The ritual of “Afternoon Tea” began in the 1840s when Anna Maria Russell, 7th Duchess of Bedford, complained that the long gap between breakfast and supper gave one a “sinking feeling” in late afternoon. She started to take a light meal of tea (usually Darjeeling), cakes and sandwiches alone in her boudoir. She then started to invite her friends. This practice proved so popular that she continued it when she visited London, but entertaining her guests in the more public drawing room – before long it became a daily social occasion religiously enjoyed by all members of polite society.
Britain has always been a very class conscious society and it is important to note that Afternoon Tea is not, under any circumstances, to be confused with High Tea. High Tea was taken by hungry workers as soon as they returned from the mine, the mill or the fields. It was a more substantial meal and was served from 5pm onwards to people who couldn’t wait for dinner around 8pm. The term High Tea relates to the fact it was served later (“high” meaning late, as in “high noon”), or possibly because it was served at the dinner table, rather than on low tables with participants relaxing on sofas.
So, Afternoon Tea is essentially an aristocratic and somewhat theatrical affair governed by defined social rituals and steeped in ancient tradition. This means that, strictly speaking, very few establishments in Dorset provide the genuine Afternoon Tea experience – Summer Lodge being the notable exception.
Such a statement may raise a few eyebrows, so let me explain.
Firstly, the event must take place in appropriately noble surroundings. One can have a delicious tea in a café, a restaurant, a farmhouse or a hotel, but unless the setting is suitably genteel there will not be the required grand sense of occasion. Summer Lodge qualifies in this regard, not simply by dint of the architecture and four acres of beautiful gardens, but by virtue of its history. It was built in 1798 as a dower house by the 2nd Earl of Ilchester, then enlarged in 1893 by the 6th Earl who commissioned his friend and local author, Thomas Hardy, (an architect by profession) to draw up the plans. The house was further modernised in 1932 by the last Earl to live in Dorset, Lord Stavordale, when he brought his bride to live at Summer Lodge.
We serve tea in the Drawing Room, designed by Thomas Hardy, or The Conservatory, both of which give magnificent views across the expanse of manicured lawn. In the warmer months we also serve tea on the patio, or in the gardens. We even prepare picnics for those who will be out for the afternoon.
Secondly, the aristocracy would have been served their tea from silver tea pots and have drunk from porcelain cups. We do the same – it’s the only way to achieve the authentically exclusive ambience (a single cup, without saucer, costs us £26…so we wash up with care!).
Thirdly, one would employ plenty of staff and everything would be prepared in one’s own kitchen, including the cakes and pastries. We therefore employ three full time chefs whose efforts are solely dedicated to creating desserts, cakes and pastries exclusively for the consumption of our guests.
Finally, we offer a wide choice of high quality teas, served as a loose leaf with a tea strainer, as in the traditional manner favoured in the 19th century. Tea bags, like the practice of putting one’s milk into the cup before the tea, are to be frowned up by those in the know. We only use the modern invention of the tea bag where guests request a particularly rare tea that’s solely available in a bag.
One does, however, have to move with the times in some regards. We now offer low calorie Afternoon Teas, Gluten Free Afternoon Teas and thoroughly indulgent cream teas with freshly bakes scones, dollops of thick Dorset clotted cream and local strawberry jam (the Duchess of Bedford would have surely had to loosen her stays if she was to do this repast justice!). We also serve champagne by the glass or bottle – a relatively modern innovation of which I’m sure you’ll approve.
Throughout the year we also like to ring the changes on our Afternoon Tea menu and add an occasional air of novelty. It wouldn’t do on Downton Abbey but our guests enjoy it!
– Friday, 29 March to Monday 1 April Easter weekend. Our Afternoon Tea has a distinctive Easter theme.
– Sunday, 12 May to Sunday, 19 May. In honour of National Doughnut Week our Afternoon Tea menu will feature a choice of these irresistible delicacies.
– Monday, 12 August to Monday, 19 August. Afternoon Tea featuring lots of strawberries.
– Monday, 14 to Sunday, 20 October 2012. In honour of National Chocolate Week our Afternoon Tea menu will be suitably sticky and chocolatey.
To view the Summer Lodge Afternoon Tea menu, or to book, click here.