It is believed that credit for the custom of the Afternoon Tea goes to Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford in the early 19th century. The usual habit of serving dinner as late as 9:00 pm left the Duchess hungry in the late afternoon. To stave off the hunger she would order tea, bread and butter and cakes to be served in her room. This was thought to be an excellent idea and the habit caught on and the afternoon tea was born.
The 'At Home' tea soon evolved throughout England, where announcements would be sent to relatives and friends stating at what hour tea would be served. Entertainment was sometimes provided but more often it was simply conversation and a little idle gossip. On a particular day of the week one would remain at home all day and receive visitors and serve tea, cakes and sandwiches or other niceties. If sent an 'At Home' notice it was expected that unless regrets were sent that all who received a notice would attend. There was at least one person holding an at home day on any given day, and social ties were established as women saw each other almost every day at different houses.
The tradition of 'At Home' has long died out, but the serving of Afternoon Tea continues (High Tea in Scotland). Many leading hotels serve Afternoon Tea from about 3:00 pm until 5:00 as well as cafés and tea shops. One well-known tea room, Bettys in Yorkshire , has a global reputation for serving the quintessential meal.
Afternoon tea traditionally starts with savory finger - sized smoked salmon, cucumber, or egg and mustard cress sandwiches - followed by scones with jam and cream (clotted cream in Cornwall and Devon), and finally a selection of cakes. Variations through Britain may include the serving of English Muffins , thinly sliced, hot buttered toast, crumpets, and in Scotland even a hot main course dish; bacon and eggs or a steak pie as favorites.
Tea is traditionally served from heavy, ornate, silver teapots into delicate bone china cups. Milk or lemon served with the tea is still a personal preference. The sandwiches, the scones and the cakes should arrive at table on tired cake stands.