“Tea looks disgusting – insipid, even – and it smells disgusting.”
Molly Chesney from Newark in Nottinghamshire, has never had a cup of tea in her life. She’s 48 and has dabbled in fruit teas – “blackcurrant, normally, when I’m trying not to have a gin and tonic” – but a classic British cuppa? Never. Not a drop.
She ponders why as we chat over the phone (me, with a cuppa in hand). “We never had tea or coffee as kids – I don’t know the age kids start being given hot drinks, but I never did,” Chesney says.
Tea is synonymous with British culture – 50 billion cups are drunk a year, on average and Brits are said to consume 1.78 cups a day each – with 35- to 44-year-olds downing the most. It’s surprising, then, to come across anyone who doesn’t drink our national beverage. But they do exist.
Chesney reckons her tea-hating habit started at 16. She was working her first job as an admin assistant in a “sexist place” where the girls had to clean the slot tray on the tea station. “We had to empty the bucket of water and clean it all down,” she says. “I’d never had a tea, and my first experience of seeing and smelling it was a disgusting slot bucket.”
“If that can be the thing about me that surprises people, then I’ll keep it.”
Chesney still enjoys the shock she gets when she tells someone. “What! That’s not true!” people will say. “If that can be the thing about me that surprises people, then I’ll keep it,” she adds. It works brilliantly for Two Truths and a Lie, and is her go-to “interesting fact” for awkward team-building sessions.
If she has a guest over, she’ll ask them to come and chat by the kettle, “and then I’ll say, I’ve never had one, so would you like to make your own?” Chesney takes the boycott so seriously, she even avoids tea-based cocktails. “If I’m going to make this claim to fame, I want it to be 100% authentic,” she says.
Born in Telford, West Midlands, but now settled in Evesham, Mary Cushen, 42, wonders if the reason she’s never had a cuppa is her grandparents. They used to make a large pot which they’d reheat “for around a week” until it has gone. It made her heave. “It looked stale and didn’t smell much better,” she recalls.
These days, she can handle the smell when she’s making cups for her husband, but still won’t taste it, even if her family still ask, in case she changes her mind.
Sam Flinders, 20 from Oxfordshire, has never had a brew either – stats show just 5% of the 18-24 age group drink it. “Hot drinks don’t hugely appeal,” he says, with a shrug. “I don’t understand what tea is supposed to taste like.”
Flinders’ friends aren’t surprised by his tea refusal, but older people are always shocked. “I suppose I’m quite intrigued as to what it might taste like – but I’m not fussed,” he says. His grandparents are also fond of pushing a cup on him, but he continues to turn it down. For how long? Time will tell.
Tea “smells weird and is a funny color,” Carly Ferguson, 39, from Hampshire says. She dunked a biscuit in her mum’s cuppa as a kid – “enough to put me off for a lifetime.”
Ferguson used to be a TV runner, so had to make endless rounds for cast and crew. Apparently she made it best of everyone, which she always thought funny. It feels like a “much bigger deal than it should be,” she adds, but it’s her “thing” now – and she can’t imagine capitulating.
Sarah Wassell, 52, from Twickenham, London, also despises the smell. “I can’t stand it,” she says. “I once picked up a cup of my husband’s tea by accident and luckily smelt it before I took a drink.” Phew! “I do love a coffee though.”
“I’ve smelt it and it smells awful,” agrees Ebony Wiseman, from Hackney, who always thought tea was “just for adults” – like coffee. “Most of my teachers had coffee breath and it stunk so I assumed tea smelt the same,” she laughs. Now, at 28, she wonders whether she’ll ever try it. “I’m allergic to milk so it probably won’t be the full experience. There’s really no point,” she adds
Amid these tea-totallers are a sub-set of “one-time sippers”. They’ve never had a full cup, just a sip here or there without picking up the habit. Seiriol Dawes-Hughes, 34, from Caenarfon in northern Wales, is one. He had a few sips as a teen, “then one sip at work eight years ago, coerced by colleagues”, he says.
“When you refuse a cup, people often think it’s more than a refusal of tea,” he marvels. “They think it’s a refusal of their company.” Dawes-Hughes would rather be thought of as weird than rude, but would he ever cave? “No. I’ve gone this far in life without drinking a cup of tea, so I might as well stick with it now.”
Andri Benson, 46, from London, had a sip just to see when younger. “It’s weirdly leafy flavoured warm water,” she says, nonplussed. “I just don’t get why it’s so loved.”
Still, Benson makes the “best teas”, according to her husband. She can’t help suspecting this is just a ploy to make him more.
“When you refuse a cup, people often think it’s more than a refusal of tea. They think it’s a refusal of their company.”
James Morris was similarly bemused after a single sip 10 years ago, wondering why millions of people love it so much. “I don’t understand how people repeatedly drink entire cups of it… every day,” the 31-year-old Londoner says.
Barely qualifying for this article, Elizabeth Balgobin, 55, from London has tried a whole cup, but only for charity. Before that, she’d not had a drop. She used to make her parents their morning tea and coffee from the age of five, and it left her sick. “It may also be my deep-seated resentment at having to get up before everyone else and make these noxious drinks,” she says.
The year she turned 50, Balgobin challenged herself to do 50 things she’d never done before. She crowdsourced the tasks and on May Day 2015, swam Beacon Tarn in Cumbria, went dragon boat racing – and drank her first ever cuppa.
“Gillams Tea Room in Ulverston [Cumbria] is such a lovely place (and doesn’t smell too tea-y),” she says. “I had the lovely honour of my tea, and a toasted tea cake to take away the taste. It was as horrible as I expected but I did appreciate that it was organic. Drinking tea raised more money than 10 minutes speaking against Brexit at Speakers Corner or spending a day in a wheelchair.
“But tea is not for me and I have no intention of repeating the experiment.”
Friends of Sophie Farrow, 38, from Colchester, were so shocked she’d never had a cuppa, she ended up doing an Instagram Live of her first taste.
She grew up a faddy child, Farrow says, even when it came to food. “As I got older I never understood what all the fuss was about or when people started drinking tea. It was all a mystery to me! I hate doing what everyone else is doing – you could say I am stubborn – so I just never bothered trying it.”
Illustrator Sophie Wilkinson summed up Farrow’s tea scepticism in the picture above. Then in 2018, when Farrow casually mentioned on Instagram that she’d never tried it, people encouraged her to broadcast herself having a go.
Her followers drank up the content, but Farrow still couldn’t grasp the appeal. “I love a mug of hot chocolate, instead,” she says. “I find it funny how much tea people drink and how a cup of tea solves so many problems.
“I wonder if I’m missing out sometimes.”