Anna Horatia Tribe OBE (L), great, great
Adrian Dennis  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Anna Horatia Tribe, left, the great, great, great granddaughter of Admiral Nelson and her daughter Mary Horatia Arthur, right, great, great, great, great granddaughter, enjoy a cup of tea beside a painting of Nelson's ship HMS Victory in London on March 24.  
By London bureau chief
NBC News
updated 5/19/2005 12:54:50 PM ET 2005-05-19T16:54:50

In my house, when I was a kid, there was a ritual you neglected at your peril. It was one where split-second timing was of the essence. Speed was everything.

It began when my father’s key clicked in the lock of our front door on his return from work. That was the starting gun for a sprint to the kitchen.

On the hob — if my brother and I were not living dangerously — the kettle was already singing gently.

The “Brown Betsy” teapot stood alongside, charged with tea leaves and open-lidded, ready for the boiling water.

Before my father — a stern but loving man — could get halfway up the hallway, the water would be in the pot.  Dad’s tea was “on the brew.”  We could relax.  Life, as we knew it, would go on.

This working man’s tea ceremony was one of millions that went on in homes up and down the country every day.

Elsewhere, in rather more genteel neighborhoods than ours, the drawing rooms rattled to the clink of bone china cups and saucers, the munching of brown bread and scones and the drone of polite conversation. It was the point in the day where everything seemed to stop, or at least slow down. Teatime.

Taking tea is a ritual that’s fueled this country’s daily life for three centuries or so. 

Around the world it earned us a reputation as a “nation of tea drinkers.” (Let’s face it, that’s better than some of the reputations we’ve won). As well as drinking it, we traded it and made fortunes from it.

It cost us, as my American friends like to remind me, a continent.

Teas sales drop off
So it came as something of a shock to read that the cuppa (as we call a cup of tea) is no longer Britain’s favorite drink.

The sale of tea bags and loose tea in Britain dropped by 16 percent and nine percent, respectively, between 2002 and 2004, according to market research released by the consumer information group Mintel earlier this week.

Britain’s total tea market fell by 12 percent to 623 million pounds in 2004 from 707 million pounds in 1999.

Instead, more and more young people are now quenching their thirsts with bottled water, juices, and coffee.

National cup of comfort
Now to regard this as just another set of statistics about a beverage is to miss the point. 

Tea is our national emblem. I don’t mean that cold stuff with ice in it. 

I’m talking of a comforting warm brown brew — served with milk, of course — that has seen us through the best and worst of times.

It’s credited with almost magical powers — the first thing you reach for when times get tough.

I watched one of my favorite old war movies the other night. In it, there’s a perfect cliché of a scene where a British army commander — hopelessly cut off and surrounded by the enemy — is offered a mug of tea by his aide.

“Do you really think this will help?” he asks unbelievingly.

“It won’t ‘urt sir,” is the stiff-upper-lipped reply.

They handed it out by the gallon during the World War II blitz on London and in anything they could find on the rescue boats at Dunkirk. 

For all I know the gallant survivors from the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade used it to wash away the taste of the Russian guns.

Tea was the blood coursing through the empire’s veins.

Now, you’re as likely to find Nescafe or Starbucks sloshing around in there.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking coffee. I’m a grande latte guy through and through. It’s one of the habits I happily picked up in the States, alongside a complimentary weakness for Krispy Kreme donuts.

And I think it’s fitting that America showed its independence by turning its back on tea shortly after that unfortunate event in Boston.

But in Britain?

Old days are long gone
Alas, tea’s been under attack here for a while.

Long gone are the old-fashioned tea trolleys and tea-ladies that used to trundle through office buildings, dispensing their sweet milky elixir to the workers. 

Gone are the famous tea breaks — relics of a bygone age — when factories would stop production for ten minutes so that the laborers could have their brew.

And gone, sadly, are the days when my late father would demand his tea as a totem that all was well in his world.

Somehow I just can’t imagine him standing menacingly at the kitchen door, demanding a tall decaf skinny cappuccino with extra foam.

That’s progress for you.

I think I’m in need of a little tea and sympathy.

Chris Hampson is NBC News' London bureau chief. This column is based on an earlier ode to the cup of tea that he wrote for the Web site.


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