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Afternoon Tea at the Ivy

Afternoon Tea in England: Full Guide to an Absolutely English Experience

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High on our Bucket List of English Experiences, and a personal favorite of mine, afternoon tea is the perfect ceremonious way to indulge in British culture.

Despite England not typically producing tea, the love of this warm drink is heavily ingrained in the society, with an estimated 94% of the population having at least one cup of tea a day. It is no surprise that the English have developed a regal custom around this beloved beverage. Though, as you’ll see, afternoon tea is so much more than hot water in a fancy glass.

Even if you only have a few days in the country, we highly recommend including afternoon tea on your schedule. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know, from where to book to what to expect. Sit back, relax, and enjoy a cuppa.

When in England, do as the English and drink tea
Afternoon Tea in England Pinterest Pin

The practice started in the early 19th century with Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford and lady in waiting to Queen Victoria. The duchess often found she was hungry around 4 pm but dinner was much later in the evening. She began requesting tea with a light snack to hold her over. This soon became a social event as she invited friends to join her.

Queen Victoria loved this new tradition and popularized it among her wealthy circles. Her tea sessions were known to take place in the palace gardens. Sponge cake, chocolate eclairs and lady fingers were among her favorite accompaniments.

What is Afternoon Tea?

Today, afternoon tea is still a luxurious experience. However, unlike the Victorian era, it is a treat rather than a daily ritual. In England, it is quite common to see ladies celebrating a special occasion, like a birthday, an engagement, or a baby shower with afternoon tea.

A full afternoon tea typically includes the following per person:

  • Three to four finger sandwiches
  • Two scones with jam and clotted cream (or double cream)
  • Three to five desserts
  • Pot of tea or coffee

Elegantly displayed on a three-tiered tea stand, the meal includes sandwiches on the bottom, scones in the middle, and desserts on the top tier.

Tea selections range per venue, but generally there is English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Jasmine, Darjeeling, Assam, green tea, and an herbal tea option.

It is also worth noting that the British typically add milk to their black tea so a small dish of creamer will usually accompany the meal.

Variations of Afternoon Tea

On some menus you’ll find different variations of afternoon tea.

  • Champagne tea – Adds a glass of champagne to the standard full afternoon tea
  • Cream tea – Only includes scones with jam and clotted cream alongside the tea
  • Gentlemen’s tea – Consists of items a little heartier such as pork pies, scotch eggs, and meat filled sandwiches

Some cities and venues have their own variations. For example, in Bath, you are likely to receive Bath buns instead of scones. In Devon, Devonshire split buns are common.

Two-tiered tea stand with scones and toppings for afternoon tea
Afternoon Tea at The Ivy in Cambridge

Is High Tea the Same as Afternoon Tea?

In the UK, high tea and afternoon tea are vastly different. Afternoon tea originated with the wealthy. It refers to a light meal with sweets, and tea served in a fine china cup.

High tea originated with the working class. It is a savory meal eaten in the early evening. To Americans, it is dinner with a mug of tea and served between 5 pm and 7 pm. Therefore, you may hear the English refer to dinner as “tea.” 

Outside of the UK, many countries use the term high tea to describe the luxurious treat this guide refers to. Marketed to tourists, you may find advertisements promoting “high-tea in London” in which they are referring to afternoon tea.

What Time is Afternoon Tea?

Afternoon tea sticks with the traditional time of 4 pm. However, most venues will serve it between 2 pm and 4:30 pm.

Popular venues fill reservations quickly. To avoid disappointment, reserve a table in advance.

What Types of Sandwiches are Served?

Generally, there is a set menu. Sandwiches are normally small, thin, and crustless. Though there are lots of different sandwich fillers, typical fillers on an English menu include:

  • Cucumber and dill
  • Egg and watercress
  • Smoked salmon
  • Chutney and cheese
  • Coronation chicken
Afternoon tea three tiered plate
Afternoon Tea at One Warwick Park in Royal Tunbridge Wells

What Types of Desserts are Served?

The short answer is all kinds. The fancier the venue, the fancier and more interesting the desserts. Tarts with fresh fruit are common, and so are various mini cakes of chocolate, sponge, or cheesecake. Sometimes you’ll see macaroons, custards, and trifle alongside the mini cakes.

Our afternoon tea at The Ivy in Cambridge included the most amazing tiny chocolate cakes disguised as potted plants. They really do get creative.

Where to Experience Afternoon Tea in England?

Locations all over England, from small quaint tea houses in the countryside to bustling tea shops on the high street, even lavish hotels, mansions, and castles each offer a different twist on the experience, from casual to luxurious.

For your first experience, we recommend doing it up in a luxury location. A fine dining restaurant, an elegant rose garden, or the drawing room of a stately home are ideal. Choose somewhere that the atmosphere makes you feel pampered. That is the whole point of afternoon tea!

Be Posh in London

In London, all high-end hotels with a restaurant will offer afternoon tea. The Ritz London is probably the most famous, but they can book out months in advance. Other elegant options include The May Fair, The Savoy, and The Rubens at the Palace.

In addition to hotels, several attractions in London offer an afternoon tea. Harrods, the Shard, and the Swan restaurant at Shakespeare’s Globe are popular options.

Feel Like Royalty in a Stately Home or Castle

Many palaces, manor homes, and even castles offer afternoon tea service. Some that we have personally enjoyed include Blenheim Palace‘s Orangery Restaurant in Oxford, Whatley Manor in the Cotswolds, and Thornbury Castle just north of Bristol.

How Much is Afternoon Tea?

Afternoon tea is priced per person (pp). Not surprisingly, London tends to be the most expensive with average prices ranging from £35 – £75 pp. Prices are much more reasonable outside of London.

  • Full afternoon tea – £20 to £40
  • Champagne tea – add £7 to £12 to the full afternoon tea
  • Cream teas – £7 to £15

If you want to save a little money, check Groupon UK or Living Social UK. Afternoon tea is a common item to find on discount.

What is the Proper Etiquette for Afternoon Tea?

Served on a three-tiered tea stand, start with the sandwiches on the bottom. Next, work your way up to the scones. Finally, enjoy the desserts you’ve been waiting so patiently for. Don’t forget to drink your tea throughout the meal. Asking for a refill of hot water is completely acceptable.

Despite it being quite the luxurious experience, most foods served are finger foods. You even split the scones apart with your hands rather than cutting them. Obviously, silverware is appropriate when spreading jams and cream, and eating any desserts too messy to eat with the fingers.

The proper way to add jam and cream to the scones is still under debate. Cornwall and Devon both claim to have invented cream tea, and they have opposing methods for topping the scones. Folks from Devon insist the cream comes prior to adding the jam. Ahh, but those from Cornwall strongly disagree and add the jam first, then the cream. Unless you’re in Devon or Cornwall, just go with what makes you happy.

Scone topped with clotted cream and strawberry jam
Scone topped with clotted cream and strawberry jam

Our First Afternoon Tea

Several years ago, Jeremy’s work gave him a gift certificate for an experience day. Out of a short list of options, a champagne afternoon tea at the May Fair hotel in London was the only experience available for two people.

Funny enough, as I don’t drink tea, I was not so excited about the experience. Nonetheless, it was sweet of Jeremy to share his award, and therefore I graciously accepted. We decided to make a full day of it, so we got dressed up and headed into London.

Arriving at the hotel restaurant for a 3:30 sitting, we had no idea what to expect. I think I had visualized it as having tea and biscuits (cookies) in a fancy setting. I definitely was not expecting a full meal.

My eyes just about popped out of my head when the waiter brought over a large serving tray piled high with sweets. This was not what I was expecting. It was so intimidating knowing where to start! Luckily, a table of fancy looking ladies was not far from us. We carefully watched them before even attempting to dive into our towering tea.

As it was my first time having such an assortment of decadent desserts, I remember not wanting to leave a drop. Though the meal was more filling than we expected, we ate everything. It was so delicious.

Grinning from ear to ear, we left the restaurant feeling like we truly experienced something special, not just another meal. It was this feeling which makes having afternoon tea one of my favorite English cultural traditions.

We have since had the privilege to do several afternoon teas in venues across England. We even had it for our wedding reception and then our first anniversary celebration at Whatley Manor. Whenever someone would visit, I’d take them to the Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath, so they too could enjoy this cultural tradition.

What Will Your First Afternoon Tea Experience be Like?

I’ve enjoyed sharing everything I know about afternoon tea, and why I love it so much. Where are you planning to have your first afternoon tea and what are you looking most forward to?

We’d love to hear about your experience!

If you are headed to the UK, you may be interested in some of our other guides.

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