Afternoon tea, the most quintessential of English customs is, perhaps surprisingly, a relatively new tradition. Whilst the custom of drinking tea dates back to the third millennium BC in China and was popularised in England during the 1660s, it was not until the mid 19th century that the concept of ‘afternoon tea’ was first introduced.
The lady we have to thank is Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford and close friend of Queen Victoria. In the mid 1800s, since the evening meal in her household was not served until 8pm, the Duchess would become hungry in the afternoon gap between lunch and dinner. She would ask for a tray of tea, bread and butter (some time earlier, the Earl of Sandwich had had the idea of putting a filling between two slices of bread) and cake to be brought to her rooms during the late afternoon. This became a habit and she began inviting friends to join her.
This pause for tea became a fashionable social event. During the 1880’s upper-class and society women would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their afternoon tea which was usually served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock.
‘Tea rooms’ were all the rage in the late 19th century, quickly becoming THE place for meeting friends and sharing gossip. They were also considered one of the few respectable places for women to meet without a chaperone, so the out-of-home Afternoon Tea took off like a social network. At some stage music was added to the occasion, and fashionable young people attended afternoon ‘tea dances’ in the most stylish of hotels, a practice which continued until the Second World War.
To experience the best of the afternoon tea tradition, indulge yourself with a trip to one of London’s finest hotels or visit a quaint tearoom in the West Country. The Devonshire Cream Tea is famous worldwide and consists of scones, strawberry jam and the vital ingredient, Devon clotted cream, as well as cups of tea served in china teacups. Many of the other counties in England’s west country also claim the best cream teas: Dorset, Cornwall and Somerset.
There are a wide selection of hotels in London offering the quintessential afternoon tea experience . Hotels offering traditional afternoon tea include Claridges, the Dorchester, the Ritz and the Savoy, as well as Harrods and Fortnum and Mason.