The Blackheath Tea Hut
I’ve been meaning to write about the most controversial greasy spoon in Greenwich (well, ok, on the border) for some time, but the catalyst has definitely been Alexandra Moskalenko’s documentary Tea Time, which has just come out on DVD and which will enjoy a screening at the Picturehouse on Feb 3rd.
It’s a charming little docco – made by Moskalenko over four years, but actually covering the life of the hut during the span of one. What makes it such a fascinating subject is that it’s open 24 hours a day, on the most windswept part of the heath, and yet it still attracts customers on a year-round, day-round basis.
And what customers. From the police and emergency services, cabbies and truckers, through bikers and carny-folk, all the way to families and tourists, this place has a little micro-community of its own. It attracts loners and insomniacs, drifters and misfits, businessmen and sharp-suits. All of whom muddle along together in that small, timeless world that a tea break provides from whatever else is going on in one’s life. The film, perhaps wisely, concentrates on the human element of this South London institution, with interviews and long-shots, portraits and closeups, rather than giving us a history lesson. The music, especially, reflects this – from eerie out-of-tune pub-piano to the Ian Dury-esque At The ‘Ut (you get a nice cup ‘a tea…)
Perhaps it is the oddball, edgy quality of the folk who visit this funny little stall that makes ‘ordinary’ people like The Blackheath Society so angry about its existence. Their almost-disproportionate misgivings range from its being an eyesore, a blot on the community and a litter-magnet to being rowdy and environmentally damaging. A pick & mix shopping cart of complaints which perhaps conceal the real problem they have with such a place – that it’s not ‘within’ Society – that it has an ‘outsider’ quality that can never quite be contained. A quality that lingers from the dangerous days of the Greenwich Fair, of Jack Cade’s Cavern, of tumbling, and still hovers, like a slightly bad smell, whenever the circus comes to town.
What I like about this documentary is that it doesn’t shy from these difficult topics. It represents the extraordinary lives of ordinary people – each has a story to tell, not least that of Nick, a regular, who, by sheer dint of personality, manages to become the central character. A damaged, almost lost soul, Nick manages to find a little stability in his world whenever he makes it up to the hut, and despite his tough appearance and sarf-London accent, slowly reveals himself to be a pussycat – an adorable figure who relies on the camaraderie of the motley characters at the tea shack to get him through a life that has seen much pain.
And that’s true of all the regulars interviewed. They nearly all look menacing on the outside – some might even say hard – it’s even implied that there indeed are one or two villains among them – but scratch the surface and they are charming – and articulate, too, in their own individual ways. Moskalenko has taken the time and effort to find the stories here, to imply, not lay-on thick, the personal worlds this funny little place provides a haven for.
Oddly, the hut itself is less of a character than I expected. Whether in the height of summer or under a sprinkling of snow, it’s merely a meeting place for unlikely people to get together. Perhaps this is because the building itself is of a temporary nature – temporary to fit the transitory nature of the people who use it.
What impressed me most was the inclusion of Neil Rhind, of whom I am normally a HUGE fan. I adore his meticulous work, his devotion to Blackheath and its history, his detailed writing, his eloquent speaking. As the president of the Blackheath Society, he agreed to be interviewed for this film. Now this is an intelligent man. He must have known that whatever he said would make him look like a NIMBY – and he did it anyway. I admire him all the more for having the guts to do it.
That’s not that I agree with him. I hear his arguments – he is big enough (and has the integrity as a historian) to admit that there has been a tea-servery (albeit not 24hrs) on the site since the reign of Charles II (indeed Moskaleko interviews an octogenarian who remembers drinking tea there in his youth) but complains that it looks appalling, creates a traffic and noise problem and is environmentally unsound. The Blackheath Society proposes, I understand from the people in this film, to spend £2m on ‘improving’ Blackheath – including a giant ridge of earth to disguise the A2, which would engulf the tea hut. Perhaps it’s even true.
You know, I struggle to see what harm there is in this little shack. In recent years the owner’s made an effort to tidy it up and pick up his litter – you’ll find far more elsewhere on the heath. It’s miles away from anywhere, it doesn’t serve alcohol, and even the police in the film admit there’s virtually no trouble. I’ve enjoyed a fair few cups there myself. Tuesday nights are a good time, when an entire youth club from Rochester make a pilgrimage to the shack. I haven’t ever heard of any trouble from them. And I never leave without a chat with someone.
I find it quite telling that the two sides have never actually met in this dispute. And that Neil Rhind has been the only person brave enough to raise his head above the parapet. At a recent licensing hearing no other bugger turned up, so the licence went through, according to the owner. The BS gets almost apoplectic over this strange little half-world, and yet they don’t actually appear to have really looked at it.
It seems to me that both sides need to move on now; to actually meet. The Blackheath Society has cash to spend, but the heath belongs to all, and that includes the people who use the hut. Surely there must be some way they can live together? Maybe the society could fork out some money to make the hut more attractive, rather than obliterating it? In return, the owners of the hut can make sure that the litter is always cleared up and that people park tidily.
See Tea Time for yourself. You can buy it on DVD at the Pepys Visitor Centre (the best place I know for local history books) or, if you buy it at the ‘ut itself, you get a free nice cup ‘a tea with it…