Steam enthusiasts from all over the world gathered, yesterday, at the National Railway Station Buffet Museum at York to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the railway equivalent of the four minute mile: the fastest pot of tea ever made by a railway employee.
The crowd, estimated to be well into double figures, paid £1.50 each to watch an enactment of this iconic event which, back in 1938, knocked Herr Hitler’s antics off the international headlines. The steam infusiasts packed into the kitchen of the recreated buffet of Carnforth Station to watch manageress Mrs Edith Pickersgill replicate the making of the famous brew.
A ripple of applause broke the silent tension in the room as Mrs Pickersgill appeared, from out the back, resplendent in a floral apron, pink curler entwined greying hair covered neatly by a Sunday best scarf. Her apprentice tea maker, named only as Susan, followed on behind. Before the performance began Mrs Pickersgill gave a brief welcoming address by saying ‘You lot ‘ad better pay attention ‘cos I’m only doin’ this the once.’
As if it were an everyday event Mrs Pickersgill grasped the metal kettle, resting on the cooker, by its handle. Deftly removing the lid she half- filled the container with cold water from the tap, without spilling a drop. She then placed the kettle on the hob. After turning the gas on she pulled a box of Swan Vestas from her apron pocket, took out a match and struck it along the sandpaper strip. The audience gasped as the match did not light but breathed a sigh of relief when a flame was glimpsed on the second strike and the smell of phosphorous and smoked was mixed with the pervasive odour of gas. The ring under the kettle was lit with a whoosh.
While they waited for the kettle to boil Susan busied herself with arranging the cups, saucers and teaspoons, bringing the tea pot down from the shelf and placing the caddy, full of a loose-leaf tea specially blended for LNER next to her mentor. For a strong Northern tea it couldn’t be beat. It would stain a person’s tonsils a dark shade of rust after just a sip and for many years was used at Doncaster Royal Infirmary in the treatment of coma victims.
Mrs Pickersgill meanwhile tapped her teeth with a finger nail to an imagined tune. Soon, in spite of all eyes being on it, the wisps of condensed steam were streaming straight from the kettle’s spout. Mrs Pickersgill reached for the handle.
“Blooming Heck!” came the profanity as she realised she’d made the most basic of errors and had burnt her hand on the hot handle. While she was busy at the sink trying to ease the pain with cold water Susan stepped in to save the day.
The novice grabbed a tea towel which she cleverly used as an improvised heat glove to pick up the hot kettle by its handle. She then “warmed the pot” by rinsing it with a small amount of the water then after putting in sixteen heaped teaspoons of tea (one per cup and one for the pot) she added the rest of the water. After waiting a minute for the tea to brew, while Mrs Pickersgill whimpered at the sink, the crowd stood spellbound as Susan poured a few drops of milk into a cup and poured in the tea, without even using a strainer.
Everyone was given one of the strong but delicious cuppas, although Susan had to boil the kettle twice more. A few were even able to share the ambulance that someone eventually called for Mrs Pickersgill.