Afternoon Tea in London

Afternoon Tea in London

Quintessentially British and inextricable from London culture, afternoon tea isn’t going anywhere. Here’s why the tradition of scones, crustless sandwiches and impeccable bone china is hotter than ever, says Amelia Jean Jones

History tells us that the traditional English afternoon tea began its life with Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, in the early 19th century. “The usual habit of serving dinner between 8pm and 9pm left the Duchess hungry and with a ‘sinking feeling’ by late afternoon,” explains Dr. Andrea Tanner, archivist at Fortnum & Mason. “To stave off the hunger, she ordered tea, bread and butter and cakes to be served in her room.

“These occasions became so popular that other hostesses followed suit. The meal gradually moved from the lady’s private apartments to the more public drawing room of the home. Later, announcements about tea were sent to relatives and friends stating at what hour refreshments would be served. Sometimes entertainment was provided but more often it was gossip over tea and cakes.”

Sep 20th 2019
Amelia Jean Jones

Soon there was at least one person holding an ‘at home’ each day within polite society and new and firm friendships were quickly established with women seeing each other regularly, according to Tanner.

“The taking of tea gradually spread from the home and out into society in general. Tea parties became the norm and tea rooms and tea gardens sprang up in quick succession,” Tanner explains. “During the Edwardian period, the ‘At Home’ faded as the desire to travel increased. Tea was now served at four o’clock and the new tea lounges of luxury hotels became a favourite spot for afternoon tea.”

Fortnum & Mason supplied the materials for domestic afternoon teas from the start, but only began serving afternoon tea in store in 1926. The menu (from £55) remains timeless: dainty finger sandwiches with cucumber and cream cheese, ham and mustard and egg and cress; scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream and freshly made cakes – all served via a trolley service and replenished as often as you wish.


There is a choice of teas from every tea-growing area in the world, including India, Sri Lanka, China and the British Isles, and trained experts who can guide you through the 200 blends on offer. What’s more, you can sip to the dulcet tones of a Steinway 363 days a year. Elsewhere, The Rubens at the Palace hotel is now serving an exquisite £500 pot of Golden Tips Tea, which can be enjoyed alongside its afternoon tea (from £45).

Paired with freshly baked scones, pastries and finger sandwiches, the UK’s most expensive cup of tea, brewed from fine Ceylon Golden Tips (a rare tea blend produced in the highlands of Sri Lanka), was created in collaboration with specialist tea merchant PMD Tea.

Ceylon Golden Tips has a history of exclusivity and high prices in London. In 1891, a pound of Golden Tips was sold for the equivalent of £1,260. Today expert tea pluckers still skilfully hand-pick the tips of the small, succulent shoots of a special tea plant at sunrise. The buds are sun-dried on a velvet cloth with the utmost care, turning the buds from silver to gold.


The Rubens’ Golden Tips tea has a smooth, light, mellow texture with fruity notes. The tea leaves can be infused up to three times, with the flavour profile changing each time to give a new depth of flavour.

The Rubens’ afternoon tea team is giving the Golden Tips tea the five-star treatment in its Palace Lounge. Gold tweezers are used to pick the leaves and weigh them with precision. The tea is infused using still mineral water and poured from a silver tea set with white glove service. The Rubens recommends sipping on the tea before tucking into sandwiches and scones in order to savour its delicate flavour.

A quintessential afternoon tea experience, The Wolseley’s iconic afternoon tea features classic favourites (£29.75 or £40 with a glass of Champagne). The offering includes a lemon meringue éclair and Sachertorte, alongside Battenberg and The Wolseley’s much-loved cheesecake. In addition to a choice of teas and fruit scones with homemade jam and clotted cream comes an assortment of finger sandwiches, including the likes of Severn & Wye smoked salmon, roast beef and horseradish and cucumber and cream cheese.


Putting an Austrian twist on a British tradition, The Delaunay’s afternoon tea (£19.75 or £29.75 with a glass of Champagne) offers a selection of classic Viennese cakes such as Mozart torte and berry Linzer tart and assorted finger sandwiches. Fruit scones can be swapped for poppy seed Gugelhupf with apricot jam and whipped cream.

The Savoy and its official hotel tea partner, JING, have placed their focus on their specially selected Darjeeling teas for their afternoon tea menu (from £65). JING is known as the ‘Champagne of teas’ and the hotel has selected three award-winning rare teas: Darjeeling Moonlight, the Organic Darjeeling First Flush and, exclusively to The Savoy, the Darjeeling Second Flush. Each cup is brewed at the optimum temperature and served in the perfect vessel to elevate the experience.

To celebrate the house’s heritage and founder, Thomas Burberry, Burberry has launched a classic afternoon tea (£32 or £44 with a glass of 2014 Gusbourne Rosé) at its all-day café, Thomas’s. It comprises finger sandwiches, scones, crumpets and English cakes alongside a passionfruit and chocolate Burberry bar which features the house’s new monogram. On his appointment at Burberry, chief creative officer, Riccardo Tisci, discovered 20th-century Thomas Burberry logo motifs in the archive and was inspired to create a new house code using interlocking initials.



Tea Stand, £300
Afternoon tea, perhaps The Wolseley’s most famous service, would be nothing without an archetypal three-tiered stand atop the table. Crafted in London by expert silversmiths, each tier boasts delicate, silver detailing and a fine Wolseley china plate for every stage of a traditional afternoon tea. Balanced on top is an intricate fluted dome topped with a thistle – perfect for keeping a generous portion of scones warm.

Fortnum & Mason Sparkling Tea, £16.95
Imagined by award-winning Danish sommelier Jacob Kocemba and drawing on the expertise of Fortnum’s wine and tea departments, Sparkling Tea is made from a blend of eight rare teas, grape juice and lemon juice. This non-alcoholic alternative to Champagne and sparkling wine has notes of tropical fruits, tea and a rare species of mint and is perfect paired with seafood and sweet treats.

Lotusier Tiào Lóng Tea Humidor, £15,000
This dragon-emblazoned, sycamore wood humidor pays homage to China, one of the world’s greatest tea cultures. By means of two-way humidity control, it protects up to six precious teas from four of the five enemies
of tea: humidity, light, air and odours (the fifth being temperature) in airtight crystal containers and, at the time of writing, has two international patents pending. |  |  |  |


Images courtesy of Rubens at the Palace; Fortnum & Mason; David Loftus; The Savoy; Burberry; tea stand, sparkling tea and humidor courtesy of the retailers