May 23, 2016

Cream Tea in Warwick

February 13, 2016

One of our favorite things about living in England is the cream tea. If you're unfamiliar with this British staple, I'll explain. While it sounds like some creamy form of tea, that's not it at all - thank goodness!

Cream tea is a pot of tea served alongside a freshly baked scone with clotted cream and jam.

And holy moly, is it delicious. Now, for my American people, an English scone is far superior to what we think of as an English scone. What used to come to mind when I heard the word "scone" was a slightly hard, dry, sweet pastry in a triangular shape. Oh, how far away from the glory of English scones have we Americans come! It's a tragedy, really. While some of those scones are absolutely delicious when they're not dry and crumbling to bits, they still don't come close to a proper English scone with some clotted cream and jam. Not a bit. And served with a hot pot of tea on a cold winter day? It's perfection.

What is clotted cream, you ask? That's a bit of a tough question to answer, actually. Basically, it's a thick cream that's slightly sweet but absolutely melts in your mouth. It's made by indirectly heating cow's milk, then cooling it, during which the cream rises to the top and "clots" (which sounds gross when you say it like that). It's a very smooth consistency, and it's actually less thick than it appears. You kind of put it on as you would a butter, but I tend to slather my scones with clotted cream in a way that would be totally gross with butter!

There's a big debate about cream tea, though: Which ingredient do you put on your scone first - the cream or the jam? I've decided that the best way is to put the clotted cream on first, then layer on the jam. What I've found is that if I put the jam on first, the cream just kind of slides around on top and I don't get an even amount of clotted cream on the whole scone. If I put the cream on first, it holds onto the scone much better and the jam doesn't slide around nearly as much. (This is important stuff, folks.)

Seriously, it is so, soooooo good you guys. And we've found a place where we believe serves the best cream tea in the Midlands, and I would dare project it's the best in England (we absolutely had to take Kathryn and Brandon there when we took them to Warwick Castle on Christmas Eve). It's just a short walk from the castle, and the half-timbered home of the former mayor of the town is over 500 years old. Thomas Oken Tea Rooms is magnificent, and we go there every chance we get!

And that's just what we decided to do on Valentine's Day weekend. We're not big on celebrating that holiday for a lot of reasons, but we wanted to get out of Birmingham on the cheap (surprise, surprise). However, the weather was supposed to be pretty crappy all weekend long, and it was, so we wanted to stick close while also not becoming drenched from standing outside all day long. To Warwick we went!

We started our day with a stop for coffee just across the street from the Snow Hill train station. I was so tired from our weekly Shakespeare Friday hangout the previous evening. In the picture below, the entrance to the train station is there... you just can't see it. Doesn't look much like a train station, does it? That's why we couldn't find it the very first time we went to Warwick (and I had several panic attacks and we missed our train... what a morning)! 

Once we arrived in Warwick, antique stores were the first thing on our list. We knew we had seen that one or two existed in Warwick, but this time we wanted to seek them out. You see, one of our very favorite things to do back home was go to antique stores to simply pass the time - it's our form of window shopping. And, subsequently, it's how we've acquired some of our most treasured items which are now so sadly stuck in storage. It was so lovely just being able to wander around the antique stores and fawn over lovely items. We were a bit shocked, though, at the number of quite provocative posters (mostly caricature/cartoon)... the English can be quite a bit more embracing of sexuality and nudity than we Americans at times! But it was lovely to wander the aisles of old oddities just the same.

We grabbed a quick lunch at one of the food vendors in the central town square. They have a weekly farmer's market, and we were grateful for the hot and cheap meal! What we would call "buns" (think a hamburger bun) they call "baps"... most of the time. It's a ridiculous word in my book, but there you have it. Then we stopped for more coffee because we were freezing our tails off. It was a heavy, drizzly rain and it was quite cold for a day out. Plus there's no such thing as a public restroom in England, and we were out all day. Necessity calls. We also wandered around the Lord Leicester Hospital (where I had my first ever cream tea in their cafe). 

"The Lord Leycester Hospital is not now, and has never been a medical establishment. The word ‘hospital’ is used in its ancient sense meaning “a charitable institution for the housing and maintenance of the needy, infirm or aged”. The Hospital is an historic group of timber-framed buildings on Warwick High Street dating mainly from the late 14th Century clustered round the Norman gateway into the town with its 12th Century Chantry Chapel above it." [source]

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I am forever ruined for the "old" architecture we have back home.

Notice they call the pharmacy a chemist.

I thought this was cute - their cottage is named Six Steps.

Ah, to Thomas Oken Tea Rooms at last. The building is one of our favorites in the town, and it has a cozy atmosphere. Of course I love all the floral china they use, too. We waited a bit longer to arrive because our train left pretty late, but we didn't realize how busy they had been or how late it actually was. They had stopped serving most foods, but luckily they were still serving cream tea - whew! We ordered our cream tea and waited patiently (okay, maybe not so patiently). And it was well worth the wait, let me tell you.

It was a lovely day spent outside Birmingham as our faux-Valentine's Day date. Antique shopping, lots of coffee, wandering around a medieval town, and the best cream tea in the world. Can't ask for much more than that!

Hiking the Malvern Hills

January 30, 2016

Due to the severe lack of sunshine and being cooped up inside for three weeks, we decided a day spent outside Birmingham was well in order. We decided to keep it close to "home" while getting as far away from city life as possible, so we settled on hiking the Malvern Hills.

That morning we hopped on the train and headed to Malvern. There was a massive group of early college-aged kids all decked out in hiking gear sitting/horsing around near us, and we deduced that they probably had the same plans we did. The last thing we wanted to do was hike alongside a large group of loud and crazy young adults, so we decided to get off one stop early. Well, in all honesty, we had toyed with that idea anyway because we knew people would be generally doing the same thing as those college kids, but they settled the matter for us without knowing it.

Since we like to do these things a bit backward anyway, we just explored the town and found our way. After we got off the train, we made our way through a gorgeous neighborhood and some sort of university grounds. They offered some truly quaint and beautiful views along the way! The beginning of our actual trek started along the public footpaths. They were so steep! A couple of places had metal hand rails to hold onto in the middle of the path as you made your way up or down, and we weren't shy about using them. If you have ever been to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, that's what the roads and footpaths reminded us of - steep and winding all the way up. We got a workout in before we even got to the hills! And there were so many stairs. But they were annoying stairs. One of my pet peeves is walking stairs that are too far apart to take one step at a time but too close to take two steps, so you have to do a little jig in order to use both legs evenly and keep a good pace. I eventually found a rhythm, but it's always so irritating until I get into a groove.

It took quite a bit longer than we expected to get to the hills from our starting point, but it was a beautiful walk and we got to know the town a bit better on our way. The only thing was that we had to stop what seemed like a hundred times because of one reason or another; we had just purchased new hiking/outdoor gear and were fiddling around with it nonstop. When the sun was out, there seemed to be no wind and I was purely melting in my fleece-lined jacket, so I would take it off; then the sun would go away after we rounded a corner and the wind would kick up, so I stopped and put my jacket back on because I was freezing cold. Then we had a new backpacking backpack and it was our first time to pack one of those things - we had our extra layers, snacks, water bottles, and lunch in there, but we had no idea that putting the tupperware containers on the bottom would drive me crazy. I'm a bit too short for that backpack to be rigidly packed, so we were adjusting Patrick's layers and my layers and the backpack on him and the backpack on me, stopping for water and stopping to blow our noses and putting on our gloves and taking them off, looking at maps and turning this way and that. We were glad to get to the hills and have our kinks worked out, let's put it that way!

Once we did get to the hills, we were in love. The wind was brutal up there, but the views were killer.

When I say the wind was brutal, that's probably an understatement. It was intense, and it was cold. Patrick ended up getting really crabby because it was nonstop wind gusts in our faces. Once or twice the wind was so strong that it literally pushed me and even knocked me off my feet a bit. The cold didn't help one bit... that was the icing on the cake. Never in my life have I had my own snot flung across my face until this trek... gross! My nose would be running but I had no idea because I couldn't feel it; then a gust of wind would come and smack I'd feel snot across my cheek. Haha! What a sight!

To add to the frustrations, we had recently updated our phones and mine had decided to be a complete jerk (I repel technology; I hate updating my phone because it always either doesn't work or screws things up). The problem that day was that it would randomly shut itself off, not turn back on, and claim it was out of battery - most often while I was trying to take video. Then it would remain off with zero battery for a good ten or twenty minutes; after that, I could turn it back on and it would say that I had 78% battery or something. Talk about frustrating! So I had to flip back and forth between using my phone and Patrick's phone. He was irritated about the cold and the wind; I was irritated about my phone.

Like I said, though, the views were incredible. We could see for ages and even heard the church bells ringing for quite a while in the valley down below. At one point on our trek, we even encountered a couple of Scottish Highland Cows! There were two: one light colored, long haired cow sitting next to the path on the top; the other a darker, shorter brown haired cow who was sitting down the hill a ways, sheltered from the ripping winds (we call that one the smart cow).

We made it a point of hiking to the top and taking some pictures from Worcestershire Beacon - the highest point of the hills sitting at 1395 ft. elevation. Talk about a view! The landscape felt like something out of Middle Earth the whole time we walked along the hills, and it was so lovely being able to look out and see the horizon. After taking some photos at The Beacon, we made our way back down the hillside. The light extinguishes itself rather quickly in January and we didn't want to get caught in the hills without light and without knowing where we were. Plus the fact that we were freezing and Patrick was more than ready to leave... hah.

After making it back into town, we wandered around a bit. We got coffee so we could warm up; the wifi connection was a perk. Then we peeked around the corner and made our way into the Malvern Priory which, according to the signage, is over 900 years old. There are some fantastic tiles from the 15th century, now preserved but on display after the 19th century replicas replaced them on the actual floor. There was still about an hour until our train's departure, so we decided to go to a pub and grab a cuppa and continue to thaw out while we waited. I remember some woman brought in a tiny yippie rat-dog that wandered around the pub and wasn't shy of meandering toward other customers. I was annoyed at our unwanted company, but we left soon enough so it wasn't a bother for long.

This next series of photos cracks me up! I was trying to get a good picture of the two of us during our hike, but Patrick wasn't cooperating. I love looking at the progression of his facial expressions! You could see how he really felt by the end... hehe.

Patrick's feeling the grass here. It was so weird - spongey and mossy but completely dry!

If you've made it through all those photos, you deserve to watch the video. ;) About 1 minute in, you can really see just how windy it actually was up there... and precisely why Patrick was so beside himself!

The end!

One thing I've forgotten to mention: Apparently C.S. Lewis attended school in Malvern, and in his later years he would return to walk the hills with J.R.R. Tolkien. Crazy, right?! So awesome. And for any music buffs, Malvern was the home of Elgar - composer of The Enigma Variations. Pretty neat!

We took our train back to Birmingham and nearly fell asleep on our trip - we were exhausted! The last thing you want to do after a long day of hiking is make a 15 minute walk home that involves several bouts of stairs and uphill battles amidst a swarm of people ready to party on a Saturday night, but walk home we must. As soon as we walked into our flat and rid ourselves of our gear, we took showers, got cozy in our pajamas, and warmed up with some more tea. We just couldn't get warm after such a long day out in the freezing wind. I remember that the both of us were rather stiff and majorly sore for the next few days, but it was a wonderful day out of Birmingham regardless. Hopefully we'll get to go back for another hike when the weather isn't so brutal!