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What is Afternoon Tea?

Afternoon tea has been a beloved British pastime for almost 200 years. Originating as a meal that the upper class ate between lunch and dinner to an experience we can all now enjoy, it is quintessentially British.

Armathwaite Hall is renowned for our afternoon tea experience, which forms part of our Lake District dining offering. Not only will you indulge in a traditional menu, you will also be treated to stunning views of our 400-acre nature estate, plus the gorgeous Lake Bassenthwaite and, standing proud behind it, Mount Skiddaw.

In the summer, you can experience your afternoon tea outside, while in the winter, it will be served in our cosy Lake View Lounge – which still offers spectacular views of our surroundings.

Here, we cover everything you need to know about afternoon tea, including the food and drink, etiquette and the all-important question – how do you pronounce scone?

The origins of afternoon tea

Afternoon tea originated in the 1840s as a meal between lunch and late dinner for the upper class. Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, came up with the concept in 1840 because she would get hungry at around 4pm and dinner would not be served until 8pm.

In the 1880s, afternoon tea became a dressy affair. Upper-class women would change into dedicated outfits of hats, long gowns and gloves to enjoy their afternoon tea, which was served in the drawing room.

These ladies then began to take their afternoon tea outside, which encouraged upper-class gentlemen and lords to take part too. It was such an important ritual that some rich families would have their portraits painted in an afternoon tea setting, featuring their fine China and range of teas!

The afternoon tea meal is composed of three core components: finger sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, plus cakes and pastries. It is served with a range of teas. Traditional breakfast tea, Earl Grey and Darjeeling are popular options.


Afternoon tea vs high tea

Afternoon tea features sandwiches, pastries, cakes and scones. It is considered quite a light meal, although it is considerably more substantial than it was when Anna invented it.

High tea, on the other hand, is more of a substantial and traditional meal, featuring meat, potatoes and vegetables. High tea is served at dinnertime, while afternoon tea is generally served in the afternoon between two meals.


What is on an afternoon tea menu?

Afternoon tea has three components, or ‘courses’. First up on the menu are freshly-made finger sandwiches, a mainstay of afternoon tea. Afternoon tea menus traditionally include a combination of:

• cucumber with cream cheese
• egg mayonnaise
• roast beef with horseradish
• coronation chicken
• smoked salmon with cream cheese.

Next up on the menu is scones with jam and clotted cream. You can enjoy any type of fruit jam with your scone, but strawberry jam is the most traditional choice.

Finally, you will feast on a variety of homemade cakes and pastries.

View our traditional afternoon tea menu.


What do you drink at afternoon tea?

You drink tea, of course!

Traditional breakfast tea and Earl Grey are classic choices but you will often be able to choose from a wide selection of teas. In the late 1800s, this was one of the ways the upper class displayed their wealth, as tea was a much scarcer commodity.

With our afternoon tea, you can choose from:

• breakfast tea
• Earl Grey
• Darjeeling
• Camomile
• Rooibos
• lapsang souchong
• China green sencha
• peppermint tea
• strawberries and cream tea.

Not a big tea drinker, or like to indulge in something stronger? We also offer a champagne afternoon tea to make it an extra-special occasion!

Gentleman's Afternoon Tea

What time is afternoon tea?

4pm is the traditional afternoon tea time, as it is halfway between lunch and a later dinnertime of around 8pm – just like Duchess Anna’s dinnertime.

Do not feel like you have to be restricted to late afternoon, if you would prefer to experience afternoon tea earlier or later. It can be enjoyed at any time of the day these days.

We serve our afternoon tea between 12pm–5pm, so whether you want to indulge in a tasty alternative to a standard lunch or eat at a more traditional afternoon tea time, you can do so at Armathwaite Hall.

If you are having it in place of a meal, we recommend booking in the early afternoon or early evening.


Afternoon tea etiquette

Afternoon tea is no longer as rigid or traditional in its etiquette requirements in 2024, but there are still some guidelines we recommend to get the most out of your experience.


• Keep your phone off the table – this is polite and means you can focus on the experience and your company.
• Keep your saucer on the table when drinking – there is no need to hold it as you drink your tea.
• Take small sips of tea – this allows you to savour it more and stops you from slurping loudly – something that has long been frowned upon.
• Discuss how you will divide up your food with your companion so there are no misunderstandings. For example, you can split the offering evenly, or choose to swap the sandwiches you may not enjoy.
• Add tea before milk – this allows your teabag to steep properly, bringing out the best flavour.
• Eat with your fingers – this is often frowned upon at mealtimes, but due to the bite-sized nature of the delicacies on offer, it is expected in this case!
• Eat your sandwiches first, then your scones, and finally your pastries and cakes.
• Break your scone into pieces and add cream and jam to each individual piece – you can also break it in half to eat. We do not recommend trying to add your cream and jam to a whole scone!

Do not…

• Hold your pinkie up when sipping your tea – this is a common misconception associated with the upper class, but it is not required.
• Wrap your hands around your cup of tea – always hold it by the handle.
• Make noise when you stir your tea – try to keep your teaspoon from jangling against the cup as you stir.
• Leave your spoon in your teacup – place it on the saucer instead. This is both a traditional gesture and ensures it is not in your way as you sip your delicious tea.
• Use milk for herbal or fruity teas – they are best enjoyed on their own. We wholeheartedly recommend milk (or a dairy-free alternative) for your traditional breakfast tea!

Cream or jam first?

Cream or jam first on your scones is a hotly debated topic.

The introduction of scones with jam and cream came from the invention of the cream tea, which consists of only tea plus scones, cream and jam. Both Devon and Cornwall claim the invention of cream tea and both have different methods for adorning their scones.

The Devon method puts cream on first, while the Cornish method puts the jam on first.

Ultimately, this choice is down to your own personal preference.

What to wear to afternoon tea

There are no hard and fast rules on what to wear to afternoon tea in the modern day. While aristocrats in the 1880s would don formal attire to enjoy their afternoon tea, there is no requirement for smart afternoon tea dressing nowadays.

Generally, smart-casual is accepted at most places offering afternoon tea. We recommend that you wear comfortable clothes – nobody wants to feel uncomfortable after a delicious afternoon tea feast!

If you want a traditional experience, you can dress for the occasion. You might want to wear a beautiful long tea dress, gloves and a sunhat, or a light, linen suit – especially suitable if you are sitting outdoors!

Want to dress smart-casual but not sure what that means? We recommend:

• a button-down shirt and jeans, chinos or dress trousers for men
• a floaty dress or blouse paired with a skirt or chinos for women.

Ultimately, you should wear what makes you feel comfortable – it is your experience! If you are sitting outside, we recommend bringing extra layers to keep warm in case it gets chilly – even in summer. We all know how unpredictable the British summer can be!


How do you pronounce scone?

An age-old question, ‘how do you pronounce scone?’ often sparks lively debate.

Chances are, you probably say it differently depending on your accent – northern accents say ‘sk-on’, while some southern accents default to ‘sk-own’.

As a Cumbria-based business, we are pleased to share that the northern pronunciation is correct!


Contact Us

Our afternoon tea experience is available to both guests and non-guests – book your experience now by calling 017687 76551.

If you are itching for a luxury staycation, book a gorgeous stay at Armathwaite Hall. We have a range of accommodation offers, and guests also get free access to our award-winning spa.

Afternoon tea is just one of our dining options – we also offer casual and continental meals in our Courtyard Brasserie and fine dining in our Lake View Restaurant.

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