Tasty Dublin treats in a biscuit tin on wheels

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The distinctive Vintage Tea Tours livery. RICHARD WALTER

Richard Walter samples a highfalutin’ scrumptious Routemaster adventure and a ‘cupán tae’ through the streets broad and narrow of Dublin city, discovering how a biscuit tin inspired the bright new transformation of the Vintage Tea Tours company into Vintage Tea Trips

The Vintage Tea Tour of Dublin had its first run in September 2016. Karen Nixon is the owner of the business. She came from a property background and was new to the transport and tourism industry but had always found vintage transport an extremely romantic notion. Afternoon tea onboard a vintage double-deck bus with a lot of banter seemed to match the Irish psyche extremely well.
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Karen wanted to create something that would bring nostalgia to customers, with all the concepts coming together to create one amazing experience. The whole inspiration for Vintage Tea Tours came from Karen’s granny who always had the kettle on and cake on the table. She was incredibly curious and kind and loved listening to people’s stories. With the creation of the tour, it was intended to invoke this sense of the Irish kitchen being the heart of the home on board.

Pauline, Kitty, Jean and Molly
The company operates three double-deck former London AEC Routemaster buses: Pauline (RM811 – ZV10903), Kitty (RM2078 – ZV11165) and Jean (RM654 (WLT654) and Molly, former Leicester City Transport 48 (GRY48D), an MCW Leyland Titan PD3A/1. Pauline was the first bus to join the fleet. She had previously belonged to famous wildlife and steam locomotive artist David Shepherd. The bus had been his studio as well as acting as a promotional vehicle for his wildlife foundation.

Sales and Marketing Executive Ciara McCaughey told me why the Routemaster seemed the ideal choice of vehicle for them to use: “The Routemaster is such an iconic bus with a fabulous running history and, if loved, they were built to last. There is such a massive network of people who are dedicated to futureproofing these buses. So choosing to go with vintage London buses was an easy decision. Molly, our vintage Leyland bus, is available for vintage-inspired weddings and events.”

I asked how the modification of the buses had been planned and if there had been any problems. “The interior design and layout of the fleet has organically grown from bus to bus,” said Ciara. “We’re now currently renovating our third bus, Jean (RM654), and with each new bus comes updated modifications and a change of seating and areas. A lot of the design quirks were trial and error. We’ve used local coach builders and also somebody with experience of Routemasters. The buses are housed indoors at our base in Dublin which allows us to do maintenance there. We also have someone who is an ex-London Transport employee who helps out with the maintenance too when required.” Ciara stressed: “Maintenance of the fleet is our number one priority so if one bus is down, it can cause problems as we’re a small company.”

Change of identity

The upper decks of the Vintage Tea Trips vehicles are spacious and comfortable with non-slip mats and holders for hot thermal cups on each table. RICHARD WALTER

During 2019 a decision was taken to revamp the business with a slightly revised name and buses being repainted from green and cream livery into stunning yellow and blue. I asked what had prompted the new image and if the company was pleased with the results.

Ciara explained: “We are over the moon with the results. We wanted to create a stronger brand image and identity. The traditional Irish dark green and cream somewhat blended in with the dark buildings and surroundings. The idea for the new look of the buses came from old biscuit tins that most Irish people have in their homes. Once they held the ‘good biscuits.’ Nowadays they hold everything from sewing kits to tea lights, buttons and dishwasher tablets etc. We loved the imagery, icons and different fonts used on these. Irish illustrator Rachel Corcoran designed and created some lovely characters including a red squirrel, a deer, a hare and an Irish wolfhound. Glenn, a designer from Neworld drew up the bus and positioned our characters in place. We also had new flyers and booklets produced.”

Kitty was the first bus to receive the Vintage Tea Trips treatment and spent three weeks off the road for not only an exterior transformation, but she also received an interior overhaul with wallpaper added to both decks and new tabletops. Pauline has now been treated similarly and Jean will appear soon in the same style.

Ciara is delighted by the attention that Kitty now receives. “We are spotted instantly and often see people taking selfies with Kitty in the background. The decision to change ‘Tours’ to ‘Trips’ was to reflect the fact that while we go past all the traditional Dublin attractions, we are not strictly a traditional tour of the city.”

I asked Ciara if there was an issue with there being so many bus tours available in Dublin. “Our tour is an afternoon tea experience,” she explained. “We don’t see the open-top buses as our competition. They’re doing an amazing job giving tourists a full history of the city and are also a great way for them to get from A to B. We’re more in line with the hotels who offer afternoon tea. We just serve it on a vintage bus with a few tales of Dublin thrown in. Our experience is one of pure nostalgia with a hint of playfulness. You don’t have to be on your best behaviour with us. It’s afternoon tea the Irish way!”

The trip

Hosts Lauren and Joe in the preparation area on lower deck set up the food trays for the next trip. RICHARD WALTER

I joined the tour at the departure point in Dublin’s busy Temple Bar area close to the River Liffey and was greeted and seated by hosts Lauren and Joe. A mouth-watering selection of three finger sandwiches, jam, cream and butter and a selection of five desserts including a lemon drizzle, almond Bakewell and a cheesecake were on each table. Passengers are also offered a wide range of teas and coffees which are replenished throughout the journey.

Ciara told me that there is a team of 10 employed, all of whom are great characters. “We love working with the team,” she said. “We’ve all got a love for the Irish sceal and chat and of course tea. Most of the team proactively reached out to us asking to work with us because they love what we do.

“The team gets to experience many special moments on board and we get to share in these happy memories so it almost doesn’t feel like work. No two days are the same. The main challenges are again that no two days are the same so managing staffing and tours can be difficult as demands change daily.”

Driver Liam joined the company last year and had never driven a Routemaster before. Previously he had worked with Dublin Bus but had no problems adapting to steering an elderly vintage bus, although did admit to his former colleagues that he missed the power steering of newer vehicles! He pointed out that the biggest issues were finding suitable places to park the bus during the trip with the centre of Dublin being permanently busy. The route takes in all the main tourist attractions of Dublin including the Guinness Brewery, Trinity College, Phoenix Park, O’Connell Street, the two cathedrals and the Georgian houses.

As Kitty prepared to leave, Lauren welcomed everyone on board and advised that as we departed through the cobbled side streets to hold on tightly to plates, cutlery and mobile phones. Ciara assured me that health and safety on board is always a main consideration for them. She joked: “We have had some casualties to cheesecakes on board while driving on the old cobbles. Every aspect of the tour has to be designed around health and safety. Our hot drinks are served in thermal keep cups with lids and of course we use slip mats for our plates and cake stands.”

An interesting selection of music plays in the background. “We play vintage music,” explained Ciara. “Vintage means something different to everybody. To me the music we play reminds me of old black and white movies with synchronised swimmers. With private hires we can customise the music and play favourite songs that mean something to our customers.”

The majority of passengers sit at tables on the upper deck but a few are seated at the front downstairs. As Joe took drink orders, Lauren gave us some interesting facts about the Ha’penny Bridge and North Quays. Trained in London as a professional dancer, Lauren had just returned to her host and guide duties after a winter spell in the pantomime ‘Aladdin.’ Whilst each guide follows a general script along the trip, they all personalise the fun facts that they give. Lauren particularly enjoys the opportunity to interact with the passengers and ask them questions, and admits to often learning new things herself from the memories and stories they share.

They say that in Ireland you can witness every season in a day and as we left the long road through Phoenix Park which passes Dublin Zoo, the sunny blue sky turned a very dark grey and there was a sudden heavy rain and sleet shower. A great distraction was the arrival of delicious fresh hot scones. Lauren explained the traditional way to cut them and add the butter, cream and jam.

Kitty passed swiftly along the side of the River Liffey and Lauren quizzed passengers on an important aspect of a pint of Guinness as we passed the Brewery on the other side. We turned into world famous O’Connell Street which is the widest street in Europe and learnt interesting facts about the size of house windows and number of doorsteps in the Georgian area of the city. All too soon we were back at the starting point of the trip fuelled up with great food, drink and information about a fascinating city. After Liam managed to get us safely parked, and as we disembarked from Kitty, Lauren and Joe were preparing for the next adventure of the day. The rain had started again.

Expansion

Rachel Corcoran’s red squirrel, deer, hare and Irish wolfhound characters feature on internal wallpaper aboard the buses as well as on the exterior design. RICHARD WALTER

As the success of the Dublin trip has grown, the Vintage Tea Trips business has developed accordingly and expanded into other areas with many exciting opportunities to collaborate coming up.

“We did a Cork summer event in July 2019 and it was a huge success so we decided to do a Spring one too for 2020,” said Ciara. “It’s the same idea as Dublin except we tell tales of Cork and our afternoon tea is made fresh each morning by Mags from The Pastry Fork. We’d also love to venture to other cities in Ireland such as Galway, Limerick and Kilkenny.

“We love collaborating with people all around Dublin whether that be other unique tour offerings such as a recent musical singing tour or with blogger meet ups or special unique events that we can host on board. For 2020 we are thrilled to be partnered up with ALONE as charity partners. The work that they do to combat loneliness is very important to us. We’ll be having event days during the year with ALONE and have also incorporated a donate button onto our website when booking tickets.”

Ciara also mentioned the contrasting private hire work undertaken. “We’ve literally done everything from makeup and champagne launches to teaming up with big companies like Harvey Norman and Fujifilm. We took part in Pride Parade where the bus became a roaring party and we have had numerous weddings on board. The funniest occasion was a private hen party. A policeman came on board and everyone quietened down and we were all quite scared about what we had done until the music started and he started undressing. Turns out he was a stripper that the bride to be’s friend had organised. RM811 hadn’t seen that much action in a long time.”

Ciara is really excited about how business has grown over the last three years but pointed out: “There is always room for expansion so watch this space.”

You can find out more about the trips at www.vintageteatrips.ie or on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
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