From Shakespeare to Russell Brand via Mick Jagger. Coffee, tea & cake near Southwark Cathedral

Southwark is a grand place for mixing old and new; and that’s true for its tea rooms and coffee shops as much as its architecture and its cathedral.

You’re not actually in Southwark until you’ve crossed right over London Bridge and passed the little dragons that guard every way into the City of London, but once you are over the river, it’s got a very different feel from the City.

And straight away, I learnt something new this week, as I wandered around the Southwark Cathedral gardens. There’s an intriguing memorial to a Native American chief called Mahomet, who apparently came over here in the 1730s to try to claim back lands we Brits had stolen from his people. Trouble was he caught small pox and died (without getting his lands back, of course).

But here’s the thing: did you realise that in those days a foreigner could not be buried within the boundaries of the City of London, so his body had to be transported over the river into Southwark? Ah, if only Mahomet could have bargained coffee for land, he might have achieved his goal, but I guess by 1736, it was too late for that and Garraways Coffee House was already thriving by then in the City…

Southwark Cathedral

Southwark Cathedral is a wonderful place, and well worth a visit, if you’re round these parts. I was fortunate to bump into the Day Chaplain, one Stefan Gatward, who was full of interesting stories and is the one to credit for spotting the Mick Jagger lookalike in the Shakespeare actors’ window in the Cathedral. Go take a look – you can’t miss the character he means…

There are so many stories making Southwark a ‘people’s cathedral’, rather than one deifying local dignitaries. It’ll make a great entry in our book next year.

But we were here for coffee too, of course. And first stop was Monmouth Coffee on Park Street, but really right behind Borough Market, if you’re trying to find it.

Monmouth Coffee in Park Street, SE1

They say the queue for coffee begins the moment the place opens at 7.30 in the morning, and once you sit down (if you’re lucky!) for your cappuccino and pastry, you’ll know why. This shop has been open just over ten years, but the company has been roasting coffee since 1978, and they really seem to have perfected the art (or science) of coffee making.

Cappuccino and pastry at Monmouth Coffee near Borough Market

And I loved the diversity of people who hang out here: from business bods to breast-feeding Mums; from arty, film types to passing tourists. Don’t be put off by the queue – they quickly get through to you, and they’ll take your order almost the moment you arrive. Great place!

I have to say I mourn the loss of the Bramah Tea & Coffee Museum which used not only to serve up a very good cuppa, but also told the history of the tea and coffee trade. Their website still speaks of them re-opening in 2009 (!), but there’s no sign of progress and the place remains under wraps in Southwark Bridge Road.

However, that did open me up to finding somewhere else for tea in Southwark and after a fascinating wander past Guy’s Hospital, The Shard and the Snow’s Fields (see what I mean about mixing old and new?), I dropped in on a very contemporary tea room in Bermondsey Street.

Tea Pod is part of the Fashion and Textile Museum, an interesting place in itself.

Tea Pod at the Fashion & Textile Museum in SE1

It has a funky feel, with modern fittings (no lace or lavender in sight); wonderful loose-leaf teas and some irresistible cakes.

Tea & cake at Tea Pod in the Fashion and Textile Museum

It’s another example of an ‘independent’ coffee or tea venue, with more than one branch, staff working there rather than the owner, but managing to keep an independent, non-corporate feel (see my previous blog to this one). Actually, Huw, who owns the Tea Pod two, is very present in this tea room, with photos on the wall and messages on the website.

He clearly has good contacts in the media and entertainment world, because he gets involved every year with Comic Relief and gets various celebs to visit an HIV support group in Nairobi, which Tea Pod helps by selling tea cosies in the shop. And here’s the Russell Brand connection: his photo was on the wall during our visit to Tea Pod after his trip to Nairobi in this year’s Comic Relief.

So, lots of good reasons for feeling good by having a cuppa at Tea Pod. And you might want to take a spin round the Museum too. At the moment, they’re doing “The impact of music, art and celebrity on fashion: from rock ‘n’ roll to punk”.

Dressing Women exhibition at Fashion & Textile Museum in Tea Pod

Shame I didn’t have time to give it a whirl…

Video: Coffee, tea & cake near Southwark Cathedral

 

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What is an ‘independent coffee shop’? – Discuss!

What exactly is an independent coffee shop? Ever seen a definition? Does it actually matter, as long as you enjoy your coffee? Or does being independent in itself lead to a better coffee experience?

Don’t worry, I don’t spend sleepless nights worrying about this. And I’m the first one to dive into a Starbucks or Costa on the motorway if I need a break from a long drive. But when I’m looking for places to review, I steer away from the High Street brands, however friendly one particular branch might be. They just don’t tend to have enough personality or a story to tell, and that is very much part of the Fancy a Cuppa? brand!

I guess the ideal ‘independent coffee shop’ is a one-off, owned by the person who brews the coffee and chooses the blends; or at least can be seen around the coffee shop most days. And they’ll certainly put their individual mark on the place, whether in the decor or the theme or the type of other activities that go on there.

But when does an independent coffee shop cease to be ‘independent’?

Can you have an independent chain of coffee shops?

Certainly on my travels around the UK in recent months I have come across more and more of these places that claim ‘independence’ but have branched out and expanded. They’re nice enough, many of them. They do all the right things: have top quality coffee; qualified baristas; maybe even support local community issues; or play host to local groups’ regular meetings.

But you know what?

I just tend to find they lose their appeal once they’ve expanded so much. They begin to ‘feel’ corporate, less personal. They’ll do, in the same way that Coffee Republic or Nero will ‘do’, but they’ve somehow lost that individuality that makes an ‘independent coffee shop’ the kind of place I seek out.

With two branches, it CAN still work, and I guess this comes down to the personal touch of the owners again: it’s almost as if their presence at some point in the day is vital to keeping that individual feel, and they can still flit between two branches. But get beyond that, or even aspire to expanding beyond that, and somehow these coffee shops lose their appeal to me.

Funnily enough, this issue has also begun to develop on the tea room side of things. We came across an ‘independent’ chain of tea rooms just the other day and the same thing happened. Their website shows a great bunch of people, with a lovely ethos, but the one venue I tried just felt ordinary, like part of a chain.

We have been known occasionally – especially on our travels in America – to review coffee shops that are part of local chains like this, but on the whole they lack that personal touch that defines the ideal coffee shop (or tea room) for me, and they need a pretty special team in charge to make it feel individual again.

So does anybody else have strong feelings about this?

What makes independents better?

When does an independent cease to be ‘independent’?

Does any of it really matter as long as the coffee is good?

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Appreciating good coffee in Birmingham, but where to go for tea?

The guys at Six Eight Kafé did their level best to make my day in Birmingham something more than a damp (or utterly squelching) squib.

It’s hard to come away from a city with great impressions when you spend six hours traipsing through puddles, being splashed on by passing cars and attacked by that water trap that lurks beneath every loose paving stone in footpaths on rainy days. AND when your can’t quite find the sort of places for a cuppa that you’d hoped for…

But it all began so well with a fantastic early coffee and cake at Six Eight. What a great little coffee shop this is in Temple Row, right by the (Anglican) Cathedral, very handy for someone touring all the UK’s Cathedrals this year!

Entrance to Six Eight Kafé in Birmingham

I’m almost sure I’ve had Has Bean coffee beans before on this year’s tour, but the Jailbreak Blend they had on offer at Six Eight had a really distinctive taste, the sort that makes you smack your lips with the pleasure. And some great cakes on offer, too, from a local bakers.

Cappuccino and red velvet cake at Six Eight Kafé in Birmingham

Yes, it was raining, but it had been similar in Sheffield a few weeks back and that hadn’t stopped me having a wonderful day…

With the first of three Birmingham Cathedrals just over the road, the next stage was easy too. Great place if you’re a fan of the pre-Raphaelites, though I was more intrigued by the guy who got himself knighted by nine different countries, including Naples and Sardinia before Italy was even a twinkle in Garibaldi’s eyes. How did Edward Thomason manage such a feat?

Birmingham Anglican Cathedral

I then tried a coffee in two branches of another coffee shop that is based in Birmingham, but has ambitions to expand across the UK. Trouble was, it was nice enough (couldn’t fault the coffee itself, actually), but it all felt a little big and industrial, and I couldn’t help wondering if I was actually put off by their aim of opening up branches in other cities.

It’s another example of an ‘independent’ coffee shop targeting something bigger for itself. But does that take away from the intimate feel of a one-off coffee shop? This is something I intend to reflect on in a separate blog post because it is actually the third time I have experienced this this year.

The Catholic and Orthodox Cathedrals were far more flamboyant than their Anglican counterparts (what’s new, you might ask?). Relics in one; chandeliers and icons in the other.

Birmingham's RC Cathedral

Orthodox Cathedral in Birmingham

Everything in the Orthodox Cathedral was written in Greek…except for a brass plate pointing towards the ‘tea room’.

Heart racing a little in anticipation, I pushed open doors down the dark corridor and came across…an empty room. Nice dainty tables, laid with lace tablecloths but nothing else on them (except for a few piles of anti-abortion leaflets) and nobody in sight anywhere. Oh well…

Trouble was, my search for tea in Birmingham was not bearing fruit (or leaves). I tried the lovely Jewellery Quarter and learnt about lots of Titanic links (whistles, buttons, weighing scales), while wandering past the countless jewellers and medal makers shops.

But nowhere special for tea. This is surely one of those gaps in the market waiting for an enthusiastic tea-lover to set up shop. Watch that space: Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham…

So, my last resort was to go to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, to their Edwardian Tea Room.

It shouldn’t really have been a ‘last resort’ because the venue is magnificent: a galleried space just behind the Buddha section, with a tea and coffee display looking down over the tea drinkers.

The Edwardian Tea Room in Birmingham's Museum and Art Gallery

But, it just didn’t inspire, sadly. Liptons Tea (bags!) just don’t do enough for me, I’m afraid; the scones (and cream and jam) all felt rather corporate and certainly not baked on the premises. They weren’t bad, but they just weren’t special. And the staff… well the staff just felt over-worked and not-very-friendly. Cue: another blog to come on what makes good and bad service.

In spite of the great venue, I felt my spirits wilt, so trotted back to Six Eight Kafé for a final cuppa tea; at least they do loose-leaf and Suki is a nice brand. A friendly chat and a steaming strong cuppa set me on my way home.

But Birmingham didn’t really do it for me, I’m afraid.

Still, we’ll be giving them a second chance, because shortly after I left, I received a nice tweet from the guy organising a coffee festival in Birmingham in September. Here’s the details: though it’s really a good cuppa tea I’m after now…

www.coffeebirmingham.co.uk

 

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