In 1841, Duchess Anna Maria, the wife of the 7th Duke of Bedford, started drinking tea with a snack mid afternoon, to keep her going between lunch, at 1pm, and dinner at 7pm. She began inviting others to join her, and it soon developed into a social occasion. By the 1860s the fashion for high tea was very popular, with tea drunk from the best china and bite sized morsels arranged on small china plates. Bread and butter, scones, finger sandwiches and cakes were among the foods on offer.
Charlotte Lean, 41, wasn't satisfied with running her own business organising corporate events, so she set up another one, specialising in promoting Cornwall as a destination for visitors from all over the world. Then came the opportunity to use her organising skills in a different capacity – planning weddings. On top of that came the idea to hire out vintage china. “Apparently it's called a Portfolio career!” she laughs as her husband makes tea for us in their kitchen (in mugs, not vintage china cups).
She started collecting vintage china in May 2009 because she saw a gap in the market. “Someone put an email out on Network Cornwall asking if anyone knew where she could get hold of vintage china in Cornwall,” explains Charlotte. “I said I'd find out for her so I did some research and the girl who had hired out china had moved away. There was a company in Dartmoor but no one in Cornwall, and I thought - I could do that!”
Charlotte's drive and enthusiasm are evident, as is her flair for business. “It ate away at me for about 24 hours and I thought - I've got to do that! So I did.” She was helped by the fact that her mother used to be an antiques dealer. “I've always had a bit of a rummage thing going on! I like jumble sales, car boots, charity shops – I love finding a bargain.” She smiles. “I didn't have an inherent love of china at first but I do now!”
Unlike many collectors, Charlotte doesn't collect sets of china, but simply buys what she likes, so nothing matches. “It's all unique with different designs,” she says. “I've got some Doulton, Staffordshire, Spode - some really expensive pieces - but I choose my pieces because I like them and I think someone else is also going to like them.” And evidently her taste is just right.
At the time of interviewing, Charlotte had enough china for 220 people “and counting!” which is kept at home, though she is looking for a more secure lock up place where the whole collection can be displayed. It's no wonder her shed is bursting given all that she has collected. “I've got pretty cups & saucers, gorgeous cake stands & plates, table linens & runners, candles, candlesticks, bon bon dishes, glass cake stands, lace edged doylies, big china platters, sugar bowls, tongs, milk jugs and teapots,” she says, proudly showing me examples from the collection, stacked in huge plastic boxes.
Given that she is rightly proud of this fabulous collection, I was intrigued to know how she cleans it. “I ask for it not to be washed at all so it comes back as is, covered in cake and cream,” says Charlotte. She talks quickly, as I suspect she does everything, and you can almost see her ideas brimming up and over. “I do all the cleaning and hand wash everything except the cutlery (which is the only stuff that's new). Now I know how to do it properly to avoid breakages.” She has learned this system through trial and error. “The thing is the pieces become very fragile when they're warm,” she explains. “So everything's hand washed and air dried – no towels as that smears and streaks the china. It also gives me the opportunity to check it over for cracks and chips before I put it away again.”
So far Charlotte has hired out her china for weddings, charity events and for Kneehigh Theatre three times. “We did a Brief Encounter tea party once as a thank you to the Friends of the Hall for Cornwall and that looked amazing,” she says. “I'd also like to do special occasions: 60th birthday tea parties or Golden Wedding anniversaries – anything with a nostalgia look.” She stops and grins, as we've both just seen Alice inWonderland. “I also thought about doing Mad Hatter Tea Parties!”
So far she is fortunate in not having had any breakages, although “I do have on every quote that breakages, losses and damages are payable at replacement value.” Charlotte can cover the whole of Cornwall, and transports the china in insulation wrapping, either in large plastic containers, or wicker baskets.
When it comes to cost, Charlotte is prepared to be negotiable. “The prices are on my website but I would hate to think that on someone's special day, they can't afford what they want. I have 20% off at the moment as a summer discount.” The reason why it's difficult for Charlotte to quote a price is because everyone has different requirements. “I had a phone call last week for a wedding on the Sunday and her mother in law came the day before and picked it all up! Literally, if I have the day free, I don't need much time to set it all up.”
Charlotte is flexible enough to provide a DIY service if people want, or she can set everything up. “Every event is completely different and special to those people,” she explains. She provides a free initial consultation and can also find venues, visit on site, organise a florist, catering and suggest themes.
Witnessing her enthusiasm, it's evident that Charlotte has found her niche here. “What I most enjoy is having that initial contact and seeing it through to completion,” she says. And what does she hope other people get from her tea parties? “Something that's organised and is there for just them. When people need you the most, being there for them.”
Given this kind of work, there must have been times when things have gone wrong. So how does Charlotte cope? “I've likened it to having the most calm exterior and just have a back up plan for absolutely everything!” She grins, and it's easy to see why she is so successful. “I'm solution based rather than problem based so there can be the most horrendous disaster going on but 1) don't look like there is, 2) don't react and 3) think it through logically without panicking.”
By this time we have explored just about all of her lovely collection of china, in perfect condition, lovingly washed and wrapped and stored. She shuts the shed door and we return to the house to check over the bargains she bought at the weekend. “Vintage is the ultimate recycling,” she says holding up a beautiful china teacup. “It's all being used for what it was made for.”
Wedding and Special Occasion Services
01726 71520 / 07737 712770