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History of The Orchard Tea Gardens

Tea drinking, that most quintessential of English customs is, perhaps surprisingly, a relatively new tradition for, while the custom of drinking tea dates back to the third millennium BC in China, it was only popularised in England during the 1660s by King Charles II.

It was later in 1840 that afternoon tea was introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford. The evening meal in her household was served fashionably late at 8 o’clock, leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner. The Duchess, who would become hungry around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter and cake be brought to her room during the late afternoon. Sometime earlier, the Earl of Sandwich had the idea of putting a filling between two slices of bread. Afternoon tea became a habit of hers and she began inviting friends to join her. This pause for tea became a fashionable social event. During the 1880s, upper-class and society women would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their afternoon tea which was usually served in the drawing room between 4 and 5 o’clock.

The Orchard was first planted in 1868.The original planting scheme is still available. One late spring morning in 1897, a group of Cambridge students asked Mrs Stevenson, of Orchard House, if she would serve them tea beneath the blossoming fruit trees, rather than as usual on the front lawn of her house, unaware that they were starting a great Cambridge tradition. The students enjoyed their rural tea and word spread around the colleges. Very soon the Orchard had become a popular upriver resort with students cycling along the Grantchester Grind, or walking through Grantchester Meadows, or punting upstream on the River Cam.

In fact, for over 700 years, students such as Coleridge, Cromwell, Darwin, Elizabeth I, Marlow, Milton, Newton, Tennyson, and Wordsworth, have all journeyed between Cambridge and Grantchester Village.

In taking tea at the Orchard, you are joining an impressive group of luminaries including Rupert Brooke (poet), Virginia Woolf (author), Maynard Keynes (economist), Bertrand Russell (philosopher), Ludwig Wittgenstein (philosopher), Alan Turing (inventor of the computer), Ernest Rutherford (split the atom), Crick and Watson (discovered DNA), Stephen Hawking (theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author), Jocelyn Bell (discovered the first pulsar) and HRH Prince Charles (future King of England). There is a list of some of the famous people who have visited in a separate page on our web site, and there are photographs of many of them on the walls of the Rupert Brooke Room.

In 1989, Robin Callan moved out of London to return to his family home of Cambridge and bought Orchard House in Grantchester where Rupert Brooke first took lodgings in the village.

In January 1991, when Callan learned that The Orchard was being sold for housing development, he was horrified that 100 years of history and tradition were in danger of being destroyed. “I knew I would have to move away”, he wrote. “I could not bear waking up each morning to be reminded of what had gone before.” He resolved that The Orchard had to be saved and preserved. Forming The Tea Garden Trust with charitable objectives he wrote to, and asked, all the famous, or well-known, people who had taken tea in The Orchard, whilst studying at Cambridge, to donate so that the trust could purchase the property. Those who donated included HRH Prince Charles, Stephen Hawking (author of A Brief History of Time), Anthony Jay (writer of “Yes, Prime Minister”), Michael Frayn (writer) and the Master of Trinity College. In addition, Sir Hugh Casson, Director of Architecture for the 1951 Festival of Britain, wrote offering to paint a watercolour of the Orchard from which prints could be made and sold to the public. However, sadly not enough Cantabrigians were interested. The Trust idea failed, and the donors’ money was returned.

Not to be defeated Callan decided that he would buy The Orchard himself and in June 1992, he reopened the Tea Room for the summer season. At the time of its reopening he wrote, “I do not seek to make a profit, I only seek not to make a loss.”

Callan was insistent upon the way the Orchard should look then and now. Only pre-war seaside type deckchairs are used, only wooden tables in the old-style painted dark conifer green are allowed, and only the minimum of pruning and grass cutting is permitted.

Conscious of  the fact that Bertrand Russell spent years in Grantchester writing his Principia Mathematica with A.M. Whitehead, when he said, “he knew every blade of grass in the meadow,” and the fact that Alan Turing had conceived the idea of “artificial intelligence” when running in the meadow, Callan wrote: “The Tea Pavilion is sacred. It must not be touched. It is a shrine to intellect.”

Callan insisted that “the Orchard Tea Garden is no longer an orchard nor a garden. It is a nature reserve where people can sit, have tea and think of all the famous people who have done likewise over the ages.”  He would often quote Brooke’s ‘The Old Vicarage’ poem which was written in Germany comparing the rigidity of their gardens with the nature found in Grantchester.

“Here tulips bloom as they are told;

Unkempt about those hedgerows blows

An English unofficial rose”

Callan died in April 2014 from Parkinson’s disease, aged 82. He is buried in Grantchester churchyard.  He never married. “It was all I could do to look after myself,” he said, adding, “in any case I could never have been faithful to one woman.”

Shortly before he died, he wrote: “Without such places as The Orchard, with “its peace and holy quiet”, Cambridge will no longer produce great thinkers. How can it, if its environment does not allow its students and professors to hear themselves think?”

The Orchard, said Callan, “is God’s little acre.”

With these thoughts in mind, Callan bequeathed The Orchard land, Orchard House and Ivy Dene to a charity so that, in the words of Rupert Brooke, they remain “forever England”. It was his wish that the Rupert Brooke Museum, which he used to endow, be moved in to the West Wing of Orchard House where Brooke had his bedroom and study. Sadly, this was not to be as Mr Callan’s executor decided to sell Orchard House and Ivy Dene in direct conflict with Mr Callan’s wishes.

On Callan’s death the responsibility for the running of the Orchard Tea Garden passed to his nephew Charles Bunker who, on 4th August 2014 at 8.43pm, lit 100 candles throughout The Orchard. It was the one hundredth anniversary of the start of World War 1. He thought it a fitting tribute to his uncle, and the dead from all wars, that another tradition should be started.

8.43pm is “at the going down of the sun,” when “we will remember them.” The candles are blown out as Grantchester’s church clock strikes 11.00pm, which is midnight in Europe. It is the exact time that, for Great Britain and its Empire, the hostilities of World War 1 began.

The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey said to a friend on the eve of war: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life time.”

The following year the 101 candles were lit by Charles Bunker and his wife Suzie. By August 2018, on the fifth anniversary of the ‘We Will Remember Them’ event, when 105 candles were lit, over 240 people picnicked quietly in The Orchard listening to a medley of music and songs relating to all wars, and doing what The Orchard is preserved for: remembering, thinking and communing with nature and your God.