Starting in 2009 it has become a family tradition for Terri & Kay, my UK-resident sisters, and I to take our mother out for a birthday meal together. Over the years we've tried various formats - lunch, early dinner, supper - but usually we go for afternoon tea at an 'interesting' setting in central London, a place we can all get to (& back from) fairly easily.
A bright autumn-leaning-into-winter sun shone down from a near-cloudless sky as I set out for this year's Birthday Tea, the day was crisply chill but not yet cold enough to require serious wrapping up and I'd even foregone a scarf. An early afternoon reservation meant I could comfortably set out mid-morning, even when allowing ample time to cover the uncertainties of contemporary rail travel. All dollied up in my smart (casual) attire I strolled to the station for the first leg of the journey Up Town.
The planning for this year's event had gone remarkably smoothly. Back in September I'd checked with Vi & my sisters to find a Saturday when we were all free, then searched for unusual afternoon teas in London to see what was on offer. This is usually the first step in a long process - weeding out those that are too expensive, too difficult to get to, too conventional, etc. etc. and then reiterating the search with slightly different keywords - but within the first set of results was A Midsummer Night's Dream afternoon tea at Shakespeare's Globe theatre on the South Bank. This looked perfect, a variation on traditional afternoon tea incorporating ingredients mentioned in the play and an interesting setting, not actually in the reconstructed theatre itself but in a restaurant on the site. Their website confirmed that a table was available so I quickly made a reservation and passed the details to Kay, Terri & Vi. While booking I added a note saying we would be a birthday party as restaurants often have special cakes or drinks that can be preordered, there was no direct response but I remained hopeful.
My town is unusually placed for rail travel to London. There are two routes to the capital with more or less similar travel times but both require making a connection at an intermediate station. This is very useful when a line is out of action for one reason or another - an all too frequent occurrence - but when things are running normally it requires the potential traveller to become something of a fortune teller, attempting to divine which path will make it through the (almost) inevitable delays & cancellations along the way. Today I was faced with a very even choice - just a minute's difference in departure times for the two routes. My cautious selection, taking the later train with the longer connection, came good as the other train was delayed long enough to miss its connection while mine ran bang on time. My connecting train was delayed by fifteen minutes giving me half an hour on a bare junction platform but as contemporary rail travel goes this counted as success, I arrived at Paddington not far behind the scheduled time.
The South Bank isn't well served by tube stations but I'd given myself ample time to stroll along from Waterloo, an easy ride from Paddington. What I hadn't allowed for were the hordes of people thronging the space and making progress more akin to queuing than walking at any sort of pace. Where had they all come from? It seemed too early for Christmas crowds (although there were a few 'Christmas Market' stalls along the way) and too late for masses of tourists, I heard some foreign languages in passing but that's not unusual in London at any time of year. Was this a symptom of the ongoing encroachment of the 'holiday period' further into November or just the normal number of people out on a Saturday lunchtime in central London? I started off trying to weave in & out of the crowd but this quickly became frustrating (& clearly ineffective) so I resigned myself to a gentle stroll, if I was a couple of minutes late it wouldn't be the end of the world. As it turned out I arrived at the restaurant pretty much right on time.
The restaurant was very full and very noisy, not a good sign. But once I'd given my reservation name I was led upstairs to a light, airy room where I found Vi & Terri already seated at our table. It was still quite loud - lots of windows & flat surfaces reflected the massed conversations back harshly - but we soon adjusted our voices to be heard across the table. A few minutes later Kay & Roger arrived and we were presented with our menus.
One of the advantages of meeting for afternoon tea is the simplicity of ordering. In most cases the only real choice to be made is what kind of tea to have and this is normally from a fairly short list of options. Most places have vegetarian or meat-free alternatives (I had pre-ordered one to be sure) and everything else is more or less set. A common optional extra is a glass of bubbly to accompany the meal but this is often outrageously expensive - here it was over £10 for a single glass. (At a Birthday Tea in the past we'd gone for the bubbly option but it had come with free (& very frequent) refills which had led to a very animated meal!). Roger decided to try the Gentleman's Tea which featured fewer cakes (and came on a much more manly slab of wood than our effete crockery) but otherwise we all went for the Midsummer Night's Tea to accompany our, er, tea.
With the decision making dealt with we settled back for the main business of the day - chatting & catching up while munching our way through a literal tower of comestibles. In recent years we've become much better at keeping in touch so there's rarely any big announcements or revelations when we meet but somehow we still manage to find more than enough conversation to fill the available time. The eating progression - sandwiches, scones, then cakes - provides a convenient indicator of how much you've been talking, if the others are well ahead of you then maybe it's time to sit back & listen, if you're already onto the profiteroles when people are still reaching for the clotted cream & jam then it's probably good to speak up. The cake stands & teapots slowly emptied while we shared how we were doing and indulged in some reminiscing over memories of times past.
The Shakespearean slant to the meal was, it must be said, not particularly dramatic. The crockery had whimsical drawings & quotes from the play and some of the sandwiches & cakes had unusual flavours but none of it was far outside what you'd expect from a more conventional afternoon tea. Which was probably just as well, a dash of the exotic goes down well but people are unlikely to order an afternoon tea in the expectation of their world being turned on its head. A reflection of our times perhaps - the illusion of variety within very strict & familiar boundaries.
No mention had been made about my birthday request on the original booking (or in the series of confirmation calls & emails as the date grew closer) but as the last, emptied cake stand was taken away Vi was served a large plate with Happy Birthday written across it in cursive icing. On the plate was a teeny-tiny chocolate brownie with a single lit candle, a nicely manageable extra treat after all the sweet goodies we'd devoured over the afternoon. We'd heard a chorus of 'Happy Birthday' from the far end of the room soon after we'd arrived but were thankfully spared a waiters' chorus. Weirdly the candle went out on its own after a couple of minutes but I was quick enough with my phone to capture it aflame.
The little 'birthday cake' provided a excellent cue for acknowledgement of Vi as the 'guest of honour' without putting her in an awkwardly forced position for the entire meal. As we all grow older and more difficult to find presents for these gatherings have, for me at least, become a way to give the gift of shared time together, something I find increasingly precious. A moment to focus on the person being nominally celebrated (the celebrity?) grounds the event in a singular time but it's the shared time that will stay with us, even (especially?) when there's nothing particularly memorable to relate.
The reservation confirmation was very clear that our booking was for two hours but there wasn't even a hint of being hurried out at the end of our meal, not even pointed questions about wanting coffee or cocktails to follow. The room slowly emptied around us but we were politely left alone to drain the last dregs from our teapots and continue to natter on. Finally, after about three hours, the lights behind the bar were turned off which left us decidedly under-illuminated but even so I had to wave down a waiter to ask for the bill. Payment settled and coats retrieved we made our way downstairs and out onto the chilly Thameside walkway. After previous birthday meals we've gone on to coffee, drinks or impromptu shopping expeditions but this time we were all comfortably filled and ready to head home so after hugs & farewells our paths diverged. I walked with Kay & Roger across to St Pauls where I caught a (very rowdy) tube and from there on to trains back home, happily arriving smoothly & (fairly) promptly.
Another splendid day out with my family, an expression that would have bemused my adolescent self. With my birthday in January it falls on me to arrange the next meet up, with the unexpected addition of my third sister Marina who'll be visiting from Australia. The prospect is, perhaps surprisingly, rather enticing - an opportunity to discover a new delight rather than a demanding chore. Here's to it!
(Click on pictures for larger versions)