There is nowhere better in the world to enjoy the quintessentially English custom of afternoon tea than in London, the most vibrant and exciting capital city in the world.
London has the most amazing selection of venues where you can indulge yourself and partake of anything from the most time-honoured afternoon tea to the newest twists on tradition. Tea can be a late lunch or an early supper, in which case high tea fits the bill perfectly, with savoury items to add a bit more substance.
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You may be looking for a conventional afternoon tea of finger sandwiches – no crusts and there has to be cucumber – scones with lashings of clotted cream and fruity jam, followed by luscious cakes. Or you may fancy a more savoury repast. Perhaps you are searching for a tea designed with men in mind, with whisky as well as tea to drink, and heartier food, or you want one that will appeal to parents and children alike. Maybe you are after a variation on a theme, whether it be a chocaholics tea, a ‘no-bread’ tea, a Tea-Tox treat or a Mad Hatter’s afternoon tea. Whatever your taste, London can provide it all, and in an array of interesting and exciting locations. After all, the afternoon tea experience is not just about the food you eat and the tea you drink, but also about the space and place, and here fashion and style have had a powerful influence on afternoon tea.
You can enjoy your afternoon tea in places steeped in history, from Georgian townhouses, resplendent in modern decor, to chic and buzzy bars. From elegant drawing rooms and opulent lounges in the grandest of hotels to a tiny tea shop in north London, there is somewhere to suit everyone, every pocket and every occasion. There are places with wonderful views, others with light and bright conservatories and even one, favoured by royalty, with a terrace overlooking a glorious private garden. Whether you want to linger and chat with friends, have a business meeting in relaxed surroundings, have a glorious hen do or stag event, commemorate a birthday or anniversary, collapse after a day’s shopping or indulge in a pre-theatre high tea, the capital can provide the ideal venue.
Afternoon tea is the perfect way to mark those special dates in the calendar, including Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter, Halloween and Christmas. Then there are annual social events, such as Wimbledon week and the Chelsea Flower Show, and many of the venues in this book offer themed teas which celebrate these particular events. This guide book is here to guide you and help you make your choice.
How afternoon tea began
The town of Tavistock in Devon has staked its claim to be the birthplace of the cream tea back in the early 11th century. The Benedictine Abbey had been looted by the Vikings in 997 AD, and a century later the monks rewarded the labourers who worked to restore it with a meal of bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserve. The Devon cream tea proved so popular that the monks continued to serve it to passing travellers long after the builders had left.
Whether Anna Maria, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, partook of scones and cream is uncertain, but according to legend, it was she who was responsible for the invention of afternoon tea as an event in the 1840s. The story goes that she was so hungry in the long gap between lunch and dinner that she ordered her maid to serve tea and cakes at five o’clock to alleviate the gnawing hunger pains. It was not long before afternoon tea became de riguer in London society. As for the drink itself, high society also played their part in making it central to the ritual. It was given the royal seal of approval by Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wife of King Charles II, who brought a chest of tea with her as part of her dowry in 1662. Queen Victoria’s Prime Minister, William Gladstone, captured the very essence of tea when he wrote these words in 1865: ‘Relaxing, refreshing, stimulating or warming, there is little to compare with the comfort and delights of a steaming pot of tea.’
There is a certain magical, even mystical quality about tea, not least of all because of the amazing influence the tiny leaf exerts on everyday life. A cup of tea is the best reason in the world to stop for a break during the day. Life’s rites of passage would not be the same without tea, and the variety of leaves is such that every mood and taste can be catered for. As the world’s most popular drink, tea crosses all the boundaries of history, nation, culture and class. At some time in their lives, most people acquire a taste for tea, a habit that they rarely relinquish. The combination of a beautifully presented afternoon feast and freshly brewed leaf tea served in porcelain or bone china cups is a marriage made in heaven, and is an experience to be savoured.
‘In nothing more is the English genius for domesticity more notably declared than in the institution of this festival – almost one may call it – of afternoon tea… The mere chink of cups and saucers tunes the mind to happy repose.’ GEORGE GISSING, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft
The twenty-first century has seen afternoon tea gain an unprecedented popularity, with London the mecca for this revival. Across the capital the response has been spectacular, with venues in abundance creating wonderful and often innovative menus, serving exquisite food and drink in perfect surroundings, with the expertise of professionals ensuring you enjoy the best experience possible. Many of them have won prestigious awards from the
Tea Council, confirming their dedication to high standards. No longer the preserve of ladies on a shopping trip or families celebrating a special occasion, afternoon tea has become a favourite pastime enjoyed by anyone and everyone.
The synergy of design, fashion and food has had a wonderful impact and resulted in an exciting new genre, with afternoon teas on offer suited to every generation and to people from all walks of life. If you are a visitor to the capital, what better way could there be to experience this time honoured British tradition, and what better excuse could there be leave the hustle and bustle of everyday life behind for a few hours and indulge yourself?