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History of Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea. The reward for many a cracking south Wales hike. The focus of countless scenes in costume dramas. The utterly reassuring rattle of spoon on china.

The deeply satisfying, sweet-treat comfort food. We know it, we love it, it feels as if it’s woven into our DNA. But how did it all begin?

Afternoon Tea fireplace
Hunger Pangs

Although other nations’ tea rituals stretch back for centuries, in this country the tradition is said to have started in the 1840s. The company Twinings – which knows a thing or two about tea – tells us it all began when Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford noticed a ‘sinking feeling” in the afternoon.

She needed something to sustain her until dinner. While many of us might have just had a power nap, the Duchess was more inventive. She started ordering a bite to eat to keep her strength up to dinner time.

Cup of Tea
But why was Anna so hungry?

It’s a great question. And it seems she wasn’t just a snacker. In fact food historian Tasha Marks, writing for the British Museum, explains that in the 1800s increasing urbanisation and the spread of gas lighting meant richer people were having their evening meal later and later – around 8pm to 9pm.

Poorer, rural people were more likely to have their evening meal before the sun went down. But with lunch being served around noon, the rich folk had a long gap before the next meal at dinner time.

Victorian Tea
So how did the non-dieting Duchess’ snack go nation-wide?

That has a lot to do with exactly who Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, was. As well as being a member of the aristocracy, she was also one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. Which you might say gave her more than a little cache.

So society sat up and took notice when Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting started asking her servants to serve tea, bread, butter and a little cake in the late-afternoon. No doubt feeling a tad peckish themselves mid-afternoon, the upper classes followed suit enthusiastically and a whole new tea tradition was born.

Cakes on a Stand
How did Anna’s bread & butter become the grand feast we see today?

Imagine the dainty sandwiches, the tiny cakes, the tiered cake stands. It’s all come a long way from the Duchess’ snack. As more and more people caught on to the ace idea of an afternoon nibble, the richer folk wanted to show off their wealth in other ways.

So, Twinings tells us, they began changing into long, fine gowns, gloves and hats. They wanted others to see their fine estates, so in the summer they took their afternoon tea ritual outside. As tea was expensive it showed people just how rich they were. They even had their portraits painted mid-afternoon tea to show off their wealth – the 19th century version of foodie Instagram posts.

Cream Tea
But how did it become just scones, jam & clotted cream?

Having money appeals to many, so when people were able to afford some of the elements of afternoon tea they wanted to eat them. Tea, scones, cream and jam were easier to provide in bulk, rather than also providing mounds of dainty sandwich and fine cakes.

Of course – history aside – once those sweet-treats became affordable of course we wanted to indulge. And afternoon tea, in all its various forms, began to wind its way into our souls.

Afternoon Tea in South Wales at Great House Hotel
Time To Tuck In

So that’s the history, now it’s time to tuck in. An occasion as traditional as afternoon tea deserves a proper setting, and the grade II* listed Great House Hotel overflows with heritage features. There are inglenook fireplaces, mullioned windows, stone arches and flagstone floors.

And the Great House Hotel’s Afternoon Tea is one of the best in south Wales. Expect superb freshly baked cakes and scones, freshly brewed tea and fair trade coffee. You can buy an afternoon tea voucher to give as a special gift and it’s all just 25 minutes from Cardiff and Swansea. You can’t help feeling Anna would have approved.