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English Afternoon Tea

Updated on November 9, 2014
Sunday Afternoon Tea by Carl Thomsen (1847-1912)
Sunday Afternoon Tea by Carl Thomsen (1847-1912) | Source

Afternoon Tea - So Typically English

English afternoon tea is a tradition going back less than 200 years and was popular among upper class ladies with time on their hands.

It's never been a traditional part of the day of the average English person - most were working too hard to take time for dainty sandwiches and cakes and drinking tea out of delicate bone china cups. Even so, in a more robust form, it is a custom that has worked its way through all levels of English society and an afternoon teabreak is something many of us look forward to during a busy day, even if it's only five minutes sitting at our desks.

"There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea."

— Henry James
Afternoon Tea or The Gossips, painting by Sir John Everett Millais, (1829-1896)
Afternoon Tea or The Gossips, painting by Sir John Everett Millais, (1829-1896) | Source
The Perfect Afternoon Tea Recipe Book: More than 160 classic recipes for sandwiches, pretty cakes and bakes, biscuits, bars, pastries, cupcakes, ... and glorious gateaux, with 650 photographs
The Perfect Afternoon Tea Recipe Book: More than 160 classic recipes for sandwiches, pretty cakes and bakes, biscuits, bars, pastries, cupcakes, ... and glorious gateaux, with 650 photographs

Serve the perfect afternoon tea to family and friends with the help of this book. It has recipes for delicious sandwiches and lovely cakes.


The Beginning of English Afternoon Tea - A lady who got too hungry to wait for dinner time

In 1840 the custom of afternoon tea began because Anna Marie, 7th Duchess of Bedford, got too hungry in the afternoon to wait for dinner at around 8pm so she began taking tea, sandwiches and cake mid-afternoon. Then she invited her friends to join her. Before long, afternoon tea was established as a custom in high society.

It became more than just a way of bridging the gap between luncheon and dinner. It was a time for ladies to meet and gossip and they soon began to change into tea dresses for the occasion. This was the time when the upper classes had special clothes for everything!

Delicate Porcelain Tea Service

Early 19th century porcelain tea service
Early 19th century porcelain tea service | Source

Traditional Afternoon Tea served on delicate porcelain

The traditional English afternoon tea consisted of thinly cut bread and butter, tiny sandwiches with the crusts cut off - the size that can be eaten in just two bites, and small, dainty cakes.

Even though the the Duchess of Bedford had started having afternoon tea because she was hungry in the afternoon, this was not a meal for pigging out. Ladies sipped their tea and nibbled sandwiches and cakes. It had become a social occasion for showing off clothes and catching up on gossip not for real eating.

Afternoon Tea in London's Ritz Hotel - An experience I've never forgetten

Afternoon Tea at the Ritz Hotel, London
Afternoon Tea at the Ritz Hotel, London | Source
Afternoon Tea
Afternoon Tea

Here is a definitive book of recipes for a delicate, traditional afternoon tea. The recipes are clearly written and displayed and it is illustrated with beautiful photographs. One of my all time favourite recipe books.


Although it is relatively uncommon for English people to have a regular, traditional afternoon tea at home anymore, it is something that continues as a special treat in first class hotels and big London stores like Fortnum and Mason. Often, afternoon tea is so popular in hotels like the Ritz and the Savoy in London that you have to book many weeks, sometimes months, in advance.

I had afternoon tea at the Ritz Hotel, on Piccadilly in London, a few years ago and it was an interesting and enjoyable experience. As the Ritz is a luxury hotel, of course the tables were covered by real linen tablecloths and we had linen napkins. The chairs were pretty and comfortable and the table was a comfortable size for three of us to sit around to drink tea and eat.

Within minutes of being shown to our table, a pot of tea, a jug of hot water, cups and saucers were brought by the waiter and arranged by him on the table. Immediately afterwards, he brought a three tiered cake stand of tiny, delicious sandwiches cut into fingers - no crusts on the bread, of course, and you definitely didn't need two hands to hold them! There was a variety of sandwich fillings: smoked salmon, cucumber, ham are just a few that I remember.

Then the waiter brought another three-tiered cake stand, this time with cakes. Oh my goodness, they all looked yummy. The worst thing was that afternoon tea at the Ritz was a set price per person so you didn't pay anything extra even if you ate all the cakes. There were small cakes, both plain and with cream and icing (frosting). There were slices of gateaux and plain cakes, there were cakes covered in chocolate and others with fresh fruit. We were spoilt for choice. All three of us ate more cakes than was good for us but we did enjoy our traditional afternoon tea in the Ritz Hotel.

See Afternoon Tea at the Ritz Hotel, London

This is pretty much as I remember the Ritz when I had afternoon tea there. The room is very grand and the service excellent as is the food. It's an experience that is well worth the money.

An extraordinary meal in that, being offered to persons that have already dined well, it supposes neither appetite nor thirst, and has no object but distraction, no basis but delicate enjoyment."

— Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Scone with cream on first, then jam
Scone with cream on first, then jam | Source

A Traditional Cream Tea

A variation on English Afternoon Tea

This is an occasional treat, particularly associated with the counties of Devon and Cornwall in the far south-west of England. As well as the obligatory pot of tea, it consists of scones, clotted cream and jam (jelly).

Believe it or not, there is some debate about how you eat your scone. Everyone agrees you cut your scone in half first, then you spread either jam or clotted cream on each half then top it with either jam or cream, depending on which you used first.

People have real arguments over which should go on first. Personally, I put the cream on first but only because I think it's easier to spread the jam on the cream rather than the other way round. Whichever order you use, it's not a good idea to put the two halves together again otherwise the cream and jam will squelch out the sides.

Of course, afternoon tea and Devonshire or Cornish cream teas are not recommended for anybody on a low fat or weight loss diet. You will probably put on pounds just looking at the table.

Have You Eaten a Cream Tea?

Have you had a cream tea, if yes, what did you think of it?

See results

Cream Tea: With Homemade Scones and Clotted Cream

© 2011 Carol Fisher

Have You Experienced a Traditional Afternoon Tea? - Or do you think it's a waste of time?

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    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 

      4 years ago from USA

      That's good to hear. Some things just shouldn't change :)

    • Stazjia profile imageAUTHOR

      Carol Fisher 

      4 years ago from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK

      Yes, Favored, Kensington Close Hotel is still there and still serving afternoon tea.

    • DealForALiving profile image

      Sam Deal 

      4 years ago from Earth

      People really knew how to take a break back in good old England. Now we're all just overworked and we barely have time to see the kids and make time for our own hobbies and interests.

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 

      4 years ago from USA

      I'm so spoiled by the English afternoon teas. It began many years ago when we stayed at the Kensington Close in London. Since then I love my tea time. Is that place still around?

    • reluctantmoose profile image


      6 years ago

      I have been lucky enough to have had tea twice at The Empress in Victoria. This lens reminded me of great memories.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Yes, I have. The food was delicious and beautifully presented. The tea was wonderful. Very nice lens!

    • captainj88 profile image

      Leah J. Hileman 

      6 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

      The images are gorgeous.

    • Camden1 profile image


      6 years ago

      I love afternoon tea - one of my favorite memories is having the formal afternoon tea at the Ritz in London. I would love to go back!

    • hysongdesigns profile image


      7 years ago

      Lovely bit of history; I knew tea was pretty new on the scene, but thought probably afternoon tea just came from having an afternoon snack since Europeans seem to eat dinner so late in the evening. I didn't realize that it had an actual beginning in time.

    • debnet profile image


      7 years ago from England

      Now featured at; and blessed by a Squid Angel ;)

    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 

      7 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      I love afternoon tea! Have to admit I probably enjoy it more relaxing at home, or outside in the garden, than at the Ritz - just as well!

    • tutor1235 lm profile image

      tutor1235 lm 

      7 years ago

      What a wonderful lens! I've never quite gotten into afternoon tea-would rather an afternoon nap LOL! But it's good to see that you're still creating such great stuff. I've missed talking to you-drop me a note! -sandy (aka tutor1235)

    • Richard-H profile image


      7 years ago from Surrey, United Kingdom

      There is nothing better than an afternoon tea. I have been lucky enough to experience the traditional style at the Ritz, too. Nothing better :)

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 

      7 years ago from UK

      Thank you for this elegant interlude you brought into my day. There's just something special about drinking tea from fine china and nibbling on delicate sandwiches and cakes.

    • JackieBlock profile image

      Jackie Block 

      7 years ago from SE Michigan

      My first Afternoon tea Experience was at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. It was marvelous. I have loved them ever since.

    • PaulaMorgan profile image

      Paula Morgan 

      7 years ago from Sydney Australia

      I love the tea set :-) It's great afternoon tea is becoming a common way for friends to catch up..... nice change from drinking

    • pkmcruk profile image


      7 years ago from Cheshire UK

      There is something rather special about afternoon tea especially sat on the terrace watching the croquet :-)

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I am all for an English afternoon tea, but a Scottish tea is just as nice, and the scones a usually warm.

    • Wednesday-Elf profile image


      7 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      I had the pleasure of attending a moderate version of an English Afternoon Tea while on a tour in England in 1992. Loved the 'cakes'. :-)

    • sidther lm profile image

      sidther lm 

      7 years ago

      When I was a kid I had a few with my Grandma in England- real traditional afternoon tea- not the child's tea parties :)

      I have hosted a few (in the US) for Military Spouses, but it usually is easier to host a coffee.

      Thank you so much for the great reminder that I really need to introduce my son to this great tradition!

    • justholidays profile image


      7 years ago

      What a delicious lens! I'm just fond of 5 o'clock tea, whether for upper classes or not. When we were in England, my son and I sacrificed every day to tea time!

      Actually, in Kent, we were also offered the opportunity to have cream tea. We definitely enjoyed it and I wish this custom would be one of my country too as it provides people with a very special feeling. I mean, when I have tea and food in the afternoon (not any kind of food, only scones or mini sandwiches, etc.) I just feel fine, comfortable and happy for the rest of the day.

      BTW English afternoon tea deserves a blessing!


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