“A simple cup of tea is far from a simple matter.” 
— Mary Lou Heiss

In the time it takes to boil a kettle, why not read our essential guide to this delightful English ritual? Then when the Queen invites you to afternoon tea you’ll know exactly what to do with the cream and where to put your pinkie!

Image courtesy of  Robin Zebrowski

Image courtesy of Robin Zebrowski

The history of Afternoon Tea

We have to go back about four hundred years to find a cup of tea anywhere in England. I dread to think how on earth they managed before then…

Princess Catherine of Braganza came from Portugal to marry King Charles II in 1662. She was very much a ‘modern woman’ and loved dancing and archery, and dressing in men’s clothing.

She also loved tea. She’d been drinking it in Portugal for ages. Consequently it was a drink initially enjoyed just by the aristocracy.

Eager to follow in the royal footsteps, the middle classes were soon brewing up, and tea was even served in the popular coffee houses of the day.

But the concept of ‘Afternoon Tea’ where food accompanies the drink was introduced 175 years ago by the Duke of Bedford’s wife, Anna Maria.  

She used to get very hungry between lunch at one o’clock, and dinner at seven o’clock, and started to nibble with her afternoon tea.

Looking at her, I think she just wanted cheering up a bit, or maybe she’s hungry - and what better way to deal with either of those possibilities than a good strong cup of tea,

And a slice of Victoria sponge cake…

And a scone, and jam and cream…

“At Christmas, tea is compulsory. Relatives are optional.” 
— Robert Godden

Afternoon Tea menu

Afternoon tea is a sublime mixture of delicate sandwiches, little cakes you can devour in a single mouthful, scones laden with jam and clotted cream, and of course a refreshing cup of tea.

I would delicately suggest a light lunch before squaring up to an English Afternoon Tea.

Image courtesy of  Elsie Hui

Image courtesy of Elsie Hui

Afternoon tea at the Ritz Hotel in London is an ancient and enduring tradition. Their menu is the benchmark to which other tea rooms aspire. Take a look at this, but don't hold them to the prices, they have probably increased a little. But then look where you are and see what you get:

What time is Afternoon Tea?

That’s a good question, you don’t want to miss it!

Tea is served around four o’clock in the afternoon. We’re no longer a nation of automatons who slavishly drop everything we’re doing when we hear Big Ben chime the hour, but we do like to take our tea around then.

After several years of living in England and drinking tea, its been suggested that the human brain actually develops a very small, tea cup shaped appendage.

Its sole purpose is to send signals to remind you it’s tea time. Old English families are born with them.

They are visible on April 1st every year, but will have receded by noon…

By the way, Afternoon Tea is not to be confused with ‘High Tea’ which is an early evening meal which working class families used to have when they got back from a day’s hard work and quite naturally were ravenous.

The tea drenched upper classes tottered on until eight in the evening for their ‘dinner.’

Afternoon Tea et-tea-quette

Let’s begin with pouring the tea. One of the earliest social dilemma’s an English person has to master is… whether to put the milk in the cup first or the tea. That’s it. That’s the dilemma that’s caused families to fall out since Catherine of Braganza first boiled a kettle.


And the answer is simple. Tea first, then milk. Tea, milk.

Next, when holding the cup, do you extend the little finger as if trying to point subtly at someone across the room without them noticing? No you do not.Tuck it under and forget it.

It’s sandwiches next. They can be eaten in any order you please. Small, finger sandwiches are usually the order of the day. Take one, or possibly two at a time, but never load the plate up as if you were packing supplies to climb Everest.

And now it’s the scones, pronounced to rhyme with the Fonz, not scones to rhyme with phones.


You'll hear both. Only one is correct.

At Afternoon Tea scones are served with strawberry jam and clotted cream, but which do you put on first? The stress free answer is, whichever you prefer.

I prefer cream first, I think it looks nicer with the jam on top, but to be honest it’s never around long enough to merit a good look…


All sorts of sponge cakes and delicate fancies can be enjoyed now, if there’s still room.

They can be eaten with a small fork if necessary, but never a knife and fork.  

Cup Cakes?

No, they’re not on the English Afternoon Tea menu. Enough said.

What to wear to Afternoon Tea?

Tricky one this, as standards have thankfully slipped. If you’re heading to the Ritz Hotel for your Afternoon Tea, they suggest, no insist, on Gentlemen wearing a jacket and tie in the Palm Court Tea Room. Strangely they don’t mention wearing trousers…?

If you’re having tea in any hotel or an elegant tea room you can make an occasion of it and dress up a bit, it’s more fun too - but there are no rules here. The tea is the thing, not the trousers.

Where’s the best Afternoon Tea in London?

I really do think that Afternoon Tea is best enjoyed with a slight appetite and in grand spectacular surroundings.  Might I humbly recommend my ‘Queen for a Day’ audio tour, it delivers on all fronts; having explored Her Majesty’s stunning favourite shops and jewellers we arrive at the Ritz Hotel for a well earned Afternoon Tea.  But if you prefer an alternative, here are some I highly recommend:

Aqua Shard: Take tea in the tallest building in Europe. Unparalleled views, excellent service, and intriguing edibles; raspberry and lemon thyme jam, bubblegum macarons to name but two.

Claridges Hotel: I think it’s the history that swirls around this place that makes me enjoy tea here. The names and faces that have graced these marble floors and comfortable surroundings lend it an elegance that’s unbeatable: Nicole Kidman, Brad Pitt and General Dwight D Eisenhower. And the tea is impeccably presented.

The Savoy Hotel: Steeped in history, dazzled by Art Deco furnishings, and becalmed by stunning river views - and then there’s the tea. Relax, listen to the resident pianist, and inhale the rich perfume of their own Savoy blend of tea.

Whatever you do, wherever you do it, don’t go home without treating yourself to this time honoured and delightfully quirky English tradition. And if you have the time, please let me know how it went, in the comments below.

 Thank you.