A Good Old British Cup of Tea


By Catherine Rouse
University of Southampton

When you think about tea production, India, China and maybe Africa spring to mind, but what about the UK?

My name is Catherine and I am currently completing my MSc in Applied GIS and Remote Sensing at the University of Southampton. As part of the final semester we are required to undertake a 20,000 word research project, which sounds like a rather daunting task. Yet, the key is to choose a topic that is of interest to yourself and a wider community, and tea definitely hits that brief.

A few months ago Connie and Patrick, two of my course mates, visited Assam as part of a UKIERI project. They collected a variety of data on the locations of shade trees and soil properties within a number of tea plantations for their respective projects. Their post ‘Shade, food and an egg’s lost luggage!’ details a joint experience around Assam and provides additional detail on each of their projects, so definitely take a look. My project moves away from India and instead focuses on tea growth within parts of the UK. This may seem a bit strange as yes, we Brits love to drink a good cup of tea and are one of the biggest tea drinking nations out there, yet when it comes to home grown tea we are pretty limited in awareness, knowledge and experience. Tea requires very specific environmental conditions to grow, and as such the potential for growth (particularly under future climate change) can be modelled. Specifically, my project looks at the climatic, topographic and soil conditions found within the UK and whether, when combined, suitable areas for growing tea can be highlighted through using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and an ecological habitat suitability model. Unfortunately this means I did not get to join Connie and Patrick on their adventure to India, however I did get to go to Cornwall to find more out about existing English tea production, and lucky for me the weather was beautiful.

Me at the Eden project

First stop was the Eden project, located just outside St Austell. Whilst visiting I bumped into one of the gardeners who manages the tea section. Unfortunately they are really struggling with keeping the soil pH at optimum growing conditions, which for tea is around 4.5-5, and attempts to lower the pH through various techniques including fertiliser has led to the presence of the Phytophthora pathogen. So sadly, many plants have had to be removed. The remaining tea plants appeared rather unhealthy and yellow, despite daily irrigation and ‘suitable’ climatic conditions. Tea growth at Eden made me aware of some of the difficulties associated with growing tea and the extreme practices required in order to ensure successful growth. However, my second destination in Cornwall led me to one of the only successful British tea plantations, Tregothnan, where there were many healthy looking tea plants!

Tregothnan estate is located near Truro, Cornwall and is one of the only commercial tea plantations to supply English-grown tea to British supermarkets (blended), as well as high-end London stores such as Fortnum and Mason at a premium. Planting first began in 1999 and after 6 years the first plants were fully established and ready for harvest. Currently tea is grown in around 40 acres of the 6,000 acre estate, although there appear to be plans to extend this to 150 acres over the coming years. Whilst we were there we observed innovative field technology which could contribute to future cultivation; trials for mechanised planting which is currently not undertaken anywhere else in the world. We also had a tour around the estate and the incredible gardens which display a range of rare plants taken from all over the world, on a par with Kew Gardens!

We also got to taste some of this English tea and take some produce home. Ellie was particularly happy as she procured a tea plant to grow at home. Next week I will be attending the Ethical Tea Partnership annual meeting where I will have an opportunity to engage with multiple tea stakeholders and get further ideas for my research, and perhaps kick-start a career in tea!

The team in Tregonthan’s tea tasting room: Catherine, Ellie, Niladri, Sukanya

The team in Tregonthan’s tea tasting room: Catherine, Ellie, Niladri, Sukanya

Shade, food, and an egg’s lost luggage!


By Connie Clark and Patrick Sayers
University of Southampton

We are Connie and Patrick, two MSc students studying Applied GIS and Remote Sensing at the University of Southampton. Our average day is spent looking at satellite images of the world on computers. In many of our assignments we often find ourselves wishing we could visit these places to see what they are really like, and to provide real-world context to problems that we are trying to solve. Sometime in the middle of our coursework-strewn semester, such a unique and exciting opportunity arose to fulfil this dream (as part of a UKIERI project) and we jumped at the chance to conduct research in Assam as part of our masters dissertation projects.

Patrick and Connie

Patrick and Connie

Fast-forward a month or two and this opportunity to visit Assam started to seemed somewhat daunting. Arriving into Jorhat, after 3 flights, with no sleep in 36 hours, having also lost Connie’s luggage, it was fair to say that we were a little unenthusiastic about what was to follow. Upon arriving in India we found ourselves in quite a state of ‘culture-shock’. Our first experience of India was the roads, which seemed like complete chaos, with countless near-misses with other road users and the many animals that seem entirely unconcerned by the streams of traffic. However, once we arrived at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute (TTRI), the whole experience became a lot more relaxed and enjoyable. We were made to feel incredibly welcome by everyone there and they provided an immense amount of support for our field research. We were straight out into the field on our first full day there, collecting data on our two very different projects…

Why does lowland tea need shade trees?
Unlike some other parts of the world, the tea plantations in Assam are in the lowlands, and because of this, shade trees are essential to protect the growing tea from the sun and produce a favourable microclimate. Yet despite their importance, I [Connie] noticed that few remote sensing studies (using satellite images) have looked into shade trees – most consider only how to detect tea, with some even complaining about the shade trees getting in the way. So my project focuses on these misunderstood trees, considering whether the density of shade trees in an area can be estimated using low resolution satellite imagery that is freely-available to everyone. I plan to use high resolution imagery to train a classification, and in the field I wanted to collect data on the shade trees to act as a form of accuracy assessment.

The vast expanse of tea in one of the plantations we visited

The vast expanse of tea in one of the plantations we visited, complete with shade tree canopy

To do this required collecting GPS locations of the shade trees, which seems easy enough in theory. Yet having never been to a tea plantation, I didn’t quite know what to expect; and on the morning of our first day in the field, I soon realised that the field work I had planned, from the comfort of my home in Southampton, was impossible. There were too many trees in a vast area of tea to collect data on all of them, and most of the area was inaccessible to me as the tea is too closely planted (and too thorny) to move between. So I had to quickly consider alternative sampling strategies, and decided it would be best to collect the locations all trees along the edges of a section (one part of a plantation), and some of the rows in the middle where it was possible to walk along narrow tracks. In each of the three plantations visited, I collected data in sections with different densities of shade tree to ensure I captured data across a range of conditions. Now back in Southampton, all that’s left is to get some cloud-free imagery (which might be a challenge over Assam!) and get properly stuck into my project, to see whether it is actually possible to find shade trees from space.

Tea drinking tastes nice but what do workers eat?
In many of Assam’s tea estates, the practice of inter-cropping takes place, where other crops are grown alongside the primary crop of tea. In particular, rice paddies are often grown in the drainage areas between the stands of tea by plantation workers, and are an important source of food. Whilst regulations are set for the application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, none exist for the growing of rice paddies as these are non-commercial crops. This is potentially an issue as the leaching of the chemicals from the tea stands can potentially enter the areas used to grow rice. My research is attempting to investigate whether leaching is taking place and calculate the amount of land that could be used for inter-cropping to provide adequate food sustenance for tea workers’ livelihoods.

Paddy field inter-cropping

Paddy field inter-cropping

During our trip I [Patrick] was able to visit three separate tea estates and collect soil samples as well as locational information about land cover. Compared to the previous places I have completed fieldwork (spectacular mountain ranges, glaciers and of course the bog-filled New Forest), the tea estates were a stark contrast. I was overwhelmed by their scale, with a sea of lush green leaves in every direction. What appears a perfectly neat and continuous surface of green conceals an intricate network of surprisingly deep drainage ditches that eventually widen into vast channels. Aside from the weather and the fairly rugged terrain, fieldwork was actually easier than any other environment I have worked in due to the fantastic support given to me. Estate managers showed keen interest in our projects and were very helpful in suggesting good locations to collect samples. Data collection was made much easier due to the assistance of plantation workers in collecting soil samples, whilst myself and Debojit (TTRI technician) recorded GPS locations and catalogued soil samples. In total we collected 270 samples in all weathers, ranging from searing heat to torrential downpours (it wouldn’t be a geography field trip without rain!). Back in the TTRI lab, I begun the slow and somewhat painstaking process of sorting, labelling and drying the samples collected in the field. It was at this point that 270 samples didn’t seem like the best idea! However, I persevered, and I’m looking forward to analysing the results to see what can be determined, in conjunction with processing high resolution satellite imagery to determine potential inter-cropping areas.

Experiencing Assamese Culture
Our reasons for wanting to visit Assam extended beyond simply academic interest, and the experience proved incredibly fulfilling. The flora and fauna is unique compared to anywhere else we have visited and we were able to see monkeys, giant snails and water buffalo during our visit. One of the most unforgettable experiences was seeing working elephants in Kaziranga National Park being being ‘driven’ along the road by children who were mounted on their backs. Their size and the speed they moved were amazing. Aside from the characteristic tea plantations of the landscape, another iconic part of Assam we couldn’t miss was the mighty Brahmaputra river. With parts of the river 10km wide, this is something that can only be appreciated in situ.


Elephants in Kaziranga National Park

Our exposure to Assamese culture extended into the diverse cuisine. Portion sizes in India are unrealistically large and ensured that we were continually full. One of our particular favourites was Gulab Jamun – a sweet which Connie compared to a mini sticky toffee pudding. On a side note about food, we were informed by one of the ladies in the institute that in the local Assamese language, Connie means ‘egg’. We found this hilarious, especially as Connie doesn’t like eggs, or tea for that matter. But no visit to Assam would be complete without sampling the excellent tea. A truly unique experience was the opportunity to join in the daily tea-tasting in one of the tea estates, with tea that was freshly processed from the factory just hours before. This was a dream come true for Patrick who is an avid tea-drinker, and all round tea fan. Tea-tasting is taken just as seriously as wine-tasting in vineyards, and has as many technical terms to describe each and every aspect. It is a moment of great importance for the tea estates, as it determines the guide price that each variety will be set at at auction. It turns out that tea-tasting is very difficult and best left to those in the know.

Tasting tea fresh from the fields

Tasting tea fresh from the fields

Our initial reasons for coming was both for collecting important data for our MSc research projects, but also to experience Assamese culture and working in an entirely new setting. Whilst we were able to fulfil and exceed these expectations, the main thing we have taken from our experiences has come from the diverse range of people we have met. Everyone at Tocklai was extremely welcoming and hospitable, and it is for this reason that we both had such a memorable trip.  Thank you to the University of Southampton, TTRI and UKIERI for providing us with such a fantastic opportunity.

Us with the project team in the grounds of TTRI. Left to right: Sukanya, Connie, Patrick, Debojit and Niladri

Us with the project team in the grounds of TTRI. Left to right: Sukanya, Connie, Patrick, Debojit and Niladri

Enough Tea to Eat?


By John Duncan
University of Southampton

I have recently returned from a visit to Assam as part of a wider project assessing the impacts of climate change on tea plantations and the livelihoods of their workers. As highlighted in a Guardian report, tea plantation workers often suffer from the most distressing aspects of poverty beyond, though often consequential from, a lack of income. This Guardian report presented the challenging conditions under which tea plantation workers live and work, leaving families prey to human traffickers. To add to the vulnerabilities highlighted in this report, climate change is also adding to the burden placed on households as they strive to secure a livelihood. The impacts of climate change could have severe, negative impacts on the ability of tea plantation workers to enhance their well-being. Not only could climate change make it more difficult for tea plantation workers to lift themselves out of poverty in a sustainable manner it could make already precarious livelihoods more challenging.

Here, I offer some insights on how climate change could influence one of the key components of well-being; the ability to access sufficient and nutritious food.

Tea plantation workers in Assam.

Tea plantation workers in Assam.

Typically people go hungry not through there not being enough to eat but due to not having enough to eat, in other words, a result of barriers in accessing food. This view was articulated by Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize winning economist, when he outlined the various means of entitlement people have to access food. These entitlements typically include access to food via own production (subsistence), trade and purchases, labour, and transfers of food. To illustrate how climate change may exacerbate the vulnerability of tea plantation workers I speculate on how it may influence their ability and means to access food.

One of the most common methods of accessing food is through purchasing it in markets with earned money. This is contingent upon two factors: the ability to earn money and the presence and ability of markets to supply food at affordable prices. Tea plantation workers earn money through labouring on tea estates receiving a daily wage of less than 100 rupees (less than £1 a day). On its own this is a low wage; however, achieving this wage is dependent upon there being work available. Adverse climate change impacts to tea bushes could make them less productive and reducing the available work for tea plucking. This, could, in turn have knock-on effects on take home income and subsequent capacity to purchase food. On the other side, it is well documented that climate change will likely result in decreased crop yields (see chapter on Food Security and Food Production Systems). This could reduce supply and also increase the price of crops in markets. Under future climate change scenarios the same wage may result in less food brought home to feed the household.

Tea bushes recently attacked by pests; changing pest attack patterns is one of many potential impacts of climate change.

Tea bushes recently attacked by pests; changing pest attack patterns is one of many potential impacts of climate change.

Within the tea estates are several small rice fields. Tea plantation workers use the returns from these fields to supplement household food consumption. Numerous studies have documented the vulnerability of rice crops to projected climate change with risks spanning increased warming, shrinking day-night temperature ranges, precipitation variability and extreme heat events. Climate change has the potential to reduce the productivity of these small plots and at the very least increase the variability in returns from them. This will have obvious implications for household food security. Furthermore, the vulnerability of accessing food via these small plots may be amplified by other factors. The tenure and access rights of tea plantation workers to these plots may not be secure. If climate change reduces tea production this land may come under threat if estates expand to counteract productivity shortfalls. Also, tea plantation workers may not have access to agricultural extension and inputs such as new seeds and fertilisers to help them adapt to potential climate changes.

Small rice fields amongst the tea plantations in Assam.

Small rice fields amongst the tea plantations in Assam.

Finally, an important source of food for many poor and vulnerable households in India is subsidised rice via the Targeted Public Distribution Service. Tea plantation workers, holding a below poverty line (BPL) ration card, will be eligible for rice provisions from the state. Households obtain a BPL card through means testing surveys which happen at infrequent intervals. Initial conjecture suggests that based upon a rigid form of targeting food assistance may fail to come to the aid of households who fall victim to variable and short-term shortages of food resulting from direct (e.g. crop loss) or indirect (e.g. price increases) climate impacts.

It is clear that efforts to enhance the well-being of tea plantation workers needs to move beyond focusing on providing increased wages; a much broader, coordinated developmental approach is required. Using the example of food access, increased wages will yield more benefits when coordinated with favourable food markets, and access to productive resources such as land and seeds can be more valuable than increased wages by providing a buffer against market volatility. Furthermore, efforts to improve the livelihoods of workers and labourers in rural supply chains cannot be ignorant of the potential impacts of climate change.

Tea Junction


By Niladri Gupta
Tocklai Tea Research Institute

Chai, Garam Chai (Tea, Hot Tea) is a commonly heard welcome call when a train chugs into any railway station in India. The hot cup of tea gives a refreshing feel especially in the early mornings after a night’s journey. Tea and Indian Railways (the largest railway network in Asia and second largest in the world under one management) have closely been associated with each other ever since railways became the main mode of transport in India after its inception during the colonial past.

Journey of the Indian Railways
The railway system in India especially for passenger traffic made its first journey on 16th April, 1853 from Bombay (Mumbai) to Thane. The train comprised of 14 carriages hauled by 3 locomotives named Sindh, Sultan and Sahib (which came from Great Britain by ship) and was part of the The Great Indian Peninsular Railway. The proposal to set up a railway system in India was initiated in Great Britain in 1843 by Lord Dalhousie (who later became the Governor General of India) who realised the interest amongst bankers, traders and shipping companies in Great Britain as well as India in train travel. The railways were set up by private companies which received a guaranteed 5% return annually on investment from the British East India Company. Railways in India actually started in western part of the country because a few freak accidents led to the delay of Calcutta, the capital of the British East India Company during that period, receiving the first railways in India. A story of perilous travel on the world’s great oceans: HMS Godwin the ship carrying the locomotive for the East India Railway from Great Britain was misdirected and ended up in Australia, while the ship carrying the railway coaches capsized at the sandheads in Bay of Bengal before entering the Hooghly River. Finally, the East India Railway saw the light of the day on 15th August 1854. Now, Indian Railways is one of the largest railway networks in the world with 64000 km of track covering 7000 stations and catering to 23 million passengers and 2.68 million tonnes of freight daily. Thus the tag line for the Indian Railways: Lifeline to the Nation.

An old locomotive on display

An old locomotive on display

The Tea Connection
Tea was discovered in India by Scottish explorer Robert Bruce in the Upper Brahmaputra Valley, Assam in 1823 being brewed by the local Singhpho tribe much before the railways came in India. The first tea produced in Assam (a consignment of 12 chests) was sent to England for public sale in 1838. With the advent of tea trade in Assam, north eastern India was connected to the port of Kolkata from Dibrugarh (Upper Assam) by the Brahmaputra navigation channel and from Silchar (Cachar) by the Barak-Surma-Meghna navigation channel. The Railways came to Assam in 1881 with the construction of the railway line between Dibrugarh and Makum collieries to transport tea and coal to Dibrugarh. Similarly, the Chittagong port (presently in Bangladesh) was also connected to Assam via Barak Valley in 1903 to transport tea, though the railway fell into obscurity after the partition of the country in 1947. The Indian section of the route is currently being connected to the rest of the country and is likely to be opened by April, 2015.  A railway journey through the tea landscape of Assam from Lumding to Dibrugarh is a memorable experience as the train passes through vast stretches of the tea estates in south bank and upper Assam (the largest single tea growing region in the world) and through national parks of the region. Though the railways were introduced to transport tea to the ports (directly or indirectly) for export, the Indian railways presently do not carry much tea as part of its freight which declined by 59% in the 1990s due to increase in road network in the country¹, but the livelihood of a large number of vendors selling tea are dependent on the Indian Railways passenger traffic.

A train passing through a Tea Estate in South bank region, Assam, India

A train passing through a Tea Estate in South bank region, Assam, India

The Chai Wallahs
From my childhood days I had a fascination for railway journeys and the thing that hasn’t changed much over the years are the tea vendors (chai wallahs as they are commonly called in India) with a kettle and a bucket of cups getting on, moment a passenger train enters a station and in some cases they are on the train even before the train has come to a halt. Incidentally, they are the last person to get down after collecting their dues when the train has already picked up enough speed. I always wondered why they risked their life so much for selling just a cup of tea. No statistical figures exist of the number of tea vendors who earn their livelihood by selling tea in the Indian railway network but it accounts for a major livelihood source for a considerable section of the population. In accordance, Indian Railways have also given importance to the tea vendors by introduction of licensed tea stalls at all railway stations and automatic vending machines in some stations keeping in mind that tea is one of the most consumed beverages of the country. The vendors have also brought in innovations in the way tea is prepared and served to the passengers in form of masala chai, lemon tea or ginger tea. The tea industry of Assam, North Bengal and South India caters to the 23 million passengers that Indian Railways carry everyday through a few thousands tea vendors, thus critical in supporting their livelihoods. Trains and tea are two very important flag bearers of the Indian economy; jointly promoting the most consumed beverage in the world.

Chai wallah at Mariani Jn, Assam, India

Chai wallah at Mariani Jn, Assam, India


¹Vaidya B.C. (2003) Geography of the transport development in India. Concept Publishing Co. New Delhi; pp 10-11

Tea and the British Empire


By Ellie Biggs
University of Southampton

Being a Brit I find it quite fascinating how Britain once ruled almost a quarter of the world’s total land area. I remember having a discussion with a fellow postgraduate when I was a student as to why territories of the empire were always coloured pink on world maps – answer’s here. But, regardless of the colour, I have always been amazed at the far-reaching global domination of the then ‘Great’ Britain. Despite trips to several nations of the commonwealth – Canada, Australia, New Zealand – I have never really felt the influence of a colonial past until setting foot in India (actually, you could count the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia – Tudor buildings selling cream teas is certainly quintessentially English!). So on my first visit to northeast India under our UKIERI research project I was genuinely awestruck by the grandeur of Kolkata’s imperial buildings (formerly Calcutta under British rule) and the vast extent of the colonial tea establishments in Assam.

The Port of Kolkata

The city of Kolkata lies on the Hooghly River, a branch of the mighty Ganges in the state of West Bengal. Driving into the city from the airport it is clear the city is still very much expanding, with a wide sprawl of construction; everything from new top end hotels to executive office blocks, and even entire new satellite towns such as ‘Salt Lake City’ (the city’s IT hub) which are driving social and economic expansion. The metro line is being extended in multiple directions with an expected completion date of ‘when it’s finished’. Old Calcutta still presides at the heart of the city with grand European-influenced architecture dominating the landscape. The General Post Office building is particularly impressive, as is the Victoria Memorial, Town Hall and High Court. Unfortunately many of the elaborate buildings have fallen into disrepair due to dereliction and a lack of maintenance. However, the park areas of the city are generally beautifully landscaped and the the city is much greener than I expected. The infrastructure is also impressive with the Second Hooghly Bridge (the longest cable–stayed bridge in India) towering over the Hooghly a few kilometres downstream of the iconic Howrah Bridge (the busiest cantilever bridge in the world; an engineering marvel of its time). Many English named roads weave their way through the city’s grandeur. What is slightly disturbing is that all roadside rails, fences and bollards are being painted sky blue and white under orders of the chief minister of West Bengal; there’s even a tax rebate on offer for those who paint their house the favourite colours of the minister.

served as the capital of India until 1911 (when it shifted to Delhi). The Port of Kolkata is India’s oldest operating port and in 1690 the infamous East India Company (Est. 1600 by The Royal Charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I) was granted a trading licence and the port was developed into a fortified mercantile centre. The company established the beginnings of the British Empire in India and Calcutta was one of the trading through-routes of the world with a full waiver granted by the emperor of Bengal on customs duties; an anchor location for the British company to exert its influence on 50% of world trade during its peak trade domination. The East India Company was one of the most successful companies ever to exist, with employees acting as explorers, traders and innovators, transporting highly valuable merchandise – including silk, saltpetre, cotton, opium and tea – around the world.

The Rise of the Tea Trade

So a brief history of tea in India, intertwined with the fate of the corporation that changed the world… In the 1820s, most tea imports to Britain were purchased by the East India Company from China using money raised by illegal trading of Indian-grown opium with the Chinese. Tea from China monopolised global trade. In an attempt to break this monopoly on tea, the East India Company began large-scale production of tea in Assam, offering free land to European settlers who agreed to cultivate tea for export. Meanwhile, China tried to prevent ongoing opium smuggling which resulted in two ensuing opium wars. The outcome? Opening up of the opium trade and an increase of opium production in China. Consequently, the lucrative product no longer held its profit for Indian exports and a subsequent diversification of the East India Company’s export goods was required.


The East India Company’s global reach (Source: Robins, 2012)*

Tea consumption spread following a campaign by the Tea Board and from 1840 the Assam Tea Company began commercial production of tea in the region. Expansion of the industry ensued with vast tracts of land consumed for tea cultivation. In the 1850s a rebellion occurred across India challenging the power and control of the East India Company which resulted in the nationalisation of the company – depriving the company of its Indian trade monopoly, except its trade with China and trade in tea – and a subsequent nine decades of British colonial rule (the British Raj). The Company continued to manage the tea trade on behalf of the British government until it was dissolved in the 1874. The Tea Board of India (HQ Calcutta, Est. 1953) now promotes the cultivation, processing and trade of Indian tea. And that’s the history in a nutshell.

Onto the Rural Lands of Assam

After a couple of days exploring Kolkata’s heritage I journeyed onto the city of Jorhat in Assam. Here the pace of life changes drastically from the city. Life is slower and people share their land with plentiful livestock, wildlife and many a sacred cow. The rural landscape surrounds central Jorhat, with endless expanses of tea plantations, many of which were developed in the mid-19th century. Tea bungalows remain on some estates, again, remnants of the British Raj. We visited two such ‘bungalows’ (rather large compared to your average size bungalow you’d find in Britain) – Banyan Grove and Burrah Sahib’s Bungalow (the Kaziranga Golf Resort) – both situated on land of the Gatonga tea estate owned by B&A Ltd. The architecture of these former homes of tea factory managers is certainly very British, with elaborate rooms and ornately crafted furniture, both of which are over 100 years old.

Most of my stay in Assam was based at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute (Est. 1911), the oldest and largest tea research station in the world. Again, buildings housing this organisation are also relics of British influence, particularly the guesthouse where I stayed; parts of which I’m sure had not changed since it was built (some of the furniture included!). The train track runs alongside the Institute connecting Jorhat to the mainline which weaves through other Assam stations to Kolkata. The construction of the train network is another marvel of the British Raj, providing an overland trade route into the heart of Assam (critical in transporting tea to the city auction houses). The incessant tooting of these trains starting from 3am each day interrupted my sleep, but I assume the locals must become accustomed to the noise.

Overall, I very much enjoyed my first visit to India. The city streets were much less populated than I was expecting given my demographic knowledge of the nation. A pleasant surprise. And Kolkata was much greener than I ever imagined an Indian metropolis to be. The historical colonial reach of the British and their great corporate globalisation certainly added an unexpected feeling to the place. But India has a rich heritage and the tea trade forms an important part of the country’s history, as well its present economy. The intrinsic value attached to tea only highlights the relevance of our research; to ensure the Assamese tea trade can continue viably and sustainably into the future.


*For a fascinating read on the East India Company read ‘The Corporation that Changed the World’ by Nick Robins

A future for UK tea?


by Ellie Biggs
University of Southampton

“There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea.”

The initial stages of our collaborative research venture have sparked great interest for me in tea to a level purely beyond that of drinking it! Our new research project is investigating climate impacts on tea production in Assam, India. From this I’ve developed a side interest in the UK tea industry; an interest I regard as suitably justified given that we consume so much of the stuff. In fact, I have learned since commencing the project that tea is actually grown in the UK, which is a highly exciting prospect. Currently only one tea estate produces tea in England and that is the Tregothnan plantation in Cornwall. According to their website, “Tregothnan is one of the very best tea regions in the world. Its cool climate and inimitable uniqueness is essential for the best of teas.” So how does English grown tea differ to that grown in Assam?

Growing differences: Cornwall V Assam
Acidic soils and a damp environment provide ideal tea-growing conditions at Tregothnan. The Camellia sinensis tea bush grows especially well in the damp and temperate Cornish valleys. In comparison, Assam is also especially damp given the monsoon rains rejuvenates the landscape every summer. Another interesting fact I’ve learned is that because of an early sunrise, Assam’s tea gardens follow local time, known as ‘Tea Garden Time’ or Bagantime, which is an hour ahead of Indian Standard Time!


Tea is grown in Assam during the summer season and in contrast to the UK, India has a much warmer and more humid climate during these months. However, the ambient temperature range for growing tea is approximately 13 – 30°C, which both Cornwall and Assam fall within the majority of the growing season. In fact, anything too hot and the tea leaves burn in the heat. Shade trees are often required in Assam to protect the bushes from direct sunlight. During the winter the tea bushes are dormant in both locations due to low temperatures and reduced daylight hours. There are many environmental factors which are important for optimal tea growth, such as temperature, moisture, soil depth and pH, and such conditions have both similarities and variation between Assam and England. Therefore, I wondered – do the growing conditions alter the taste?

The taste test
Clearly a tea taste test was in order to determine if nurturing tea plants in different geographical localities actually transfers a change in flavour through to the palette. I acquired some pure Assam loose black leaf tea from the Tocklai tea plantation and some classic black leaf tea bags from Tregothnan. Now, the black tea from Tregothnan is slightly misleading, as although marketed as “the tea grown in England” the bagged product is actually a blend of English tea with “finest Assam”, as stated on the front of their merchandise (if I ever acquire any pure English loose leaf tea I will re-do this taste test).


Brewing the tea, I actually found the English tea to produce a darker brew. To me, the Assam tea tasted a little more bitter. There were certainly distinctive differences in the actual taste, but not being a qualified tea taster I’ve struggled to elaborate using the correct descriptive language. There are some top tips here though if you’re that way inclined. I tried both with and without milk and actually found both varieties of the tea very pleasant to drink black. Clearly both are winning brews and I’d recommend either, but I did particularly like the English blend taste. Views from others in a taste test stated the English variety to be “smooth and surprisingly strong”, “tastes quite powerful” and has “the nuttiness of a top Assam.” So if English grown tea is actually as good as Assamese tea for consumers, does the India to UK export industry have something to worry about?

Why grow tea in the UK?

In short, probably not any time soon. Tea is a lucrative business, we love a good cuppa, and the UK imports around £250 million worth of tea each year. English tea is not currently produced on a scale to rival Indian leaves, and probably never will be due to space issues. Tregothnan tea is presently marketed as a luxury brand but perhaps there is scope to plant further tea estates in the UK and cultivate more leaves on our home soil. In addition to a superb taste, a reason why this could be favoured by the UK community is largely environmental. Recent environmental concerns regarding more sustainable food production has led many consumers to think more closely about where the produce they are purchasing is being sourced. The slow food movement has gained traction over the last decade and people are beginning to care about reducing their environmental footprint. Checking your fruit and veg in the supermarket for where it originates from is one way to achieve this. Sourcing food locally and buying what is in season reduces an individual’s collective food miles; something the environmentally conscious are keen to achieve. I know I consistently check the origin of fresh produce and always try to buy British.


So, by growing British and buying local, products can potentially be produced more sustainably and your environmental footprint is reduced. Perhaps this would be good enough reason to grow more of our nation’s favourite beverage on our home soil, as well as it tasting as good as our overseas tea rivals! However, tea is a way of life for many families in India and a decline in production could potentially be detrimental to their livelihoods; the international tea trade remains a significant factor in providing income for the people of Assam, but it’s good to know we can successfully cultivate tasty tea in England should productivity abroad ever decline.


We are hoping to visit Tregothnan next summer to tour the tea estate in person and compare characteristics of tea bush cultivation between Assam and Cornwall. Another blog post will appear then, and perhaps we’ll get our hands on some non-blended pure English loose leaf tea to try.

Dreamlining my way to the UK on my first trip abroad


By Sukanya Saikia
Tocklai Tea Research Institute

Being from Assam, I have seen tea gardens from my childhood when I used to visit my paternal house. I would be astonished by the scenic beauty of the tea growing regions; lush green in all directions. I used to be in awe that such huge estates could be managed so well. Tea is such an extremely important commodity for trade in India. Recently (a few months back), while I visited the tea-growing region of Upper Assam, I saw the saddening truth of the impact of climate change on tea. Although I am aware of climate change, I did not notice its impacts so closely until then. It sparked my interest in the subject; I felt a sense of duty towards the region where I have been born and brought up. So, when I came across a newspaper advertisement regarding a position of a research fellow at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute, a century old institute dedicated to R&D in tea, I applied for the position, got through the screening process and here I am!

A strong attack of looper (caterpillars) which eat the tea crop; due to reduced rainfall their presence has increased

A strong attack of looper (caterpillars) which eat the tea crop; due to reduced rainfall their presence has increased

I am Sukanya, a newly appointed research fellow and a proud member of our energetic and amazing research team. The brilliant collaborative project I get to work on is being undertaken jointly between the Tea Research Association and the University of Southampton (funded by UKIERI). I consider myself highly honoured to be able to work with such an eminent group of people. Since starting my position in May this year, I’ve had fantastic exposure to an elite group of people working on climate change and many other diverse fields, and as part of the project I get to exchange knowledge through visiting the UK. 26th July was the day of my first trip abroad. Of course, being my first international trip, it helped in adding to the excitement! On my journey I was accompanied by the Indian project coordinator, Dr. Niladri Gupta. He’s an excellent guide and knows so many facts about so many places! Before visiting a foreign land, I was a bit apprehensive for a few reasons: I was conscious of the accent difference between the two countries; I was wondering whether they would be welcoming enough; whether they would understand me; whether I would be able to understand them; would they be patient listeners. These fears dissolved instantly when I visited the University of Southampton and met the new people.

Ellie gave me a warm welcome at the University and Niladri showed me around the University campus. I was awestruck to see the huge library and all its facilities. Almost each and every leading journal is accessible; which is a big constraint in most of the R&D institutes in India. This is really helpful for the students and all the researchers. I have realised that life in UK is highly technical; yet very simple. Back in India, life still is more complex, even with tremendous manpower. I’m not saying that India is lacking in opportunities; India is full of doors waiting to be opened with various directions waiting to be explored. I feel it’s the attitude of certain individuals which need to be changed. The work culture in UK is very different – time is not a factor for them; they are dedicated to work. I respect their work culture. I feel sometimes it becomes a bit difficult here to achieve such a productive work ethic.

It was pleasantly warm when I visited the UK which made a nice break from the stifling humidity of Assam where it's currently monsoon season. Outside the Geography building, University of Southampton.

It was pleasantly warm when I visited the UK which made a nice break from the stifling humidity of Assam where it’s currently monsoon season. Outside the Geography building, University of Southampton.

Anyway, the UK research team provided an enthusiastic welcome and a thoroughly engaging environment for me to share their knowledge and experience. During our meetings we discussed climate change issues and how we can identify potential solutions to mitigate its impact on tea production and assist the transition of the tea gardens to adopt climate-smart agriculture. It was a highly productive two weeks and I learnt a great deal. Apart from this project, other prospects of future work were also discussed. It’s superb to see how minds work and come up with such brilliant ideas. How these ideas could be executed and transformed to reality is just a few steps away. After all, small steps lead to big milestones!

Visiting a tea shop in Winchester. They were selling 2nd flush Harmutty tea from Assam

Visiting a tea shop in Winchester. They were selling 2nd flush Harmutty tea from Assam

Besides the enlightenment of knowledge, I saw some English countryside as well as historic and beautiful places during my stay; Winchester, wild horses in New Forest, the Red Arrows on the Isle of Wight, cruise liners at Southampton docks, and many sites around the historic city of Southampton and some of London during the weekends. Even when we visited these places the subject of tea and climate still managed to creep in; we stopped in a Whittard tea shop in Winchester and interacted with the shop owner about her views on the tea trade; we reflected upon the warm weather the UK was currently experiencing and the science behind why this might be; we discussed about the newly developed English tea estate at Tregothnan in Cornwall. This was all impromptu relative to the situation and quite fun!

Me with the two project PIs next to the beautiful River Itchen in Winchester

Me with the two project PIs next to the beautiful River Itchen (a chalk stream) in Winchester

Exchange programs such as UKIERI provide much essential opportunities to enhance and broaden the thinking, understanding and seeing the world with different perspectives. This two-week trip has been a life-changing experience for me. Thanks a lot to Ellie, John, Jenny, Andy, Emma, Pete and Niladri for showing me around this intoxicatingly beautiful country of the United Kingdom; and thank you so much for the marvellous food which my taste buds got to experience. For now, we are progressing with the research and having frequent discussions over Skype, but I cannot wait to return next year to see everyone again, meet new people, carry on with our excellent work and come up with many new ideas for how science can help my home state of Assam cope with the climate impacts of the future.

The next steps… As part of my position as a research fellow, I have the opportunity to enhance my skills through undertaking training. I have already completed an online course on An Introduction to the Science of Climate and Climate Change conducted by the University of Oxford, Met Office Hadley Centre and Natural Environment Research Council in UK. Next, I am preparing to undergo training in MATLAB which will further my skills in coding to enhance the development of models to analyse climate and tea yield data.

From the tea estates of Malawi… to those of North-East India


By Jenny Willbourn
MSc Applied GIS and Remote Sensing
2013-2014 University of Southampton

In 2008 I wanted an adventure, I ended up in the middle of nowhere, forty minutes walk from a road. I was on my gap year in Mulanje, southern Malawi where I lived on a tea plantation and taught at the local school for 8 months. Little did I know at the time that tea would shape my time in academia. Three years later I jumped at an opportunity to go back to Malawi and secured my place as Lujeri Tea Estates summer GIS consultant  – a job that ultimately lead me to the University of Southampton to study GIS and RS.

Figure 1 – A view of Mulanje tea, tropical forest and Mt Mulanje.

A view of Mulanje tea, tropical forest and Mt Mulanje.

I extended my stay in Mulanje to collect data for my dissertation which questioned to what extent people’s personal accounts can be combined with climatic change data and to what extent the datasets are looking at the same thing. I concluded that the local Mulanje people, whose lives were intricately tied to the wellbeing of the tea estates and to success of local subsistence agricultural, were certain that climate change was occurring and negatively affecting their livelihoods. However, the climatic data, in general, did not support the views of the local people and hence many of the increasing struggles they were facing were as a result of socio-economic changes, not exclusively climate.

Two years later I was invited to participate in UKIERI exchange programme for a project on climate-smarting tea in Assam, India. This was rather serendipitous as no one was aware of my tea background. I again jumped at the opportunity and assisted in the collection of GPS ground control points across several tea plantations in Assam.

Figure 2 – Assam tea and shade trees. The vines on the shade trees produce black pepper corns.

Assam tea and shade trees. The vines on the shade trees produce black pepper corns.

It was my first trip to India and needless to say it was fascinating – not only from a socio-cultural point of view, but being able to compare the tea management systems between Mulanje and Assam. The tea grown in Mulanje has a smaller leaf and plucking table (the height the bush is pruned to), it also tended to be very well maintained and very closely planted. Importantly much of it is irrigated. In contrast, the tea in Assam is slightly larger, higher and not all the tea estates have the resources to maintain the bushes so well. There is no irrigation. It is important to note, however, that the scale of production in Assam is vast compared to Mulanje. The other visible difference is that the majority of tea in Assam is grown in shade under trees to reduce the ambient temperature, but not in Mulanje. Both regions rely on low-skilled low-paid workers for plucking the tea but both are now looking at mechanisation, although in very different ways. If (or when) mechanisation takes off this will significantly alter the socio-economic relationships between tea plantations and the local people.

The climate setting is also vastly different. Tea, actually a tree not a bush, originated from the Assam region where it is now grown on the huge flat flood plain of the Brahmaputra river, whereas tea was introduced to Mulanje in the colonial period and is able to grow due to Mount Mulanje, a 3000m granite inselberg, that increases the rainfall and lowers the temperature of the local area. It is currently unclear how tea will respond to future climatic changes and how this will affect the people who rely on it.

Figure 3 – An individual tea bush. The top bright green leaves, normally two and a bud, are plucked to produce tea.

An individual tea bush. The top bright green leaves, normally two and a bud, are plucked to produce tea.

During my time in India I stayed in the Tea Research Institute of India and having also met with the Tea Research Association in Malawi in 2012, I was quite surprised to learn that there is not greater collaboration between the various tea research institutions across the world. Sadly, some of these institutions do not have the funding and resources they need, which highlights the importance of cross-country/cross-institutional research such as the UKIERI project.

I also needed to tie in my time in Assam with my MSc research project. Aware of the sensitivity of tea to climate and keen to keep my project quantitative I was drawn towards to the emerging concept of physical water productivity – the amount of yield produced per unit of water consumed. In the context of a changing climate, this concept allows us to assess:

  • Where tea is grown with the least water consumption;
  • What the management practises in high water productivity areas are;
  • What locations have scope for improvements;
  • What locations are most at risk in the future.

This is particularly important as water resources are likely to be under increasing strain as the global temperature rises, precipitation patterns and quantities change, and the world population continues to expand therefore increasing demand.

Based on the work of Zwart et al, 2010 I utilised and adapted the WATPRO model which negates the need for a vast number of agro-climatic variables normally needed for water productivity modelling and replaces them with inputs available from satellite remote sensing data. The aim was to create an average water productivity baseline from which changes can be measured in the future in Mulanje and Assam.

Figure 4 – Mulanje tea estates estimated water productivity baseline 2002-2012.

Mulanje tea estates estimated water productivity (WP) baseline 2002-2012.

I am currently in the stage of processing the results and it is clear that the model has produced sensible results for Mulanje, although it has most likely a slight underestimation. It is also clear that the management of tea in Assam (the use of shade trees in particular) has significantly reduced the viability of the model in Assam. Although there is not yet full validation data for model work such as this, such models are likely to play an increasingly important role in agri-management especially in locations where money, time, knowledge and facilities limit what is known about the tea crop. In the long-term this increases the potential for precision agricultural to ultimately produce higher yields with less inputs.

I’m not sure where my next adventure will take me, but the betting is definitely on somewhere that grows tea!