Catching your breath in the British Isles

My life—and my editor’s too—has been a bit tumultuous in the last two or three weeks. Lots of deadlines, lots of commitments, lots of pieces of me asked for by other people. On the one hand, it’s a blessing because it means my work is (theoretically) good and desired, but on the other, it’s taking a lot out of me.

There’s really only one thing to do—especially when you’ve made your home on the British Isles—when you’re tired, overwhelmed, and need a centering force: have a cup of tea and a book.

I have some favorite places to have cups of tea to share with you, but I should warn you that none are teahouses or hotels and, to be honest, I’m fairly certain that they’ll just brew you a cuppa that you could make yourself at home—but it’s more about atmosphere and peace than anything else.

1.   The Refreshment Rooms at the Victoria and Albert Museum

photo by j a micheline - the gamble room

I maintain that the Earl Grey that I’ve had at the V&A Museum Café is the best cup of tea available in London. Paired with jam, clotted cream, and a raisin & sultana scone—instant relaxation.

Photo courtesy of  VICTORIA and ALBERT MUSEUM -  The V&A Café

There are three refreshment rooms: The Morris Room, The Poynter Room, and The Gamble Room. Together they comprise, the story goes, the world’s first “museum restaurant.” It’s an interesting claim to fame (though the V&A has many more) but it makes you wish more museum cafés were of the same ilk. Each of the rooms is different but equally gorgeous—beautifully tiled, with immense ceilings, arches, and stained glass windows.

For maximum calm, I recommend going on a weekday outside of lunch hours. It’s a relatively peaceful place but it is the café of a famous (and wonderful) museum, so be mindful when you go. Otherwise, select a nice book—last time, mine was Middlesex—and enjoy.

2.   Greenwich Park

photo by j a micheline - greenwich park

For this one, I think the purchase of tea is optional because the park is the main event. I did another cup of tea + sultana scone combination at one of the public food places, but you could easily bring that to the park yourself. Instead, the source of the calm is the park itself.

If you’ve never been, you can poke around the Greenwich Observatory and if you’ve got change to spare (I didn’t) you can actually queue up to take a photo on the prime meridian and do some other things. But, if the mission is calming and decompression, you’ll want to walk past the observatory, take in the nice view of central London, and then find a nice bench to enjoy your tea and/or book. I walked down to the lower part of the park, but there are also nice places and areas to sit elsewhere. The park is just quiet enough not to be stressful, but just alive enough that people (and dog) watching is a pleasant distraction.

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3.   Fountain Court at Middle Temple

This one you definitely have to bring your own cuppa, but it’s worth it. Historically speaking, the Middle Temple claim to fame is that it’s one of the four Inns of Court whose members are barristers, the cream of the British lawyer crop. For us, though, the most relevant part are the three or four benches that surround the fountain outside the temple hall. 

photo by j a micheline - fountain court

Fountain Court is a tricky location when it comes to “peace,” so you have to time it right. In the summer, you’ll see a lot of local office workers both there and in the nearby greenery around lunch time. In other seasons, the traffic is lower or even non-existent—the first time I went, it was raining, so I just read underneath an umbrella. You’ll want to go at an off-peak time and might even be so bold as to attempt it during winter or autumn.

What I like about Fountain Court—and actually all three of these locations—is that these relatively quiet or peaceful places exist just a stone’s throw from hustle and bustle. I never would have thought to go to a museum café for calm or that a quiet fountain could be found on a short detour from the main road. These places are lovely things about London that take some work to find, but once you do, you never let them go.