An English Cream Tea Trail

An English cream tea

In the summer season in English villages up and down the country the old habit of taking afternoon tea, cottage style, is still preserved. Most hotels will serve formal afternoon tea but it has mostly disappeared from English homes, although it may still be served on Sundays and invitations are still extended to friends to take afternoon tea, especially in the garden on a summer day.

Tea drinking was fashionable by the mid seventeenth century, tea having been introduced by The East India Company in the early 1600’s, but it was too costly for most, being imported directly from China. However, as the punitive tax imposed by the government was abolished in the latter part of the eighteenth century and then as plantations were established in Assam and Ceylon it became much more affordable. As a consequence in early Victorian times almost every household would have brewed leaf tea in a tea pot.The invention of afternoon tea, so it is rumoured, started in 1840 when the Duchess of Bedford found the long wait between lunch and dinner just too much and asked for a tray of tea, bread and butter and cake to be brought to her room at 4pm. She then established this as a habit and eventually started to share the time with her friends. It became an ideal occasion for the ladies to gossip and share the latest news. In time the idea spread and it also became fashionable to take a stroll after tea. By the 1850’s there were several tea gardens in London where men and women would enjoy tea together, but these then went into decline.

In time the ritual of
afternoon tea became
increasingly elaborate and by
the 1880’s ladies were
changing for tea. Bone china
had been invented early in
the century by Josiah Spode
and this was a perfect
material for the production of
beautiful and delicate tea
services. It withstood
extremely high temperatures
without cracking whilst it
kept the tea hot and at the
same time was almost
translucent and very refined.
Tea time paraphernalia such
as cake stands, bread and
butter plates and so on abounded, examples of which can still be found in antique shops.

There were, and still are, two variations on the meal, “low” or “afternoon tea” and “high tea”. High tea included some protein such as fish or meat as well as bread and butter and cake and of course a cup of tea. High tea was more associated with the working classes for whom it was the last meal of the day, although Queen Victoria is said to have enjoyed high tea as well.

In the 1880’s The Aerated Bread Company (ABC), at London Bridge, started to sell cups of tea on the premises. The idea took off and a chain of ABC tea shops sprung up all over the country. At the same time Joe Lyons opened his first tea shop in Piccadilly in 1894, followed a chain of Lyons Corner Houses with the famous waitresses in their black dresses, white aprons and caps. They became known as Nippies because of the way they hurried about their duties. Some branches of Lyons Corner Houses survived until the 1980’s

By the early twentieth century the time for tea had become 5pm and even in sophisticated circles some hot dishes might be included. In the best circles tea was served in a silver pot and the very delicate cucumber sandwich was an essential part of the ritual.

In the 1920’s tea dances were all the rage and a man might take his girlfriend to a cinema such as The Odeon where you could take tea to the accompaniment of a band and enjoy a dance. In some London department stores an orchestra would accompany the ladies taking their afternoon tea and the tea dance was enjoyed at The Ritz Hotel in London on Sunday afternoon until the latter part of the twentieth century. The hotel management are now planning to re introduce this delightful occasion sometime in 2004.

Although after the Second World War the ritual of afternoon tea went into decline in the towns, the countryside saw an upsurge of tea shops! In the 30’s cyclists and walkers had been sustained by cottagers who served them afternoon teas with home made sandwiches, scones, home made jam, farm cream, strawberries and freshly baked cakes. Increasingly, as more and more townspeople became car owners and took to driving into the countryside at weekends, many more cottage owners took to serving tea in their garden or living room and tea shops opened in every village.

Here in the Weald of Kent one can still indulge in afternoon tea, the popular time being 4pm – 5 pm. You will find old fashioned tea shops in many villages or in some instances in the gardens of farm properties, well off the beaten track.

Listed below are places in the Penshurst area where tea is still served in a traditional way, although beware, some will only be open in the summer season, and they get very busy!

Quaintways Tea Rooms
Fir Tree House Tea Rooms
The Chafford Arms
Bocky's Tea Room - Burrswood, Groombridge
St Ives Tea Garden - Butcherfield Lane, Hartfield
The Tulip Tree Tea Rooms 3 The Village Chiddingstone (Open Saturday/Sunday only)