For all the tea in Truro: how a Cornish plantation is turning the tables on China

 

It's shortly after noon and the Tregothnan country estate is bathed in a low blanket of mist.

Leaden skies loom overhead and a steady drizzle of rain makes the surrounding foliage glisten bright green. Occasionally the clouds part. Sunlight streams onto the sodden ground and for a moment you get a brief reminder of what summer is meant to feel like. For holidaymakers heading to this part of Cornwall it's not exactly enticing weather. But Jonathan Jones, the estate's garden director, couldn't be happier. "It's just perfect," he says. "The plants love it."

The plant Mr Jones is specifically talking about is one that is forever associated with England but, until recently, has never been grown here. Tea has always had to be imported, but in the space of just a few years Tregothnan has turned all that on its head. Thanks to Cornwall's warm and wet micro-climate, the estate is currently home to Britain's only commercial tea plantation. The adventure began as a somewhat hare-brained idea with the first harvest producing just 28 grams. Now the estate churns out 10 tons of tea and even exports its produce to India and China.

Cornwall primarily works as a tea-growing location because it rarely has frosts. But this year's wet summer has produced even more perfect growing conditions than usual. "We're almost having two years' worth of growth in one at the moment," says Mr Jones, who learned his craft on trips to Asia. When the sun does come out it's sweltering and humid. The climatic parallels with somewhere like Darjeeling – 6,000ft up compared to Tregothnan's 246ft – are hard to miss.

Since 1900 the average temperature in the UK has risen by about 1C. It may not seem like much but it has significantly lengthened growing seasons and allowed farmers to farm produce that are far more diverse than our historical staples of cereal and potatoes. In Devon, farmers are churning out chillis. Melon and kiwi plantations can be found in the Midlands whilst in Kent we even have walnut groves.

But the idea that tea – a commodity we went to war to obtain and protect – could be grown on British shores seems too good to be true. In some ways it is. There are only a very small number of spots around the UK where tea could thrive.

"Tea plants are really quite fickle," says Mr Jones. "They will grow in a sheltered garden. But there's a difference between having a tea bush which is alive and one that is commercially productive."

The hillsides that Tregothnan lies on are about as perfect as it gets. Sheltered from the Atlantic by the Lizard it has all the benefits of Cornwall's microclimate without being battered by winter storms or salty water, which is disastrous for tea. It is warm, the soil is acidic and, most importantly, there is lots of rain. The estate is owned by the family of Lord Falmouth, one of the oldest aristocratic families in Cornwall. His ancestors travelled far and wide with the British Empire and collected all sorts of exotic plants for the gardens back home. While clearing out a garden shed a few years back workers even came across an original Wardian chest, a wooden hut with glass sides which was invented by the botanist Nathanial Bagshaw Ward and was used by Britain to smuggle tea bushes out of China and into India. Over the years, the gardens back at Tregothnan became famous for exotic flora, particularly its camellias – the same genus of plant as the tea tree. During the late-1990s, while walking through the garden, Mr Jones hit on the idea of growing tea. "I was looking at all these camellias, many of which came from Darjeeling, and they were doing perfectly well," he recalls. "So I thought I'd try to grow tea itself."

A tea bush takes five years to mature to the point where you can harvest it. Tregothnan's first crop was flattened by a storm but eventually the bushes began to sprout enough tender young leaves to be commercially viable. Fortnum and Mason bought up the first batch exclusively but the Tregothnan brand is now stocked at different outlets and is sold online. It is more expensive than standard brands – around 24p a cup, compared to around 6p for a basic supermarket tea. Ironically, Chinese and Japanese drinkers appear to be the biggest buyers of the estate's tea and by next year they expect the overseas market to account for 50 per cent of their sales.

So where next for Britain's first tea plantation? Mr Jones is in talks with a partner about opening a chain of tea rooms on the high street. It would be a bold move but could bring English-grown tea to a much wider audience beyond the enthusiasts and connoisseurs who usually buy their product.

"The tea bar concept has been looked at by a lot of serious companies but no one has made it happen yet," he says. "We think we can. In October Starbucks is planning to open its own tea house in the States.

"It's a disgrace to this country that we haven't beaten them to it. Wouldn't it be fun for the Brits to organise themselves quickly enough to beat Starbucks to it?"

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
musicOfficial chart could be moved to accommodate Friday international release day
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
News
i100
Sport
Italy celebrate scoring their second try
six nations
Sport
Glenn Murray celebrates scoring against West Ham
footballWest Ham 1 Crystal Palace 3
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Knaresborough ...

    Beverley James: Accounts Payable

    £23,000: Beverley James: Do you have a background in hospitality and are you l...

    Recruitment Genius: Cleaning Manager - York and Bradford

    £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The post holder is a key member of the V...

    Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Drivers

    £18000 - £28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Driv...

    Day In a Page

    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review