The Great British Afternoon Tea
afternoon tea

The Great British Afternoon Tea

Last Updated on 14/06/2022 by richard

We British do like our traditions and you can’t get anything more quintessentially British than afternoon tea. Whether it is the full experience at the Savoy or Fortnum & Masons, or sitting quietly in the garden with a mug of Earl Grey and a slice of Victoria sponge, three o’clock is tea time.

Why three o’clock? Well, in the early 19th century, the 7th Duchess of Bedford would ask for tea and cakes to be served late afternoon so she could stave off hunger pangs as dinner would not be served until between 8 and 9 pm.

Duchess of Bedford afternoon tea

The Duchess later invited friends to join her for what became a regular gossip session and these became extremely popular. These tea sessions spread out into society and evolved into tea parties, tea rooms and gardens.

Luxury hotels like the Ritz started offering afternoon tea in custom tea lounges along with music and dancing and the tea dance was born. Tea dances remained hugely popular until after World War II, but tea rationing continued well into the 1950s and they gradually faded away.

The taking of afternoon tea became an expensive luxury item once again, but fortunately, there has been a revival in its popularity with hotels, restaurants and cafes up and down the country now once again serving tea at 3.

Probably the most famous of all tea rooms is Lyons tea houses. Joseph Lyons first tea house opened in 1894 and reached the height of popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. The last tea house closed in 1977.

Lyons corner house
Lyons Tea House on Coventry Street, notice the Wimpy

In their time Lyons were remarkable innovators.

  • They introduced hamburger bars to the UK with the creation of the Wimpy chain.
  • They introduced frozen food to the UK.
  • They built and operated the world’s first business computer, LEO (Lyons Electronic Office).
  • They launched Dunkin Donuts and Baskin-Robbins ice cream in the UK.

Strangely, their engineering arm was also the largest bomb maker in the UK during World War II.

You can book a luxury afternoon tea experience at the Ritz, Cafe Royal or the Savoy but you will probably have to book well in advance.

Savoy afternoon tea

We All Love Coffee Now

With the advent of package holidays in the 1960s and the jet age, travel became affordable for many and when people came home, they wanted the food and drink they had experienced abroad. That plus joining the EU meant large numbers of Europeans started to migrate bringing their favourite drinks with them.

British social culture has revolved around beer and public houses, “the pub”, for hundreds of years but when a change in the law allowed supermarkets to start selling alcohol, drinking at home, which was much cheaper, plus a policy of high taxes on alcohol, it started a steady number of pubs closing year on year which continues to this day.

If you want to meet with friends nowadays, you will more than likely meet in a coffee shop.

Coffee shops seem to have taken over the average British high street with big Brands like Costa, Cafe Nero, Starbucks and Pret a Manger dominating. Luckily, many independent coffee shops have also sprung up serving custom blends and more personal service.

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