High Tea on High Street

TL;DR: Pots of tea and big cups you can hold with both hands; clotted cream and jam on crumbly warm scones; cakes and a great variety of fruit on crepes that have the satisfying mochi mochi (pleasant chewiness) of an unsullied marshmallow (a squished marshmallow is just plain sticky).

If you’ve ever spent a day playing in the snow with siblings or cousins (or both) as a child, with the wind blowing and snow stinging your cheeks for hours, you might know that feeling of coming inside: The house that you had earlier complained was cold feels a little too warm now, the hot meal on the table is extra delicious, full of flavors you wouldn’t otherwise notice. If there was time after dinner to read or play before bed; the delight in the book or toy was magnified by a full belly and that feeling of pleasant fullness, sleepiness, and all around well being. If it was the holidays your parents would be pleasantly distracted by their own siblings and parents; surrounded by voices you’d even get to stay up late enough to fall into perfect sleep on the couch and get carried to bed.

For me all these memories also include the perpetual smell of strong cups of Folgers coffee being made round the clock (decaf in the evenings) and the happy, heady feeling of comforting warmth in my cheeks, once flushed by wind burn, now flushed with sleepiness.

What I really loved best about snowy play days was the “coming in from the cold.” To enjoy the warmth I needed to be cold, to enjoy the quiet and stillness I needed exhaustion from the wind, and to enjoy rest I needed the exhaustive play. Coming in from the cold felt like Christmas Eve every time, even if it was a Wisconsin May blizzard (Maybe my memory is fuzzy, it seems likelier that on days when it snowed in May I may have just cried.)

I had forgotten those intense feelings until one blustery afternoon on High Street our first week in Oxford. We had walked and explored and the friendly warm sun had disappeared. The clouds seemed to gather in an instant; when the rain started we rushed into the nearest cafe with sore feet and backs that ached from hunching against the buffeting wind. The sudden quiet and stillness as the door shut behind us felt like the weight of a heavy fur mantle had slipped off our shoulders and lay at our feet.

We sat and ordered an Oreo smoothie for Bean (who insists on “experiencing the cold” as much as he can, our Wisconsin-born Texan) a crepe, a pot of tea, and a cream tea.

Cream teas so far have always come with two scones, clotted cream, jam, and a pot of tea. Scones here (so far) are not the hard dry bricks of wheat* coated in icing or sparkling with sugar like in the US, they’re more like biscuits that are sweeter rather than savory. Our favorite scones are slightly crumbly, warm, and mild in flavor with plenty of room for the added tastes of clotted cream and jam.

The crepes were wonderfully mochi mochi, (‘Mochi mochi’ is Japanese onomatopaia for ‘chewy’ or ‘squishy’ without all the unpleasant connotations). I used to think only toddler’s cheeks and actual mochi were the only truly ‘mochi mochi’ things, but the crepes at The High Street Cafe have made the list. Their only drawback being the tea is in bags, not loose.

We devoured half our fare and, slowing down, took out journals and books and wrote and read and nibbled away and suddenly I had echoes of Christmas lights in my eyes and I felt comfortably sleepy, warm, and contented. My cheeks were flushed and warm and I was like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, whisked right into the happiest and safest memories of my childhood. It was that “Christmas Feeling” all over again. Magical.

While we mostly live on spaghetti and porridge, if we’re out late or need fuel for the walk home we now tend to stop at Tea Houses, trying different ones. It’s possible none of these places are as delicious as I think; after all, sore feet and exhaustion make for the best seasoning: a good appetite.

The Grand Cafe in Oxford claims at “The site of the first coffee house in England.”

It is very pretty with gilded mirrors that serve the dual purpose of making the small room seem larger and entertaining younger guests.

We first visited The Grand Cafe because the tarts in the window were beckoning.

It was dinner time for us, so we ordered ‘high tea,’ a sandwich, and a lovely tart. A little of research (very little) shows that High Tea isn’t a specific set of things; so far to us in Oxford it simply means: Tea with scones and sandwiches and maybe some tiny cakes, or whatever else is listed on the menu. (eg: Fancy dessert lunch that costs the same or less as a meal and still come with a drink.). The tea here is loose tea and the small strainers that you put over your cup were a fun first for us.

Across the street from The Grand Cafe is the Queen’s Lane Coffee House, which claims to be the oldest coffee house in Europe (since 1654).

The scones tasted more pillsbury pre-made and the tea comes in a bag, but the atmosphere is good in the evening, especially when you’re cold, hungry, and the other shops are closed (The Queen’s Coffee House is open later). They also serve very good baklava.

Bean finished off an entire banana split for supper.

Finally, just yesterday, I visited the Rose Cafe by myself. I was by myself, returning from getting my violin repaired and got caught in the morning rain. I was outright dripping from elbows, bangs, and shoelaces when I entered the shop. It was morning so the shop was empty and quiet.

I had their “Tea Cake,” which was a pot of loose leaf tea and some thick toast with rum soaked raisins in it. I vote this one: Best Sunshine in the afternoon where you can feel cozy as a cat on the windowsill. Better yet, if you’ve been doused in a sudden rain shower and are coming in to dry off and the sun comes out you’ll be doubly warm, happy, and have tea to boot. Happy Kitty indeed.

Bonus: The tea is loose-leaf and the atmosphere was calm and pleasant. I’m sold.

Before I came to Oxford I would have thought Isn’t it expensive to have tea? The answer is: Less expensive than a full lunch, but just as filling, a bit more sugary, and generally less healthy in the best possible and most satisfying way.

The Secret Tetris Garden

aka: A Short Tour of Our Apartment & Neighborhood

Whenever I’ve seen pictures of European streets lined with unbreaking rows of 2-3 storied houses I’ve wondered, “What is behind those walls?” I’ve imagined gardens with fountains or tiny yards behind each house, each with a gate to square park or pond in the center. The child in me that always dreams of mysterious hedge mazes, full of puzzles, hopes that the neighbors have worked together to create a secret green labyrinth that leads to a sword in a stone at the center.

It turns out that behind those walls of houses are small yards squared off in unique shapes in a perfect square of Tetris-like blocks. When I look over it the music of Tetris (Type A) plays in my head. My mind keeps jumping to the idea that, like the game, it’ll flash and in a moment be gone, ready for a series of new blocks to lay just in place. I suppose, eventually there will be changes made; a slow version of that blinking flash and the puzzle will look suddenly different. For now, I’m charmed by the current edition.

My favorite garden is the one just left of center. The narrow fence path through the vined arch to the picnic table at back is what you’d want if you had a city garden, in my opinion. A Secret Tetris Garden.

Our neighborhood is not the most upscale in Oxford; the buildings require a little TLC and it can get loud on Friday and Saturday nights with groups of revellers on their way home from the pubs (or heading to the next event of the night). The tall houses lining either side of the street leave no other route for sound but to bound and rebound until dissipating into the atmosphere. Our neighbors in back had a karaoke party with their windows open last weekend; when we opened our own windows for some air their robust versions of Dancing Queen and MMMBop could be heard and tickled our hearts a bit. The noise has happened every weekend so far (less on weekdays) and yet it lacks any bass or oomph so it’s easy to overcome. We downloaded a noise machine app. and sleep pretty easily.

Our flat is very pretty and bright and we like it. The first floor neighbor plays merry pieces on the piano (always at polite times). The sounds wafting up the stairs are happy and bouncy, like we are in an episode of Wallace & Gromit with a much more pleasant penguin.

It’s kind of magical to live in a three story building. It’s smaller than our Texas duplex, but well-organized and feels even more spacious.

The ground floor has just enough room for an alcove for coats and shoes, and a flight of stairs.

The first bedroom is at the top of the stairs. Both bedrooms are small, simple, and comfortable for a traveler who just has a suitcase and an instrument or two.

The second bedroom is next to the the restroom. Many showers seem to just have half doors over here, at least on the housing listings we’ve seen.

The third floor is our bright and relatively quiet retreat. It gets a lot of sun throughout the day and is a pleasant place to homeschool. We giggle at the playful scratching sounds of the crows, woodpigeons, and magpies that alight on the roof and hop about during their daily visit before making their next stop at the large, vined, tree in the neighbor’s yard. They nearly always arrive in pairs.

The extra floor conveniently insulates our guitar playing, violin practice, and, most importantly, Bean’s pacing during his imagination time* from the first floor neighbors.

The kitchen feels larger than ours at home. When we first returned with groceries I suffered a jetlag-induced mild panic when I couldn’t find the fridge and we had just returned from the Tesco fiasco with loads of perishable groceries, but it’s there 😉 I’ll give you time to guess.**

Keeping the washing machine in the kitchen is a common practice in the UK, at least for the airbnb flats we have viewed. Our washer experience so far has been unfortunate. The provided towels—both used and unused—smelled musty our second night. Guessing they must have sat in storage too long, I threw them in the wash. The washer failed to agitate; to test it further I set it to spin and was greeted with an explosive rush of sudsy water from underneath the sink. The pipe the washer hose was set in is blocked. The previous tenants had placed a large bucket under the sink and we assume they must have used it while the washer was on. The manager was not notified that the washer was broken until our arrival and has been very communicative about the situation, but we are still waiting on a solution.*** Since it’s taking a while resolve, I’m very very very very (very!) grateful for the musty towels that lead to us knowing this issue much earlier!

*Imagination time: pacing back and forth and imagining epic battles and adventures without the encumbrance of any physical object such as toys or anything with an imagination-intruding tangible form that would disturb the perfection of what exists in his mind’s eye.

**The fridge is in what looks like the bottom left corner cupboard. It is very deep and easily keeps all that we need. It also works, as the heat, water heater, doors, windows, and practically everything else also does. All the little broken things (window shades, the closet, a dresser, a radiator knob, etc.) are minor. I remind myself regularly of these happy things when I feel like griping about the many loads of laundry I’ve done by hand in the tub.

***Two weeks later and, while the manager has been fairly communicative and has even visited to make a list, no repairs have been done. I am still doing laundry in the tub, chanting platitudes of gratitude (see above) in prayer to change my heart stubbornly bent on griping. Nothing is of disuse to God, so I’m trusting He can make worth-while this seemingly banal use of my time…even to the loss of my guitar callouses from the long exposure to soap water 😢 (gloves do help). It only mildly interferes with experiencing Oxford and sabbatical goals (writing and intensive instrument rehearsal). It is, in the end, merely an inconvenience. It is the largest inconvenience we’ve had, in other words, we’ve had no true troubles. Thank God.