tea Genie for the use of the panoramic image.

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