time for TEA

The past and present of Britain's favourite beverage by Jessica Cusack
Alice Paul English Suffragettes Tea House

Alice Paul conferring with English members of the Suffragette movement

originally a drink of the upper classes in Europe, tea was and remains a cross-class beverage in Britain. Whether you’re after a posh afternoon tea with all the trimmings or a mug of builders with your fry-up, London offers a wealth of ways to enjoy a cuppa.

The tea rooms of London played a surprisingly important role in the women’s suffrage movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as campaigners would congregate in these cafes and plot their protests without being disturbed. The idea of women roaming the city freely was a radical development of the early twentieth century – many women commented on the bewilderment of men who encountered them in such situations and, in a mix of propriety and disgust, left them alone. Tea rooms, and the relatively recent development of department stores such as Selfridges, became important all-female social spaces, making the suffrage planning easy. ‘Alan’s Tea Room’ on Oxford Street, in fact, was owned and run by Marguerite Alan Liddle, whose sister Helen went to prison for her involvement in militant suffrage.

Tea Scones London Teapot Jam Cream
‘Alan’s’ played host to many of the suffragettes who were either celebrating a recent victory or planning the next steps of the campaign – from protesting outside Parliament to smashing the windows of government buildings. Reviews of ‘Alan’s’ from the time mention the home-cooked food and pleasant surroundings, providing a cosy backdrop at odds with the danger and violence being planned at the tables. ‘Alan’s’ was on the second floor of the building, offering a degree of privacy and seclusion that would have been essential to the suffragettes’ planning and not possible at the time at the bigger chains like ABC and Lyons.

“The idea of women roaming the city freely was a radical development of the early twentieth century

If you’re now feeling indebted to the tea rooms that played a part in the advancement of gender equality, then why not visit their successors? The Ritz and Claridges are the most well-known of London’s afternoon tea scene and provide the most decadent and deliciously English experience. There are, however, plenty of other tea rooms suited for more casual meetings.

Urban Tea Rooms Contemporary Afternoon Tea

Urban Tea Rooms provide a contemporary take on traditional Afternoon Tea

The Berkeley Hotel is the go-to destination for any fashionista – their incredible ‘Pret-a-Portea’ features confectionery inspired by top fashion houses and designers’ recent collections. Moschino, Valentino and many more are renowned for making clothes that look good enough to eat – and now you can! A more casual experience can be found at Urban Tea Rooms, who provide a contemporary take on the traditional afternoon tea. For an international twist, Mari Vanna has received rave reviews for bringing a slice of Russia to London. This Knightsbridge café is the definition of kitsch – allowing customers to travel back in time to twentieth century Russia as they sip their jam-sweetened tea. Fur coat not essential.

The Hummingbird Bakery is another modern take on the traditional tea room and the sight of row upon row of colourful cupcakes is enough to turn any fully grown adult into an excited child. An altogether wackier afternoon can be spent at Bubbleology, purveyors of the weird and wonderful Bubble Tea. Bubble Tea consists of hot or cold fruit flavoured tea with tapioca balls. These sweet teas are delicious and refreshing, and the inclusion of the tapioca balls sucked up through a big straw make for a fascinating drink-snack combination.

So instead of refilling the kettle, why not go for a lovely cup of tea somewhere different? Try bonding over the beverage that catalysed civil wars and spurred-on soldiers in the trenches while appreciating the ease with which we now enjoy a cuppa-cha.

Bubble Tea Bubbleology London Tapioca Balls

A cup of ‘Bubble Tea’

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