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  • Paul Rutherford

TITHE AND TEA


Last week, we took a narrow boat down the Kennett and Avon canal. Slow pace, a different time. One day we visited the chocolate-boxy Bradford-on-Avon, and took a walk to drink in some local history. Most impressive, a C15th tithe barn. 50 metres long, 10 metres wide, the building annually stored a tenth (tithe) of farmers’ produce which fed the nuns at the Shaftesbury Abbey - the richest nunnery in England.

Before returning to the boat, we stopped at a much smaller outbuilding. It had been converted into workshops, and the obligatory tea room. We sat at a small table outside, on a well-kept lawn, under a spreading tree. I volunteered to go in and place our order. Inside, behind the counter, was a man in a canvas hat, a khaki T-shirt and knee-length shorts. He was cutting slices of fruitcake. “’Ave a seat sir,” he said with a thick West country accent. “A’ll be out with you in a mowment.” Looking around the small cafe, I noticed a photo of the proprietor, not much younger than now, with his arm around the shoulders of a much older gentleman. I asked who’s in the photo? “That’s my Dad,” said Canvas Hat. “This place used to belong to my parents, but Mum wanted out. She wanted to keep it in the family, and my brother wasn’t interested. So my wife and I took it on. “Dad helped out for a while, but he passed on a couple of years back.”

So how long the tearoom has been a family business? “My Mum had it 17 years, and we’ve been here 17 years too.” Good Lord! That’s the total duration of my career to date. I comment on the idyllic setting and the weather. (I’m English; what else is there to talk about?) What’s it like in the winter? “Well, we do open , but it’s only Wednesday through to Sunday. “Sometimes we might have a day with only a couple of cups of soup and a sandwich or two. Then the next day a party of walkers might arrive, and we’re full.” Canvas Hat says that the November to March are the quiet months. “But we make good cash during the summer, so we save our winter money then. Always make sure we’ve got our winter bills covered before splashing out. “We didn’t the first couple of years we were here. Thought we knew better than Mum. We learnt the hard way.” Perhaps Mum had learnt from local history? “I doubt it,” said Canvas Hat. “Mum went off to the Mediterranean. She's still there.

"Less Shaftesbury Abbey, more Shirley Valentine."

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