A Guide to the ultimate english afternoon tea experience

tea london

Heading to London for a trip? Then you’re no doubt putting together your list of fun and interesting things to do whilst you’re here. London has some incredible sights and attractions to offer its visitors, from world-class museums to iconic monuments, there’s something for everyone.

Though one of the best ways to experience a place in all its cultural glory is to sample some of the local cuisine. From a traditional Sunday roast to a hangover-curing full English breakfast, the capital has comfort food in abundance. However, if you’re looking for something a little more high class, then a classic English afternoon tea could be just the ticket. Here’s a guide full of everything you need to know, about this special English institution.

A Brief Look at the UK’s Love Of Tea

Since the 18th century, the United Kingdom has been one of the world’s highest tea drinkers, with an average annual tea supply of 1.9 kg per person, so the stereotype is fairly accurate! The British Empire was influential in spreading tea from China to India, as British benefits influenced tea production there. Tea, which was mostly regarded as an upper-class drink in mainland Europe, became a firm favourite and daily ritual with people of all classes in Britain from the 18th century and beyond. It is now a key part of British culture.

How do you take yours? There are loads of different ways to enjoy tea, and there are so many popular ways to ‘take’ it in both the UK and Ireland, that it’s become tough to pinpoint the most common. While it is usually served with milk, a lot of tea drinkers prefer it black or with lemon. Some people like to add one or two sugars (or more!) to their tea, a popular combination with milk known as builder’s tea. Teamed with sandwiches, biscuits or cake, tea has become a mini dining occasion in its own right.

The rise in status of tea between the 17th and 19th centuries had a huge social, political, and economic impact on the UK. It defined respectability and domestic rituals, supported the rise of the British Empire, and aided the rise and success of the Industrial Revolution by supplying both the capital for factories and fuel for labourers. It also reveals the power of globalization and expansionism to transform a country and shape it into modern society we know today. Not bad for a humble drink!

What is the history of afternoon tea?

Let’s start with a quick look at where this ritual derived from.

Tea consumption in the UK increased radically in the early 19th century. Also around this time, Anna – the 7th Duchess of Bedford – is said to have grumbled about “having that sinking feeling” during the late afternoon. During this period, it wasn’t uncommon for people to only have two meals a day – breakfast first thing in the morning, and then nothing again until dinner, at roughly 8 o’clock in the evening. Though the Duchess had the perfect solution; a pot of tea and a light snack consisting of cakes and/or biscuits, which she enjoyed privately in her bedroom in the late afternoon.

She enjoyed the new ritual so much that she began inviting her friends to join her in communal rooms, and she’d send cards to her friends, requesting their attendance for ‘tea and a walk through the fields’. Soon this experience cottoned on into other households with other key social women in society, and it became so respectable that it was moved into the ‘drawing room’ of lavish households. Before long, people of high society across the country were indulging in the tradition.

However, it was really only when Queen Victoria engaged in the afternoon tea ritual that it became a formal occasion on a larger, wider scale, known as ‘tea receptions’. These receptions could have as many as two hundred guests at a time, with an open invitation to visit the household between 4pm and 7pm, during which they could come and go as they pleased. This was ultimately the birth of the afternoon tea experience we know and love today.

What’s on the menu?

Now to the best bit… what you’ll actually be enjoying!

Afternoon tea is a meal that consists of sandwiches also known as fingers (due to the way they’re cut – into thin slices), traditional scones with clotted cream and jam (whether you put the jam or the cream on first reveals a lot about where you are from in the UK!), sweet pastries and cakes. It’s worth a note that scones were not a regular feature of early afternoon tea –they were only introduced in the twentieth century.

There is no right and wrong for what can go on a traditional afternoon tea menu. In fact, there are lots of weird and wonderful themed afternoon teas popping up over the country, from Paddington afternoon tea, to options further afield. However, it usually consists of sandwiches and a variety of sweet items.

What a typical menu looks like:

A mix of fresh finger sandwiches

Scones with clotted cream and preserves

A selection of home-made cakes and pastries

A pot of tea

Many hotels, such as the Chilworth London Paddington, also offer set menus that include a glass of bubbles in addition to the traditional afternoon tea, for an extra fee, which is very popular if you’re looking to celebrate!

In terms of tea, they can vary from a few to a few hundred, including some rare and obscure offerings. The one you’re pretty much guaranteed to find on the menu is English breakfast tea – a traditional blend of teas originating from Assam, Ceylon, and Kenya. It is one of the most popular blended teas, common in British tea culture.

The custom of taking afternoon tea with bread or pastry was also common in some continental European areas.

Where can I enjoy an afternoon tea?

Perhaps more than anywhere else in the UK and Ireland, London is famous for its afternoon tea option. No visit to the Capital is complete without indulging in the Great British tradition. With hundreds of venues to choose from ranging from luxury 5-star hotels, restaurants Paddington London, or cute and quirky tearooms, there’s something for every taste and budget.