Afternoon Tea Guide

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The Ritz

One of my favourite things to do in London is to go for afternoon tea, a delicious meal consisting of sandwiches, scones and pastries. It is often considered to be one of the quintessential British experiences. Many cafes and tea shops offer this traditional service, but for the ultimate treat I would recommend enjoying it in the glamour and sumptuous surroundings of a luxury hotels.

Duchess of Bedford 2

Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford

It is believed that the tradition of afternoon tea was started in the early 1840s by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford. At that time it was fashionable for people to eat their dinner late in the evening. The Duchess, who complained of having a “sinking feeling” in the late afternoon, would often have light snack consisting of tea, bread and butter to ward off the hunger pangs. She started to invite friends to join her and soon this custom was adopted by middle and upper class households. Today the tradition continues, often as a treat to celebrate a special occasion. 

Bettys - Lady Betty Afternoon Tea


What Type of Tea?

Afternoon Tea consists of sandwiches, scones and a selection of pastries and is accompanied by a pot of tea. It is usually rather impressively served on a three tier cake stand. Sometimes overseas visitors refer to afternoon tea as High Tea. However in Britian High Tea historically meant a different type of meal, which was usually eaten by the working classes and consisted of savoury food. In Britian afternoon tea used to be known as Low Tea, as traditonally it was served on low tables to guests seated in low chairs.

Royal Tea is afternoon tea served with a glass of champagne.

Cream Tea consists of scones, cream and preserve and is accompanied by a pot of tea.

What's on the Afternoon Tea Menu?

 Sanderson Hotel

 Sanderson Hotel 

Savoury Food is traditionally eaten first and usually consists of finger sandwiches. These are so called because they are designed to be eaten with one's hands, without the need for a knife and folk. The selection may included cucumber, egg and cress, ham and/or smoked salmon but contemporary menus offer a much wider choice of sandwich fillings and maybe served on different types of bread such as artisan bread, bread rolls or wraps. Some venues may also serve quiche or cheese scones as part of the savoury course.

The Landmark London

The Landmark London

Scones are usually eaten as the second course. Traditonally they are served warm. If all the food is bought to you at the same time the scones maybe wrapped in a napkin to keep them warm until you are ready to eat them. Alternatively many establishments will wait until you have finished eating your sandwiches before serving you with the scones.

St Pancras Renaissance Hotel

St Pancras Renaissance Hotel 

Accompaniments:  The scones are traditonally served with cream and preserve. Usually it is clotted cream but some establishments may serve fresh cream instead. The cream should be served at a correct temperature to ensure that it's easily to spread over the scones but at the same time not be too runny. Preserves traditonally have included strawberry or raspberry jam but also popular is apricot jam and some venues serve lemon curd or even Nutella.

Cream or Jam First? Well as you can see from my photos I'm Jam First person.The Devon method is to put the cream on first and the Cornish way is jam first. This hotly debated question shows no sign of being resolved anytime soon, so while we wait please pass me another scone!

St James Hotel

 It's All in the Game Afternoon Tea at St James's Hotel and Club

Pastries are the finale to the meal and usually consist of a selections of home made minature size cakes, which are beautifully crafted and almost too good to eat. Many luxury hotels offer light hearted, themed afternoon teas alongside their traditional ones, which are well worth looking out for. Occassionally, in tea shops, you maybe offered a regular sized portion of cake of your choice instead of a cake selection.

 Audleys Wood Hotel

Audleys Wood Hotel

Tea: Afternoon tea is usually accompanied with a pot of tea. Many establishments offer a range of teas from the most popular flavours to the unusual and the obscure. Many of the luxury hotels have a seperate tea menu which includes a brief description of the different teas available, and some even have their own specially blended teas which are unique to them. The teas are usually loose leaf (not a tea bag) and a tea strainer will be required when a cup of tea is being poured. Waiting staff will usually pour your tea out . Tea maybe drunk with milk or lemon and/ or sugar.

Practical Tips

As as regular afternoon tea-er and author of the London Scone Review blog, here are a few practical tips that I hope you may find useful.

Afternoon tea is extremely popular so you will usually need to book ahead to ensure availability. Weekends are particularly popular and may requiring booking weeks, or even a couple of months, in advance to ensure your preferred day. If you can, consider booking for a weekday as there is usually much more flexability.

Consider subscribing to which will keep you up to date with regular offers and information about new themed afternoon teas. 

Most hotels offer an online reservation service which is the easiest way to book. However to ensure any special needs or dietary requirements are catered for, check  with the venue to ensure they can accomodate your request.

May hotels offer a number of sittings per day, for example the Ritz has five. Consider booking the final slot of the day so you can sample both the hotel's daytime and evening ambience. For example at the Langham Hotel, at 7pm Champagne Charlie appears offering a glass of champagne to mark the changeover of the day into evening.

If you are looking for a relaxing or leisurely catch up with friends or family check with the venue about the length of time you can have the table for.

Most hotels have a dress code and with some of them gentlemen are required to wear a tie and jacket.

Take time to enjoy the venue's communal areas and enjoy its history, architecture and decor. Don't forget to include a visit to the toilets, as they usually beautifully decorated too.

Afternoon Tea is a meal in itself and can be very filling. Attentive hotel staff will often offer to replenish both food and drink, without you having to request it, so there is usually much more food available than you can possibly eat. Some hotels provide a take away service were they will pack up any remaining food for you to take home.

If you enjoyed this blog and would like to discover some great Cake Places check out my London Cake Walk.

The author of this blog is a qualified City of London and City of Westminster Tour Guide who leads guided walks combining world famous landmarks with hidden treasures often missed by the crowds.