The British tea break

In the 1970s, I worked as a gardener on the grounds of a tiny college in England. The head gardener, Old George, was a veteran of World War II. He had risen to the rank of private by the duration.

If the army were looking for men to start at the bottom and stay there, then George had fit the bill. But the military experience was not lost on him.

George had gained a sense of time. He insisted his crew of four gardeners show up for work precisely at 8 a.m. By that time George had the kettle boiling for our first cup of tea of the day. Being late for your tea was a court-martial crime in George’s view.


Weather map of UK

The British climate can be inclement. Rain is always a danger for gardeners. Our first task was to assess the weather. We would all bend our minds to the problem with alacrity. Tea is perfect for enhancing the brainpower for people like us whose job it was to make important decisions.

If it were raining, which it often was, we would need to decide what to do next. Another cup of tea at this point is usually the prudent course of action. And prudence is a qualification necessary for this technical line of work. Tea enlivens the brain.

The wise decision was to wait in the hut to see if the rain would stop. On these occasions, George would roll an enormous cigarette the size of a cigar and attempt to hide in a cloud of blue smoke behind his tabloid newspaper. Occasionally he would grunt or blurt out muffled epithets. It was at these times George would demonstrate his skill with the malapropism.

“Them volcanoes is always corruptin’.”

“I wouldn’t want to be one of them computers going up to London on the train every day.”

The crew

It took me a good while to understand what George was saying. It wasn’t just the accent, incomprehensible though that was. He talked with his enormous roll-up in his mouth.

Frank, a veteran gardener and a true master of inertia, spent most of his rainy-day time wistfully staring out of the window. In an energetic mood, he’d sip his tea thoughtfully. But when Frank had an excess of energy he recounted —in mind-boggling detail— exactly what he had for his supper the night before.

Frank was by then in his sixties and newly married after a life of bachelorhood. He never ceased to be impressed by how well his new wife could serve frozen peas or cook the perfect potato.

Our other teammate was Ben. Ben had recently graduated from the local art school. He didn’t want to have to go to London to take a full-time textile design job. He liked the small town. But more than that he liked the pubs despite how often he was thrown out of them. Ben was gifted at rolling up his own cigarettes, although they were smaller than George’s. Ben knew his place.

George would eventually calm down from the outrages he read about in the Daily Mirror and come to a leadership decision. The rain was either “set in for the day,” or “something or nothing.” If George’s pronouncement were of the set-in-for-the-day kind, joy would fill our hearts. We would know that life is worth living and has profound meaning. In a generous mood, George would tell us to “slide off home.” George was a true gentleman on these occasions and a credit to working-class solidarity.

George’s bad mood meant toil. We’d have to go into the shed and clean the gardening tools. Or worse yet, his decision that the rain was of the something-or-nothing category (drizzle) would send our crew into the depths of despair. It meant we had to go outside and work.


In winter, work was a never-ending task of raking leaves. But there were bonfires which were fun. Standing about poking a bonfire is one of the slow joys of life in the open air.


In summer, we mowed grass, clipped hedges, and watered just about anything that was green.

I was never sure whether the application for the job actually said no work between meals, but the days were relaxing enough with plenty of time for reading.

When we had to put in a full day’s work it went like this. With military precision, at 8 a.m. sharp we would arrive at the hut and have tea. Not fifteen minutes later, we would burst into action by stepping outside. After some professional conferring as to the choice of tools, we would load our three-wheel vehicle (top speed 15 mph) and work continuously for an hour-and-fifteen-minutes.

At this critical point, someone was sent back to the hut to put the kettle on.

By 10 a.m. we’d all be back for a quick thirty-minute tea break. After discussing any possible conflicts between our ability to work and the weather, we would again venture forth and continue with our raking or mowing until noon.

We would then disappear for our well-earned lunch break. I lived about a ten-minute walk away, so it made little sense for me to start my lunch hour until I got home.

About an hour-and-a-half later we would return refreshed by more tea. Now, this is where we put in some concentrated effort.

We would work, without stop, well, without stopping very much, for an hour and three quarters. Again someone would be sent to put the kettle on. This journey could take about four minutes if we were at the far end of the campus and if rushed. But we gardeners were too wise to rush. It just wasn’t the done thing.

By 3 p.m. we would all have a nice sit-down and a cup of tea. If the weather was fine and George had finished his newspaper we would have to “get mobile” again, a term derived from George’s military training.

Even on some of the most grueling of long days, we would have packed up by 4:45 p.m. knowing that we had done our bit. This exhausting life is not for everyone, and without sufficient supplies of tea, I don’t see how this level of output can be achieved.

Of strife, in war or peace, the British have always relied on a nice cup of tea and a sit-down.

Make yourself a nice cup of tea, sit down, and do some vacant staring out of the window. It’ll make a difference, you’ll see.