Finding herself understandably peckish in the gap between luncheon and dinner, the Duchess began inviting her friends to enjoy tea and ‘a light refreshment’ in her rooms at Woburn Abbey. She continued the practice upon returning to London and the ‘Afternoon Tea’ became an increasingly fashionable ritual among the social hostesses of the upper classes.
'Tea Rooms were all the rage in the late 19th century, quickly becoming THE place for meeting friends and sharing gossip. They were also considered one of the few respectable places for women to meet without a chaperone, so the out-of-home Afternoon Tea took off like a social network. At some stage music was added to the occasion, and fashionable young people attended afternoon 'tea dances' in the most stylish of hotels, a practice which continued until the Second World War.
Nearly 200 years after the Duchess of Bedford's innovation, sitting down to afternoon tea remains a byword for an elegant way of carrying on. No wonder people like to come to a bastion like Fortnum's to do it properly.
But for all our legendary respectability, Fortnum's celebrated afternoon tea may actually begin with a glass of champagne and some canapés. My dear. It’s not a complete misnomer though: there will always be a pot of our famous Afternoon Tea or another elegant blend, and the classic bone china cake stand is always layered with light finger sandwiches on the lowest tier, scones, jam and cream on the second and delicious cakes and pastries on the uppermost.
Allow a good hour or more to enjoy this most leisurely of meals, which is served in our graceful Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon. There’s a lot more to it than just ‘a China drink’, you see.