Tea is an irreplaceable part of British culture. It’s interwoven into daily life as a staple part of the British diets and manners (you’ll rarely visit someone’s home without them offering you a cup).
Though the beverage itself is a part of everyday life, historically, afternoon tea was reserved for the wealthy. It’s still a fancier affair, but is much more accessible to different classes of people. You’ll find it used for everything from special occasions (like baby showers and engagement parties) to simply catching up with friends or colleagues.
Where to get afternoon tea
There’s no better place to partake in such a British experience than London — the epicentre of UK life.
It’s my absolute favourite activity to do with people who come to visit, because it’s the perfect way to relax after loads of walking on London’s busy streets and to catch up in a relaxed atmosphere.
That said, tea in London is notoriously expensive — at posh hotels, it can be upwards of £50 per person or more — so finding a cheaper-yet-traditional option always poses a challenge.
Top place to get afternoon tea in London
After tirelessly researching afternoon tea in London for four hours before a visit from my uncle, I decided on the Ham Yard Hotel, and I’ve never looked back.
This boutique hotel rests in the heart of London, right off Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. With a bowling alley and cinema in the basement (pop down for a look after your tea), this hotel is the epitome of cool. The decor is modern-yet-inviting, and the tea is fantastic.
Disclaimer: I have not been paid or sponsored to say any of this… the Ham Yard doesn’t even know I’ve written this post. I just think the place is great and I’d recommend it 3000x over.
Unlike pricier afternoon tea options, you’re getting all the bells-and-whistles, a lovely atmosphere, and a traditional tea for only £22 per person.
While you can find cheaper (around £17 per person), you’ll usually lose food quality (nothing worse than hard scones) or atmosphere. The Ham Yard allows to get the full experience without sacrificing anything, and the service is excellent.
You’ll need to reserve at least three weeks in advance, but you can book on their website or send them an email.
When you make the reservation, ask if they’ll seat you in the conservatory area — a glass-covered room away from the hubbub of the main dining area that makes tea an even cosier affair.
Allow yourself at least three hours to fully enjoy the experience — the point of tea is to take your time over conversation and goodies. I’ve gone twice now, and both times have been so absorbed in conversation, eating, and drinking that 2.5 hours flew by.
The tea itself
The Ham Yard serves up a delicious, traditional-style tea. You can choose between earl grey or English breakfast tea, or go for something more daring for a small supplement (their tea menu is as large as their actual one). Whatever you choose, you have unlimited free refills throughout the afternoon.
The tea arrives on a three-tiered silver platter with scones on the bottom, finger sandwiches in the middle, and a tray of tasty bite-sized desserts on top.
Do not eat lunch before you go. You’ll be stuffed by the end as it is.
The scones are served with clotted cream and jam, while the finger sandwiches include two classics — smoked salmon and cucumber — as well as two other delicious options. The desserts tend to be whatever the chef has dreamt up, but they are always amazing… if you can eat them without bursting.
How to eat tea, the traditional way
Apparently, because china used to be extremely breakable, you were meant to poor milk into your teacup first, and then the hot tea. The milk cools it as it fills your glass, preventing cracks from the high temperature.
Of course, the china used today is nowhere near as delicate, but it’s still fun to pretend you’re ultra proper and pour it this way.
The Ham Yard serves loose leaf tea. While tastier than bagged tea, it does come with slightly extra work. Your server will deliver the tea with a strainer spoon, which can be hooked to the edge of your cup. After you’ve poured your milk in, put the strainer in place and pour the tea through it. The strainer will catch any leaves that make their way out of the spout, so you can avoid chunks in your tea.
Then, add as many sugar cubes as you like, keeping in mind that the majority of Brits I know don’t have any sugar at all.
As far as eating goes, traditionally tea is eaten from the bottom tray up. At most other places, the scones are on the middle tray, so while the Ham Yard puts them on the bottom, I still eat them second and start with the finger sandwiches. You can do what you’d like, I just prefer to go from savoury to sweet to sweetest.
Cut your scone in half, and then use your knife to spread jam and clotted cream over both halves. A bit of debate surrounds the order in which to layer the cream and jam (cream first? or jam first?), with Devon choosing the former and Cornwall going for the latter.
In any case, just get the goods on there and dig in… you won’t be disappointed!
Hopefully by the end of the afternoon, you’ll feel refreshed, full, and able to take on London again. I’ve worked afternoon tea into my two-day London itinerary, so if you’re interested in what to do next, check it out.
What do you think of afternoon tea and where is your favourite place in London to get it? Let me know in a comment!