It’s a feast to look at, and then there’s the food and drink! A fire burns in a handsome fireplace on a chilly afternoon, there are velvet-covered sofas and armchairs, and tables and chairs in convivial clusters against a backdrop of softly coloured walls and paintwork in Little Greene’s Olive, Pale Stone Cool and French Grey. There are pot plants everywhere, including chilli plants for sale, and paintings, prints and mirrors on every wall. It is both spacious and cosy – a place in which to feel instantly at home. A charming small garden completes the scene.
Eighteen months ago, this gorgeous and welcoming tea house was The Sondes Arms, a former Shepherd Neame pub, run down and battle-scarred after a series of misconceived makeovers. Claire Raraty-Squires knew it well. ‘I had my first Babycham here in 1976,’ she recalls. ‘It was on the spit and sawdust side of the village – a famous place for hop pickers.’
A handsome Victorian brick building in a prominent position on the Selling Road, the pub later lost most of its garden to housing development and was then sold at auction in 2012. ‘The people who bought it got into a pickle. It was a bit of a gambling den, got raided and was then shut down.’ The pub then continued its miserable downhill path and redevelopment of the site for housing seemed inevitable.
Fortunately, however, when the pub came up for sale again, Claire was living at home with her parents, Ann and Derek Squires, following a split from her partner and the sale of the farm they ran together at Chilham. Claire laments the loss to local communities of country pubs, shops and oast houses – ‘everything that once was a working part of our environment’ – and their irreversible conversion to housing. She knew she was going to buy a pub – ‘they’re closing at a rate of knots’ – and her timing was good.
No buyer wanted to touch the sad, rundown pub. ‘In the end,’ says Claire, ‘it went to sealed bids. A developer put in an offer that had been accepted, but I bought it post auction. I put a bid in at 5pm and owned it by 10am the next day. Every penny is in this. It’s a gamble but I knew that if I didn’t do it, it would nag me. It just needed doing,’ she explains. ‘We needed a community hub.’ Besides, she adds, ‘doesn’t every woman want to run a tea house?’
That was the end of April last year. It then took four weeks to get the keys and another four weeks to clean the place. Claire’s daughter Megan, a successful London-based personal trainer, but a country girl at heart, and her landscape gardener partner Danny, moved back to help. There was no major building work. ‘The whole point was not to change it,’ says Claire, but there was a lot of decorating and she sanded all the floors by hand, banging in rope between the boards to stop draughts. She started with the flat upstairs, which has four decent-sized rooms, a bathroom and a kitchenette.
Downstairs, the meandering open-plan space mimics a garden with its greenery and garden-hued paintwork. ‘Clean, paint and stand a big pot plant is my motto,’ says Claire. It works brilliantly. And at the heart of this warm and welcoming space is the former pub bar, laden with food. What’s on the menu for the day is laid out on the bar. Breakfast, lunch and tea are on offer, although lunch wasn’t in the original plan. At first Claire offered teas, cakes and sandwiches, and then one day put out a Greek salad. The clamour for lunch grew louder and now she offers three mains and 10 salads, as much salad as you fancy, for £8.50 a head.
‘It’s my way of cooking,’ says Claire. ‘There’s always spinach on hand, always couscous. We make hummus every day and there’s a pot of preserved lemons in the fridge. A favourite is Homity Pie, originally a Crank’s recipe – boiled potatoes, lots of fried onions, grated cheese and fistfuls of parsley baked in a pastry case. ‘The most popular things on my menu are the Italian omelettes, the frittatas, so we have at least two on the bar every day, usually including the one with red peppers, tomatoes and smoked paprika.’ (See recipe below.) Pea and feta is another favourite. ‘Frittatas,’ observes Claire, ‘are perfect for ladies who lunch and don’t want pastry. They sell out the minute we make them, but they’re a good lunchbox item and keep in the fridge for a few days.’
On the cake front, the choice poses dilemmas. Should it be the gluten-free Ginger with Mixed Spice and Vanilla (there’s always at least one cake that is gluten free), the vegan Peanut Butter and Cream, Chocolate Chip and Mint or Rose Tea and Pistachio? The cakes are all made by a local chef turned cake maker and there are also biscuits and other nibbles. Ninety-seven teas are currently on offer, including Indian, Ceylon and China teas with glorious names such as Gunpowder Temple of Heaven and Butterfly Lapsang Souchong. There are herbal tisanes and lots of fine coffees, which a state-of-the-art machine costing £3,500 can imbue with exotic flavours such as beetroot or turmeric to produce lattes in all the colours of the rainbow.
Next to the tea rooms in a tiny space, and just like an old-fashioned village shop, are the General Stores. On sale are free-range eggs, local fruit and vegetables, postage stamps on which the margin is 0.25p, Coco Pops next to spelt flakes, freekeh, the delicious grains of green wheat, next to baked beans and spaghetti hoops, bread, penny sweets for children and eco cleaning products – a beautifully judged selection to suit all generations and lifestyles.
Claire can’t quite remember what day they opened: ‘My life stopped that day. It was either the day before or the day after the General Election. The first week was really quiet, then wallop.’ Part-time staff have been recruited as demand explodes through word-of-mouth rave reviews. ‘We’re in the middle of nowhere and we’re packed,’ says Claire in bemusement. In practice, though, she points out it’s a good location and handy for visitors from Whitstable, Ashford and Canterbury as well as being a short drive from Faversham or five minutes on the train (Selling Station is just a few yards away).
‘We have forgotten in Kent that you can do it on your own. It’s what we did here before. I thought I’d try, and set a precedent.’ She has, and people love it.
Frittata with red peppers, tomatoes and smoked paprika
4 large red peppers
a good glug of olive oil
salt and pepper
grated cheddar and Red Leicester cheese
6-8 small to medium tomatoes
18 medium free-range eggs
Halve peppers, remove seeds and slice finely. Cook in a frying pan with a good glug of olive oil on a low heat for 20 minutes or until they are very soft.
Add a heaped teaspoon of smoked paprika and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a large ovenproof dish, add a layer of grated cheese, then a layer of sliced tomatoes, a handful of chopped parsley and, finally, the beaten eggs. Sprinkle some grated Red Leicester on top. Cook in a low oven (150-160C) for 45 minutes. Sprinkle on more parsley and serve with a green salad and a chunk of good bread.
The Sondes Tea House & General Stores
Tel 01227 752725
Open Tuesday to Sunday from 9.30 to 5pm
Text: Sarah. Photography: Lisa