Afternoon Tea: The Great British Pastime

teaLife in Britain revolves around tea. It’s a national stereotype, but one that’s pretty accurate – just as ‘a coke’ for Americans is a widely understood and often used phrase, ‘a tea’ or even a ‘cuppa’ is certainly the British equivalent national drink – also generic. Just as we say ‘a coke’ to mean a cola type soda/pop beverage that we expect almost all homes, offices, sports facilities, etc. to have on ready supply, British people expect to be able to order ‘a tea’ anywhere and receive afternoon/everyday tea (relatively strong brewed black tea) of some brand or another, from the brand Tetley’s on up (or down, depending on your point of view about Tetley’s tea). ‘A tea’ usually implies with milk, with sugar added upon request, but often if you order a tea in public you’ll be asked whether you want it white or black – white, with milk; black, without. Same for coffee too—note to coffee goers who may frequent the ever supply of coffee café chains.

This type of tea drinking which life in England revolves around, however, is a world apart from specialised, ceremonial tea drinking – a set event unto itself known as ‘afternoon tea’ or ‘high tea’. This is the stereotypical elaborate china spread with dainty sandwiches that many tourists come seeking (All Hail the Cucumber Sandwich!), and which many tourist traps across London are happy to offer naff versions of. Hint: if the place you’re passing loudly advertises AFTERNOON TEA, it’s probably going to be overpriced and inauthentic. (Same goes for pubs, actually: a good rule of thumb to avoid crappy, tourist-trap pubs is to avoid any that blatantly advertise TRADITIONAL PUB. This is like a large blinking neon sign saying: only tourists come here, I have been themed to look like the Disney-version of pub you expect and am nothing like the real experience).

That said, a nice afternoon tea is a wonderful experience, and one of my favorite things to do if I have an afternoon free. It’s called afternoon or high tea because it happens, usually, at ‘tea time’ – roughly between 3pm and 5pm. Many places will only serve their ‘afternoon teas’ between these times (another good sign that the place is authentic). There are multiple levels of types of ‘afternoon teas’. Here’s a quick guide:

Tea and scone – the basic. You should get a china cup and saucer and separate individual little pot of tea – often there are several choices of types of tea – with a fresh-baked scone (kind of like a cross between a muffin and an American biscuit and fruit bread – they come in all kinds of flavors and are really yummy). The scone should come with both jam and clotted/Devonshire cream (this is thick, slightly sweet cream – think of cream cheese consistency, but light and sweet). If you get whipped cream with your scone you’re not getting the real deal!

Cream tea – similar to the above, with tea (china, separate individual tea pot) and scone (clotted/Devonshire cream and jam). The cream in the name comes from the clotted cream that comes with the scone. Cream teas sometimes have little variations, such as a small sandwich or some fruit, and will be ordered off a set menu, as opposed to the tea and scone version which you just order a la carte.

Afternoon tea – the main deal, the most common and widespread version. Proper afternoon tea includes china cup and saucer, separate tea pot and individual milk, and usually a tiered tray with bite-sized sandwiches (common ones are cucumber, salmon, and egg salad), several types of scones (with cream and jam of course) and usually a slice of some sort of cake.

Champagne tea
– same as the afternoon tea, but with a glass of champagne as well. I’m not sure what hotel or restaurant first thought of adding champagne to a tea service, but it has proved so popular as a means to charge about 1.5 times more for a regular afternoon tea that it is now widespread as an option. Not to knock it though – who doesn’t want a glass of champagne with, well, anything? See picture of champagne tea! It is as fabulous as it looks.Champagne tea

High tea – can be used as a synonym for afternoon tea, but traditionally it refers to the super-duper version of afternoon tea served a bit later and much more like a meal, with perhaps some meat dishes or a meat and cheese spread. All sorts of versions abound today in the truly fancy places.

That said, here’s the low-down on the best way to do afternoon tea

The Famous:

Afternoon tea at The Ritz: The real deal, dress-up required and everything, this is the big famous one to go to. However, you have to book 12 weeks in advance or more, and it’ll set you back £37 – £58 per person! It’s also pretty likely that during the summer months, you’ll be having afternoon tea only with other tourists.

On a side note I A (speaking here) has done the champagne tea at the Ritz. My friend and I only got in last minute because they had a cancellation and it was in the early spring very late at night and during the week. It is what you expect from the Ritz, fancy in all its glory with a never ending supply of sandwiches. HOWEVER, only go if you really are okay with spending that much on an afternoon tea experience. It was lovely (and probably the best ‘loo’ I have ever seen) but I do prefer the ambiance of the Orangery and the quality of the tea and food can stand up and even beyond most of the higher-end tea services.

loo at the Ritz

Our recommendation:

Afternoon tea at The Orangery of Kensington Palace: A little known gem (well, to tourists anyway), the Orangery is a true delight. The venue is a lovely old brick building with floor to ceiling windows and great views of Kensington Gardens just off the palace – it used to be a greenhouse for storing the Palace’s citrus trees during the winter months. A full (and delicious) afternoon tea here will only set you back £12 – 13, you can stroll around the gardens afterwards (they’re my favorite green space in London) and though you may have to queue for a few minutes during peak times, they serve you quickly, you’ll be surrounded by posh locals taking a bit of refreshment from walking their dogs or children in the park, and best of all you can sit there and chat and enjoy as long as you want to, minus the haughty Ritz factor. Take the tube to Queensway station (Central line), enter the park at Queensway gate (literally one minute from the station) and the Orangery is the small building on your right just before the palace proper. If you reach the giant statue of Queen Victoria, you’ve gone too far. A’s favourite is the cinnamon black tea—a great change from your standard English Breakfast or Earl Grey.

from the orangery website

from the orangery website

Cheers,
C & A

last cucumber sandwich

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5 Responses to “Afternoon Tea: The Great British Pastime”


  1. 1 Football in London February 27, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    Hello, I’ve bookmarked this guide. I know that tea is very popular in England, so it was interesting to get some new information about that thing. Thanks!

  2. 2 https://Twitter.com October 16, 2014 at 10:48 pm

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