One of Vermont’s best hidden gems is Perennial Pleasures, an English tea garden in the Northeast Kingdom.
There’s a certain subset of New Englander whose affection for Old England is almost counter-revolutionary. By osmosis or birth, they inherit a deferential Anglophilia that sets the U.K. as the standard for All Good Things and inspires a fondness for Austen novels, costume dramas, country inns, and chintz.
This love is just one reason why the tearoom (really more of a tea garden) at Perennial Pleasures is buzzing on a mild summer day, and why Judith Kane–native of Surrey but 40-plus years a Vermonter–will be hearing stories of one customer’s trip to London while another asks her what she thought of the recent PBS documentary on the Queen.
“I think she’s a good old girl, really,” Judith says gamely, though she didn’t watch it. “I think … what’s-his-name … the younger one? They’re into the environment, so …” She trails off, distracted by the register. “… that’ll be useful.”
The little shop in the rambling brick-and-red-clapboard farmhouse in East Hardwick is filled with the lotions, potpourri, and tea cozies that its customers, mostly women, will browse and buy before sitting down to tea and scones in a garden wonderland of begonias and phlox. At their tables, each one tucked into a private corner of the porch or garden, they breathe air heavy with the scent of lilies and black snakeroot and pour lapsang souchong and rooibos from mismatched china pots. It’s like the dream of an English tea garden, a suite of outdoor rooms defined by rows of blossoms. You imagine Lady Edith meeting her latest doomed suitor by the hedged herb garden, or Mary Lennox discovering the door to another secret garden near the pergola. It’s a place of cozy nooks and almost florid beauty–a would-be Brit’s dream, and a lovely way for anyone to pass an afternoon.
Judith makes the buttery scones (rhymes with “cons,” to say it in the English manner) and puts up the strawberry jam each June. A small team of local girls make and serve the rest of the menu: lemon-poppyseed cake, delicate cucumber sandwiches, chocolate torte, mushroom-walnut pate, tomato and smoked-Edam tart. Most visitors opt for the English cream tea (contrary to popular use, the term “high tea” actually describes a light supper, not an afternoon dainties break): a mix of scones, crustless sandwiches, and tea. This is food designed to savor, a conscious immersion in the senses. As customers settle in, their faces take on a dreamy look.
Judith’s American-born daughter, Rachel, enters the shop, tall and rosy-cheeked in her wide-brimmed hat and chambray, talking plants with a fifty-something woman. The nursery and mail-order business Rachel operates makes up the other half of this venture, and her devotees are as passionate as her mother’s. Rachel specializes in heirloom herbs and flowers–more than 900 varieties, many originating from the 17th through early 20th centuries. Her particular passion is phlox, and she grows more than 130 cultivars here.
Rachel found her calling early on. Her American father was a landscape architect who worked on historic-preservation projects. After graduating from the University of Vermont, she grew her first plot of 17th-century plants. Over the years, she has collected seeds and cuttings from abandoned homesteads, on trips to England, and, with permission, from local cemeteries and historic properties.
On Sunday mornings in the summer, Rachel hosts an open garden-skills workshop, where she answers questions from anyone who cares to stop by (just phone ahead). Then, at noon, she leads visitors on a free guided tour, pointing out the white sage and double daylilies, the giant plume poppies and rusty foxglove. (“I like spiky things,” she says.) She’s generous with her knowledge, but reticent in manner, a true half-British Vermonter at heart.
For two weeks, when the phlox are at their peak (this year, July 27 through August 10), Rachel hosts her annual “Phlox Fest,” offering a daily tour (except Mondays), guest speakers, and even more flowers on display than usual. As always, there’s tea in the afternoon, and Judith at the register, and little spoons and pretty boxes of soap to take home.
Perennial Pleasures Nursery & Gift Shop is open from early May to mid-September, Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The Tea Garden is open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, Tuesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (reservations recommended). 63 Brickhouse Road, East Hardwick, VT. 802-472-5104; perennialpleasures.net