It’s difficult to imagine a more elegant, quintessentially English custom than taking afternoon tea. This well-loved meal, which typically consists of finger sandwiches, scones, cakes or sweet pastries and tea, has famously been served in fine houses and hotels for over 150 years (using the best china and silverware, naturally). But did you know that afternoon tea owes its existence to an aristocratic lady who felt peckish before dinnertime?
In the early 1840s, it was fashionable for upper-class families to eat their evening meal as late as nine o’clock in order to take advantage of advances in artificial lighting. That posed a problem for Anna Maria Russell, the impressively titled seventh Duchess of Bedford. As the afternoon wore on, she’d experience a ‘sinking’ feeling as her energy levels dipped. How could the Duchess stave off hunger during the lengthy interlude between lunch and dinner?
Her solution was to request that tea, bread and butter or sandwiches (another aristocratic invention, and one for which we must thank the fourth Earl of Sandwich) and cake be brought to her rooms at Woburn Abbey, the stunning family seat in Bedfordshire, late in the afternoon. She began to invite friends to take part in this reinvigorating ritual, which was sometimes followed by a pleasant walk. Afternoon tea was born.
A Welcome Addition to the Menu at Smart Hotels
The custom was soon adopted by other female members of elite society. (Clearly, the Duchess of Bedford wasn’t the only noblewoman whose stomach rumbled around four or five o’clock!) Afternoon tea became more elaborate: gatherings increased in size, and the chic meal moved from boudoirs to drawing rooms and gardens. While this ritual wasn’t as formal as the evening meal – participants sat on cushioned chairs around a low table – it was the norm for gloves and hats to be worn. ‘Five O’Clock Tea’ by the late 19th-century painter David Comba Adamson captures the mood.
For the next stage in the history of afternoon tea, we must turn our attention to London’s grand hotels. The Duchess of Bedford’s creation has been on the menu at The Langham in Marylebone since 1865. As the Evening Standard newspaper notes, the elegant venue was ‘almost certainly the first establishment in the country to serve afternoon tea to the paying public’. The Langham remains an unmissable destination for fans of this stylish repast.
Iconic Venues for Traditional Afternoon Teas
‘The best way to spend the tiresome hours between lunch and cocktails’ – that’s how high-society magazine Tatler playfully describes taking afternoon tea. The activity is as popular as ever among members of the smart set and those who emulate them. If you’re keen to indulge your taste buds, you’ll be pleased to hear that you can enjoy afternoon tea at a host of iconic London venues in addition to The Langham, including:
- The Ritz – the hotel’s exquisite offering, complete with Ritz Royal Blend Tea, is served in the glass-ceilinged Palm Court and accompanied by live piano music.
- The Savoy – for a luxurious afternoon tea served with panoramic river views, head to the hotel’s glamorous Thames Foyer.
- The Landmark London – the palm trees are almost as enchanting as the expertly crafted cakes.
- Fortnum & Mason – at the upmarket department store, diners enjoy delicate delights in the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon. It was opened by the Queen in 2012 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne.
- The Swan – the breathtaking reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, built by the actor and director Sam Wanamaker, has its own restaurant with delightful afternoon teas inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream!
Alternatively, walk in the Duchess of Bedford’s footsteps at the Woburn estate, where her contribution to English society is celebrated with an afternoon tea named in her honour.
Has afternoon tea changed a great deal since the 1840s? It’s a more substantial meal today – scones weren’t part of the Duchess’ four o’clock treat. In fact, it’s sometimes viewed as an alternative to lunch or dinner. What’s more, afternoon tea is now in such high demand at London’s top venues that it’s not uncommon for the meal to be served throughout the day!
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