If you’ve had a couple of afternoon teas in the UK’s capital, you might have noticed that these tend to take place in the lounges or restaurants of hotels. It will likely be a space which either has another function at the same time – for guests waiting, having a chat or enjoying a drink from the bar – or another function before and/or after the designated afternoon tea hours – breakfast, dinner, etc. Which is why you may find yourself being rushed out in some places such as The Langham, where tables have been reserved and need to be prepared for dinner. Due to the nature of afternoon tea being held, well, in the afternoon, from a business perspective this arrangement makes perfect sense. But was it always like this? Has the ceremony of tea always had to share a space in order to make it viable?
In its beginnings and to this day, a room in one’s own home is unlikely to be dedicated to the sole purpose of enjoying afternoon tea. 17th century women of the elite who felt peckish between light lunch and dinner late in the evening, would have invited their friends over for a social tea in the drawing room or, on a sunny day, the garden. While England first established coffee houses in the 17th century (its first one in Oxford in 1652*), tea was soon also served in them and thus found a way into consumption outside the home. Again, tea shared the space with coffee, as Starbucks seems to be aiming for these days as well. Having bought up Teavana, they now feature Teavana brewed teas, iced teas, tea lattes, etc.
But tea houses dedicated to tea only did arrive more than two centuries ago post-coffee house introduction. One of these was the Aerated Bread Company (ABC) which in fact started out as a company mass-producing new healthy, additive-free breads. It was an innovative manageress who came up with the idea to serve tea with the bread for extra revenue. Soon the company’s outlets were thus referred to as tea houses and became very fashionable. Competition for ABC came in the form of more upmarket teahouses by J. Lyons & Co., along with Fuller’s then-famous Regent Street Tea Rooms and several others.** They eventually disappeared and we are left with a rarity of tea rooms (such as Hillman’s Tearoom or Tea and Tattle) and an abundance of hotels in London serving afternoon tea. With hotels being catered to tourists, the logical conclusion would be that afternoon tea sessions will be geared to them as well. While tourists do play a defining role in the composition and presentation of afternoon tea, given the scarceness of other outlets, locals will visit hotels for afternoon tea on special occasions: birthdays, engagements, baby showers, etc.
But it is not difficult to see that tourism (whether international or domestic) does greatly impact local tea cultures as hosts develop the tea services they think tourists would like to experience.*** While adapting to what tourists may already know about a tradition and picking out the essentials, these businesses also play with the variables in order to distinguish themselves from their competition, creating eye-catching, attention-grabbing themed teas that will give customers something to talk and Instagram about (such as a Mad-Hatter-themed afternoon tea at The Sanderson). These are tourists who are guided by symbols of Britishness, well-known literary stories and myths, or by the glamour of an urban chic afternoon tea (as at BB Bakery – now called Brigit’s Bakery), which put the quirky and the cute into the sophisticated tea ritual.
It is indeed easy to denounce the contemporary London afternoon tea culture for being geared too much to tourists, for being served mostly in hotels and having lost parts of its tradition. But if there’s one thing you’re likely to learn from the posts you can find here (aside from having a good time of course~~), it is that a continuously changing environment is not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, things get lost along the way, things we may appreciate and enjoy, but with change (especially change that is welcomed) comes innovation and creativity. Thus, the ever-popular addition of a glass of champagne to the afternoon tea or themed tea experiences (for example at Harrods) has brought life into a time-honoured tradition. The ritual of relaxing and chatting over a pot of tea has continued, with tourism, as a social and cultural phenomenon much like any other, adding its own nuances and reshaping it in innovative ways – which calls for exploration! If you’ve noticed afternoon tea practices that have been changed or added in recent years, don’t forget to share your observations here.
Chrystal, P. 2014. Tea: A Very British Beverage. Amberley Publishing, *see p.11 & **p.70-72
Jolliffe, L. 2007. Tea and tourism: tourists, traditions and transformations. Clevedon: Channel View, ***see p.6