W H Auden would bring his students for tea, and sometimes he would be found sitting on his own, wearing a sports jacket, smoking a Benson & Hedges. According to the Guardian newspaper, he could also sometimes be found sitting in his slippers, a scene that reminded one observer of “a huge, craggy-faced Socrates among the tidy women shoppers.” Graham Greene was fond of its tea as was C S Lewis but Alan Bennett said he didn’t care for the place. It does, of course, gain a mention in Brideshead Revisited.
The Cadena Café was an Oxford institution, rarely forgotten but barely recorded. Within the great timeline that is Oxford, it was short-lived, opening in the early 1900s at 45-46 Cornmarket, and known as Lloyds Oriental Cafe. (Lloyds’ had been established in 1894.) By 1911 the name had been changed to Cadena, the restaurant later redecorated, and an advertisement from 1914 claimed that dinners, hot and cold luncheons, and afternoon teas were “daintily served with dispatch”. Coffee was roasted hourly. By 1936, the hours were from 9am to 9pm.
In the 1930s (if not earlier) the Cadena was on a list of approved establishments that students from Oxford University could visit.
The Cadena expanded in size over the years with the opening of a separate cafe but closed and the building demolished in 1970. Despite this relatively short life, it was unmissable, not because of some grand entrance or fancy awning but because the deep rich aroma of roasted coffee beans was able to gently waft along the length of Cornmarket, stronger even than the fumes of the buses that crawled nose-to-tail, end-to-end.
Everyone in Oxford recognised the smell of the Cadena; it defined Cornmarket, it was famous and drew people from around the world to its entrance. In they would walk, past the bakery and up the stairs to the first floor and the Oak Room, which had space for over 200 people. They might have lunch, would you care for the Dover sole madam? Or perhaps it would be tea, all served on the Cadena’s own crockery. It would be a waitress who asking the question, dressed primly in black with white pinafores. Back in the late 40s and into the 50s, the maitre’d was Rudolph – he was a Jewish refugee who had escaped from Germany.
Bread, cakes, chocolates and pastries for the shop and restaurant were baked on the top floor for many years until the bakery moved to Red Lion Square behind the New Theatre, and then in the 1960s, to Osney. Customers could also order cakes for special occasions such as weddings and birthdays.
They had their own specialities like the Cadena crispies, the size of a Victoria sponge but made from layers of flaky pastry, jam, cream and topped with almonds. Another favourite was lardy cakes, a speciality of southern England. Inevitably their cream cakes were a delight, as well as the cream-filled doughnuts with a chocolate topping. At Easter they would bake hot cross buns.
The buns were baked the day before Maundy Thursday, and at the height of popularity they would produce 90,000 made from 4cwt of eggs, two tons of flour, 12cwt of currants, 8cwt of fat, 8cwt of sugar, 2cwt of peel, 2cwt of yeast, 1cwt of milk powder, 1cwt of salt, and 30lb of bun spice.
When it first opened – and for several decades thereafter – a trio would play on low stage. David Liff and his Small Orchestra later became a permanent fixture. For many years, the tables and chairs were bamboo and rattan, which helped create the air of a place that was exotic and somewhere far away. Perhaps some civil servant who was sitting in the colonial Tropics, might remember tea taken on the Cornmarket in his undergraduate days, while reading the stories of Somerset Maugham. Tables for four were laid with a white tablecloth, while tables for two remained uncovered.
It was the place where male undergraduates would invite female undergraduates to tea. In The Times obituary of Francis Rawes (who became a headmaster) it was noted that he ‘gained a Havelock Exhibition to read modern languages at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. It was here that he met a fellow student, Joyce Hundley, in the Taylorian Library one day and invited her to tea at the Cadena in Cornmarket, an event that led to 63 years of marriage. ‘Brandy snaps were a favourite,’ records a pre-Second World War history of Keble College, ‘and I can remember eating standards such as Knickerbocker Glory.’
Was it part of a chain? Yes it was, you might be surprised to learn. Many English cities had their own Cadena and the company was founded in the 1890s. By the time the chain closed there were over fifty but in the early days they could be found only in London, Bristol, Tunbridge Wells, Richmond and Bournemouth.
Such grand but faded cafes no longer exist outside of hotels and even those are being lost. Now everyone has the choice of Starbucks and Costa, Nero and now McDonalds. Blackwells has its own café on Broad Street but this is small and not the great melting pot of class and education. Cheap and cheerful places likes Hunts in the Covered Market have long gone. Browns, I am sad to say, is not what it used to be.
In her book, Memories of Bygone Oxford Shops, Hazel Bleay writes: ‘The Cadena was a wonderful place to take afternoon tea with cream cakes, complete with pinafored waitress service. It was also noted for the amazing aroma of coffee which would find its way on to the street.’
Who would disagree that Cornmarket is now a drearier place since the Cadena closed in 1970. Like many ‘high streets’ it has become a row of national chains rather than independent shops that reflect the nature of the city.
In 1970, the lease on the building, owned by Tesco, was sold to a company called Gordon Thoday Ltd. They pulled the old building down and built a new store that initially was run as a fabric shop. This only continued the destruction of the medieval frontage that lined Cornmarket. (One of the many great losses that Oxford has endured.) At the same time, the bakery factory in Osney was sold to Rank Hovis McDougall.
After the old building was demolished, archaeological work was undertaken, and remains of late Saxon occupation were found. This also led to research being done to understand the history of the site. It was found that it had once belonged to Eynsham Abbey, and from about the 13th century onwards was split into four tenements that functioned as shops.
After the fabric shop closed, the lease was taken over by HMV Records, and since 2016 the site has been occupied by Leon, a fast food store.
The author is a writer and photographer. All his work is available currently for a free download exclusively on Apple Books. One example is here and it will lead to the other e-books that are available: Hong Kong Handover 1997.