Jonathon Jones OBE is known as “the Tea Man”. He is the brains and – more importantly – the green fingers behind Cornwall’s Tregothnan Tea, the UK’s first truly home-grown tea.
Awkward questions first, are you a dunker?
Oh yes! One of my favourite tea memories is from the staying at the old Planters’ Club in Darjeeling. Every morning, they’ll knock at the door at around 7 o’clock and bring you a tray of tea and Rich Tea biscuits. You can then sit in bed and enjoy a little piece of England in the Himalayas. I can’t wait to get back there.
Do you remember your first cup of tea?
I think it was at my grandmother’s house. It was loose tea in a teapot, and I recall a debate about sugar being ok but only until you’re a certain age.
What was your most recent cup of tea?
I’m drinking it now. I’m a chain tea drinker. This one is a breakfast tea we created for the leaders at the G7 summit last week [June 2021]. There was a very short lead time, and it’s surreal to think this tea didn’t exist two weeks ago but now it has reached all corners of the earth – some even went off in the presidential jet.
What was your most memorable cup of tea?
There have been so many, but I think the most memorable was with the late Duke of Edinburgh. He took a sip, paused, and said: “Mmm, tastes like tea,” then there was a collective sigh of relief from the entire team.
He came to plant a tea bush here and spent the day with us. He’d planted a tea bush 50 years ago in Sri Lanka and had tea sent to him from it. The idea of planting one in Cornwall really amused him and we were delighted to be able to send him tea from it. He was genuinely interested in everything and asked some very searching questions. He really understood the countryside and the importance and difficulty of maintaining a balance when managing it, which is so important being in a county that’s playing host to guests all year round.
How did you get into gardening?
I’ve always enjoyed growing things and experimenting with seeds and cuttings, especially exotics – the kinds of things that look like they shouldn’t grow here but do. After training in Edinburgh, I spent some time on a scholarship in Japan. I loved it so much that I stayed on, bought a motorbike, and travelled from Hokaido in the north, all the way down to the southernmost island, Kyushu. It’s easy to get immersed in tea in Japan whether you like it or not. I didn’t quite come away thinking ‘I’m going to grow tea in England’, but I certainly learned a lot about it while I was there.
What brought you to Tregothnan?
In the summer of ’96, I came back here and got married. I was working on a Japanese garden for the University of Exeter and we were living in one of the Tregothnan estate cottages, when the head gardener job came up. I was only 25 and thought they’d want someone older, so didn’t apply as such. However, when I attended a viewing, I was more interested in seeing the gardens, which were as well-known for being very private as for their collections. Then I was offered the job.
There was no idea of growing tea at that stage, but when the Hon. Evelyn Boscawen took over from his parents – Lord and Lady Falmouth – he had big plans to bring new things into the garden and sent me on expeditions all over the world to source new plants. It was just the most incredible, exciting period, like living a Victorian dream.
We thought we’d stay for about three years, then move abroad again. But 25 years, four children and a lot of tea later, we’re still here.
When and why did you decide to give tea-growing a try?
Tea is a variety of camellia, and Tregothnan has been home to nationally important collections of ornamental camellias for well over two hundred years. In 1999, I was awarded a Nuffield Farming Scholarship to look at the camellia as a potential new crop – tea. I travelled the world studying tea and met the most amazing kind, generous people.
When we started experimenting with different tea producing Camellia sinensis here, word got around and it all started to take off. We got huge support from the Daily Telegraph and its readership, which seemed to include all the retired tea planters! These guys were the pioneers who really developed and sustained the modern global tea industry. A lot of them are now living back in England and wrote to us, donating their favourite tea bushes. It gave us a huge boost and we ended up with a collection of over 30 of the best varieties from around the world. It really felt like bringing together a nation of tea drinkers and gardeners.
It wasn’t easy, especially for the first five years, when it can feel like the plants are pre-programmed to die. I was often reminded why no one had grown tea commercially in England before. It’s a slow difficult crop. Getting through that took a lot of hard work, but we made it and, in 2005, Fortnum & Mason gave us our first order.
Congratulations on being awarded an OBE last year for services to international trade and commerce. We understand you haven’t been able to collect it yet due to the pandemic. Do you think the tea at the palace will be up to scratch when you finally go?
I guarantee it will be… because Dame Mary Berry [who was appointed Dame in the Queen’s 2020 birthday honours] is going too. She’s agreed to bring the cakes and I’m taking the tea. There’s not going to be any compromise, it’s going to be the best tea and cakes they’ve had.
What kind of tea will you take?
I’d love to make a special blend and build on a joke that Prince Philip and I shared over a cup of tea here about a blend simply called ‘Royal-Tea’. The sillier the better sometimes.
What makes you tick, other than tea?
I love being on the water and windsurfing is a passion of mine. It’s a great hobby for Cornwall because when I do get downtime, the weather is often miserable, but that means it’s windy, which is perfect. I came to it a bit too late really – in my 30s – but I still feel I’m improving. I’m still better than my sons – please let that go into print while it’s still true!
I also love trees - climbing them, hanging out with them – though that sounds a bit odd! I find bringing technology into the environment exhilarating, so for the past few years, my pet project has been been counting trees and plotting their locations using an app I’ve been developing. It’s called Tremap and allows people to log, locate and learn about their local trees. The lockdown year, plus some funding, has been the final push it needed and we’re now going full steam ahead.