Afternoon Tea | Everything to Know About This Very British Tradition

Leisurely, flavoursome, and unapologetically British – there’s nothing quite like an afternoon tea. Once the preserve of the upper classes and social elite, afternoon tea is now enjoyed by millions each year, with friends and family alike catching up over a pot of tea and tier upon tier of bite-sized treats.


It’s often said that the simple things in life bring the most joy, and such is the case for afternoon tea. Dreamt up in the 19th century, the concept of afternoon tea has well and truly stood the test of time, being more popular today than ever. Who knew that the Brits’ appetite for tea and sandwiches would endure for over 200 years?


Given that 2022 marks the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, now is the perfect time to celebrate that most British of occasions – afternoon tea. Here, we’re exploring the history, traditions and customs which surround this historic pastime, as well as shining a light on the afternoon tea experiences you can savour right here at The Mere.


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What Are the Origins of Afternoon Tea?


Afternoon tea first emerged in the early 19th century, a time when huge divisions existed between different classes. Typically, most people settled for just two meals per day; a good breakfast and then an evening meal at around 8pm were all that many people could afford.


For the landed gentry, however, this was a different story. Thanks to their vast wealth, many added a third meal (which would go on to become our customary lunchtime) – but even that wasn’t enough for some of the most well-heeled of Britain’s upper sets.

It was around this time that Anna, the Seventh Duchess of Bedford, is believed to have complained of being peckish during the late afternoon. So, she began a habit of having a pot a tea and a light snack in her boudoir each afternoon. She then extended the invitation to her friends, frequently having them join her for tea and light refreshments at Woburn Abbey.


The idea caught on quickly throughout London, and soon, many of the upper classes were sipping tea and nibbling finger sandwiches by mid-afternoon. And thus, the Great British afternoon tea was born.

What Makes the Perfect Afternoon Tea?


Fast forward to today, and afternoon tea remains a firm favourite for groups of friends, family, and couples, who gather to share in the simple pleasure of a leisurely afternoon grazing on tea, sandwiches, and the classic scone.


Of course, the format of afternoon tea has changed over the years. Some like to keep it traditional; others love to inject a little creativity and add a twist to the tradition.


But while there are no hard-and-fast rules to serving afternoon tea, certain traditions and customs have stood the test of time. So, if you want to enjoy a classic afternoon tea as it would originally have been served, follow our afternoon tea etiquette guide below…


The Tea


Sugar is placed in the cup first, then thinly sliced lemon (unless you’re having milk).


Milk goes in after the tea (though many will debate this!). You won’t know how strong the tea is before pouring it into the cup, and so adding the milk last allows you to control the strength.


A light flick of the teaspoon above the cup when finished (to shake off the drips) is elegant. Bashing the spoon on the side of the cup, however, is considered bad manners.


Last but not least, leave that pinkie firmly down.

The Sandwiches


The correct order when choosing from the tea stand is to eat sandwiches first, scones next, and cakes last. This is the traditional way to enjoy an afternoon tea, though some people like to eat the scones first, while they’re still warm.


Tea sandwiches must have their crusts cut off, and be cut into triangles, rectangles or, as the royal household prefers, small squares.


Finger sandwiches are made small enough to be enjoyed with the hands, so cutlery isn’t necessary.


As for the fillings, smoked salmon and cream cheese, egg mayonnaise and cress, and prawn are among the classic options, but you can feasibly add any you say wish. Our advice would be to cover a range of tastes and flavours to keep your guests happy, not forgetting to add a vegetarian and vegan option.


Scones and the Jam or Cream Debate


For many people, scones are the highlight of afternoon tea, to the point where some skip the sandwiches altogether. Traditionally, scones are served with clotted cream and jam, though of course there’s much debate about how these condiments should be added, and in what order.


The question of whether to add jam or cream first depends on whether you’re more Cornish or Devonian. The Cornish like to show off their clotted cream, and so place it in pride of place on top of the jam, whereas Devonians reportedly like their cream seeping into the warm scone below.


As with all other aspects of afternoon tea, the order in which you add fillings to your scones is open for interpretation. Rather than sticking to tradition, we say relax and enjoy yourselves, and savour a little of whatever you fancy.

Afternoon Tea at The Mere: What to Expect


Here at The Mere, we love nothing better than an afternoon tea perfectly paired with the person enjoying it.


From the comfort of our elegant restaurant, Browns, you can enjoy a range of classic and themed afternoon teas, which combine a wonderful assortment of fresh sandwiches, pastries, hot drinks, and alcoholic beverages.


So, if you’re in the mood for a little something to break up your day, we offer a selection of afternoon treats…


Traditional Mere Afternoon Tea


Enjoy a traditional English Afternoon Tea including delicious finger sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, cakes, pastries, and a selection of teas. Served with a glass of Prosecco.


Champagne Afternoon Tea


A traditional afternoon tea, topped off with a glass of chilled Champagne, to help you truly relax, wind down or celebrate a special occasion.


Gluten Free Afternoon Tea


All the luxury without the gluten. Finger sandwiches on gluten-free bread, delicious cakes, pastries, and a range of teas.


Festive Afternoon Tea


Taking place at The Mere throughout December, our Festive Afternoon Tea includes a selection of delicious finger sandwiches, festive cakes, pastries, freshly-baked scones and warming teas, to help get you in the festive spirit in style.


Children’s Afternoon Tea


If your little one loves nothing more than hosting imaginary tea parties, treat them to the real deal with our fun Children’s Afternoon Tea. From milkshakes to cake pops, this is a great opportunity to introduce your youngsters to the joy of afternoon tea.


We hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to everyone’s favourite afternoon tea – we certainly have! If you’re left yearning for an afternoon of relaxing indulgence, why not join us for a luxury afternoon tea experience at The Mere? For more information and to book, click here or call us on 01565 830155.