The genteel art of afternoon tea in London

Thomas Twining opened his first tea shop for ladies in London in 1717, and since then Britons have sipped and slurped it incessantly – in the UK today around 65 million cuppas are downed daily, according to the UK Tea Council.

As a refined affair for the wealthy, during the 18th century an afternoon tea of sandwiches and cakes evolved into something of a national institution – for the working classes, it became “high tea,” the main meal of the day.

Today London features a profusion of afternoon tea venues, from the opulent to informal, traditional to cheekily contemporary.

Afternoon tea at the Ritz Hotel's elegant Palm Court – all lavish Louis XVI furnishings, glittering chandeliers and gleaming mirrors - is so popular that this citadel of luxury has five daily sittings, and will set you back £47 per person (£59 with Champagne) for a tea that includes a menu of 16 loose leaf teas, delicate sandwiches with traditional fillings, tea cakes and pastries, and scones with preserves and Devonshire clotted cream.

I set forth to seek out some of the city's less princely teas, and during my delicious forays around central London discovered some that are not only great value, but hidden haunts of the rich and famous.

None more so than Dukes Hotel, tucked away in a quiet cul-de-sac amid London’s ancient streets. You never know who you’ll meet at Duke’s, a handsome Georgian building a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace and Clarence House, the London home of Charles and Camilla.

Just 16 people take tea in Dukes gracious 300 year-old drawing-room or conservatory, where a traditional afternoon tea includes scones with strawberry jam and cream and dainty sandwiches with fillings such as H. Forman's smoked Scottish salmon and Coronation chicken (trimmed of crusts, naturally).

Feeling like a duchess myself settled into a wingback chair, my tea – an aromatic Duke’s Own Blend - is poured by a charming waiter as I partake of more afternoon tea fancies including to-die-for pastries such as tangy citrus tart and rich profiteroles, all for a mere snip at £29.50 per person.

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No less than 52 Nobel Prize winners have been members of the august Athenaeum Club, situated on Pall Mall. While the Athaneaum doesn't accept bookings from non-members, over the road at the plush Sofitel St James Hotel a French-inspired Le Tea en Rose (in the Rose Lounge) is held daily from 2.30 pm to 5.30 pm.

Surrounded by bowls of fragrant roses and serenaded by a resident harpist, we lap up the hushed elegance of the Rose Lounge while taking our time over scones with rose-scented strawberry jam, lemon curd and thick cream; tasty little sandwiches; delectable Parisiennes pastries, and a selection of teas that range from Pondicherry Afternoon (blended black teas scented with vanilla pods and cinnamon) to a traditional St James Breakfast Tea.

The Sofitel's relaxed afternoon tea in the heart of London's exclusive clubland can be had for £30 per person (£34 with a rose & litchi Champagne cocktail.)

The Cadogan Hotel opened its Knightsbridge doors to London's smart set - including playwright Oscar Wilde - in 1887, and has long been among London's more discreet oases to idle away an afternoon over tea.

The Cadogan is little changed today: the hotel has been owned by the Earls Cadogan for generations, and the current Earl maintains its quintessentially English ambiance.

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While a long-time haven of royalty, peers of the realm and the well-heeled, today you can indulge in a Cadogan Cream Afternoon Tea of home-baked scones, clotted scream, strawberry jam, Chelsea buns and selection of Partridges Teas in the hotel's charming drawing-room, resplendent with oak wood panelling, original artworks and squashy tweed armchairs, for a mere £17 per person – making the Cadogan one of the best value upmarket teas in town.

The style-conscious might consider splashing the cash on a Prêt à Portea at the luxury Berkeley Hotel, situated in the heart of exclusive Knightsbridge and renowned for its contemporary elegance.

In a modern-day take on traditional tea, the latest designs from leading fashion houses inspire voguish afternoon tea fancies at this sophisticated five-star hotel, such as Miu Miu’s exotic-skin tote bag with chocolate pecan moelleux; Oscar de la Renta summer pistachio sponge cake dress, and Karla Collecto lemon biscuit swimsuit. Well worth a visit.

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