A very British cup of tea...

In a garden tucked in from the sea, the first tea grown in England is cultivated

Tregothnan is the producer of the first tea grown in England, and indeed the UK. It may be known as the most British of brews but, historically, tea leaves have come from India, China, Sri Lanka and Kenya. Today, this valuable crop grown in Cornwall is being turned into very special brews that have found favour even in the traditional home of the camellia.

The estate, on the banks of the Fal estuary, is home to members of the Boscawen family, who have lived here since 1334. As well as the 150 acres devoted to growing tea bushes, there is a 100-acre botanical garden and thousands of acres of farm and woodland. The Boscawens have a long history of botanical endeavour. Two centuries ago, they sponsored plant hunters and brought rhododendrons, rare trees and ornamental camellias from across the globe to the estate.

Inspiration from India
It is the evergreen Camellia sinensis shrub that produces the leaves from which all tea comes, whether it is black, white or green. A native of South East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, it is today cultivated across the world in tropical and subtropical regions. Camellia sinensis is one of the few species of camellia that contains caffeine. While there are others, such as Camellia japonica, C. sinensis is favoured as a tea crop due to its flavour.

In 1999, Tregothnan’s owner, Evelyn Boscawen, and his garden director, Jonathon Jones, came up with the idea to grow tea, inspired by an early flowering magnolia from north India and the ease with which the ornamental camellias grew.

Camellia sinensis plants grow well in acidic, well-drained soils, with an ideal pH of 4.5-5.5. They require warm, moist conditions with at least 39in (100cm) of annual rainfall. The ideal aspect is south-facing, with protection from extreme weather. All these conditions are found at Tregothnan.

“The key thing for these plants is the microclimate here,” says Jonathon. “We are far enough inland to be free from salt-winds, and we have an 18m deep sea creek running through the estate, which means we get relatively warm weather in winter. On top of that, we have all the usual things that tea needs: the right rainfall, soil pH, shelter belt and aspect of land.”

The following year, thanks to a scholarship awarded by the Nuffield Trust, Jonathon was able to visit tea gardens across the globe. “I deliberately went to the widest spectrum of gardens that I could find,” he says. “I didn’t just go to successful tea gardens, I went to those that were struggling. It’s a very diverse and complicated industry. It is done in so many different ways.”

On his return, he continued to experiment and research. He had collected cuttings and seedlings on his travels and started to propagate tea plants from them. “I was busy testing the theory, and convincing myself, that this was going to be an industry, not just a novelty attached to the garden,” he says.

Donated tea plants
As word began to spread of the estate’s plans, advice started to come in from botanists and other experts. “The reception was amazing. One of the country’s foremost authorities on tea cultivation, the late Dr Rex Ellis, would paint watercolours showing me how we should grow our tea. He sent me an essay telling me in no uncertain terms what I’d got wrong and what was going to work. It was really valuable.” Other retired tea growers gave their lifetime collection of tea bushes which they had brought back to the UK.

As a result of these donations, today there are 35 different varieties of tea bush on the estate. These include Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, C. sinensis var. assamica and their own cultivated varieties, including C. sinensis ‘Tregothnan Himalayan Valley’, C. sinensis ‘Tregothnan Coombe’ and C. sinensis ‘Tregothnan Selection’.

Each variety occupies a different garden or plantation on the estate. Each plantation is no bigger than an acre, to reduce the risk of spreading disease. Each acre contains approximately 1,000 tea bushes planted in rows approximately 203ft (62m) apart. Tens of tons of tea are now produced here every year.

Not all of the 150 acres are fully productive. Bushes are first picked when they are three to four years old, with about 10 per cent of the bush plucked. At this age, a bush yields approximately 50g of tea at its first plucking. This increases to 100g in year six to seven when the bush reaches maturity.

Tea bushes can last for hundreds of years. Some in China are more than 400 years old, so there is very good reason to believe that the tea bushes at Tregothnan will survive for many more decades yet.

Cuttings are taken from healthy mature plants to propagate new plants. These cuttings are potted and kept moist and warm in a greenhouse. When the cutting has firm roots and is producing new growth, it is repotted. These young plants will remain in nursery beds for approximately 18 months when they are placed in the tea garden. Thousands of plants are propagated each year.

Left to their own devices, Camellia sinensis plants will grow into a tree. However, in cultivation, the bush is kept to waist height by pruning. This takes place at the end of the harvest season. Every seven years, the bushes go through a deep prune, where they are stripped back to their main branches to encourage new growth and renew the plants.

The main harvest season lasts from April to October. “There is no hard and fast rule on that,” says Jonathon. “We might have a really mild January or February and get our first leaves then. Since 2005, when we made our first sale, we’ve found that we can harvest on almost any day of the year.”

Premium harvest
In peak season, up to 20 pickers will start plucking at dawn. The young leaves are pinched from the bush and carried in baskets slung over the arm. The first rush of leaf buds coming from the tea bushes in early spring is known as first flush. Having stored a winter’s worth of nutrients, these leaves are considered the premium harvest and are used to make Tregothnan’s Single Estate tea.

Depending on the weather and the growth rate of new shoots, the plant is plucked again approximately seven days later. This is referred to as the plucking round. As growth slows down towards the end of the season, the plucking round is gradually extended to between 7-14 days until the plant no longer produces new growth.

White tea is made from the bud of the bush, while green tea and black tea is from the first two leaves and bud. “The final type of tea is down to what you blend with the leaf and how the tea is processed,” says Jonathon.

After plucking, leaves are spread out onto wire mesh racks, approximately 3ft by 6ft (91 x 183cm), in a steel walk-in container for several hours and left to wither. The purpose of withering is to reduce the moisture content in the leaves and make them pliable, ready for further processing. 

Next, the withered leaves are placed in muslin cloths and rolled between the hands, releasing juices and intensifying flavour. This takes place in the same room. The length of time this process takes depends on the batch size and the type of tea being produced. It can take anything from a few minutes to more than an hour. “The longer and more vigorous the rolling, the stronger the resulting flavour,” explains Jonathon. “We’re about to release a very strong breakfast tea using four different camellias from across the estate that will go through a very abrasive rolling process to create a really rich, full-bodied black tea.”

The third step is fermentation, or oxidisation, a process that started with the rolling. In this enzymatic process, oxygen reacts with compounds inside the leaves, affecting the tea’s flavour, aroma and colour.

For small batches of tea, rolling will often be enough to oxidise the tea to the desired level. Larger batches remain in the steel containers for longer or are placed in a wooden chamber, where the temperature is kept below 30°C, and left to further ferment. The degree of oxidisation varies depending on the desired result. For Tregothnan’s green tea, fermentation is replaced by steaming to retain lightness of taste and the green colour.

Once the leaves have been oxidised to the preferred level, they are transferred to a drying room, another steel container, where they are dried using heaters to makes the leaves shelf-stable, ready to be sorted and packed. The whole bush-to-cup process takes just 36 hours.

A tea for every occasion
“Our teas vary a great deal,” says Jonathon. “The delicate crispness of our green tea is very different to our bold and malty Classic tea. Some teas need to be light and refreshing, whereas others need to be more full-bodied.”

Tregothnan sells six teas: an exclusive Single Estate; a Classic Blend, with leaves from Tregothnan blended with leaves from Assam; an Afternoon Tea, a blend of Tregothnan leaves and Darjeeling; Earl Grey, a blend of Cornish leaves and Assam, infused with bergamot oil; Great British Tea, a stronger blend of Tregothnan and Assam; and a Green Tea, a blend of Tregothnan and leaves from China.

The tea is processed and packaged on-site, apart from the production of the pyramid tea pouch, which is outsourced. The distinctive boxes were designed in-house by Tregothnan’s marketing manager Bella Percy-Hughes. “We’ve also made use of the creative talent pool that we have in Cornwall,” says Jonathon. “We’ve had input from students at Exeter University, based on the Cornwall campus, and the arts community in St Ives.”

Challenges overcome
Today, Tregothnan is a flourishing tea plantation, but it has faced challenges. There were times when Jonathon feared that he had undertaken the impossible. An early crop was decimated by a freak gale. Rabbits, which have left other camellia alone, have joined deer and pheasants to cause problems, plucking some varieties bare.

“What I’ve learned is that when you try to do novel things, you get attacked by novel pests,” says Jonathon. Netting around the young tea plants helps to keep these predators at bay. Once the bushes reach a certain size, they become more resistant.

Jonathon’s perseverance has paid off, and the future for the Tregothnan estate’s tea is looking bright. “If we had given up after the early hurdles, we’d never have all this,” he says. The aim is to continue to focus on quality and sustainability, and to still be a successful operation 100 years from now.

As the sunlight strains through the mist onto the rows of tea plants, the feeling is one of quiet pride. Finally, a great British institution has found a home in Britain.

Words: Emma Inglis  Photography: Alamy