Joanna Blyth­man on the Wil­low

Wil­low Tea­rooms 8/10

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Contents -

AFTER the tragic fires at the School of Art in Glas­gow, the restora­tion and re­open­ing of the Wil­low Tea Rooms, which Charles Ren­nie Mack­in­tosh de­signed for the leg­endary Miss Cranston, seems dou­bly poignant, dou­bly im­por­tant. The dogged Wil­low Tea­room Trust, catal­ysed by an­other im­pres­sive Glas­gow woman, Celia Sin­clair, car­ries even more of a re­spon­si­bil­ity than per­haps it had ex­pected. It wasn’t just a ques­tion of faith­fully hon­our­ing Mack­in­tosh’s unique tea­room with au­then­tic con­tem­po­rary craftsmanship, but also re­light­ing an old bea­con that keeps the Mack­in­tosh legacy burn­ing brightly just as a dark shadow has fallen over the art school only foot­steps away.

I walk in with but­ter­flies in my stom­ach. Please, please, don’t let this be a Mock­in­tosh pas­tiche. I needn’t have wor­ried. The ex­pe­ri­ence ac­tu­ally makes me want to cry, but in a joy­ous way. It makes me proud that I come from Glas­gow, a city that de­spite all its chal­lenges, shows an ir­re­press­ible cre­ativ­ity, a world-class me­trop­o­lis that can pro­duce a Mack­in­tosh, a Cranston, a Sin­clair. This isn’t fore­lock-tug­ging art and ar­chi­tec­ture de­signed to big up the stature and wealth of its owner. Whether you’re talk­ing Mack­in­tosh, Cranston, or Sin­clair, these are peo­ple ad­vanc­ing a project that any or­di­nary ci­ti­zen who just likes a cup of tea can take part in. And these vi­sion­ar­ies view that ci­ti­zen as some­one who, ir­re­spec­tive of their means, mer­its and can ap­pre­ci­ate the finer things in life: beau­ti­ful glass­work, elab­o­rate gesso re­liefs, sin­u­ous iron­work, and last but not least, the civilised rit­ual of an im­mac­u­lately served af­ter­noon tea. Mack­in­tosh was the best sort of Scot, open, in­tel­li­gent, with an in­de­pen­dent frame of mind, a mod­ernist who look­ing beyond his petty parish to be in­spired by the lat­est ar­chi­tec­tural styles and dec­o­ra­tive ideas in Europe and Ja­pan. In a world of Scot­land the Brand, tawdry with whisky liqueur and Nessie fudge, Charles Ren­nie Mack­in­tosh re­mains Scot­land’s finest ex­pres­sion of it­self.

I won’t pre­sume to de­scribe the in­te­rior. You sim­ply have to visit. What is ob­vi­ous though, from the peo­ple around us, is how they in­ter­act with their en­vi­ron­ment. Sev­eral of them, from the cut of their cloth, look to be ar­chi­tects. They walk around, up­stairs and down, mar­vel­ling at what they’re see­ing, soak­ing up ev­ery de­tail. Some of them will doubt­less go on to in­cor­po­rate what they’re see­ing into lec­tures, books, PhD the­ses. There’s a gen­eral feel­ing of en­chant­ment, one with an in­ter­na­tional spread. From the staff (the tea­room is run as a so­cial en­ter­prise) to the cus­tomers, ev­ery­one has a smile on their face. We all feel that our days, in­deed our lives, have been en­hanced by spend­ing some time in this ex­tra­or­di­nary en­vi­ron­ment.

Food? All I ask is that it isn’t bad enough to spoil my eu­pho­ria and my prayer is an­swered.

It’s way bet­ter than Na­tional Trust, botan­i­cal gar­dens, ‘vis­i­tor cen­tre’ stan­dard. In fact the more we eat, the more I’m im­pressed.

Here are two soups: one a sharp-sweet roasted tomato, full-bod­ied and fruity; the other, a broth with silky hari­cot beans, firm lentils, car­rot, cel­ery, flat pars­ley and rose­mary that is Tus­can in style. Both come with good sour­dough. Feel­good hor­mones gen­er­ated by this sen­sa­tional en­vi­ron­ment stream­ing through my sys­tem, I take the risk of the bar­ley and wild mush­room risotto. No fake ‘wild’ here, the bouncy grain is loaded with porcini, girolles, trompettes, ever so slightly sweet from pa­tiently sweated onions, its gluti­nous po­ten­tial kept in check by the crunch of the toasted flaked al­monds on top.

A pleas­ant sum­mer quiche, more of a flan re­ally, with flaky pas­try, peas, and a kalei­do­scope of spring onion or chives and a good fresh salad de­serves bet­ter than the home-made coleslaw, which is let down by its sickly, vine­gary may­on­naise, and chilly potato salad.

Ev­ery­thing is served with grace here, on Wil­low pat­tern china.

Even tap wa­ter ar­rives chilled in el­e­gant de­canters. Miss Cranston must have ap­pre­ci­ated a stiff drink, so it’s not just the leaf tea se­lec­tion that is ex­ten­sive but also the list of al­co­holic pos­si­bil­i­ties. Yet af­ter­noon tea is re­ally the main thing here: neat fin­ger sand­wiches, freshly baked scones, minia­ture tartlets, cakes and mac­a­roons, all dain­tily served, all high stan­dard, all baked on the premises.

What a to­tal joy the Wil­low Tea­rooms are.


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