Britain Grows its Own Tea By Jane Pettigrew

This article is from the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal (Dec '06). This publication contains many interesting articles on both tea and coffee. It is a great place to learn about tea and the growing regions.

Tregothnan Estate, in England’s Southwestern county of Cornwall, is producing the first tea ever to be grown in British soil.

Jonathon Jones, head gardener at Tregothnan, with a new tea shoot from one of the Tregothnan bushes.

Some readers will be surprised to learn that the tea that is now being grown and manufactured on the Tregothnan Estate in Cornwall, is the first tea ever to be produced in Britain. Others may think that tea has always been grown in Britain, and may therefore wonder what the fuss is all about. There are comments that are not unknown, such as: “I always buy Yorkshire tea. It’s so good to think of it growing out there on the moors,” and “I only ever buy good old British tea.” However, these are - of course - totally misguided! There may be a few ornamental tea bushes dotted around certain British gardens, mixed in with the azaleas and rhododendrons, but they have never been plucked, nor added to the supply of tea that is consumed as the ‘national beverage.’ In general, the British climate is not kind to the camellia sinensis plant, making it hard to keep them alive in normal conditions. However, the temperate climes of Cornwall are not so different from those of Darjeeling. In fact, Darjeeling experiences winter minimum temperatures that are a few degrees lower than those of Southwestern England, and the plants are still thriving.

There is an old Cornish saying, which states that “Cornwall doesn’t have a winter, just a languid spring,” and on the December day that I visited Tregothnan, camellias were in flower, buds on the rhododendrons were ready to burst, the tea bushes were still flushing with great gusto. It felt as if Spring was just a few days around the corner. We were astonished at the amount of healthy and new growth deriving from a four-year-old bush. It had already given between two and four hundred new clone plants during the growing season, and yet here it was -- merrily -- pushing out masses of new buds in the middle of winter.

How It All Started

Since 1335, the Tregothnan Estate, which stands just outside Truro and close to the River Fal with 100-acres of ornamental garden and a four mile drive up to the house, has belonged to the Boscawen family. Of all the large estates in Cornwall, including Prince Charles’s Duchy of Cornwall, this is the largest. The family’s interest in unusual plants has been handed down the generations, and although the young plants were sent from China about 200 years ago, this was the first location in Britain to cultivate ornamental camellias out of doors. The current owner, the Honorable Evelyn Boscawen, inherited her mother’s passion and determination to make Tregothnan a leading botanical garden, with a collection of rare plants lovingly gathered from all over the world.

Once the decision to grow tea at Tregothnan was taken, Jones headed off on a tour within Britain to collect samples from the well-known tea bushes growing outdoors in British soil. He also managed to secure funding from the Nuffield Foundation, which is one of the UK’s best known charitable trusts. In order to finance the project, Jones had to convince the board that tea would actually grow in Cornwall, and also that Tregothnan was totally committed to developing an initial 20-acres of land for this type of cultivation. Next, he set off on a camellia fact-finding tour of China, India, Sri Lanka, Korea, Japan and other tea growing regions of the world, to examine camellias for their foliage, flowers, fruit and tea.

The Tea Garden Is Established
By 1999, 20-acres of valley (where once potatoes, carrots and peas grew) had been cleared, and the first plantings were made using cutting material and some seeds that were imported from various tea regions. There are now some 30 different clones in the collection of bushes - some of known origin, some unknown and others are wild. Advice and help were sought from experts within the industry, and in Spring 2005, the plants were mature enough for the first commercial crop to be plucked. On May 3rd, estate workers (who were already skilled at gathering foliage and growing greenery for florist shops around the UK, also of Tregothnan’s enterprise) became Britain’s first ever tea pickers. After withering, rolling, oxidation and drying, approximately 50-kilos of Britain’s pioneering, “Single Estate” tea went on sale at one of London’s most prestigious stores, Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly, at the amazing price of £28 for 50-grams, while the blended ‘Classic’ black tea sold for approximately £10 for 50-grams. Boscawen summed up the immense sense of achievement at Tregothnan, stating, “I am very proud of the project. Our tea plantation is the first in the U.K., and [it] is as fresh as you can get, which makes a huge difference to its flavor.”

Whereas Tregothnan’s tea bushes are free from all the insects and pests that cause problems on estates around the world, rabbits, deer and pheasants appear to love the tender new leaf buds that grow with such vigor here. “They never went for the camellias,” explains Jones, “but they certainly went for the tea. Pheasants will pluck a bush bare.” There is no action taken against these creatures, which obviously know a good thing when they taste it, since once the bushes reach a certain size, they are more resistant to these animals. Although the estate is not registered organic, the cultivation methods are, and there are plans to enlist as such in the future.

On a good day, about 20-kilos of leaf a day is plucked. Despite this, Jones knows that they need to spend more time analyzing the bushes that give the best leaf, and how variations in manufacturing methods affect the quality and flavor. Next year, they will start using mini-processors that allow this sort of scientific research to be carried out more satisfactorily.

The first five years of the project have been a time of experimentation and testing of bush yield and quality, as well as developing manufacturing methods. They have also addressed and planned for product design, brand image, marketing methods and distribution. Alongside the business of manufacturing and selling loose leaf tea and teabags, Tregothnan also sells baby tea bushes to nurseries and private individuals, has a thriving foliage business, sells essential oils and kitchen herbs, and produces quality, hand-crafted wooden gates, garden furniture and window frames.

The Future of Tregothnan
A new area of ground has now been cleared, ready for the next phase of tea planting. On steep slopes running down from the terraces at the back of the huge house towards the picturesque River Fal (again not unlike the tea-covered hillsides of Darjeeling), hundreds more plants from the tea nursery where 10,000 baby plants are nurtured, will soon be established to take the total area under tea to 30 acres. The short-term plan is to produce no more, nor any less, than a ton of tea per year by 2010. The long-term plan, however, is to develop business slowly, with the focus on quality and sustainability, and still be a successful private operation within a time frame of 500 years.

Although Tregothnan’s philosophy has always been to take the company’s products out to the consumer, rather than open regularly to the public, the estate is actually open on a limited basis to groups of visitors. These must book ahead of time, and includes a two and a half guided tour by one of the gardeners, as well as a cream tea with a pot of Tregothnan tea in the Old Summer House. There are more than 80 other gardens in Cornwall that are open to the public, and Tregothnan tries to be different by offering this rather exclusive experience for those that want something a little more unusual.

In order to provide a venue that informs and teaches the population about tea, and also attract visitors that can enthuse and excite the world this produce, there are plans of building - on the estates - an International Tea Centre. There will also be a tea factory accommodated, in which visitors can see how the tea is actually processed and packed. There will be facilities available for training events, seminars, perhaps exhibitions, conferences, shops and tea rooms. “This is a small beginning, but we feel the opportunity is lost, if all we do is grow tea to sell,” explains Jones. “I think it could grow into something much bigger. The tea industry has so much going for it. This is really special, because we have brought together two great British passions - gardening and tea.”

About the Author: Jane Pettigrew is a world reknown author and educator on teas. She resides in London.