British afternoon teatime is an art form that has become internationally beloved
Developed in the 1700s by the Duchess of Bedford, it’s a small meal designed to take place in the middle or late afternoon to stop that “sinking feeling” between lunch and dinner. During that time, dinner was held at around 8 P.M., so the Duchess would ask for small, dainty snacks like tea, scones, clotted cream, jam, small sandwiches and macarons to be delivered to her room. Eventually, she began inviting her friends to “come to tea”, and they would have conversations over their small meal.
It didn’t take long for the concept of afternoon tea (which is separate from “high tea”, a hot meal that takes place in the evening) to become popular throughout Britain. This event gave rise to tea shops where people could gather to enjoy this meal, and it was considered a time of friendship, camaraderie and civilized discussion. Fast-forward to today, and the concept of afternoon tea has spread from the United Kingdom to many other parts of the world.
Including Lynchburg, Virginia.
Patricia “Pat” Hutto is a native of the U.K., and her tea shop on Commerce Street in Downtown Lynchburg, Ploughcroft Tea Room, is the one place in the city where people can come to enjoy this fun, unique, authentic and historic British experience. It offers a taste of British culture without the requirement of hopping across the pond to England. We sat down with her to talk about this “civilized meal” and how it has made an impact on the Lynchburg area.
A Lifetime In the Making
Pat came to America from the white cliffs of Dover as a young woman and fell in love with both the country and the people—especially a young man from South Carolina who would become her husband. When the two moved to Norfolk during his service as a Marine, Pat realized that one of the things she missed most about her home country was teatime. There was nothing like it in America, so she decided to change that, especially since she knew there were other British people in the area who would enjoy it. She opened and operated a tea room in Norfolk for 14 years, which drew Brits and Americans alike. She was surprised to learn that many Americans enjoyed the activity of taking tea in the afternoon just as much as she did.
When her husband retired from the Marine Corps, the two of them moved to the Lynchburg area, where Pat got a job at Sweet Briar College. Unsure of whether she would be successful with teatime in Central Virginia because of the lack of British people in the area, she began setting up teatimes at the college and was overwhelmed by the positive response. “I had to turn people away,” Pat remembers, “And I thought: well, okay! Let’s look for a place!”
That was ten years ago, and Ploughcroft Tea Room, which is named for Pat’s childhood home, will be celebrating its tenth anniversary on October 10, 2020. Pat loves this tea shop for the reminders of home that it gives her, and she’s grateful for the time she’s been able to run it. “There’s not a town in England that doesn’t have a tea room,” she says, which is one reason why she loves running this restaurant. She loves getting to take part in teatime and interact with her customers. Many of them share a deep interest in and appreciation for British culture, entertainment and influential people (like members of the Royal Family and Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, all of whom she has seen in person).
The Tea-Taking Experience
Ploughcroft Tea Room is a portal that transports the tea-taker from Lynchburg to Britain. With the elegant sign in front and two plate-glass windows bringing in lots of natural light, people feel right at home as soon as they open the door. When they enter, they are greeted by the smells of tea and scones, tables elegantly draped in white tablecloths, authentic tea sets, traditional British decor and the pleasant lilt of classical music. Pictures of the Queen sit or hang in several places, along with lots of leather-bound books and British knick knacks. Guests are then ushered to a table, where they can look at a menu and order a wide variety of traditional foods, served exactly as they would be in England.
What’s on the menu? It depends on the time of day. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Pat says, “We make homemade soups: potato, potato leek, farmhouse vegetable, that kind of thing, every day. One of the best items I have on the menu is a curry-flavored chicken salad. It goes on a bed of spring greens and you get a scone with that. [We also serve] chicken and mushroom pie, with puff pastry on it.”
Afternoon tea is served from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. It’s presented on a traditional three-tiered plate with the scones on the top and clotted cream imported directly from Devon, England, because, according to Pat, “It’s nothing like what you can buy over here.” She also serves four main kinds of tea: Yorkshire Gold (which is what most Brits will drink), Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong and Darjeeling (which is the Queen’s favorite). She has also started offering peach apricot tea, and she will even sell tea in bulk to her customers that she gets from her supplier in the U.K.
Ploughcroft Tea room is an all-inclusive English experience that has stolen the hearts of many, and all of the food comes from authentic, original family recipes. Pat explains, “I get people bringing their relatives to visit from England, and they bring them here, and those relatives say ‘You’ve got it’. And that’s the biggest compliment that I can have.”
Special Tea Times
Ploughcroft Tea Room is more than just a British restaurant, though. It’s a hub of culture and life. Pat hosts lots of parties and private events in her restaurant. She’s had people plan events like bridal showers, baby showers, engagement parties and anniversaries, and guests love the unique experience. She also hosts British cultural events, such as sold-out viewings of Royal Family weddings, Harry Potter and Downton Abbey parties, Christmas parties complete with caroling, Agatha Christie-styled murder mysteries (“we had a chef in the kitchen that got ‘murdered’, and you heard him scream out,” Pat remembers) and much more.
“A Little Bit of England”
When you come to tea at Ploughcroft Tea Room, the experience is such that you won’t want to leave. As soon as you enter, you’re transported to a little tea room just like you’d find in a small town in England. It’s a time to relax and enjoy a small, masterfully crafted British meal, and a delicious pot of tea. It’ll help you slow down a bit and enjoy life. “A cup of tea solves everything, basically,” Pat explains. “There’s something magic about it.”