The act of drinking tea is seemingly engrained into the British experience. Rainy mornings call for a cuppa to start the day while foggy nights are best spend cozied up on the couch with a cup of herbal tea. We do drink tea at work (let’s face it, the caffeine helps us to get through the day), but home is what I most associate with the ritual of drinking tea in my fuzzy socks cozied up with a good book.
I recently took a trip to Highclere Castle in Newbury just about an hour’s journey from London. This trek back in time was well worth the trip. It was an absolutely stunning place to visit and the tour was only made better by ending the day with tea and cake in the castle’s beautiful rooms. As we were sitting there drinking tea, I started to think about the origins of the tea drinking ritual and how it came to be so integrated into the British experience.
One of the items in the house was an ornate tea caddy embellished with decoration and set in a place of prominence in the window. Our tour guide explained that this caddy would have served to hold the tea and was typically locked up because tea was so expensive and precious.
There are several such items in the Geffrye collection such as this (figure 1.) beautiful Box or tea caddy made from deal and veneered with plates of bone incised with neo-classical style foliate decoration and panels of pierced work, backed with gold leaf, possibly made in Europe, c.1790.
The act of drinking tea has gone from posh to quite normalized. It’s quite common to have a favourite tea-stained mug that is worn down over the years and a bit cracked. However, within the Geffrye collection there are beautiful examples of ornate tea cups from the 19th century. This tea cup made from glazed hard-paste porcelain, decorated with a transfer-printed design of birds with cherry blossom and foliage on a turquoise ground, functioned as part of a tea service and it thought to date c.1880. Tea cups are a thing of beauty and are often collected for their aesthetic qualities rather than their functionality.
Afternoon tea was introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. She was well known for her moody character and it is said that she use to become hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon. What made her feel upset was the long period of time between lunch and dinner, so she instructed that a tray of tea, bread and butter were to be brought to her room during the late afternoon. This became a habit of hers and she began inviting her upper-class friends to join her. Following this, afternoon tea became a trend and a fashionable social event. The society women would meet together and use the occasion to dress quite fashionably.
Having ‘tea parties’ is a sweet childhood activity for most children. I can remember sitting down with my band of teddy bears to regale them with stories over my tiny delicate china tea set. This glazed porcelain tea cup decorated with a painted band of flowers on an orange ground is from a child’s tea service set.
Do you have any tea stories you would like to share? Please comment below with what sitting down with a nice cup of tea means to you.