Tea in the Castle Gardens
Always on the look out for an esthetic setting for ‘picnicing’ my tea, we hiked the short uphill trek to Casa Loma, Toronto’s famous castle. It was built between 1911 and 1914 when Sir Henry Pellatt was at the top of his game. He was successful owner of The Toronto Electric Light Company, had investments in the railway and was Major General, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. To celebrate his achievements, he hired architect, E. J. Lennox to design a Gothic Revival castle on a promontory overlooking the City of Toronto and Lake Ontario. For those who’ve visited the city you know that it is now a major tourist attraction and venue for weddings and events, but at the time, it was built as a 90 room “family home” with stables, hunting lodge, underground passages and plans for 3 bowling alleys! His wife, Lady Mary enjoyed taking tea in the large windowed conservatory. We live a few short blocks away and decided to take our tea in the lovely restored gardens.
During the construction of the castle, it was Sir Henry Pellatt’s dream to lay out ambitious plans for an “English gentleman’s garden” with parterres, gravel walkways, vegetable gardens and fruit trees. He was able to create some of his vision, but WW I and the depression that followed, forced him to sell off the land and eventually walk away from his castle due to arrears in city taxes. Casa Loma was initially run by the city, then was a luxury hotel and a venue for dances, etc. In 1937 it was leased by The Kiwanis Club of Casa Loma and has been maintained by them since then.
The Garden’s Revival
In 1987 an ambitious partnership with The Garden Club of Toronto resulted in the 1990 grand opening of the new Castle gardens to the south of the main buildings. Although they are not located on the original plot of land north of the castle, they nod to some of the early designs of Sir Henry. We decided to set up our little tea break in the central perennial garden, lush with formal planting and a “Dancing” fountain. The walkway down the forested hill leads to a waterfall and lily pond, but we thought they might be a bit “buggy” at this hour. It is not known by many that from May to October, the gardens are open to the public free of charge every Tuesday at 4pm (tea time) until dusk. It’s the perfect time to go – the west light is beautiful on a sunny day. During regular hours Casa Loma gardens are free with admission to the castle.
Not many visitors were in the gardens the Tuesday afternoon that we were there, but we did see tech crews in black T shirts skulking along the pathways with armloads of cable in preparation for a large after-party for the Toronto premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. In contrast, we sat peacefully oblivious of the fact that in a few hours, fans would be screaming outside the Castle gates as the Harry Potter stars arrived. When we left the gardens HP fans had started to congregate around the gates, hoping for a glimpse of a few of the stars of the film.
The gardens are an ideal place to indulge in a cup of tea, al fresco. I carefully unpacked one of my Yixing pots, some Junshan Yin Zhen yellow tea, a thermos of hot water and some Korean mochi. There were stone benches to lay out our fare. Tea was meant to be taken in this way as in the tea gardens of Britain in the eighteenth century, open air tea trolleys of the London streets and the Chai whallahs of India. I believe that transposing the tea experience to locales away from the familiar can be liberating and memorable. When you bring your tea accoutrements with you and place them out in the open, you create a nexus of two worlds – the ritual you live out each day in the preparation of tea and the physical place you have brought yourself to in the interval.