Jill Crawford, of Just Live a Little Granolas, is understandably excited about the artisan company’s work on only the third tea garden in the UK that’s now taking shape in Portaferry, County Down.
Just Live a Little is working with Suki Tea Makers in Belfast on the new tea garden, the brainchild of Suki’s managing director Oscar Woolley.
The garden is currently flourishing on an acre of land near the picturesque family home of Jill and husband David, long-time friends of Oscar, his wife Samantha, and business partner Anne Irwin.
“We are very excited about the tea project and its business and tourism potential,” Jill continues.
“It has been a while in the making. We’ve been growing the tea plants in an extensive polytunnel and have now started to put them into the ground for a mini tea garden,” adds Jill.
To support the new garden as a visitor attraction, the Crawfords have created what Jill describes as “a small getaway, the Hideaway, for two overlooking the garden”. It’s also close to Strangford Lough.
The luxury house, which they’ve developed from renovating an old shed, is just 30 miles from Belfast and within minutes of Portaferry town, also home to the Exploris marine museum.
Amenities include everything that might be expected in a top hotel. Bikes are also provided for those wishing to explore one of Northern Ireland’s most scenic locations.
The enterprising couple run the artisan granola business which exports products throughout Europe to the Middle East and Asia. Just Live A Little is among Northern Ireland’s most successful artisan exporters.
“Guests at the Hideaway will also be able to enjoy our granolas at breakfast,” she laughs.
“The Strangford area is such a popular location with staycationers and other visitors that we decided to develop the luxury accommodation close to our own home and, of course, the emerging tea garden,” adds Jill.
The luxury getaway can now be rented through the international Airbnb website (www.airbnb.com).
The tea garden has been in Oscar’s plans for more than five years. He brought tea bushes from Tanzania for nurturing at the Greenmount College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise and has supervised the exciting development at Portaferry.
Oscar explains: “Back in 2014, we sat with our friends from Just Live A Little surrounded by the fog of hilly San Francisco and reminisced as we shared our stories of the misted landscapes in Tanzania.
“The conversation quickly spiralled into a wild conversation of growing tea on their farmland in Portaferry … then we thought ‘why not? Wouldn’t it be great to at least give it a go!’ And so it began …
“We put the wheels in motion, initially explaining our plans to grow Northern Irish tea to Will, our supplier and the tea plantation manager at Luponde Tea Gardens in Tanzania.
“This is where we get the rich malty tea leaves for our Belfast Brew and Breakfast Tea blends.
“After initially thinking we were living in a world of fantasy, he later realised we could actually be onto something and so agreed to supply us with the seedlings for our Grow NI Tea project.
“The project has been a source of great excitement for our whole team, learning more and gaining hands-on experience with the very plant that creates our favourite brew!
“A steep learning curve (we’re not all green fingered!) but an exhilarating one at that.
“Portaferry is an ideal location for growing tea because of the micro-climate there, a sheltered environment that’s moderated by nearby Strangford Lough, the largest natural inlet in the British Isles,” he explains.
The decision was influenced by market research and, perhaps most significantly, extensive analysis of the soil around the Ards Peninsula.
Oscar worked with his long-standing suppliers in the hills of Tanzania on growing tea where it is grown on vast plantations which are 7,000 ft above sea level, hardly a tropical climate.
It’s has also been grown in Great Britain, at Tregothnan Estate, Cornwall, since 2000.
“We’re passionate about what we do and the product we deliver and what better way to learn than to grow our own right here in our country,” Oscar continues.
“A plantation was also planted in Yorkshire in 2009, so tea is not just for the balmy south-west. The tea plant is Camellia sinensis, and camellias grow here. Growing tea, therefore, really isn’t out of the question, as has been proven at Portaferry.”
Oscar adds: “Of course it was a bit of a gamble for us. We certainly lost a number of bushes in transit and during the early stages. If all goes according to plan, as it should, we could be producing our own Portaferry blend in a couple of years,” he adds.
The project may, in time, feature a tea house on site with exhibition space that will be used to inform visitors, including schools and tourists, about the history and development of tea. There’s now top notch accommodation for visitors at the Crawford’s Hideaway.
As well as selling tea throughout the UK and Ireland, Suki Tea currently exports teas and infusions to Japan, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Rwanda and Kenya.