An English tradition: the joy of Afternoon Tea

“Well,” demands Mrs P testily, “am I getting flowers on Valentines Day or not?” Discomfited, I hastily review my options. Do I try schmoozing her, something like my darling, there aren’t enough flowers in the world to convey the depth of my love for you? Or should I try appealing to her environmental conscience, pointing out the horrendous carbon footprint that inevitably results from the sale of masses of fresh cut flowers in England in the middle of February? Or do I simply tell it as it is, that while I love her more than anything and am quite fond of roses too, the grossly inflated prices around Valentine’s Day are an affront to common decency and my sense of fair play?

I’m weighing up which response will give me the best chance of still being alive at Easter when my wonderful wife lets me off the hook. “If you are,” she says, “then don’t bother. I suggest we go out for Afternoon Tea instead. I’ve spotted a patisserie on King Street that looks promising.”

So there we have it: I get to live another day and to fill my face with delicious cakes. I’d like to put it on record here that Mrs P is a very special person.

*

Afternoon Tea is also very special. We Brits have invented all kinds of brilliant stuff over the years: the steam locomotive, television, stiff upper lips, penicillin and orderly queuing in line to name just a few. To this list I’m proud to add the quintessentially English tradition of Afternoon Tea, a plate stand of dainty sandwiches, pastries, scones with lashings of jam (preserves) and clotted cream, and assorted cakes, all served in the mid to late afternoon with a steaming pot of Indian or Sri Lankan tea.

All traditions have to begin at some point, and Afternoon Tea can be dated to around 1840. Wealthy English folk had been drinking tea since the 1660s when the habit was popularised by King Charles II, who probably needed regular caffeine hits to help him keep up with his numerous comely mistresses. However it wasn’t until early in Queen Victoria’s reign that the idea of Afternoon Tea reared its head.

Unsurprisingly the practice can be traced back to members of the aristocracy, who had plenty of time on their hands, money to burn and servants to do all the hard graft.

Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, lived in a household where the evening meal was traditionally served at 8pm. Finding herself feeling inconveniently peckish during the late afternoon our Anna instructed her staff to prepare a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake, at around 4pm every day. The good Duchess was well pleased with her initiative, and invited her friends round so she could show off her new domestic routine.

Pretty soon Afternoon Tea was all the rage amongst the upper classes. Amazingly, in the days before Facebook, people networked by physically spending time in one another’s company (strange but true!), and what could be better than to combine meeting with eating?

Ordinary people, in other words the very men and women whose hard graft made, heated and maintained the scented bubble baths in which the likes of the Duchess and her cronies wallowed, were untouched by the new fad. In Victorian England everyone knew their place, and the common folk knew that Afternoon Tea wasn’t for the likes of them.

Fortunately times have changed, and the once sturdy walls of the British class system have begun to crumble. It therefore feels like poetic justice that while the Duke of Bedford finds it necessary to open up his stately mansion to tours by the Great Unwashed, anyone in England can now enjoy a fabulous Afternoon Tea regardless of their ancestry or social standing.

Indeed in recent years there’s been a noticeable revival in this quaint tradition. All manner of catering establishments and hostelries now offer Afternoon Tea to anyone with a few pounds and an hour or two to spare.

*

Of course the content of Afternoon Tea has evolved over time, but a reincarnated Duchess Anna would doubtless recognise and hopefully approve of most modern re-workings of her early Victorian innovation. Beaurepaire Patisserie has certainly taken the concept to the next level, and we opted for the full works, starting with a plate stand of savouries which comprised a tiny glass of delicious soup, a filled baby Yorkshire pud and some quiche as well as the inevitable sandwiches.

When the savouries had been demolished it was on to the sweetmeats, a plate stand groaning under the weight of cakes, scones and pastries. There was also a glass of Eton Mess, a glorious confection of strawberries, meringue, and whipped Chantilly cream. We were in heaven, but also in danger of exploding. So, stuffed to the gunnels and awash with countless cups of tea, we called for a box to take home the remainder of our fare, to be consumed later in the day once space became available.

Afternoon Tea proved to be a terrific way to celebrate Valentines Day. It may not last as long as flowers, but who needs daffodils and dahlias when you can instead spend a couple of hours being divinely decadent?

So, wherever you are now, step forward and take a bow Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford. We, and other lovers of Afternoon Tea from up and down this sceptered isle, are forever in your debt.

9 comments

  1. Ann Mackay · February 19

    Oh, you are making me hungry! That looks like a great way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. I remember being taken out for afternoon tea when I was a kid – it was always a great treat. (And seems to be getting popular again.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · February 19

      Yes, lots of places are offering afternoon tea, in our area. One of them is the restaurant attached to a country hotel and golf club, and they sell afternoon tea vouchers. We received one of these vouchers for Christmas and are looking forward to putting it to good use when the weather picks up!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. tanjabrittonwriter · February 20

    After feasting my eyes on all the delectable treats, I am left with hunger pangs in my stomach. It’s too late in the evening for Afternoon Tea, but the British influence in Colorado Springs (which was once known as “Little London”) has hung on, and a few local establishments offer this delightful tradition. You inspired us to partake, and soon.
    And, by the way, my husband (to whom I read your musings) commented: “He” probably make it until Easter.” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · February 20

      I’m pleased that I’ve inspired you to try out your local version of Afternoon Tea; if it’s anything like the one we enjoyed last week it’ll take you the rest of the day to recover 🙂.

      While it’s no surprise to come across hints of British influence on the east coast of the USA I’m intrigued that my forebears ever made waves in Colorado Springs, and I’m amazed that our legacy still lingers on. The last, forgotten outpost of the British empire perhaps?

      And please thank your kind husband for his vote of confidence! At the moment things are looking good for my survival, but there are so many bear traps into which I might yet tumble over the next six weeks (in particular my continuing “reluctance” to paint our bedroom, which I promised to do early in 2020). If my weekly posts suddenly cease you’ll know that the wonderful Mrs P has finally – and understandably – lost all patience with me 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · February 21

        You made both of us laugh, Mr. P, but we remain confident that Mrs. P will continue to put up with you. 🙂

        As far as an outpost of the British Empire, Colorado Springs was exactly that. A Dr. Bell from G.B. was a friend and business partner of General Palmer, the founding father of the city. Dr. Bell was instrumental in drumming up money from his fellow Brits to support the building of the town, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, and many other ventures. At one point, our police force even wore Bobby uniforms. I think that’s when Afternoon Tea was introduced to the Wild West. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · February 21

        Well ,they never taught me that as part of my British History degree! We Brits got everywhere, didn’t we, a fact for which I can only apologise 🙂.

        Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · February 23

        Hey, Afternoon Tea is one beneficial result of that outreach. There are probably a few more! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · February 23

        You made me chuckle, describing the British Empire as “outreach”. Such a benign word for a ruthless and very aggressive enterprise. They say that in India the Brits made the trains run on time, which I guess shows that the empire was a Good Thing 🙂. Only joking, though the Brits’ construction of the rail network (and their imposition of English) on the sub-continent united a nation and so, in that sense, the empire really was a good thing from an Indian perspective. Complicated, eh?

        Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · February 24

        Complicated, indeed, and not a discussion I am qualified to get into. There are always at least two sides to each story!

        Liked by 1 person

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