In search of the perfect slice

After clearing away the lunch things, she glanced out of the kitchen window into the garden. Waving to her husband Bob working away with his pruning shears, Pauline put on her jacket, picked up her bag and threw it casually onto the front seat, then she climbed into the rusty old banger affectionately known as Brian and started the ignition. She had a good couple of hours before Bob would be finished – plenty of time to indulge her guilty pleasure.

One of the good things about having retired to the country was that Pauline could indulge in her grand passion – Coffee and Walnut cake.  There weren’t many tea rooms in the county that she hadn’t visited in search of the perfect slice.

She and Bob often went together – visiting a stately home or wandering round a garden centre, and then sharing a pot of tea; but since they had retired it suited them both to have time when they did their own thing. So while Bob was pottering in his little greenhouse planting up the spring bulbs and showering affection on his compost heap, Pauline was spending quality time with baked goods.

At home she drank strong coffee – black with two sugars; but it was her ritual to enjoy her cake with a pot of Earl Grey preferably in a bone china tea cup – nothing could be allowed to violate the sacred bond she had with her coffee and walnut.

Some shops had really good names – ‘The Daily Grind’, ‘Tiggiewinkle Tea-stop’ and the very imaginative ‘Village Tea Rooms’ that they had in the High Street. There was one that she’s been meaning to try for a while now about ten miles away – ‘The Boy and Box Tea Rooms’ surely there had to be a story there!

Driving past fields sporting yellow stubble after their annual shave she noticed many of the leaves starting to turn golden. There was a definite autumnal nip in the air and they would soon need their scarves and mittens when they went walking in the hills.  Like it or not, it wouldn’t be long before the nights started drawing in.

After about twenty minutes she drove along the high street and was pleased to find the road she was looking for. The coffee shop was right at the end of town on a long quiet lane; in what looked like an old railway station waiting room. You went in through doors at the front and then there were bench seats at long wooden tables. At one end there was a small wood-fired stove, blackened with soot, giving a delightful warmth to the room making it very inviting and cosy. Opposite the door, there was a serving hatch where a lady was mixing up an earthenware bowl of something exciting, while having a conversation with the other woman in the little kitchen who was washing up. Pauline was the only customer.

‘Yes, dear what can I get you?’ said the woman as Pauline got to the counter.

‘Oh my word these all look so good!’ moaned Pauline with greed. Lined up behind a display case was a tantalizing array of home- made cakes. Victoria sponge, Lemon Drizzle, blueberry and date flapjacks, white chocolate and raspberry tray-bakes.

‘All home baked apart from the fruit scones – a lady in the village makes them for us.’ Smiled the woman, taking off her glasses and wiping them on her apron.

Pauline ordered her tea while systematically searching the display case until she found what she was searching for on a shelf next to the iced bakewell tarts. She could already practically taste it – each slice showing off its delicately coloured sponge, deeper than a spray tan and luxuriating in the softest of butter icings; and topped off with not just a lonely walnut but a walnut praline rubble and dark chocolate covered coffee bean – the most sinfully beautiful coffee and walnut cake that she had ever set eyes on. It felt naughty to even look at it. Pauline had always said Bob was her only love – but today she might have to cheat on him.

She headed for the furthest corner of the room so that they could be alone. Sitting at one of the benches, she idly looked through the leaflets in the little holder on the table. Alongside adverts for a rummage sale in the local church and a knit and natter group in the village hall, she found a laminated page with a picture of the tea-rooms on it:-

History of the Priory of St Agnes

‘The tea room and all of this surrounding area once belonged to the Brethren of the Cross – part of the Priory of St Agnes which served the area for over three hundred years until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. The priory was closed in 1539 and fell into disrepair and ruin in the eighteenth century. The area was turned over for housing when the railway came through and the station house was built. After the branch lines were closed in the sixties, the local villagers saved this building as a place of local historic significance. The unusual name of the tea rooms alludes to the local legend of the young monk who saved the Holy Relics.’

By this time the lady had walked over with a tea-tray. On it was a teapot with a little pink bobble-hat tea cosy, cup and saucer, large slice of cake, and a little jug of milk. Placing them on the table she made to leave but Pauline called her back.

‘I don’t suppose you know any more about this story of the monk and the Holy relics do you? What is the local legend?’ she asked. The woman rolled her eyes comically then smiled and came back, perching on the seat opposite and wiping her glasses again.

‘Lots of people have asked over the years so I went to the local library and looked it up – it’s a nice little story – if it’s true of course. Henry VIII had split with Rome and was closing down all the monasteries. It always seems sad to me that the little religious houses got closed down first. I can understand some of the bigger monasteries probably had lost sight of their vow of poverty, but these little places just quietly got on with caring for the sick and the destitute. They didn’t think of who was going to carry on with all the work when the monks were gone did they?’

‘They never do think these things through do they.’ Agreed Pauline.

‘Well when the soldiers came to ransack the place there was a young novice who didn’t much care if they took the silver candlesticks and chalices, but he felt that the sacred relics in their wooden casket shouldn’t be violated. He took the box from the chapel and was going to escape from the grounds as they were ejecting the monks and loading the silverware onto carts. Trouble was, some soldiers saw him with a jewelled chest and assumed he was trying to steal it so they gave chase.’

‘He must have been terrified!’ Exclaimed Pauline. ‘What did he do?’

‘Well, they thought they had him cornered in one of the rooms but they’re forgetting the monks knew all the secret passages! He managed to escape that night and got up onto the moors. It was the middle of a hard winter – snow nearly two feet deep.’

Both women shivered at the thought and Pauline needed a big mouthful of her tea to warm her up again.

The woman continued, ‘Anyway legend has it that he sheltered in a barn; and after that no one knows what happened to him or the relics. I reckon grateful villagers must have helped him – after all the brothers had done for them over the years. I just hope that he got away and things turned out alright for him.

Finishing off her tea and resisting the temptation to lick the plate clean, Pauline got out her little spiral notebook and ticked off ‘Boy and Box Tea Rooms’ with a satisfied sigh. ‘I’ll mark this place down as one to come back to with Bob. I bet this place is lovely in December when it’s all decorated ready for Christmas.’

‘What’s on the list for next time?’ she asked herself.  Where’s that place that Marjorie had told her about – where they only used the finest espresso syrup to soak the sponge?  ‘Ah here it is,’ she said to herself. ‘I’m guessing “The Happy Cupcake” hasn’t got such an interesting tale to tell!’

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