Builders’ Journeys: Sue Ann and the Tea Garden Cafe

Welcome to another edition of Builders’ Journeys, where Adult FANS of LEGO present a set that was, in some way, pivotal in their development as a builder.

Today, we hear from Sue Ann Barber. Sue Ann has been around the LEGO Fan community for many years, and is one of the founders of MUGs – the Melbourne LEGO Users Group. I first met Sue Ann in January 2008, when I attended the public expo at Brickvention with my family. Her passion for the hobby was apparent, and she introduced me to the concept of being an Adult Fan of LEGO, and the concept of LEGO User Groups. As such, she is one of the people I credit with bringing me out of my Dark Ages.

Sue Ann is going to tell us about a set, released in 1974, that inspired her earliest attempts to create a MOC (My Own Creation).

Tea Garden Cafe

Even though I’m the youngest in my family by 5 years, my brother and I received our first LEGO sets around the same time in the mid-1970s. He was at the age where a lot of children start to lose interest in LEGO and I was the age where a lot fo children start to become interested in LEGO. When he started to lose interest, all of the LEGO became mine to play with and enjoy until it was handed on the younger kids of our neighbours.

Of course, by today’s standards, our LEGO stash was not huge. It lived in a lavender sack that had belonged to my father and would probably barely have filled a 40 litre plastic tub. Sets were smaller in those days and our largest set probably had no more than 230 parts.

Even though the sets were small, I have fond memories of building and rebuilding them and using the parts to create other things. We had a Fire House (set #357), a Shell Petrol Station (set #690), a London Bus (set #384) and numerous vehicles. In the mix was one of the lower numbered Basic Sets – possibly #4 but I have no clear recollection of the details other than it wasn’t the smallest and was around the middle of the ones available.

My favourite, and most treasured set, however, was set #361 Tea Garden Cafe with Baker’s Van. It had yellow walls and a blue roof and came with a delivery van and a fence with gates that opened. There was a TV aerial, shuttered windows and a red and white striped awning. They even included a small garden, a carport and a path to the front gate. In the pre-minifig era of LEGO sets, this represented perfection in the eyes of a small child. It still does in the eyes of this much older adult. Without realising, I think I’ve been judging all houses and buildings since then against the standard I encountered when I first built the Tea Garden Cafe. I expect there to be a driveway, a carport, a garden and a fence as a bare minimum. When a set of a building or house hasn’t included these things, I can’t help but be disappointed.

The cover of the instructions, demonstrating the hero model, as well as alrternate builds for the Tea Garden Cafe

The nostalgic love I feel for this set does not end at admiring its design perfection, however, as it’s the first larger set I received and the first time I tried to use the bricks to create something new. With all of those yellow pieces and the TV series Thunderbirds being popular, it was only natural that I would attempt to create the yellow underwater craft know as Thunderbird 4. It did not go well.

Warren Elsmore’s model of Thunderbird 4

It was my first attempt at building something of my own. I had no idea about design, the capabilities of the bricks or even scale. All I had to use were the 1x bricks and arches found in the Tea Garden Cafe. I made it too big and ran out of parts. I tried again, making it smaller but there were no yellow roof pieces (slopes), no SNOT bricks for sideways building and definitely no curved bricks. It was very boxy and unfinished and I realised there was no way I could ever create the iconic shape with the parts available. I gave up and never did create Thunderbird 4 in LEGO. Even now, over 45 years later, it still sits in the back of my mind as something I should really think about doing.

But the story doesn’t end there!

Twelve years ago, I was on a holiday in the UK and was fortunate to be able to attend the infamous Brickish AGM in Sheffield. As I entered the second room I saw the most glorious model of Thunderbird 4 as built by Warren Elsmore. I wept tears of joy knowing that LEGO had finally produced the parts which enabled a LEGO Fan to create the very thing I set out to build in 1975. Since then I have seen many renditions of Thunderbird 4 at all sorts of different scales and it’s even been featured in at least 3 different LEGO Ideas submissions. It’s a popular model to create. Will I ever create my own? I don’t know. For now, I have purchased a replacement copy of the Tea Garden Cafe set and that makes me very happy.

Thanks Sue Ann. And thanks for taking the time to talk to me at Brickvention all those years ago.

Never underestimate the value of chatting to a proto-AFOL at an event- who knows where it will lead!

Would you like to contribute to our Builders’ Journeys column? I believe everyone has a set from their past that is significant for some reason or another, whether it was their first, a set you built with your grand parents, a set you built with your own kids. If you can write a paragraph or two, explaining why that set is special to you, why not send them in. If you do not have photos of it, do not worry: we can probably find one or two to convey what it was about. Drop us an email at, and until next time…

Play Well!

Play Well!

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