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:

Posted in Family

Bowled Over by Fond Memories of My Grandma

A set of six washing up bowls

I really didn’t need six new washing up bowls. I didn’t even need just one. But there was something so appealing about this neat nest of bowls, quite apart from their low price, that made them irresistible.

Of the two of us, I’m usually the stronger one going round Lidl. Whereas my husband cannot exit the shop without another household tool or gadget, I’m happy to leave with just their fruit, vegetables and chocolate.

“It’s only a bargain if you actually need it,” still echoes in my head: sage counselling from my best friend’s mother, probably the most sensible person in the world.

But I pick up these bowls and turn them round in my hands, pondering why I’m so drawn to them. It’s always a mistake to handle something you’re trying to resist buying. It’s known in the trade as “puppy dog selling”: the tactile experience makes you keener to buy than if you’d just looked. (Ironically, my husband once used this technique to convince me to adopt a kitten.)

And then the penny drops. It is a Proustian madeleine moment. For these simple plastic bowls whisk me back to my grandma’s kitchen. Or rather, her scullery, as she always called it. Born in 1900, she had grown up with a smattering of Victorian vocabulary that never left her.

Old photo of Grandpa and GrandmaTo Grandma, her small terraced house would have seemed modern, being built around 1930, when Sidcup was starting to segue from a Kentish village into a London suburb. For decades, Grandpa walked to the railway station for a civilised 30 minute commute into the City.

The house may have been modern, but it was also compact. The scullery was no more than a narrow galley, with cupboards and appliances down one side and a slim glass-fronted  cupboard mounted on the wall opposite. The appliances were few: a rounded, low, old-fashioned fridge; a small gas stove and a wall-mounted gas geyser to heat the water, its pilot light permanently glowing blue until you turned the tap, when with a whoosh! a little row of blue flames came to life to heat the water as we needed it. A slightly intoxicating smell wafted out as the hot water ran, though not as pungent as the paraffin heater in the bathroom.

Beneath the geyser was a big old white sink, and in the sink lived a plastic washing up bowl. Grandma’s preferred colours for the plastic washing up bowl were a deep rose pink and a peach, which, if melded together, would have combined to make her favourite colour: flame. The washing up bowl of the moment provided a welcome splash of colour in an otherwise grey and shady space, matched only by three bright Melamine cups and saucers in the wall cupboard, where they lay in wait for when my brother and sister and me came to tea once a week. My sister’s cup and saucer were rose pink, my brother’s mocha and mine was tangerine.

In this narrow space, Grandma would potter up and down, busy but contented, reminding me of Mrs Tiggywinkle in her pinny and hairnet. Every day while I was at primary school, I came home to Grandma’s for lunch, looking forward to what she’d produce from her scullery. Her considerable culinary skills had enabled her to feed her young family through the rationing of the Second World War and it was simple, healthy, delicious food. Everything in the scullery seemed old and well worn, from the wavy-edged pyrex pudding bowls to the tin pie-dishes that gave her delicious gooseberry tart a tingling metallic after-taste. I loved them all. Years of having to make do and mend meant nothing was wasted; things were only replaced when really necessary.

old photo of my GrandmaLike the washing up bowl. Grandma showed me how after so many uses the smooth bowl would start to roughen. Eventually little whitened tags of plastic would stick up as the plastic  wore thin. At a certain point – probably every three or four years – she would decide enough was enough, and splash out, so to speak, on another. The purchase of a new one was a significant occasion that made a big impression upon me. I’ve never liked waste ever since – one of the many valuable qualities that I picked up from my dear  Grandma.

But now, thanks to the temptations of Lidl, I am the proud possessor of not one but six new plastic washing up bowls. In Grandma’s book, that would count as a wild extravagance. But I think if she knew the reason I succumbed, it’s an extravagance she’d find very easy to forgive.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy this one about Grandma’s economic policy for her retirement: A Two-Sheet Solution or this one about her old piano: Tuning Grandma’s Piano: The Antidote to Chopsticks

Posted in Family

Tuning Grandma’s Piano (The Antidote To Chopsticks)

English: Piano tuner's most basic tools: tunin...
It's not all black and white: inside a piano (image via Wikipedia)

The only thing worse than hearing chopsticks played repeatedly on the piano is hearing chopsticks played repeatedly on a piano that is badly out of tune.

At the turn of the year, my daughter acquires this party trick from a school friend who has learned it from her cousin over Christmas. Chopsticks spreads like a virus among children. There can be few who are naturally immune. Roll on the day when the MMR vaccine gives way to the MMRC – Mumps, Measles, Rubella and Chopsticks.

But as this vaccination has yet to be invented, I decide the most effective remedy for my household is to get my piano tuned. My previous tuner in Bristol having retired, I scour the internet in hope of finding a new one closer to home. To my amazement, I discover there’s one in Didmarton – virtually on my doorstep. A phone call later he’s literally on my doorstep, toolbag in hand.

Clearing the photos and other debris from the top of the piano, I explain to him the history of my particular instrument. As I do, I realise why I’ve been so tardy in getting it tuned: I’m worried that it’s now beyond redemption and will have to be written off. A humble “cottage upright”, it’s not a valuable instrument, but it is precious to me.

Exactly a hundred years old, it belonged to my beloved grandmother, who was born in 1900. Her stepfather bought it for her when she was about eight – the age my daughter is now. In her twenties, she took it to her new marital home in Sidcup. (I can still picture the piano in the corner of her dining room, family photos and trinkets on the top, and I often dream that I’m back in that room having tea.)

Grandma and my more musical cousin

Her husband, my grandfather, was a gifted musician, too poor to afford a musical career, but music was always his passion, passed down the family line. Unfortunately his musical genes passed me by, but I did eventually gain the piano. It went first to my more talented cousin, whose skills soon outgrew the instrument’s powers. A trained opera singer, she played this piano at my wedding reception.

That I have chosen the right piano tuner to revive this family heirloom soon becomes clear. He reveals that his mother was also born in 1900. When I tell him my daughter’s name is Laura, he immediately begins to play the eponymous tune, which I’ve never come across before, declaring it to be his favourite. When she comes home from school, Laura will be thrilled.

Lovingly he coaxes the piano back into good order. He suppresses the squeaks that had lately haunted the pedals. He handcrafts new wooden shafts that give new voice to keys that had turned dumb. In turn, little by little, he brings each note back to just where it should be in the scale.

And then comes the grand finale: that fabulous moment when he shows off his handiwork by playing pieces that test every note on the keyboard. It’s the piano tuner’s equivalent to the typist’s quick brown fox jumping over the lazy dog.

Even if there is no cure for chopsticks, this is a most effective antidote. Thank you, Mr Felton – and may there be many encores.

This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, a great place to find a piano tuner and many other friendly local service providers!

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If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in another post about how my lovely Grandma, contemporary of the Suffragette Movement, taught me to value my right to vote:

I Wear My Vote on My Sleeve

and this one about how one of her old ornaments inspired my new business venture:

The Reading Man

Posted in Family, Personal life

A Two-Sheet Solution

English: Toilet paper 日本語: トイレットペーパー
(Photo: Wikipedia)

With just a week to go before I leave my salaried job, my thoughts have turned to our household economy.  I will have to find ways of saving money.  

This idea does not upset me.  In fact I am looking forward to the challenge.  Ever the optimist, I anticipate that I will find an upside to enforced frugality.  Already I have become addicted to a certain cut-price supermarket chain whose cheap goods have an appealing exoticism.  My weekly shop now feels like a lightning tour of mainland Europe.  It is exciting to pick up a product which lists its ingredients in 20 different languages.  It is refreshing to see that the manufacturer has not assumed that English is more important than the other, showing a sort of inverse imperialism.

Poring over the supermarket till receipt, I am reminded of a conversation with my grandmother who, in preparation for my grandfather’s retirement, was rehearsing aloud to me one day the economies that she planned to make.

“I will use two sheets of lavatory paper instead of three,” she confided.

Even then, at the age of 8, I was impressed by the elegant simplicity of this solution.  At a stroke, Grandma had sliced a third off her future toilet tissue budget.  This logic could be rolled out right across her storecupboard. Sharing a teabag between two mugs instead of allocating one each will halve your tea costs.  A level teaspoon of sugar instead of a rounded cuts a quarter off.  Substitute sherbet pips for sherbet lemons – my goodness, on a one-to-or one basis, you are  talking about an 80% saving at least.

I have always wondered why climate campaigners don’t adopt this sensible system for saving energy. If only everyone would just use less power, there’d be no need to do battle over controversial wind turbines or nuclear power plants.  It just takes a little effort and imagination.  There would be unexpected benefits too.  Turn off the lights while you’re watching television, for example, and you’d gain the atmosphere and excitement of a cinema.  Add a box of popcorn (home- made, of course, for a matter of pence  – and healthy into the bargain), and you’re set up for a very cheap and environmentally-friendly evening in.This system would work equally well with fuel.  Instead of keeping the usual three lamps on in the dining room, turn on only two – hey presto, a third off your dinner-time lighting bill.  Use an inch less water in the bath, and you’ve got a 10% cut  but you’ll still be just as clean.

I am therefore ready to embrace this economy business wholeheartedly.  At least, until my husband emerges from the bathroom that I’ve just stocked with multilingually-labelled toilet paper (10 rolls for £1, what a bargain!) “I hope you’re not economising on toilet paper?” he pleads, a pained look on his face. And I haven’t even told him yet that he’s only allowed two sheets.