Tea is a ritual that brings us together. Whether it’s a comforting cuppa after you come in from the rain or setting the world to rights over a pot of tea with a friend, it gives us a chance to pause.
Even the familiar routine of popping on the kettle or picking out our favourite mug can provide us with an opportunity for calm and contemplation. Our love of the warming drink in all its many varieties is well documented and is now celebrated every year on National Tea Day, 21st April.
As a self-confessed tea addict, I jumped at the chance to visit Tregothnan Estate in Cornwall. Usually, when we talk about tea-growing areas, we picture Darjeeling, Assam and Ceylon rather than sleepy Cornish valleys, but there’s been tea growing here since 1999.
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The mild and, frankly, drizzly climate lends itself well to vineyards, and is also perfect for tea. Visiting Tregothnan means straying from the main roads and venturing down winding, single-track lanes lined with bowed trees to reach the estate of the Boscawen family (which might sound familiar if you’re a fan of Poldark).
The sprawling lands on the banks of the River Fal are packed with exotic plants imported over centuries – in particular, there’s a large collection of camellias.
Archway of rhododendrons known as Ladies Walk on the Tregothnan Estate
In the late 1990s, head gardener Jonathon Jones began to wonder if another kind of camellia might do well here – camellia sinensis: a species of evergreen shrub or small tree whose leaves and leaf buds are used to produce tea. Previous attempts had been made to grow tea in the UK, but never successfully.
During the Second World War, plans to produce British tea were put in place, as Churchill believed (quite rightly, many of us might agree) that a good cuppa was vital for the country’s morale – he was worried about what would happen if the supply was cut off. So, he decided that the South West would need to be covered in tea plants in order to meet the demand.
Although Churchill’s plans never came into fruition, more than 70 years later Jonathon’s efforts have been a success and today the estate covers 150 acres. Tregothnan’s sheltered aspect means that it has its own microclimate, which helps the tea plants to flourish. It’s usually so warm that the tea can be harvested for 11 months of the year.
Bella Percy-Hughes, my guide, leads me to a slope covered in rows of glossy tea plants in the heart of the estate gardens. It’s so quiet here – the only sound is the rush of the wind in the trees. It’s incredibly peaceful. The plantation is overlooked by a Chinese pagoda nestled among rhododendrons, adding to the sense that I’m in another world.