The most enjoyable occasions can arise from something completely unplanned and unexpected.

This afternoon, my husband and I had a real treat. A friend had very thoughtfully and kindly repaid our hospitality by treating us to afternoon tea in a box from the Cornish Company which arrived on our doorstep a couple of days ago.

Having baked and cooked from scratch for the past half century or so, I always really appreciate something which I haven’t had to make myself. The whole concept of everything emerging out of plastic packets is strangely novel and alien to me.

Just before four o’clock, the traditional time for afternoon tea, I filled the kettle and set it to boil on the Aga, laid a small tea cloth over the dark wood of our living room table, switched on the fairy lights which run across the mantlepiece above the stove and swath our seasonal ‘autumn branch’ in the window and began my voyage of discovery as I opened one packet after another… pale scones, little pots of fragrant strawberry preserve, crisp spicey Cornish fairing biscuits, buttery shortbread fingers, sachets of Cornish tea and – oh, joy! – a tub of Cornish clotted cream!

The water in the kettle began to chirrup and sing. I arranged everything on plates of Mason’s ‘Pink Vista’ – the crockery which we had used each and every day in my childhood home at the cottage at Drybones. I chose a red tea pot to accompany the pale red cups and once the kettle boiled, I warmed the pot and then brewed the tea aa my husband and I sat down to enjoy our treat.

There is something particularly special about a winter afternoon tea which defies definition but leaves a lasting impression… a time when the rest of the day retreats into the gathering shadows… time out of time when one can relax and let go of all the busyness which has gone before.  The light faded outside the window, cups chinked, spoons and knives clattered, voices softly undulated in intimate conversation, amber tea streamed into waiting cups and steam fleetingly billowed in the warm air.

As we talked and ate and enjoyed our lovely tea, my memory travelled back across the years to my childhood. This was the time when I would arrive home from school, often cold and wet from my mile-long walk down our lonely lane. Uniform and satchel would be discarded, hands and face washed and then my mother and I would sit close to the hearth, drink tea and eat crisp toast, hot buttered crumpets or velvety little Scotch pancakes which she cooked fresh on the planc over the fire.

While the daylight faded outside, the birds roosted and the cats and dogs found comfortable cushions and corners in which to curl up and snooze, we would light the candles (no electricity there) and encircled by dancing shadow we would share our news of the day, or my mother would read aloud to me, or – putting the tea things aside – we would make and write Christmas cards or make decorations like Christmas crackers and party hats. This was our special time, when the dinner was already left prepared and waiting to be cooked in the kitchen, the fires were all stoked and the kindling and logs brought in for the night, the outside work completed – a time to sit… to catch one’s breath… to be together… to dream.

Now, as I watched the grey twilight of the cloudy, mist-filled day fade into the deep blue of dusk, I felt again the warmth and timelessness of those precious post school hours with my parent which now populate my memories with such love and gentle peace. Again, I experience the sense of solid security of the ancient cottage walls protectively enfolding me, the warmth of the clean-swept hearth, the comfort of the joyfully dancing flames in the grate, candle light flickering on shelves of pots and winking back from shining copper pans and kettles, the tick of the clock in the shadows on the white painted wall by the polished oak chest… the scents and sounds of an old living kitchen as it gradually settled to rest through another frosty winter’s night.

Our ‘tea in a box’ had given me so much more than the transient pleasure of consuming some delicious delicacies; it had provided me with a magical key back into the past where memories of a small child ebb and flow into today; meld and blend as the woman I am now is swept away into another time and place. Surely a truly special gift!