50-41 – Salisbury Tea

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​Some memories are clearer than others. When I think of Salisbury, I remember several bits rather than a cohesive narrative. I have vague images of people and places and really strong feelings evoked by the smell of rain on stone. Simply the mention of the Cotswolds region and I think lovingly of the hostel warden who let us in early because of the freezing air. He showed us his books on the area and we talked with him for what seemed like hours although it was probably closer to minutes. I can picture Kathy and I poring over the books in what I remember being a study with overstuffed chairs and shelves of books. It was probably less of a study and more of a nook but it is in my mind’s eyes as from an Austen novel.

I have no memory of coming off the train and walking on a regular sidewalk. Our bags were heavy. We’d just left London and I already had an extra bag. In some ways, twenty odd years later would be much easier with my own car.

The street was narrow, going hurriedly but clumsily over the cobblestones and through the slate colored grey stone archway that matched the sky. Salisbury held everything from prehistoric and Druidic to medieval and Christian to modern with that extra touch of living in a British comedy. All there for tourist and native alike, slight eye roll and wondering if this was real or if it was done as pantomime for our benefit.

I take pictures of everything so it boggles my mind that I do not have a photos of the actual medieval clock in the CAthedral. It is possible that photographs weren’t allowed. It’s possible that the picture was blurry and lost to the annals of a box of college things that will never be seen again. I do remember amazement, thought, and I recall sitting on a wall near the Cathedral – I have a photo of a flowering tree in January from there so it must be true – and we eating peanut butter spread on crackers, although I think it was either Melba toast or mini bread squares the size of crackers – non-perishable, easy to carry and thrifty. Let’s be hone now, frugal or cheap is a more appropriate designation.

What stands out most vividly, besides scaring another hosteler that evening while watching Poltergeist, was the wacky tea shoppe that Kathy and I wandered into. There were so many things on the wall, it was hard to miss the tiny flowery wallpaper. There were small round table with two or three chairs. I think they were metal, like patio furniture rather than wood, and they were all white. I feel as though a doily factory exploded in this shoppe. People were there, chatting quietly, sipping tea, adding milk, dabbing creme onto scones, the click of the spoon hitting the tea cup unmistakable and nearly constant.

At the back of the shop was a counter where you got your order and behind the counter were three old women. Ancient would be more apt. They were all quite deaf or extraordinarily hard of hearing. Although they didn’t have one, it would not have surprised me one whit if they had one of those ear trumpets that you would put into your ear and had someone scream into.

They were shouting orders back and forth and repeating as necessary because of the hearing. It was very much like the Where’s the Beef commercials.

As Americans, we were already loud, but not quite loud enough for this place.

I’d like a tea with milk please.

What?

Tea. With milk, said a little louder.

What?

One more time.

She turned to the lady behind her, in the more kitcheny area and repeated my order.

What? came the reply from the back.

The first woman repeated it.

What?

A third woman back there repeated it even louder and was met with a silent nod as tea kettles were poured and prepared and given to us on a tray. We must have paid but I don’t actually remember paying. I also don’t recall if we got anything to eat with our tea.

We sat and sipped and listened in astonishment as our conversation was repeated with the customers who came after us. We grinned occasionally at the absurdity of it all.

It was so perfectly, stereotypically British that I would not have been surprised had Mrs. Slocum come out of the back complaining about her day.

I don’t remember what was upstairs – there was a little shop, but I do remember going up the narrow stairs and then coming back down relatively quickly. We slid past other customers coming in, back onto the narrow cobbled walkway, under the stone arch that had been there since before America was a nascent thought and back to the hostel; or more likely to the hostel for the first time after our very British sustenance. Tea cures all ills, and with its special powers we were able to walk the rest of the way to the hostel where we would stay the night and then continue west by train through the lush green countryside bordered by grey sky.

January in England. We made our own sunshine.

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