A History of Afternoon Tea in London and the UK

For many tourists visiting London, an afternoon tea is an essential part of the schedule. The English are famous for their love of tea and quirky traditions, and an afternoon tea is the perfect combination of the two. Conjuring up images of ladies with exquisite frocks gossiping over dainty cakes and perfectly prepared cucumber sandwiches, afternoon tea is as British as cricket on the village green. But how did it come to be like this?
Afternoon tea scones and cakes
Afternoon tea scones and cakes - Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

The British love affair with tea

Although tea has been a British staple since the 1600s it was, for many years, a luxury. Only the very rich could afford tea, and in fact coffee houses were common across London. The coffee houses too were seen as the realm of men, and it would have caused quite a stir for a woman to set foot in one of them.

In 1706, Thomas Twining opened his first shop in London’s Strand. Although he too sold coffee, he would soon change his focus to selling tea, setting the scene for a British tradition. Tea houses were considered suitable for women to visit, even without a chaperone, and they quickly became places for women to meet and exchange gossip.

How afternoon tea came to be

The history of afternoon tea in the UK can be traced back to the mid-1800s, when Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford, called for something to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner. Initially she called for a cup of tea with some bread and butter, but her habit soon developed as she invited friends over to share a cuppa and some snacks.

On returning to London, the Duchess of Bedford bought her mid-afternoon tea routine with her and the practice quickly caught on with the nobility. People would make a grand event of ‘high tea’, with ladies changing into their best dresses and using the occasion to flash their best jewelry.

Of course, the working classes wanted to get in on the action too, and soon afternoon tea was ‘a thing’ in the tea rooms of London. At some point, these tea rooms began to make the whole event a focal point for entertainment, and soon there was music involved too.

In fact, the growth of tea rooms, and their popularity with ladies of the day made them a major focal point for women in London.

The afternoon tea menu

Today, a classic British afternoon tea consists of a pot of loose leaf tea served with a selection of sandwiches and most likely Devon scones or cake. The classic high tea selection would include cucumber sandwiches, egg sandwiches and salmon or ham sandwiches (often both). You’ll also often spot Coronation chicken, which is a lightly Indian spiced chicken dish which was created to celebrate the ascension of Queen Elizabeth to the throne in 1953.

For the sweet, scones with clotted cream (a westcountry speciality) and jam or perhaps a freshly baked Victoria sponge cake. It’s worth noting that ‘cream tea’ is a version of the afternoon tea which includes just the pot of tea and the scones and jam, without the sandwiches. This is very popular in the west of England, but can also be found all over London.

Today you’ll find afternoon tea menus with all sorts of frills and extras, much like in the late 1800s. Some will replace the tea with champagne or prosecco, the cuisine to Spanish or Chinese, and even offer different locations in which to enjoy your high tea. You’ll find opportunities for afternoon tea in local cafes, double decker buses, on boat cruises and on top of London’s highest buildings…

The best places to enjoy afternoon tea in London

When looking for a place to enjoy afternoon tea in London, visitors will find they’re spoiled for choice. These are some of our favourite places to enjoy this great British tradition, some of which are more traditional and others are more modern.

Fortnum & Mason<br> 181 Piccadilly<br> W1A 1ER

For those looking for a sumptuous high tea in lavish surroundings, look no further than Fortnum and Mason. This famous department store on Piccadilly serves up the finest teas alongside a selection of genuinely mouthwatering sandwiches, pastries and sweets. It’s very popular though, so you’ll need to book in advance.

Harrods<br> 4th Floor<br> 87-135 Brompton Road<br> SW1X 7XL

The most famous department store in London (possibly the world?), Harrods of course offers an exceptional afternoon tea selection. This being Harrods, the menu is prepared by world class chefs and includes beautifully prepared sandwiches and cakes to die for. A true London bucket list experience.

Brigit’s Bus Afternoon Tea<br> Victoria Bus Station or Trafalgar Square

Want to see the sights of London while you nibble delicious cakes? Pair up your afternoon tea with a bus sightseeing tour on board a classic London routemaster. This iconic double decker bus will whiz you past Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park so you can get some awesome selfies too…

The Shard<br> Oblix West<br> 32 London Bridge Street<br> SE1 9SG

What better way to enjoy your afternoon tea than with a stunning view across this beautiful city? London’s tallest building, the Shard, offers unrivalled views and, of course, an exceptional snack selection. Highlights include duck egg and truffle mayo sandwiches, and some of the most incredible sounding cakes…

Cafe Forty-One<br> 41-51 Inverness Terrace<br> W2 3JN

Vegetarians and vegans will delight in this classic afternoon tea, but with a plant based twist. Think Coronation jackfruit, tofu mayo and delicious scones with vegan cream. Situated a short stroll from Hyde Park, the cafe features a tree shaded outdoor terrace or sleek modern dining room indoors for when the weather is ‘a bit too London’.

Ladurée<br> 1 The Market<br> Covent Garden<br> WC2E 8RA

Despite the French name, and presence of French macarons on the menu, this is one of the best places to enjoy afternoon tea in London. With great views over Covent Garden, it’s the perfect place to watch the world go by over a lovely cup of tea and exquisite high tea selection.

The Ritz Hotel<br> 150 Piccadilly<br> W1J 9BR

London isn’t short of iconic hotels, but this might be the iconic hotel. Even if your budget doesn’t quite extend to a night at the Ritz, the next best thing is enjoying an afternoon tea here. As you would expect, the menu features the classic selection with an elegant twist, and an exceptional tea selection too.

Mad Hatters Tea Party<br> The Restaurant at Sanderson Hotel<br> 50 Berners Street<br> W1T 3NG

Fans of great literature will be thrilled to know that you can experience an afternoon tea just like in Alice in Wonderland. With quaint touches like little treats hidden in books, potions with ‘Drink me’ written on them and plenty of familiar motifs. Don’t worry, there’ll be no shrinking or growing, and no-one will lose their heads!

Prices and timings for afternoon tea in London

This is just a small selection of places to enjoy a traditional British afternoon tea in London, but we think all of these options are exceptional. For prices, you’ll find an afternoon tea costs anything from £20 per person, with prices in some of the more high end venues around £50 or more.

Afternoon tea is traditionally taken any time between midday and 4pm or 5pm, although each venue will have its own timing. In general, you should check serving times and for some of the more popular venues we recommend you book before you arrive, especially if you have a group of more than 4 people.