We all know the British love their tea. With the rise of the Starbucks era you might feel the age old tradition of tea time fading. At least visually speaking. As you scan the street landscape you’re more apt to find a coffee shop than a tea shop. Don’t get me wrong, you can still grab a wonderful cup of tea at any corner shop in London, just follow the builders. The difference is in how you enjoy that cup of tea. Sitting in a Cafe Nero or a Costa Coffee provides that quiet, comfortable and relaxed atmosphere “tea time” used to include. The problem is that these shops are strongly centered around coffee. From what’s in your cup to the same named cake available under the glass counter, it seems like tea is fitting in less and less with our go-go-go world. From a visitors perspective, one of the MUST DO’s when in Britain is to properly enjoy a proper cup of tea. (Take note of that double “proper”) I hunted for this but with no luck. Then I stumbled into the quintessential tea experience in the last place I ever thought possible.
Camden Market was high on the list of my hotspots after having been to London many times but never quite making it to this famous spot. My wife, and standard companion to all things travel and food, had been to the market before but not for a decade therefore she shared my same excitement as we raced out of the tube stop. The market consists of a number of adjoining large retail markets in Camden Town near the Hampstead Road Lock of the Regent’s Canal. The largest part of the market occupies old stables located in the former Pickfords stables and horse hospital which served the horses pulling Pickford’s distribution vans and barges along the canal. Pickford’s itself is an interesting an historical story. The company has been evolving since 1642. Each shop is set in large arches or railway viaducts. The stables create a multi-floor labyrinth of crafts, clothing, bric-a-brac, and housewares for visitors to explore and in most cases get lost.
As we turned a corner deep in the bowles of the stables I saw a perfectly primped tea oasis crammed amidst the porcelain shop and the old valise vendor. My wife went ballistic as her nostalgia, little girl, sweet tooth and tea fetish meters redlined. She b-lined it into the horse stall to order the, at long last, perfect cup of tea along with a sweet tea cake. We were served our tea and cake moments later by a young, dare I say British hipster, who was full of pleasantries and calm. We sat, sipped and snacked at a small table just outside the stall. Many of the shops wares spill outside the stalls both for advertising purposes and lack of space. The tea shop was no exception. The effect was that all the shops have a connection to each other. As we sat in our mismatched rickety chairs we felt enveloped in the scene. The boundaries between the tea shop, the adjacent stalls and us somehow seamed non-existant. The wonder of the market is that you can be totally lost yet feel safely found at the same time.
As we finished our tea my wife went up to our new friends and inquired about the lovely tea sets they used to serve their guests. A few minutes later she came back with an inked up napkin and a story. Of course the tea sets were purchased at a stall in the market. I’d imagine most of the proprietors don’t need to leave the stables to operate their business’ with so many different types of vendors all so near. Taking a closer look at the napkin I realized the tea shop owner had drawn a rudimentary map leading us from his shop to the tea set stall three floors above. Finishing up our last drops of tea we mustered up the courage to begin yet another journey into the labyrinth that is Camden Market.