5 things you didn’t know about the traditional afternoon tea

Written 21st November 2019

Which do you lather onto your scone first – jam or cream? A debate that’s divided the nation, particularly the counties of Devon and Cornwall. In our eyes, a cream tea tastes delicious no matter the ordering of the toppings. What was once a decadent feast enjoyed as a 4pm pick-me-up at home, afternoon tea is now enjoyed in quaint tea rooms across the country. They also commonly feature at a whole host of occasions – from birthday bashes to hen parties.


Close-up of cream tea with scones, clotted cream and jam.

The origins of afternoon tea

It’s hardly surprising that the afternoon tea experience dates back to mid 19th century dining, considering its highly sophisticated appearance. To this day, tea rooms across the country take pride in creating a feast that consists of dainty teacups, with a three-tiered selection of sweet and savoury bite-sized treats.

It’s thought that England introduced the afternoon tea in 1840 by the Duchess of Bedford. To shorten the gap between lunch and dinner, she began to indulge in a tray of tea, bread and butter and cakes during the afternoon to stave off her hunger. This soon became a habit of hers, and before long, she invited her friends to join in on the experience.

Green tea… enjoyed as a vegetable?

Tea leaves were, apocryphally, first discovered over 6,000 years ago by a Chinese farmer. Whilst sitting under a tree, and coincidentally feeling a little unwell, the farmer encountered a tea leaf that fell into his mouth. After chewing on it, he suddenly felt revived from its medicinal properties. Following this, many began to enjoy tea leaves as a vegetable. This prompted the creation of ‘matcha’ tea, through processing the leaves and adding hot water.


Afternoon tea feast with finger sandwiches, scones, cakes and fresh tea.

Butter tea, anyone?

We know what you’re thinking, and yes, this is exactly as it sounds. Commonly ingested as a way to ease digestion in the body, the Tibetans (Himalayan people) added butter to their tea. This came into play somewhere after the 7th century, and became an established tradition by the 13th. The unusual beverage was also thought to provide the body with a boost of energy. Many people also appreciated it for its moisturising properties.

Serving tea with milk was a custom that eventually came to Europe in the mid 17th century, first introduced by a Parisian in her salon.

A delicate ‘low tea’ for the upper class

Before long, afternoon tea became ‘low tea’ for the upper class. Many characterised it as a mid-day light indulgence that filled the gap between lunch and dinner. And before long, the low-level tables became an inspiration for the name ‘low tea’. Ladies of leisure enjoyed this quintessentially British selection of treats, and it became a dining and social experience.


Afternoon tea feast with sandwiches, cakes, scones and Champagne.

High tea for the working class

Contrary to popular belief, high tea was once a hearty repast enjoyed at high-level tables by the middle and working classes. After a long day’s labouring, working men would return home to a heavy high tea, which meant it was ate later (at 5 or 6 o’clock) in place of a late dinner. This usually consisted of a selection of cold meats, meat pies, tea and bread and butter.

The history of afternoon tea is undoubtedly fascinating. Whilst we wouldn’t advise adding butter into your tea, we do encourage our guests to enjoy their feast like a true Victorian! To find out more about our afternoon tea experience, click here.

For more information about our afternoon tea experience at Billesley Manor luxury hotel in Stratford upon-Avon, contact our team here.