Situated in the pulsating centre of the town, this baroque masterpiece famous for its ample atrium, the robust colonnades and the colorfoul mosaics, has dominated not only the religious life of the populations of Greenwich for centuries, but also has dutifully served as a hub of commerce and maritime exchange.
The old folks frequenting the local taverns still remember the lively and lovely hustle and bustle of the weeks preceding Christmas ,when ladies used to wear red as a standard and the young shoulders of the fishermen were pillows for barrels of rum.
The first mention of a Christmas market in the courtyard of St. Alfege church goes back to the year 1325 annus domini, when the royal borough was a little settlement of cockle pickers, most of them of foreign provenance; seasonal workers brought in by the promise of quick profits in the London shellfish exchange market.
According to a manuscript conserved in the British Library, between the inhabitants of that time, stands out, because of his stature and his erudition, a certain Pilsner Goulashic.
Pilsner was thought to be a slav, with the blue eyes tipical of germanic tribes, long blond hair collected in two braids and a highness which would have been able to overtake a pile of ten barrels of rum on top of each other.
A secret was his past, as if he had any family or how he ended up in Greenwich.... All that has been reported through the annals of history was his extraordinary talent for fishing. Between all his pastimes,after work, he used to confine himself to a reclusive life in the local library, with no other company, apart from books and mold.
Brilliant in business, he managed to get a pitch in St.Alfege Christmas Market selling one of most luxurious commodities of the time: hot cockles. During the festive season, the possession of the warm shellfish together with rum was a sign of prestige and exquisite poshness.
The sly slav deeply in love with the church guardian's daughter, the English rose Gertrude, planned to seduce her with a Christmas gift made of sweet warm cockles.
Pilsner seemed to be blessed by misfortune when, by chance, his clumsy mind on a tiring day mixed the sugar to sweeten the cockles with rum. The heat intended to warm up the clams ended up behind a barrel of spirit.
This messy alchemy produced the greatest invention of 14th century.
Angered with himself and prone to suicide, he decided to take his own life drinking the ruinous fluid.
Inexpressible the dismay, greatest the bliss ... after the first couple of glurps, a ball of fire was streaming down his throat. When the liquid hit the stomach, the sensation was of an eartquake not in the stomach itself, but in the brain. Pilsner's thoughts frozen for few instants, then a breath of spiceness and sugar moved in the opposite direction from his internal organs to exit without restrain via mouth.... Totally forgetful of the past, with his memories erased, at brain level,there was euphoria,elation,ecstasi, rapture,delight,heaven, and more, and more....
The story goes that Pilsner Goulashic found in the obscure fluid the bravery to declare his love. Gertrude and him lived happily ever after, having as many kids as the number of chestnut trees in Greenwich Park.
P.S. Being the slav a pragmatic fella, the romantic side of the story goes hand in hand with anecdotes of prosperous trade. Pilsner managed to build a steady business for himself and generations of descendants around the magical hot drink which he, unashamedly, called 'Drunken Sailor Tea'.
Too proud to admit that the pleasant discovery was due to an accident, his vivid imagination, trained during years and years spent between books, came out with the idea of a secret recipe for Drunken Sailor Tea. To any inquisitor sitting at his table in the Greenwich Tavern with an enquiry about the ingredients of the drink , He used to recall an endless list of historical facts where the tea was mentioned. If they were true,plausible or less likely be true, we leave it for the reader to judge.... We simply report few examples:
The bard Homer in his Iliad apparently states that the only thing which kept Penelope going during the long absence of her husband and king Odyssesus was a sip of Drunken Sailor Tea twice a day; the drink of the faithful.
Always in the ancient world, Plato in the Symposium wrote how Socrates was able to, clearly, conceive the idea of beauty in itself after a cup of a mysterious sweet drink; without doubt, Drunken Sailor Tea.
Coming closer to our shores, Londinium in around 60 AD was destroyed by fire and sacked by the queen of Iceni, Boudica, a passionate woman who lost his Roman lover when he developed an addiction for Drunken Sailor Tea.
During the renaissance, few references appear of a blissful chalice. The poet Petrarca in one of his sweetest sonnet wrote : 'So gentle and so pure appears to me, my lady, when she Drunken Sailor Tea doth bestow....'. Few years later, the magical Mona Lisa's smile can be easily explained: a bottle of Drunken Sailor was kept in hiding behind Leonardo's frame.
So far reaching was the popularity of the drink that we can cross the Atlantic,with a discountinous jump of few centuries, and end up on the shores of Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, where Henry David Thoreau in his beautifully written 'Walden; or, Life in the Woods' states that rich food is a sign of bestiality, but a sip of Drunken Sailor Tea is an affordable heaven.
Let's conclude with the final words of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, who during an unfortunate vacation in Greenwich to shower in the thermal water of the Thames, contracted delirium tremens. Before the raven of death arrived to knock on his door, in the evening of October, the 7th, 1849, he closed 'Eureka: A Prose Poem' with the following verses:
'Everything is tea
tea into tea,
small things into big things
and everything into the spirit of the rum'.