A Bank holiday weekend, in gorgeous Fowey, was full of surprises. We arrived expecting rain but were met with blue skies and sunshine. It may not have been the weather for lazing on the beach but it was pleasant and warm in sheltered parts.
We had arrived towards evening and my husband had booked a meal at the local sailing club for our party of three. He had also issued an invitation to a friend who was delighted to accept. Thus, we wandered down at the appointed time. Our friend, who lives in Fowey, was already there.
“Did you know it was a Fitting Out dinner?” she asked us with a wicked smile.
“A fitting out dinner?” we repeated, innocently, “What is that?”
“Oh no, you mean you didn’t know?”
We frowned, a little nervous now and shook our heads.
“Today is the day that everyone has finished fitting out their boats for the Summer and this is a celebration,” she informed us triumphantly.
Her tone suggested we should be concerned. Was there to be a quiz? Was there some secret handshake involved? It all looked fairly normal to us. A group of hardened drinkers lounged by the bar, trestle tables lined the walls, each with places laid.
“Is this a formal dinner?” I hissed to my husband.
“Well, it did say a set meal,” he offered.
I glanced at the third member of our party, she shrugged, knowing no more than I. We didn’t own so much as a dinghy between us and the only thing we had fitted out recently, was a kitchen. We are more social members of the sailing club I suppose one could say.
Oh well, we decided, we’d wing it.
Our Fowey friend, whom I shall refer to as Elle, was grinning merrily, enjoying the situation.
“You’ll be fine,” she told us,
We sat down at a table that was already occupied by three of our fellow guests. Polite conversation ensued.
Our fellow guests were retired and had been working on their boat all day it seemed but, having cast aside work trousers and boat shoes, now donned full evening wear. We had been told that they were retired Historians (can historians ever truly retire? Isn’t that a bit like saying a story-teller retires?) They certainly knew their stuff and their stories were a delight to hear.
Among the interesting facts tossed our way, we learnt that Fowey had once been home to quite a few tea ladies. Apparently, these tea ladies would wait for a ship to come in and then go down to the harbour to greet the sailors. How kind, you may think, those poor, thirsty, sailors just dying for a cup of ‘Rosie Lee’. I fear this was not the case. Apparently, the ‘tea ladies’ provided a service and offered one price for a single sailor and another for the entire ship. (That’s a lot of tea!)
Midway through the dinner, someone clapped their hands and asked for silence. He introduced someone else and sat down. A second person stood up to rapturous applause and said something that I couldn’t quite catch. This drew another round of applause and the person sat down. That, we decided, must have been the official Fitting Out Speech. If so, it was the shortest speech in history.
We turned back to our guests to continue our fascinating foray into the history of Fowey.
Having established that the title, Tea Lady, was a euphemism, we remembered hearing that our own house, in times gone by, had been listed as a Tea House. We had always thought that to mean it was used to store the tea brought in from the ships. Have we been labouring under a misapprehension?
I wont be inviting any sailors home, just in case…