It’s not everyday there’s a victory against the march of change where market forces so often prevail regardless of the consequences. A victory for simple things, for the old ways, for something that should be cherished.
In Epping Forest, the ancient woodland and former royal forest of over 6,000 acres that straddles the border between north-east Greater London and Essex, there are two ‘tea huts’. Here for as long as people can remember, walkers, bikers, runners, cyclists and all sorts have stopped off for a cup of tea and to have a chat. One hut is just north of High Beach, near the Kings Oak public house, where there is quite a large open space, and it is here that large numbers of people come in the summer. The other tea hut is south of High Beach at the start of old Fairmead Road, near to the Robin Hood Pub roundabout on Epping New Road, the A104.
The hut is a gathering place for motor bikers, cyclists, horse riders, rangers, tradesmen stopping off in their vans for a tea break, blokes with looked-after retro cars, local people just dropping by, as well as a host of regular users of the forest. Some may have known the hut as Bert’s Tea Hut as it was run for many years by Bert Miller. Nowadays, it’s run by Bradley Melton, Bert’s grandson, and it’s known as the Biker’s Tea Hut or to others as Brad’s Tea Hut.
Apart from a hut that’s painted green with a hatch and a side door, there’s only outdoor wooden benches, but the atmosphere is as far away as you can imagine from a high street coffee shop. And that’s its attraction. Whatever the weather (though a gazebo is put up if it’s raining hard), the tea hut is open 361 days of the year, with a fair range of hot and cold food and drinks at very reasonable prices, delivered cheerfully and efficiently, though don’t expect a cappuccino or a panini.
In June last year, the City of London Corporation, who manage Epping Forest, announced that the ‘Mobile Refreshment Facility’ at Hill Wood, that is Brad’s Tea Hut, the lease on which was due to expire in December, was to be put out to tender. The reason given was that due to reductions of 12½ % in the budget for the management of the forest, the Corporation needed to ‘ensure value for money on its licensed outlets’. A ‘Service Statement Guide’ was issued with the invitations to tender. Item 7 said:
The Tenant will be expected to employ friendly and helpful staff with good communication and customer service skills with the necessary experience to perform duties efficiently and effectively. Staff are expected to be able to speak fluently to patrons and conduct themselves professionally at all times. Ongoing statutory training and customer care training should be provided.
Like many of the clauses in this guide, this was window dressing: it is only what may be desirable, rather than what is required. So having decided to go out for tender, the Corporation under pressure of budget cuts, would be looking more at the size of the bids than whether a bidder can offer anything better than what is provided already. What the existing customers thought didn’t seem to come into it.
Bradley’s family has been running the tea hut in one form or another for 84 years. Ernie Miller, Bradley’s great-uncle started the business in a mobile unit in 1930 which he towed up to High Beach. Ernie passed it over to his brother Bert, and after that Bradley’s grandmother, Min ran the hut, when it was known as ‘Min’s’. So Bradley Melton was going to have to tender for his own business so he could continue to serve the customers that had been built up by successive members of his family over the past eight decades.
What happened next was that a petition, Save The Tea Hut, was launched by Paul Morris, a familiar face at the hut. Within a few weeks the petition gathered 9,000 signatures. The local newspaper, the Epping Forest Guardian took up the fight, as did the local MP for Epping Forest Eleanor Laing who said that the strength of local feeling should be considered in the tendering process. The petition, which called for the Corporation not to put the lease of the tea hut out to tender, was delivered to the Corporation. Whilst the delegation was welcomed into the offices at the City Guildhall, the Corporation later decided that tendering would go ahead in order to ‘test the market’.
One of the supporters, Brian Dean wrote to the Queen asking her ‘to intervene in the decision to tender out the tea hut at High Beach and, if at all possible, to put the necessary pressure in the right place that can cause this comedy of errors to be overturned’.
Someone posted on Facebook:
Over the years many people have used the hut as a focus for remembering relatives and friends that have passed on. Many people’s ashes have been scattered there, and there are many echoes of friends and loved ones that have been part of the 80-year-old community surrounding the place. People may well be gone, but they are remembered.
Bradley Melton put in his bid by the deadline of 18 July, and waited.
Paul Morris posted on Facebook:
That’s it, the chance to tender for the tea hut is over. We now have to wait and see if the views of the thousands of people that use this facility is listened to or not. Heritage, history, and family ties with the people and the past are hard to value but to thousands of us they are of paramount importance. To break such ties for us is not conservation, it is a disregard of the history and the wishes of thousands of people who wish to see the hut remain as it is with the same person running it.
Bradley had a meeting with the Corporation to discuss his bid on 2 September, but a decision on the tenders was not expected until 2 November. However the 2nd November came and went and no decision was made. A spokesperson for the Corporation said ‘We are still in discussions with a number of parties involved in the tendering process and hope to have a decision soon.’ A decision would now be made on 12 January 2015. Bradley’s lease was extended to the end of March.
On 29 December, the Epping Forest Guardian ran an article ‘The history of a tea hut with an uncertain future’ which can read in full here. In early January, the tea hut was given a four star food hygiene rating.
Bradley and his supporters waited anxiously in the last few days but on 12 January the City of London Corporation announced that the Hill Wood hut ie. Brad’s tea hut, would continue to be run by Bradley Melton on a three-year lease, and that he had been ‘tasked with developing the business’! The Save the Tea Hut campaign had won!
Speaking to the Epping Forest Guardian, Bradley said ‘I am completely over the moon – there is no other way to describe it. Now is the time to sit down and decide what to do to move forward. We will be meeting with the City of London Superintendent this week to discuss future designs for the hut. I am so glad that it is staying in the family. Thank you everyone.’
The reaction from supporters was tremendous with hundreds of postings on Facebook.
It would be interesting to know what was behind the Corporation’s decision. How many bids were there? Did they decide just on the financial benefit to the Corporation or were a wide range of factors considered? Were some of the bids unrealistic in what they could deliver? Would Bradley’s bid have won anyway or did the strength of local feeling as demonstrated in the Save the Tea Hut campaign make all the difference? Or perhaps the Queen had a private word with Eric Pickles! It is doubtful given the commercial confidentiality surrounding the tender process that we will ever know.
The day after, I happened to go for a run in the forest. My usual run takes me up to the tea hut and I usually stop for a cup of tea. As I got towards the hut, I noticed a small crowd of people gathered in front of it. By chance I had arrived just as the photographer from the Epping Forest Guardian was doing a photo shoot so I joined the crowd at the back.
One of Bert Miller’s mates, who used to do sidecar cross racing with him, posted a few years ago that Bert was enjoying his retirement in the Philippines with a Filipino wife, 37 years his junior. I wonder how many cups of tea he served? How many cups of tea have been served at the Biker’s Tea Hut since 1930?
A cup of tea outdoors. It’s one of the good things in life.