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A Cup of Tea

Britain, and particularly England, is strongly associated with tea. A cup of tea is a British tradition, and many people cannot think of the country without thinking of tea. As is often the case it is the little things that are the most revealing.

The usual story for the origin of tea drinking involves leaves from a Camellia plant accidentally falling into a pot of boiling water 4,700 years ago. The Chinese Emperor Shen Nung is then said to have drunk the resulting brew and liked it. Tea drinking remained a Chinese and then a Japanese custom for many centuries, the drinking of tea becoming formalised, particularly in the Japanese tea ceremony.

Tea reached Europe in the seventeenth century when Portuguese and Dutch traders brought leaves back as a luxurious curiosity, along with silks and spices. In 1662 the Portuguese princess, Catherine de Braganza included a chest of tea in her dowry when she married Charles II. In this way tea became very popular amongst the aristocracy. The seventeenth century diarist Samuel Pepys mentions having his first cup of tea after a chat with his colleagues in Whitehall on 25th September 1660: "... we talked together of the interest of this country to have peace with Spain and a war with France and Holland. And afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before."

Nevertheless tea was expensive, leaves being kept in locked tea caddies, which stood in the way of tea becoming a truly popular drink. By the nineteenth century, however, tea was being drunk by all classes in society, with tea clipper ships racing each other back from China to London. The tea trade between Britain and China was intense. There was a market in China for opium, and the exchange of opium for tea was common place. In 1839 China's government tried to curtail opium trading by closing the port of Canton through which most of the drug was carried. The British insisted on the right to trade, even in opium. The First Opium War, between 1839 and 1842, was fought to protect the opium trade. It was during this war that Hong Kong was seized, remaining in British hands until 1997. I remember watching Chris Patten, the last Governor of Hong Kong, crying as he handed over the Union Flag to a new Chinese administration in 1997; and it was all because of a cup of tea.




A tea plant at the Eden Project, Cornwall

As well as influencing foreign nations and indirectly bringing about war, tea was also thought to have improved the health of British workers in the nineteenth century. To make tea water had to be boiled, which prevented water bourne disease. Some historians have suggested that the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution was given extra momentum by workers remaining healthy due to their tea drinking. Ironically this was not how things were viewed at the time. There was a widespread hostility to the working classes drinking tea, which it was argued made them lazy, caused nervous disorders, and thus damaged the economic fortunes of Britain. These sentiments were expressed by the philanthropist Jonas Hanway in an essay published in 1757. Hanway went so far as to suggest that British women weren't as beautiful as they once were because of tea, and that babies were dying because breast feeding mothers were drinking tea. Hanway was famously answered by the eighteenth century's pre-eminent essayist and producer of the first comprehensive English dictionary, Samuel Johnson. In his Essay On Tea Johnson described himself as "a hardened and shameless tea drinker, who has for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant, whose kettle scarcely has time to cool, who with Tea amuses the evening, with Tea solaces the midnights, and with Tea welcomes the mornings."

He rubbished Hanway's idea that women weren't as beautiful as they once were, and dismissed the idea that tea causes idleness. He was perceptive in the way he identified tea merely as the excuse for people to take a break and get together, "a pretence for assembling to prattle, for interrupting business". Johnson did not see the taking of breaks by the working class as a bad thing. He did not see their fate as simply to work unendingly for the rich. In this sense tea shines a light on basic social assumptions, and moves to change them.



Taking tea at Betty's tea shop, Northallerton

So what social trends are revealed by tea drinking today? Taking shelter from a rain storm during a visit to London in 2005, I went into Southwark's Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum - which sadly no longer seems to exist - and had a cup of Broken Orange Pekoe. The menu described the "British tea ceremony," boiling the water, milk in afterwards, preferably from a little jug. As I poured milk from a little china jug it was clear that there was still an element of ceremony about British tea drinking. The origins of the British tea tradition are described in a little book by Beryl Peters, which I bought in the gift shop at Kensington Palace. The original tradition of "afternoon tea" seems to have been introduced in the early 1800s by the 7th Duchess of Bedford at Woburn Abbey. She needed a refined snack to get her through to a lavish evening meal, and afternoon tea with thin toast and fine breads evolved to help fill the gap. The American writer Henry James loved this ceremony, and said at the beginning of his novel The Portrait of a Lady that there were few times more pleasant than those "dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea". He agreed with the Duchess of Bedford that "from five o'clock to eight is on certain occasions a perfect eternity" but with the help of afternoon tea "the interval could only be an eternity of pleasure". In recent years Britain has become less formal, and tea has been a barometer of that change, tea drinking habits becoming correspondingly more relaxed. Nevertheless there is a level of formality that remains. I used to work in a tea shop. We had some Canadian visitors on one occasion, and they were surprised by the china cups and teapots being used. "Well this is England, madam" I said. Perhaps that was a bit naughty, but it does indicate the moderately formal tea ceremony Britain goes in for. Britain traditionally has been looked upon as a formal country, but as with most things in Britain, extremes are avoided. The British tea ceremony is not as formal as some, but remains more formal than others. In Britain there is nothing like the Japanese tea ceremony, but then you don't naturally think of Americans, or Australians drinking their tea from china tea sets. Tea had a symbolic significance when American patriots dumped crates of it into Boston harbour as a protest over taxation by Britain in 1773: America wanted to be free, and in a strangely fitting kind of way the Boston rebels destroyed a symbol of British formality. Between Japan on the one hand, and somewhere like the United States on the other, tea drinking in Britain sits half way along the spectrum of ritual.


Samuel Johnson's biographer James Boswell comments that the Essay On Tea "shews how very well a man of genius can write upon the slightest subject" (Life Of Johnson P 222). Perhaps someone like Johnson writes so well because they don't accept the normal assumptions about what is important and unimportant. In Remembrance of Things Past Marcel Proust finds that little things take him most effectively to the past. The things we do half thinkingly everyday, involved most intimately with our day to day lives, have the hidden power to bring life back most vividly. Crumbs of madeleine cake soaked in tea are the way into the past for Proust, and tea is like that for Britain. If you wanted to know about Britain as quickly as possible, I would offer you a cup of tea.


Tea Visits



The first Bettys tea room opened in Harrogate, Yorkshire in 1919. Its founder was a Swiss confectioner named Frederick Belmont, who intended to move to the south coast of England to set up his own business. In a new country, unable to speak a word of the language, he got on the wrong train and ended up in Yorkshire. After initial dismay, Frederick decided he liked Yorkshire and set up his business there. His tea shop, Bettys was an immediate success. In the 1920s Frederick was able to open branches elsewhere in Yorkshire, and there are now branches in York, Northallerton, Ilkley, and at the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens at Harlow Carr. The York tea room was particularly popular during the Second World War. American and Canadian aircrew used to meet there, and many of these men engraved their signatures on "Bettys Mirror" using a diamond pen. The mirror remains on display at Bettys in York today.


Bettys tea rooms remain extremely popular. It is one of the many ironies of national identity that shops considered so traditionally English were actually set up by a Swiss emigre, who didn't speak a word of English, and got lost on his way to the south coast.

Bettys Harrogate is at Number 1 Parliament Street, Harrogate.

Bettys Harlow Carr is at the Royal Horticultural Gardens, Crag Lane, Beckwithshaw, Harrogate.

Bettys Ilkley is at 32, The Grove, Ilkley.

Bettys York is in St Helen's Square, central York. There is also a Little Bettys tea shop at 46 Stonegate, York, close to York Minster.

Bettys Northallerton is in Northallerton High Street.


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Cutty Sark


Cutty Sark

The tea clipper Cutty Sark is now in dry dock in Greenwich. She was built in 1869, to win the race to bring the prized first tea crop of the season round the Cape of Good Hope to Britain. The Suez Canal, through which sailing ships could not pass, opened in the same year. This meant Cutty Sark's time was over even as she was being launched. Although Cutty Sark carried tea only until 1877 she represented the peak of clipper ship technology, set many speed records and remained as a working ship until 1938.

Cutty Sark was damaged in a fire which broke out on the 21st of May 2007. Restoration work is now complete and Cutty Sark was re opened on April 25th 2012.

Click here for more information.








Hay's Galleria

Hay's Galleria

Built in the mid 1850s by Henry Cubitt, this was once the dock receiving tea clipper ships which had raced around the Cape of Good Hope from China. The area has been carefully restored and is now an attractive complex of shops and restaurants. Pictures on the wall at the entrance show Hay's Galleria as it once was.

A huge, surreal bronze sculpture of a ship, called The Navigators, commemorates Hay's Galleria's maritime heritage. Having a cup of tea in one of the restaurants in Hay's Galleria has a special resonance.

Click here for more information.





The Ritz

Tea at the Ritz

For a reminder of the original nature of "afternoon tea" why not have tea at the Ritz? There are five sittings everyday, at 11.30am, 1.30pm, 3.30pm, 5.30pm, and 7.30pm. In the original ceremony, afternoon tea would always be served at 5pm, so for a particularly authentic experience go for a 5.30pm sitting.

The Ritz is a formal environment, and there is a dress code for public areas. A jacket and tie are advisable for gentlemen. No jeans or training shoes are permitted.

Tea is served in the Palm Court, and booking is essential. There may be up to a twelve week wait for a table. For more details click here.






Brown's Hotel

The English Tea Room at Brown's Hotel. Photo courtesy of Brown's Hotel

Brown's is the oldest hotel in London, established by Lord Byron's valet James Brown in 1837.

Traditional afternoon tea is served in the English Tearoom, 3pm - 6pm Monday to Friday and 1pm - 6pm at weekends.

Afternoon tea gift vouchers at Brown's are available, presented in a silver gift box.











Tregothnan, Cornwall

Tea is now grown commercially in England by the Tregothnan estate, which pioneered the growing of many exotic plants in Britain in the nineteenth century. Tregothnan tea can be purchased via the web site, or from shops at the Eden Project and in southern Cornwall. There is a tea bar at Tolverne on the Fal Estuary near Falmouth serving fine tea and coffee, including Tregothnan's own tea. Telephone 01872 580309. Postcode TR2 5NG.


Eden Project, Cornwall

The Eden Project has a display related to tea growing in its outdoor landscape. You can see a tea plant and read about various aspects of tea growing.


Victoria And Albert Museum, London

At the Victoria And Albert Museum in Kensington London there is an interesting display of ceramics related to tea.


Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire

Why not visit Woburn Abbey where the 7th Duchess of Bedford came up wth the idea of afternoon tea.You can enjoy tea in the Duchess Tearooms overlooking the grounds.


Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire was Winston Churchill's childhood home. Tea is served in the Indian Room overlooking the fountains on the Water Terraces.


Bodysgallen Hall, Llandudno

A beautiful country house in North Wales, serving tea with homemade cakes and sandwiches, and the Welsh specialty bara brith. Go to


Lords of the Manor, Gloucestershire

The Lords of the Manor is a seventeenth century former rectory which now offers a range of afternoon teas. Go to


The Royal Crescent Hotel, Bath

This famous hotel in Bath offers afternoon tea with homemade cakes and an extensive range of tea. Go to


The Balmoral, Edinburgh

Afternoon tea is served in the Palm Court, or the Drawing Room. The choice of tea includes Royal Scottish Balmoral blend, and Famous Edinburgh. Go to















©2006 InfoBritain (updated 01/13)