Posted in Family, Personal life

A Tale of Two Grandmothers – and Tea Sets

(A post in praise of my two late grandmothers and their different attitudes to matching china tea-sets, crockery and cutlery)

Now here’s a little-known antidote to stress: take a few moments to admire matching crockery, as displayed on the Welsh dresser in my kitchen.

My Welsh dresser
By far the most orderly part of my house

There are many reasons why the sight of this dresser gives me great pleasure:

  • a folksy look that goes well with our country cottage
  • light and cheerful colours
  • vintage design from the 1920s (it often pops on tea-tables in period TV dramas)
  • sentimental value, the first pieces being a wedding present from a special friend
  • low cost, thanks to a factory shop that sold cheap seconds (sadly now closed)
  • ease of replacement via Chinasearch

But most important of all is that it reminds me of tea with my grandmothers, though their attitudes to china were polar opposites.

Grandma’s Matching China Tea-Service

Grandma's tiered cake plate
Who ate all the cakes?

My paternal Grandma favoured matching crockery. She had a classic set of pale sage green utility china which was brought out every Saturday when we went to tea.

For my brother, sister and me were reserved three melamine cups and saucers, long after the age when we couldn’t be trusted with breakables. My brother’s was chocolate brown, there was deep rose pink for my sister and tangerine for me.

Toning tastefully with the china, a stylish set of tiered plates sporting a 1950s fern pattern always graced the centre of the tea-table. The bottom tier was reserved for thinly sliced, fresh-cut bread and butter, with cakes and biscuits of gradually reducing size on the top two tiers. Viennese whirls, Swiss creams and chocolate covered marshmallows still make me think of tea at Grandma’s, served from those elegant plates, and eaten politely all sitting well-behaved around the table, me perched on a stool brought in especially from the kitchen because there were more people than chairs.

Toy tea set in Beatrix Potter's Mrs Tiggywinkle design
Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggywinkle always reminds me of Grandma

The orderliness of the tea-table was as dependable as the bananas offered to the three of us as a treat after tea. Unlike us, Grandma remembered rationing and regretted the prolonged absence of such fruit from her own children’s diet during the war. I didn’t always want one, but I knew instinctively to pretend that I did, and accepted with gratitude.

My siblings and I were born in the same order as her children – my father sandwiched between my two aunts – and it must sometimes have felt like an action replay to have the three of us there, particularly as my brother was the image of my father as a boy.

Equally reliable was her pressing a shilling (equivalent to the modern 5p) into our hands as we left – our weekly pocket money. Our other, wealthier grandparents gave us each a halfcrown (12½p), but I was always careful to show equal gratitude to Grandma and Grandpa.

Mam’s Mad Medley of China & Cutlery

Emma Bridgewater design tea set
My daughter’s toy tea set by Emma Bridgewater

While I loved this orderly tea-time ritual, I also adored my other grandmother’s more anarchic approach to crockery. At Mam’s, we didn’t even have to sit up to the table, balancing our tea plates on cushions on our laps while we watched television. On my grandather’s salary as an accountant, they could certainly have afforded matching china, but it never occurred to Mam to buy it. Every plate in her cupboard bore a different design, and although some cups had a matching saucer, no two came from the same set. 

The same was true of the cutlery, some of which was cheap and ancient, imparting like a condiment an odd metallic flavour to each forkful. One year my parents replaced our cutlery and presented Mam with their old, still serviceable stainless steel set. She regarded it with undisguised suspicion.

My daughter's drawing of a wombat drinking tea at a tea table
My daughter would like to show you her picture of a wombat drinking tea. As they do.

Having noticed that some of Mam’s china was chipped, I bought her a beautiful bone china cup and saucer one birthday, splashing out more than I should from my student budget. The set was adorned with a delicate lily-of-the-valley designed – Mam loved lilies – and the word “August”, because her birthday fell on August 1st. I thought this personal touch would ensure that only she would ever use it, and I hoped it would enhance the pot of tea with which she fuelled herself each morning before anyone else in the household was awake. She admired it enthusiastically before tucking it carefully away for safekeeping.

Three matching coffee cups and saucers with pattern reminiscent of coffee and cream stirred together
Matching coffee cups, snapped up at a Farm Open Day recently

Like Grandma, she could not shake off the memories of the Great Depression, followed by wartime rationing. When she died not long after that birthday, not only was the August cup and saucer still in its box, but in her airing cupboard we discovered unopened packets of tea and sugar, carefully stashed away against any future risk of shortages.

Decades have passed now since both my grandmothers died, but I still sometimes have such vivid encounters with them in my dreams that it comes as a shock when on waking I realise they’re no longer with us. And what usually happens in those dreams? Well, of course, I’m visiting their houses for tea.

National Trust tea tray showing a tea party
My favourite tea tray, bought eons ago from the National Trust

If you enjoyed this post, you might like other articles about my grandparents:

Author:

Optimistic author, blogger, journalist, book reviewer and public speaker whose life revolves around books. Her first love is writing fiction, including the new Sophie Sayers Village Mystery novels (out 2017), short stories and essays inspired by her life in an English village. She also writes how-to books for authors and books about living with Type 1 diabetes. She is Author Advice Centre Editor and and UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) Advice Centre blog, an ambassador for the children's reading charity Readathon, and an official speaker for the diabetes research charity JDRF.

7 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Grandmothers – and Tea Sets

  1. This is a lovely post, and I’m not saying this for sympathy, but so unlike my own childhood and family experience that it’s like reading something that existed on another planet! Still not saying this for sympathy, but I do envy those who have had that kind of relationship with their grandparents, and parents, and have such warm memories. I brought home some beautiful china from my mum’s place when she went into the care home, and I actually sold it on eBay because all the memories associated with it were rather unpleasant! I know you’re extraordinarily grateful for your family, and you have some wonderful stories to share about them. Mine, not so wonderful, but that’s where humor is extra useful! 🙂

    1. I wish you could have met my grandmothers yourself, Laura – they’d have loved you too! They were always so receptive to my friends – and they’d have appreciated your sense of humour! 🙂

  2. What a wonderful set of tea-time memories! As a grandma myself, I am hoping that my granddaughters will retain some special memory of times spent with me. You reinforce my idea that consistency is the builder of long-term remembrance. Be it fancy, matching china or colourful mismatched pieces – what sticks with a person is that Grandma always did it this way.

    1. Gosh, I hadn’t thought of that, Francis, but I’m sure you’re right. Don’t we all love to start how memories with “Do you remember when we used to…”, suggesting regular habits – even when sometimes these things happened only a few times! I bet your granddaughters are storing up LOTS of fab memories already! 🙂

      1. I have my grandma’s tea set – we never use it because we drink tea from mugs now. My memories of my Gran is the velvet-type table cloth and being stunned at her long hair, which I only saw once when she stayed overnight. Usually of course, her hair was up in a bun.

      2. Grandmas with buns – those were the days! My paternal Grandma had what I suspect had started out as a Victory Roll, with a hairnet over it. I was always fascinated by her almost-invisible hairnet!

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