Nippy service with a smile as Beetley hosts a traditional tea party

Attentive service, civility and a warm, cheerful smile… The essential ingredients you expected when you took afternoon tea at J Lyons & Co's shops in times past.

And all three of those virtues were delivered fresh from the pot as Beetley and East Bilney Village Hall was transformed into a traditional tearoom for a day.

Meeting and greeting the arrivals on Saturday were smiling waitresses reminiscent of Joe Lyons's nippies of old.

In the plum and cream-painted environs of the hall, they sat at tables covered with ironed cloths and waited patiently for their pots of char to arrive. Tea was served in china cups – none of your mugs here – and cakes, scones and sandwiches were arranged on stands – though the early customers had to wait a tad longer for their cheese sarnies because the organisers couldn't remember where they'd put them.

As satisfied customers chatted heartily, young musician Henry Needham provided background music on the saxophone: Over the Rainbow, wartime favourites… even, rather incongruously in the circumstances, Van Morrison's Moondance.

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By closing time, all 100 tickets had been snapped up, to the delight of Mary Turrell, from nearby Gressenhall, who organised the event for Cancer Research UK with the help of friends Shirley Cowshall and Joan Daniells and a team of helpers.

Mary, who worked in sales at newspapers in the Midlands and London before moving to mid-Norfolk, lost her husband Robert to cancer some time ago and first came up with the traditional tea party idea last year. 'It was so popular that we decided we wanted to do it again,' she said.

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Tesco and the Co-op helped with food and drink, and Abram's Farm Shop at Beetley gave eggs to help bake other goodies. Small gestures from neighbours and other well-wishers touched Mary especially. Someone provided a jar of strawberry jam; another gave a two-tier cake stand given as a wedding present in 1954. 'The spirit of community in this area has really shown itself,' she said. 'People have been so kind.'

The nippies of Lyons and Co's pre-war heyday, so called because they nipped smartly between the tea room tables, wore a rather different, maid-like uniform to the girls of the North Elmham Guides who performed the waitressing duties on Saturday. Way back then, staff wore black alpaca dresses with a double row of pearl buttons sewn with red cotton, plus a starched, white cap complete with monogram and ribbon.

Still, Joe would have approved of them in their neatly-laundered outfits, complete with pinnies fashioned by Joan Daniells out of sheets and bordered with lace. And the service – with a smile - was impeccable.

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