Afternoon Tea Tradition: Everything you should know about it blog post was first published on Culture Tourist on November 29th 2019, and updated on November 9th 2021.

There aren’t many things being more British than the tradition of afternoon tea. Being curious why ‘at half-past three, everything stops for tea’, I did a bit of research to find out more about that lovely British tradition. And, of course, I had an afternoon tea myself in London to see what the fuss is all about.

Afternoon Tea Tradition

Afternoon tea is a light meal served between 3:30 and 5 PM. It consists of tea, small sandwiches, cakes, pastries, scones, bread and jam. Although being an integral part of the British culture, an afternoon tea tradition is relatively new.

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

History of Afternoon Tea

Although people in England started drinking their tea already during the 17th century, the afternoon tea tradition developed some 200 years later.

A famous story says how the Dutches of Bedford, Anna, would get hungry around 4 PM. It was a long time to wait for dinner after an early lunch. So, she would ask for some tea and sandwiches (invented some hundred years before that). Soon, that became her small ritual, and she started to ask her friends to join her at her little tea parties.

First, they were organised as private home gatherings. But, when Queen Victoria began to participate in them, it became an event on a larger scale.  It became a popular tradition soon, and already in the 1880s’ afternoon tea was organised all over England.

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Afternoon Tea Tradition Today

Afternoon tea tradition became widely popular in recent years, and soon it spread all over the world. However, it’s not anymore a meal prepared at home. Instead, it became more of a special occasion to meet with family and friends, and celebrate special life events. Although it still consists of small sandwiches and some lovely pastries, they are served more fancily, on a tiered stand. And, often some other treats are added, like a glass of champagne, for example.

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Afternoon Tea in London

Engaging in the afternoon tea tradition became important for many people visiting England, especially London. Many hotels and restaurants are serving it. Although I was in London many times, it was only during my last visit that I had an afternoon tea myself, as well.

I was spending a weekend in London with my sister. After a day of wandering through London and seeing a great Gauguin exhibition at The National Gallery, we wanted to immerse into the British culture a bit more by having an afternoon tea. I’ve booked us a table at a lovely place called Brigit’s Bakery at Covent Garden. It has a more relaxed vibe than the afternoon tea in some of the London hotels. But, the food and service are equally great.

TIP: We arrived there around 5 PM, and the place was completely packed. So, if you would like to have an afternoon tea during your visit to London, be sure to make a reservation in advance.

The thing I liked about this small afternoon tea ritual is that it’s so cosy. Everyone around us was enjoying chatting and having some delicious pastries. We were there at the beginning of November, so everything was dedicated to the theme of Halloween. There were little chocolate spider webs on our muffins, and the cakes were made of pumpkin.

We first got a list of teas to choose. I’m not a big tea drinker, but I could definitely become one with beverages that delicious. Our drinks were followed by a tiered stand filled with little quiches, cucumber sandwiches and cute little cakes and pastries, all decorated in a Halloween style.

I could see why afternoon tea is such a lovely way of social gathering. Finger food is nice to have while talking to your friends. And drinking tea also gives it more of a cosy feel.

However, if something changed throughout the history of afternoon tea, it’s not a small meal anymore. We were full after having the sandwiches only. But, lovely people from the Brigit’s Bakery were prepared for that. And they gave us small boxes to take away all those cute Halloween cakes with us.

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Having afternoon tea in London was a great experience, and I would definitely like to do it again. I liked it so much that I had already started planning to have more afternoon teas at home, just like ladies in the 19th century would have.

Afternoon tea at Brigit’s Bakery was discounted for us. However, as always, all opinions are my own.