It’s a Class Act!
Afternoon Tea. There’s something distinctively classy about this uppercrust British custom, isn’t there? Downton Abbey springs to mind, stately homes and maids in frilly aprons and white caps, cucumber sandwiches in an English country garden or crumpets in front of a roaring fire. It’s such a nutritionally unnecessary meal, served as it is, between lunch and supper, and that alone gives it a sense of unadulterated luxury. It transports you back to more genteel times.
Originally introduced by the Duchess of Bedford around 1840, Afternoon Tea is not to be confused with High Tea. Both may involve the same beverage but there is a huge class divide between the two. High Tea, or just ‘Tea’ for short, was the evening meal taken by the labouring working class in the 19th and early 20th century, who traditionally call their midday meal ‘dinner’ and their substantial six pm snack ‘tea’, whereas the upper social classes, who rose later in the morning and went to bed well after the gaslights had dimmed, would call the midday meal lunch (or luncheon), and the evening meal, served after 7 pm, dinner or, less formally, supper. This then left time for a little sumptious morsel at mid afternoon to tide one over, just a few tiny crustless sandwiches, scones with clotted cream or jam, crumpets and some cake, perhaps, and of course, loose tea, never teabags, God forbid! Standards, my dear!
Then there is the ‘milk first or last’ debate. Debrett’s, the etiquette bible of the privileged, advocates a tea first strategy and firmly advises against slurping, dunking or sticking out your pinky. And to top it all, there’s the issue of cream first or jam first on one’s scone, not to mention one’s pronounciation of the word, which in British English should rhyme with ‘con’. It’s a minefield, this British class system! Get it wrong and you’re indelibly marked as NQOCD (not quite our class, dear) or worse, as a ‘foreign Johnny’.
It goes without saying that, failing a stately home of one’s own, coupled with suitably attired staff, Afternoon Tea should be taken in the right environment. A motorway service station is not likely to imbue one with that all important sense of impeccable pedigree, so where better to indulge than at a traditional country house hotel? How agreeable to play at being Lord or Lady of the manor for this particular type of indulgence.
The Woodlands Park Hotel near Cobham in Surrey fits the bill jolly well, with its sweeping lawns, panelled dining room and outsize fireplaces, so long as one conveniently ignores that it was originally built by a nouveau riche industrialist, one William Bryant, son of the founder of the match company Bryant and May (trade, how unspeakably vulgar!). Built in 1885, the house was, at the time, the height of modernity, and one of the first in the UK to have electric light. It’s certainly pretty in its 19th century mock Tudor grandness. How unfortunate though, that on the day we visited, a party of ladettes had overindulged in the Prosecco part of the ‘Champagne Tea’ and were squealing in a somewhat unladylike fashion, causing a discreet eyebrow raise by other, more discreet guests. Shocking, the lack of good manners these days! No matter, we had a glorious table for four overlooking the gardens at a good distance from the offending group. Table linen was white and crisp, well laid out, and service was impeccable, just as it should be. The teatime treats were quite delightful, well presented on a tiered cake stand. There were finger sandwiches of smoked salmon with cream cheese, egg mayonnaise with cress, ham with grain mustard and tuna with cucumber, as well as plain and raisin scones, clotted cream, jam and lemon curd, a generous selection of mini patisserie too and naturally a choice of fine teas. It was all faultless.
If one were to get on one’s high horse, it might be said that in terms of sophistication, the Afternoon Tea at the Woodlands Park is possibly not quite in the same league as that of some of the smarter London hotels or private clubs, there were none of those fancy foreign Laduree macaroons, after all, but then it was a proper English country tea, and considering that it wasn’t at one’s own rural pile, at £20 per head (or £29 including a glass of Prosecco) it offered good value, plenty of calories and happily sated stomachs in a most civilized atmosphere. The Dowager Countess of Grantham would have no complaints.
Woodlands Park Hotel, Woodlands Ln, Stoke D’Abernon, Cobham, Surrey KT11 3QB Tel.: 0845 072 7581 www.handpickedhotels.co.uk/woodlandspark