Proper British Tea in Warwick’s 500-year-old Oken Tea Rooms

On a recent trip to England, our son took us to visit historic Warwick, an enclosed city. The highlight of the afternoon for me was going for a proper English cream tea at the Oken Tea Rooms.

The Tea room is actually several quirky rooms of the 500 year old house where the wealthy merchant and former mayor, Thomas Oken, once lived near the Warwick Castle. The house of yesteryear is enchanting for its’ old world charm.

The walls of the half-gabled house slanted and the roof sagged, looking like a picture in a fairytale. When we walked into the reception area by the till, sacks of 30 different loose leaf teas - jasmine, lemon grass, mango, Japanese cherry and others - could be purchased along with other sweet treats like caramelized clotted cream nuggets.

The waitresses, donning aprons over casual slacks, shorts and T-shirts, bustled about looking like they stepped out of the back kitchen where they baked homemade cakes and scones. Patrons spilled out of the ground floor tea rooms, so our waitress led us up a rickety, winding, ancient staircase that made me feel like I stepped into the old nursery rhyme.

“There was a crooked man…He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all liv'd together in a little crooked house.”

We ducked under the doorway and stepped into the past of what looked like a parlor from the eighteen hundreds. Stuffed sofas and antique chairs surrounded wooden tables where families whiled away time sipping tea.

We squeezed around a low table designed for short-statured folks of earlier times. We folded our long legs; our knees knocked into the furniture.

The tea was served on crockery that looked like it came straight out of great granny’s china cabinet. The tea, served in individual pots, included a strainer to separate the tea leaves. Fist-sized, fluffy, light scones balanced on trays alongside ceramic bowls, one laden with strawberry jam and thick, clotted cream in the other.

One bite of a cream topped scone was bliss.

Hungrier visitors could enjoy a full lunch or dinner or you could make a meal out of Tea for Three option, presented on a cake trolley, with a tiered glass plate towering with scones, cakes and finger sandwiches cut in triangles.

The only thing missing from our traditional tea was our lovely British daughter-in-law. I wished she had been with us to explain the difference between low tea and high tea. She’d probably say what any British person would tell you, anytime is a good for “a cuppa.”

Riding Through a Lock on a British Narrowboat

Awe-struck by the sight of the colorful, long house boats, I peppered the people floating past with questions. Friendly folks answered all of my silly inquiries.

‘One guy, Pete, even offered to let me ride through the lock with him. I hopped aboard and sat on a tractor seat in the stern where he guided the boat with a tiller. As we went through the lock, I waved like the queen to the boaters on the shoreline waiting their turn to go through the locks.

After we went through the lock, Pete suggested, “Fancy a walk-through tour?”

His 11-year-old son, Alfie led me through the narrow galley of their boat that reminded me of a skinny RV without the wheels.

The average 7 foot by 50 foot narrow boat has about 350 square feet of space for a bedroom, kitchen, living area, toilet, and cockpit. A small refrigerator, stove, cupboards and a narrow table squeezed on one side of the boat. Most have electric heat or a wood burning stove.

In the mid section, Alfie proudly showed a lounge area. His comic books were scattered on the coffee table along with checker board.

“Me ’n dad sleep on the couch that folds out into a bed right in front the telly,” he added. “Granddad sleeps in the bow and this here is the toilet and shower.”

Unlike most, their boat had the luxury of two bathrooms, one in the bow and another in stern. Across the narrow walkway was a built in washing machine.

“We’ve been with my grandparents for three weeks of holiday. Wish I could live on the boat forever,” Alfie told me, “except when granny yells at me for sitting on the roof! She’s afraid I’ll fall through.”

When the canal transport of goods was replaced by trains, holiday makers began renting 'narrowboats' and roaming the canals, visiting towns and villages they passed. Waterside pubs and village shops cater to boaters. Most towns along canals have free moorings that can be used for 1 to 2 days. Boaters lasso mooring posts along the canal side with heavy braided ropes. Then they hop off and head to the nearest pub.

Much like the English cottages in the village, each boat on the canal has its own name and unique identity with eclectic collections of artifacts, various potted plants and flower boxes decorating their colorful painted exteriors with names like Athena, Beulah Mae, Lady Anne, Jemima, Tubby Bunny, Rollin Along, Bubbling Billy, End and Beginning

Trying to decipher the lingo of canal boaters is like learning a foreign language. References include: Back pumping. Blow - a warning of collision. Bow, or fore end. Deck. Fore and aft.

Cruising the canal can be enjoyed by all ages and “boat” people were an eclectic groups of families, retirees, free spirits and throwback hippies

For some canal boat living has become a way of life. Getting back to nature and rural living, riding the canal is a great escape from our frantic modern-day pace and offers slower way of life that everyone envies at times.

For more information follow adventures of The Rum Wench vlog here

Normandy 1944-2024: Eighty Years Later The Memory Lives On

I climbed into the steel reinforced bunkers overlooking the Normandy landing beaches on Pointe du Hoc eighty years after the Rangers overtook the strategic German lookout 90 feet above the English Channel. I pictured a 19-year-old American boy jumping out of a PT boat into icy waters, with nothing more than a gauze bandage for comfort on a stormy dawn illuminated by gunfire.

I imagined him staggering across the dunes, dodging bullets and booby traps, clawing at the red cliffs, crawling through the hedge rows, groping for life in a foreign land, shooting at the shadows that could be his own comrades. He was an American soldier killing boys/men, who would have been his friends in another time and generation.

Here rests in honor glory a comrade in arms known but to God

I am of another time and generation — an American with a French-Normand spouse and German friends. Though I’ve been to Normandy hundreds of times, I visited the Normandy American Cemetery (outside St. Laurent) just once.

Only when standing on the hallowed grounds, where Americans lay under a blanket of emerald earth, marked by 9,386 white crosses, could I truly understand the enormity of their great and tragic endeavor on June 6, 1944.

On a rainy day, Normandy’s landscape offers a bleak reminder of her sad past, but on sunny ones the murky coastline, black sea, and gray fields are transformed into a tapestry of colors. Orange cliffs drop off into purple waters. Inland reddish-brown Norman cows and pink apple blossoms dot verdant hills under powder blue skies. Soft light white washes half-timbered houses and solid stone farm houses that remain as they were centuries ago.

The beauty and tranquility of Normandy today could drive a full-grown man to tears. And I, who am too young to have understood the impact of World War II, get a lump in my throat every time I return to the dairyland of northwestern France on one of those pinch-me-I-am-dreaming days of sunshine.

my husband's village on Normandy shores

Decades ago, on one of those sunny days, I pedaled my bike past red poppy fields and green valleys where newborn calves and lambs romped. I devoured veal “à la Normande,” Camembert cheese and berries in cream. Somewhere between the first and last course, I fell in love with a Norman.

Now the sacrifices of the men of the great war, their silent testimonials of white crosses that cover the rich green hills above the beaches Utah, Gold, Juno, Sword and Omaha have taken on special meaning for me.

They are my countrymen laid to rest in my adopted country. In a sense they saved my family.

freedom for the next generation

Every time, we used to visit Dieppe, (France) to see my grandfather-in-law, he’d greet me at the gate chanting the Star Spangled Banner.

“Ah, ma petite Pat,” he’d say recounting the highlight of his career as a trumpeter in the Garde Republicaine “I’ll never forget riding Lustucru (his horse) across the courtyard. The Allies landed in Normandy on June 6, but didn’t make it to Paris until the end of August. We waited for four long years…never quit believing they’d make it.”

He’d stop and pull a handkerchief from his suit pocket and wipe his eyes, before continuing, “Never forget how I blew the trumpet that day to welcome the Americans — greatest day of my life.”

The old heart does not forget. Now even though my generation never knew the horrors of war, my young heart will remember. When I stood in front of a sea of stark, white marble crosses, I felt overwhelmed by a debt that can never be repaid.

Suddenly I knew the unknown soldier — he was my father, my brother, my countryman, who died so nobly and unknowing, so that today I might live in freedom and peace in a land whose magnificence offers its own thanks to the skies.

Rest in peace my comrades-in-arms. You have not died in vain. I wish my words could transcend time so you could know. Because of you Normandy today, like the true Normans, remains proud and gracious.

England’s Intricate Canal System Had Me Trippin’

From the window of our son and daughter-in-law’s home in Warwickshire, England, I was admiring the red, brick barns and lush, green fields when suddenly a head floated past, just above their back hedge.

“I saw a ghost!” I screamed.

“No, that’s a real person,” Nic said. “C’mon, I’ll show you.”

Then he led us down a trail down the road from their home and we arrive at the Oxford Canal. I felt like I entered another time period. Narrow houseboats puttered along until jammed in traffic by ancient brick bridges with old fashioned locks every hundred yards.

On busy days pleasure boats floated up and down the canal. People congregated on the bridge shooting the breeze while waiting for next boat to go through the locks.

The rustic lock system, which allowed only a single boat passage, has changed little from the past century. In the past, a boy riding a bicycle prepared or set locks ahead of a boat's arrival. Nowadays, the woman aboard, carrying the lock key, hopped off onto shore to open the gate letting the water rise or fall, while the mister stood at the stern manning the rudder bar.

The Oxford Canal, inaugurated in 1769, is one of England’s oldest. In earlier days, coal and limestone were transported cross-country along canals that followed the contours of the land. In yesteryear, horses pulled supply boats by trotting alongside the canal on the shoreline’s narrow dirt paths.

Four thousand, seven hundred miles of navigable canals and rivers cross the United Kingdom; two thousand seven hundred miles of these are part of the connected system. During the Industrial Revolution, the canals system provided a commercial transport network until the the railways prevailed.

Narrowboats are usually built 6 feet 10 inches wide and a maximum length of 72 feet, because they must be under 7 feet wide and 75 feet long in order to fit into the lock.

Most of the old vessels, converted into houseboats, are now rented out for family holidays, but 8580 narrowboats are registered as 'permanent homes' on Britain's waterway system. Fifteen thousand Britons live their lives entirely on the water, and separate themselves from much of what defines the economy and life of the average British citizen. The boat people represent a growing alternative community living on semi-permanent moorings or continuously cruising.

Only a sunny day, a carnival atmosphere prevails. I felt wistful watching the colorful boats parade past on the lazy canal. Whimsically, I imagined ditching real life and drifting down the canal without a care in the world.

My First UK Walk in Wellies

I was excited as a two-year-old to take my first walk in wellies across the beautiful British countryside (I am easily amused.) Wellies, the symbol of British culture, reflect the lasting legacy of the Duke of Wellington and the term carries a sense of tradition, practicality, and British identity.

Wellies, aka. Wellington boots, date back to the 18th century. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, enlisted his shoemaker to modify a military Hessian boot. Originally designed for battle, wellies were later used by farmers and outdoorsmen.

In the early 19th century, they became a staple of practical foot wear for the British aristocracy and middle class and a popular choice for various occasions, including evenings out.

“Everyone in England has a pair of wellies, “Larissa explained. “In the UK, the public has the right away to cross the fields. It’s known as Public Bridle Way.”

When our son, Nic, bought me a pair, I thought they looked so chic that I could wear them as dress boots, which many people do these days. Wellies evolved from being purely functional to becoming fashionable accessories with many brands offering trendy designs, colors and styles.

“Don’t you have wellies in the US?” my British daughter- in-law asked surprised at my exuberance.

“In the Midwest, we swap out tennis shoes directly for winter boots,” I said, “Only thing close to your wellies was the clunky, buckle up galoshes we wrestled on over shoes in grade school.”

The British waterproof gumboots are usually made from rubber or PVC. Traditionally Wellies come in black, olive green, tan color or print and hit just below knee level.

Walking in wellies looks simple, but it takes dexterity. Larissa’s family maneuvered the rough terrain far better than me or Gerald. Could advancing in gumboots be skill passed down from one generation to the next?

Fortunately, before we left home, Larissa advised, “Wear heavy socks to prevent blisters.”

“Slip your orthopedics inserts in the boots,” Nic, the chiropractor added. “It may help your back.”

Nothing helped my spine; I winced every step forward. The UK family, even Lari’s sister lugging her ten-month-old child in a baby carrier, glided across the uneven terrain gracefully. I lumbered along behind, as if on two left feet, stumbling every step of the way.

Wellies, designed to protect feet from getting muddy or wet in damp environments, are the quintessential symbol of British footwear. To the non native, they feel awkward and offer little support for someone with like me with crooked toes, poor balance and a bad back.

Today's wellies, with varied color options and patterns, permit people to add personal style to functional footwear. They can be paired to match every outfit and occasion.

But no one wears wellies with greater style and aplomb than five-year-olds. Larissa and Nic’s nephew mastered the skill. In his “dinosaur” wellies, with a jagged flap along the spine of boot, he galloped ahead, circled back and jumped in every puddle along the way.

For me, slipping on a pair of “wellies,” sloshing along the sublime English countryside and singing with our UK side of the family made me feel like a kid again.