We have Anna Russell a past Duchess of Bedford to thank for her inspiration that has become the glorious and quintessentially British tradition that is ‘Afternoon Tea’.
The custom of drinking tea dates back to the third millennium BC in China and was popularised in England during the 1660s by King Charles II and his wife Catherine de Braganza. However, it was not until the 1830’s when Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford is said to have complained of "having that sinking feeling" during the late afternoon that the custom was born.
At the time it was common to take just two meals a day, it had become fashionable to take dinner later in the evening around 8pm as more and more houses had gaslight and became more cost effectively lit during the evening.
Understandably Anna became a little peckish in between meals and the solution for the Duchess was a pot a tea and a light snack, taken privately in her boudoir during the afternoon. This private habit and pleasure of hers soon became sociable when she began inviting friends to join her for the custom.
‘Tea rooms’ became all the rage in the late 19th century quickly becoming the place to meet friends and share gossip. Out-of-home afternoon tea took off in a big way and nearly 200 years after the Duchess of Bedford’s innovation, sitting down to afternoon tea remains a byword for an elegant way of carrying on.
Below are my top 3 choices of the capital's best afternoon teas for when you want to experience something rather special:
The Healthier Option - Tea-Tox at Brown's Hotel
If you love to indulge whilst choosing the healthier option, opt for a lighter take on traditional afternoon tea at the historic Brown’s Hotel. Served in their award winning elegant English Tea Room the still rather indulgent spread uses healthier substitutes such as fruit, low-fat crème fraiche, sugar free chocolate and gluten free cake. It may be healthier but it’s no less sumptuous!
Address: Brown's Hotel, Albemarle Street, London W1S 4BP
Days and times: daily from 12pm-6.30pm
Cost: £47:50; champagne afternoon tea £55
Traditional Afternoon Tea - The Ritz
Afternoon tea has been served at The Ritz since its opening in 1906 and the sense of occasion and heritage is why it remains so popular today. Served with precision and style in the hotel's ornate Palm Court, tea at The Ritz includes the requisite finger sandwiches, scones and cakes on beautiful tiered cake stands with a huge range of loose leaf teas. It is required that one dresses for tea and this really is an elegant place to see and be seen! Book well in advance if you want to secure a spot at this enduringly popular salon.
Address: The Ritz, 150 Piccadilly, W1J 9BR
Days and times: daily 11.30am-7.30pm
Cost: £50, or £66 for a champagne afternoon tea
The London Royal Tea - Hotel Cafe Royal
A fun celebration of British history, The London Royal Tea is a witty take on the English ritual of Afternoon Tea presented in the gilded splendour of the Oscar Wilde Bar, originally established in 1865 and the place where Oscar Wilde himself dined daily.
There is a strong sense of history with the playful menu featuring edible London icons and traditional treats with savouries such as chorizo, onion and thyme “Wellington” slice and a very British Battenberg cake!
Address: Hotel Café Royal, 68 Regent Street, London W1B 4DY
Days and times: daily, every hour from 12pm to 4pm
Cost: £42 or £55 with a glass of Veuve Clicquot.