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When in England, do as the English and drink tea
High on our Bucket List of English Experiences, 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. An estimated 94% of the population has at least one cup of tea a day. It is no surprise that the English have developed a regal custom around this beloved beverage.
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, and to what to expect. Sit back, relax and enjoy a cuppa.
How did afternoon tea start?
Originally, the practice started in the 17th 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. It is quite common to see ladies celebrating a special occasion, like a birthday, an engagement or a baby shower.
A full afternoon tea typically includes the following per person:
- Three to four finger sandwiches
- Two scones with jam and clotted cream
- Three to five desserts
- Pot of tea or coffee
A three-tiered tea stand elegantly displays the meal with the sandwiches on the bottom, scones in the middle and desserts on the top.
Tea selections range per venue, but generally you will find 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 creamer dish of milk will usually accompany the meal.
- 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. In Bath for example, you are likely to receive Bath buns instead of scones. In Devon, Devonshire split buns are common.
Is high tea the same as afternoon tea?
In the UK, high tea and afternoon tea are very 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 basically 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. To market 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?
There is generally a set menu. Sandwiches are normally small, thin and crust-less. Sandwich fillers on the menu may include:
- Cucumber and dill
- Egg and watercress
- Smoked salmon
- Chutney and cheese
- Coronation chicken
What types of desserts are served?
The short answer is all kinds. The fancier the venue, the fancier and more interesting the desserts. There are often tarts with fresh fruit, and various mini cakes of chocolate, sponge or cheesecake. Macaroons, custards, and trifle are other desserts often served.
On our latest trip to The Ivy in Cambridge, dessert included the most amazing tiny chocolate cakes disguised as potted plants. They really do get creative.
Where to experience afternoon tea?
Locations all over the UK offer various versions of the cultural ceremony. From small quaint tea houses in the countryside, to bustling tea shops on the high street, to luxurious hotels, mansions and even castles.
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 locations. Choose somewhere that the atmosphere makes you feel pampered.
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 a few popular options.
Feel like royalty in a stately home or castle
How much is afternoon tea?
Afternoon tea is priced per person (pp). Not surprisingly, London tends to be the most expensive. Average prices in London range from £35 – £70 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
What is the proper etiquette for afternoon tea?
Served on a three-tiered tea stand, start with the sandwiches on the bottom. Work your way up to the scones. Finally enjoy the desserts. Drinking tea throughout the meal.
Despite it being quite the luxurious experience, most foods served are finger foods. Including splitting 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 have opposing methods for topping the scones. Devon insist the cream comes prior to adding the jam. Cornwall disagrees and adds the jam then the cream. In other words, go with what makes you happy.
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.
I was not excited about the experience as I do not drink tea, or any hot drinks. However; it was sweet of Jeremy to share his award so I graciously accepted. We decided to make a day of it; dressed up and headed into London for the day.
We arrived at the hotel for a 3:30 sitting. At the time, I did not know what to expect. I visualized it as fancy tea and biscuits (cookies), not a full meal.
I was shocked when the waiter brought over a large serving tray piled high with sweets. It was so intimidating knowing what to eat first. Luckily, there was a table of ladies not far from us who we watched before starting.
It was more filling than we expected. Despite this, we ate everything as it was so delicious. It was my first time having such an assortment of decadent desserts and I remember not wanting to leave a drop.
It was the feeling this experience left me with that has made afternoon tea one of my favorite English cultural experiences.
We have since had the privilege to do several afternoon teas in venues across England. We even had it for our wedding reception and first anniversary at Whatley Manor. I used to love taking visiting friends into Bath to have tea at the Royal Crescent Hotel to share this cultural tradition.
Let us know what you think
We hope you enjoy the experience of afternoon tea as much as we do. Drop us a line in the comments where you are planning to have (or have had) your first afternoon tea.
What are you looking most forward to, or what did you enjoy the most?
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