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One bright summer’s day in July, clouds scudding across a blue sky, I board a train from Canterbury to Brighton in quest of the Blackbird Tea Rooms in the town’s famous lanes. But before long the skies blacken and, on arriving the streets are dismal under the lashing rain.
I pause only briefly in front of the Blackbird, the exterior appearing both elegant and welcoming and hurry in out of the rain and into the calm, safe haven of the tea room; voices rise and fall in a comforting hum of conversations accompanied by the chink of tea cups and carefully managed tea strainers – loose tea here, no teabags – and the flurry of customers entering and cheerfully peeling off their wet coats before sitting down at the tables served to emphasise the comfortable tranquility of the busy premises. This is a Brighton cafe full of bliss.
Despite the soggy condition of the diners, the atmosphere is fragrant with the scent of fine teas, coffee, cake and jam and the indefinable odour of old wood and clean linen. The tables are covered with carefully laundered vintage tablecloths which are deftly changed as soon as a table is vacated. I take the stairs up to the first floor and settle at a table next to one of the sash windows looking down onto the street. My tea arrives, served by a waitress smartly dressed in black with a white apron, who, although clearly very busy taking orders, running up and down stairs, carefully sets out the tea things with a friendly smile.
This makes me think; there is something extremely special about the homely, everyday ceremony of pouring the tea: carefully employing the tea strainer, raising the china teapot and watching the steaming, golden liquid falling into the cup. Teapots are seldom used now yet this little ceremony used to be commonplace. However, recently many people have felt a yearning for a return to those more mannered times – the popularity of second hand clothes, “shabby chic” furnishing, tea parties with granny’s best tea set are all part of the currently fashionable “vintage” look, an image that has been taken up commercially by shops and restaurants throughout Britain.
The Blackbird Tea Rooms captures the essence of this image, but in a genuine and unique style. Every item in the room reflects the enthusiasm and eye for detail of Matthew Adams and Hannah Nwogu, the co-owners. The white tablecloths differ in their lace and embroidery decorations and the crockery, even the teaspoons, mismatch (my spoon is, appropriately considering the year, an Elizabeth I Coronation spoon). The Blackbird is redolent of the forties, as evidenced by the Ministry of Tea and Cakes Ration Book which, rather generously, entitles each customer to a free cream tea once their ration book has been stamped four times. Music of the period is also played as accompaniment to the tea-time chatter.
The building also has been sympathetically worked on by Matthew and Hannah who have strived to reveal and preserve much of its past – the carefully stripped Georgian wood floors, the restored wooden staircase, the comfortable window-seats under the tall sash windows, the deep blue paintwork and the charming bird patterned wallpaper are the result of the hours of hard work and care they have taken to make this building live in both the past and present.
I was able to have a chat with Matthew and Hannah (who lived in Brighton) and learnt that they found the premises (which had been a cafe for twenty years) two and a half years ago. Since that time, they have continued to work on improving and decorating, filling the rooms with original, interesting objects such as a collection of vintage tea tins and black and white and sepia photographs, many of which depict their own family. Outside, there is a small courtyard garden with an old brick pathway which was painstakingly unearthed after Matthew himself lifted the old paving slabs that formed the path when they bought the premises. The WC is situated outside through the courtyard and even this is a vintage delight with fascinating displays of old toiletry items, many in original packaging.
Of paramount importance to every tea room is the food which Matthew explains is handmade on the premises, the ingredients sourced from local suppliers. The menu includes “the best scones in Brighton!” and Blackbird cake which charmingly includes a helpful explanation that no blackbirds were used in the making, only blackberry jam! And finally, thinly sliced cucumber sandwiches – no forties tea would be complete without them. Despite all this nostalgia, Matthew and Hannah have not lost sight of the fact that the building exists in the technological age, embracing this with a state of the art kitchen and iPads replacing waitresses’ note-books and pencils. Noticeably too, both rooms are filled with a wide range of customers, and, confirmed by Hannah their clients include all ages, holiday makers, locals and business people.
Reluctant to leave the Blackbird, but with a train to catch, I step out into the street, clutching my stamped ration coupon, with every intention of returning.
Blackbird Tearooms 30 Ship Street, Brighton cafe, BN1 1AD www.blackbirdtearooms.com
Words Rose-Marie O’Brien.