Friday 19 July 2019

Local Heroes: Manors maketh a startup as Downton Abbey inspires tea rooms in Arklow

Audrey Whelan set up Victorian Tea Times to host period-style afternoon soirees, writes Gabrielle Monaghan.

‘When the early episodes were on, showing tea in a lovely drawing room, I realised I wanted people to experience the same thing, in the same kind of dress,’ says Audrey Whelan. Photo: Tony Gavin
‘When the early episodes were on, showing tea in a lovely drawing room, I realised I wanted people to experience the same thing, in the same kind of dress,’ says Audrey Whelan. Photo: Tony Gavin

In Downton Abbey, the TV drama that's being adapted for the big screen, the redoubtable Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, mourns the demise of the aristocracy in the post-Edwardian England, loathes early 20th-century middle-class concepts such as weekends and telephones, and ridicules nouveau-riche Americans.

Audrey Whelan is Arklow's less haughty answer to Violet. The 59-year-old Downton Abbey fan was so transfixed by the grand drawing rooms depicted in the series that she set about transforming her vacant business property into Victorian-style tea rooms.

There, dressed up as a Victorian matriarch, she provides plenty of period drama - albeit without Violet's biting remarks - to paying guests.

Victorian Tea Times, as Whelan's business is called, gives customers the chance to dress up in period costume and enjoy afternoon tea served by uniformed 'parlour maids' while wistfully reminiscing about living in a more genteel and elegant time.

"I just love Downton Abbey," Whelan says. "When the early episodes were on, showing tea in a lovely drawing room, I realised I wanted people to experience the same thing, in the same kind of dress, in a place that wasn't a hotel or a café.

"Victorian Tea Times is like coming into someone's drawing room. If there's a big crowd, I play the part (of Violet) in front of parlour maids dressed in black and white, who have to stand back and pour the tea."

Unlike Violet, Whelan starts baking at 7.30 every morning to prepare finger sandwiches, scones, Victoria sponge and dainty pastries for her guests, who pre-book the experience.

The most expensive package organised by Victorian Tea Times, at €34 a head, is the royal tea, which uses silver service for a menu that includes smoked salmon and strawberries.

The afternoon tea is popular with groups gathering for occasions such as birthdays and hen parties, but Whelan also runs events in the tea rooms, like the Miss Havisham Halloween Tea, summer soirees, and opera nights where her soprano granddaughter Karla performs.

"We had people in for a woman's 60th birthday and they didn't tell her where she was going - the lady just stood there speechless for three minutes, wondering where she was," Whelan says.

"I have about 20 costumes for ladies, with lace gloves, hats and jewellery, and three costumes for men, including top hats."

Whelan grew up with eight siblings on Arklow's Main Street, next door to what are now the tea rooms. Her late father, Paddy O'Connell, was a farmer and her mother, Ann, ran a hairdressing salon on the ground floor of their home.

"We grew up behind the counter of the salon, so we were good with people," she says. "I went into hairdressing with Mammy and my sister Geraldine. Then I met my husband, Norman. Years ago, you gave up work when you got married, so I stayed at home with the two children. They've grown up now and moved out."

Whelan comes from a long line of entrepreneurs. Through the years, the extended O'Connell family's interests on Main Street included a bakery, butcher shops, a bar, and undertakers. When Whelan's parents died, they gave a premises or land to each of their children. Whelan inherited the property next door to her childhood home.

"Daddy had let it out to different people over the years, so there was a hairdressers and then a café there," she says. "It was vacant for seven years during the recession, like a lot of shops in Arklow at the time."

Whelan's grandfather, Patrick O'Connell, bought the premises in 1933 and photos of him and her parents adorn the walls of the tea rooms, where she regularly regales guests with the history of the premises and shows them the 1596 deeds of the property.

Before setting up Victorian Tea Times, Whelan spent more than two years collecting antique furniture and décor for the space, with the help of an antique dealer who picked up items at auctions. The tea rooms are now decorated with embossed wallpaper, velvet sofas, lace curtains and ornate candelabras. Guests are served with bone-handled butter knives, silver teapots, three-tiered server stands and fine hand-painted china.

The space was "four blank walls when I started out", Whelan says. "I had to source the Victorian-era tiles, pictures, delph, cutlery, china cups, and serviettes. I went to auctions and second-hand shops, where old ladies would leave in amazing delph after clearing out a house.

"Now that we're open, little old ladies and elderly gentlemen bring in old delph to me. One woman brought me a big old Victorian housekeeping book that is bound in leather. It contains instructions on tasks like how to clean out a fireplace and recalls what the duties of a butler and scullery maid are.

"It's like a bible of housekeeping. When I have a hen party, I'll read out a passage of what the poor maids had to do. It was a different life."

Husband Norman was tasked with carrying out the decoration of the new space - though he didn't fully understand her vision until the work was nearly complete.

"My husband did all the work - I just had the idea," she says. "He thought I was a bit crazy. But once we had finished the library and its big bookshelves, and the huge candles went up and sofa was in, he totally got it."

The result, a space that can accommodate up to 22 people for afternoon tea, was due to open on March 1, 2018. But the arrival of Storm Emma and the ensuing travel disruptions put paid to those plans. "We had sent the invitations out for March 1 and I had the food and champagne ready, but no one could get out that day, so we held the opening on March 8," Whelan says.

One of the first events hosted by Victorian Tea Times was an Easter Bonnet afternoon tea.

"We bought blank bonnets and had a table with ribbons, bows and pearls and everyone made a bonnet," Whelan says.

"Then we held a competition, so the guests paraded up and down in their bonnets. The winner took it very seriously - you could have worn that hat to a wedding. This year's event is going to be bigger and better." In addition to the Easter Bonnet event, there will be a week of afternoon teas for this year's Mother's Day, due to the tea rooms being "so inundated with bookings for the day that we had to extend it".

Whelan's future goals for Victorian Tea Times include attracting film production companies seeking one-room locations for scenes of period feature films, and incorporating the tea rooms into a permanent tour of Arklow.

"We have a lovely heritage centre opening shortly in Arklow and there's a maritime museum here," she says. "So, if people come to Arklow to visit us, we don't want them walking out the door wondering what to do next in the town."

In the meantime, business at Victorian Tea Times is poised to be brisk when the Downton Abbey film is screened in cinemas in the autumn.

"We might send the cast an invitation to come for tea," Whelan says.


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