Family Traditions: Tea at Low Tide

Revisiting memories of beach picnics, 99s, and dangling Granny’s china down a cliff by rope
September 5, 2019 Updated: September 7, 2019

My mother grew up on the Channel Island of Jersey. It is, by any objective account, a beautiful place to live. Known for its stunning beaches, hedge-lined lanes, and dramatic cliff walks, the small island is incredibly diverse. It’s famous for its royal potatoes and Jersey cow milk, which makes for the creamiest ice cream. 

Our family history is tangled up with Jersey’s going back hundreds of years, and in that way, it only makes sense that when my mom left the island, she took so much of it with her. 

When my mom spoke about her childhood growing up, food was at the center of every memory. She grew up in an era when food was largely still made from scratch, before sauces from packets and freezer food designed for microwaves. My granny cooked “fry ups” every Saturday morning: thick, fresh bacon and fried eggs served alongside warm, homemade bread. 

There was a place in Jersey called “The Wall,” a market on the side of the road, separated from the water by a rock wall, where my grandad would take my mom every Saturday to purchase onions, lettuce, and tomatoes. My grandad would always buy my mom a little bag of peanuts to enjoy on the ride home. 

I, too, have memories of The Wall with my grandad: driving along the side of the rock wall during high tide as I listened to him talk about how the water could spill over it. I remember him stopping the car, us looking over the edge, and how the water felt like it was just inches from my hand. I find it interesting that my mother and I both carry a separate memory from the same place with this man, and that they bring both of us a feeling of security. 

Beach Days

On Sundays at low tide, there was no better place to go than to the beach. The whole family went: Granny in a patterned dress, Grandad in a swimsuit that blended with his olive skin, Great Granny, Papa, Auntie Queenie, who made too much tea and searched the leaves for fortunes, Uncle Arthur, who, with his sailor’s mouth and smoker’s cough, ran a healing business. 

They headed to the beach laden with baskets, porcelain dishware, towels, beach chairs, and propane stoves, all of which they lowered by rope down the cliff that separates the beach from the rest of the island. This activity was stressful even on the best days: watching Granny’s china as it dangled precariously over the cliff, my grandad yelling, “Slowly, slowly there!” to Uncle Arthur as he lowered the rope. 

Once everything was safely on the ground, they walked down the long flight of steps, which is completely submerged in water at high tide, and the propane stoves were fired up and the feast began. My mom remembers downing simmering pots of beans, perfectly fried sausages, and piping hot cups of tea before running headlong into the waves. After everyone was satisfied, naps ensued, followed by a game of cricket on the beach. 

dishes hanging on the ropes
Everything—including Granny’s china for tea—was lowered down the cliff by rope. (Shutterstock)

By the time I entered the picture, Sunday trips to the beach during low tide had been simplified but were no less magical. We still lowered the china and boiled water for cups of tea, but we exchanged sausages and pots of beans for a tamer lunch of cheese and tomato sandwiches. 

I remember waking up at my grandad’s house to him checking the tides in the paper, making sure the conditions were right. My granny wrapped up lunch in her freshly washed tea towels while I pulled on my swimsuit and looked excitedly through the bin of beach toys in the garage. 

We joined a horde of other picnickers. We pulled our chairs together in a semicircle and sweated as we drank our cups of hot tea in direct sunlight. I ate my sandwich too quickly, desperate to finish my food and swim in the water, still icy cold in the middle of July. 

When we finally returned to where my granny had set up camp with the lawn chairs, shivering and sandy, we would dry ourselves off and walk down the beach to the ice cream stand to buy a 99: the creamiest of ice creams made from the milk of Jersey cows, served with a chocolate flake coming out the center like a chimney. 

Food and Security

In my memory, the food of my childhood functions as an anchor: tying me to specific places and moments inside the years that blur together. Food is like that—able to bring hazy memories into startling clarity with smells or textures. 

Looking back, I try to sort out why these memories feel so poignant, so significant to me. Why do they matter, these dream-like memories I have of my childhood, the feeling of wholeness that accompanies them? 

I think there is something profound about giving that kind of security to a child: security in the form of a lovely afternoon spent eating in the sun, parents and grandparents all there because they want to be. When we take time to provide memorable eating experiences for our children, I think we double the nourishment. We teach them: this is where you are safe, and this is how we do our part to show you what is good in the world. 

Last summer, I visited Jersey again, this time with my 20-month-old daughter in tow. We spent a few long, sun-filled days exploring the island in my granny’s car, a stick shift Ford Fiesta she’s had as long as I’ve known her and maybe quite a bit longer. We spent the week introducing my daughter to family, having tea with great aunts, touring castles built centuries ago, and spending as much time at the beach as possible. 

One afternoon, we headed to Plemont beach for a picnic. We didn’t lower anything over the cliff this time; instead we walked down the steps with a restaurant-bought lunch of fish and chips. 

While I ate, my daughter ran without inhibition on the smooth sand and toward the waves. Watching her play, it was like picnics on the beach were already a part of her personhood.

There she was, enjoying the sand and the sun the way I had, the way my mother had, the way generations of women in my family have for so many years.

Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com.

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