Starting in 2009 it has become a family tradition for Terri & Kay, my UK-resident sisters, & I to take our mother out for a birthday meal together. Over the years we have come up with what feels like the ideal format - afternoon tea in an 'interesting' setting in central London, a place we can all get to (& back from) fairly easily.
The chatting began before we'd even glanced at the menus
The organising of Vi's Birthday Bash had become somewhat, er, disorganised in recent years, generally taking place relatively late as one or the other of us realised that the date was creeping up dangerously quickly. However this year I was uncharacteristically forward thinking - with several events already in my diary for November I could see that long(er) term planning was required and I was the obvious person to initiate it. A flurry of phone calls & emails established a date that everyone could make and so I set out to find (& book) this year's venue.
Last year we'd gone to sketch Gallery which had been a spectacularly impressive setting (read about our visit here). I set out to top it, trawling through websites promising The best unusual afternoon teas and the like but not really coming up with anything that really grabbed me. Most of the offerings fell into two camps, either something very posh or 'quirky' to the point of sounding overly contrived, neither of which held much of an attraction. In the end I decided on the Dean Street Townhouse, a place that looked fancy enough to be special, relaxed enough to be comfy, and came highly recommended online. A phone call to check availability was met with a friendly, helpful response and there we were, booked and sorted.
I'd had minor but vexing travel issues last year and once again the train demons had it in for me, although in new and unexpected ways. Trains through Bradford were starting to show delays and one actually came up as 'Delayed' which, in my experience, is often a precursor to it being cancelled altogether. As a precaution I caught an earlier train to be sure of making my connection at Bath but when I got there I found my London train was running to schedule, giving me 45 minutes to wait for it. However this did give me the opportunity to call Vi before she set out (from Essex) and warn her that I could be a few minutes late at our prearranged meeting point. When my train finally arrived insult was added to injury - due to engineering works its route had been altered and I was carried back along the tracks to flash through Bradford in the opposite direction. But at least I was on my way and no further upsets were predicted.
Once the tea and cake stands had arrived the table was definitely full
Or so I thought. The restaurant was in Soho and the nearest tube station was Tottenham Court Road, conveniently on the Central Line that Vi would be travelling in on. The station had multiple entrances so I'd prearranged to meet her in Soho Square Gardens, just around the corner and (hopefully) free of crowds, from where we could stroll to the Townhouse where we'd meet Terri & Kay. I knew the station had been closed while the Crossrail line was being built but I was pretty sure it had since been reopened and an online tube journey planner had indicated that it was in use. But once I was on the tube I found that some maps showed the station open and some showed it closed, with no obvious indication of which was more recent. And, of course, being deep underground meant there was no way for me to check online which version was true or to call Vi or my sisters to make alternative arrangements.
Luckily the station was open and although it was very crowded I easily made my way out, confirmed that the directions I'd given Vi were correct and easy to follow, and strolled round to the gardens. I was a few minutes late and although there was no sign of Vi I wasn't concerned - central London was as busy as I remembered and fighting through the crowds could easily add minutes to her journey time.
After ten minutes I was starting to worry when a text message arrived from Terri - "Where are you?". Soon after she appeared in person and we compared theories about where Vi might be and what might have happened. A text from Kay announced "We are at Dean Street Townhouse" but weirdly this set me off into a confused tizzy - did she mean Vi was with her or was this her partner, who had been to some of our birthday get-togethers? I'd originally booked the table for five in case he'd wanted to come but had since changed it to four, had I misunderstood? Calls to Kay's and Vi's phones failed to connect and there was no reply to my text asking Kay to confirm who she was with. Confusion reigned but only for a minute or two, a text and call from Kay arrived almost simultaneously saying that yes, she was with Vi, and a couple of minutes later Terri & I arrived at the restaurant.
From the outside the Townhouse was fairly unassuming but inside it was very swish, the traditional wallpaper covered with an eclectic collection of paintings and the subdued lighting giving a feeling of intimacy despite the closely packed tables. After unloading our outer layers we were led through to join Vi & Kay where we pieced together the story of who'd gone where and which messages had or hadn't got through. I felt myself relaxing after my little panic and made a mental note to not get so worked up in future - in a family setting the unconscious impulse to be the Responsible Eldest Child can come up and grab me, especially if there are things (& people) to be organised.
With the sandwiches polished off it was time for scones - with cakes to follow
Curiously, at one of our birthday gatherings a few years ago we'd talked about how being 'the eldest' wasn't really a chronological distinction between us and that we'd all had our turns at one time or another, rising to be the grown-up one while the others were going through transitions, crises or other life-changing events. I'd certainly been up & down the sibling maturity league at various points in my life and although I'd drifted back into a relatively adult outlook in recent years it was clear that mid-table was probably my current position. Which I can live with.
Our small, circular table was tucked into a corner which gave us a cosy, private space, the background chatter from other diners faded into a gentle murmur as we settled in and started to catch up on family stuff. In fact it came as quite a surprise when our waiter leaned in to fill our water glasses and asked if we were ready to order, which sent us scurrying for the menus. This didn't pose much of a problem though - one of the great things about afternoon tea is that there's rarely much of a choice, in this instance just what type of tea and whether we wanted a glass of bubbly. With the decision making dealt with we were left alone to enjoy our afternoon.
The conversation started on current family situations and Christmas plans but soon drifted away into, well, just general chat. Vi acts as a pretty efficient information hub between us and my sisters & I are in reasonably regular contact so there weren't any major announcements or seismic revelations. We each talked about what was going on in our lives but it flowed naturally with the conversation, meandering between the deep and the trivial as topics came and went.
While this was going on the provender started to arrive. First came four large teapots with their associated milk jugs then, just as we'd arranged them, two large cake stands loaded with goodies. The protocol of afternoon tea makes it the ideal setting for a conversational meal - you start at the bottom of the stand with the sandwiches, when these are eaten you move up to the scones and when they're done you finish off with the cakes up at the top, all the while sipping at the endless supplies of tea. No matter how engrossed you become in the discussion you can always easily find the next morsel with minimal conscious attention.
Vi and Terri pose for 'candlelit' portraits
Our little table was perfect for a snug little gathering but it began to show its shortcomings as the jam & clotted cream bowls joined the cake stands, teapots, milk jugs, cups, strainers, plates and water glasses. At times we had to carefully negotiate the gridlock of crockery before finding a place to park a previously accessible item but as the stands were gradually denuded we found we could stash emptied bowls in them, freeing up some valuable space. As we reached the cake level dutiful staff appeared to whisk the redundant articles away and make the remaining comestibles a little less daunting. When we'd cleared almost everything - one small slice of Battenburg proved beyond us - the stands were removed and replaced with a tall candle, a memorial for our splendid feast.
The food had been excellent, the cakes were maybe a little sweeter than I'd prefer but the sandwiches were just right and the scones were some of the best I'd ever had, with wonderfully tasty jam and perfect clotted cream. The portions were just right too, after gorging through this almost literal mountain of food I was left feeling full but not stuffed. Nice.
With the dining completed we returned to our teas and the birthday goodies came out - Terri had an early card (Vi's actual birthday wasn't for another week) and Kay had brought a bag of small presents. It's good to mark the event like this but I think that the main celebration is the occasion itself, a chance to spend some time together as a family in a setting that's special & memorable but not overwhelming. The Townhouse seemed to have hit the perfect mark, a singular setting but one where we could relax and enjoy each other's company.
As we chatted away it slowly dawned on me that we'd been here for quite a long time without the slightest hint that we'd overstayed our slot. In most of our previous afternoon tea outings there'd been a clear time limit (usually two hours) and as the deadline approached we'd been reminded of it in progressively less subtle ways. But here there was no such prompting, we'd been left to ourselves with no more than very intermittent enquiries asking if we wanted or needed anything more. Whether by design or convenient scheduling it felt as if we could take all the time we wanted, a very nice way to let a meal wind up to a close.
A final group shot before we were all off homeward
When we did finally call for the bill it led to a rather embarrassing situation, or at least one that had the potential to go that way. We split the total between the three siblings but my quick mental calculation had rounded in the wrong direction and the poor waiter had to return to the table and delicately point out that we were short. Oops! I've been an IT professional for over 35 years, maybe one day I'll master the mysteries of mental arithmetic. A swiftly proffered banknote made up the difference and restored the tip that I'd planned to add at the outset.
As we rose to leave I was almost surprised when I turned round to look down the room - in our snug little corner I'd almost forgotten that we were actually in a fairly large and public space. A reflection on the comfortable atmosphere maintained in the Townhouse and of how engaging our birthday tea had been. As I recovered my raincoat I felt rather pleased by my contribution to it all.
The last piece of Battenburg
When we emerged the drizzly rain had stopped but the street were still wet and deeply pooled in places. We wove our way back to Tottenham Court Road station where our paths diverged - Kay was off on foot to the South Bank, Terri was taking the Northern Line while Vi & I were leaving in opposite directions on the Central Line. Hugs were exchanged and off we went, I (probably over-solicitously) saw Vi onto her train before I boarded my own and made my way to Paddington where the railway engineering works had their final joke on me, an hour's wait before the next train connecting to Bradford on Avon. But after such an enjoyable meal it was no real hardship and I bopped around to my iPhone's music shuffle before being whisked away Westwards.