Duchess left a legacy for the great tea party

Sculpture Gallery at Woburn
Sculpture Gallery at Woburn

A grand indoor street party is being hosted in Woburn to commemorate the Queen’s 90th birthday and the creation of the traditional afternoon tea at the Abbey.

The Sculpture Gallery is the setting for the party on Sunday, May 15, with guest having the chance to experience a sumptious English tea, in the style first popularised by Duchess Anna Maria, wife of the 7th Duke of Bedford in the 19th century.

Experts in afternoon tea from the historic estate give a view into the birth of this quintessentially British treat and how it has evolved over the years.

Duchess Anna Maria (1783-1857), one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, is credited with popularising afternoon tea and the format it is widely enjoyed in today.

While it was customary to eat a light lunch and enjoy a later dinner, around 9pm, the Duchess is reported to have suffered ’a sinking feeling’ mid-afternoon.

At first, the Duchess asked her servants to bring a pot of tea and a few light morsels into her dressing room. Woburn Estate sales receipts from the time show that she would have been served Souchong tea which is likely to have been accompanied by bread and butter. This soon became a habit and she would invite her friends to join her.

The menu for this new social occasion centred on small cakes, bread and butter sandwiches, assorted sweets and, of course, tea. This was quickly picked up by other social hostesses including Queen Victoria who by 1855 was regularly hosting formal afternoon teas. It is here that the addition of the famed Victoria sandwich is likely to have become a staple on the menu.

By the end of the century, due to a drop in the price of sugar and spices, what had been a social indulgence of high society had crossed all class barriers. Mrs Beeton’s nationally popular Book of Household Management (1879 edition) describes a typical menu ‘as hot buttered toast, tea cakes, new laid eggs and homemade preserves and cakes’.

Later during Queen Mary’s reign, for whom afternoon tea was a cherished pastime, the format was perfected. Dinner at Buckingham Palace by Paul Fishman describes ‘sandwiches, cakes and biscuits invitingly set out on gleaming silver dishes.’

Service plates and fine tea sets became treasured family possessions and were passed from generation to generation.

After the Second World War and up until the late 1990s, the popularity of afternoon tea waned in the United Kingdom. The end of rationing and a faster pace of life meant people struggled to find the time in the working day to pause for tea and cake with friends. Afternoon tea became a rarity for most and was largely only enjoyed by high society.

In the early 2000s, tea rooms and hotels throughout the country saw a boom in demand for afternoon tea. The fashion to offer wacky and creative permutations of this centuries old tradition reflected trends in fine dining restaurants. Themes such as ‘The Mad Hatters Tea Party’ and ‘Charlie & The Chocolate Factory’ saw many adventurous flavour combinations added to the menu as well as the consumption of alcohol.

More recent times have seen a return to the once widespread traditional format.

Sue Crowley, general manager at The Woburn Hotel, said: “We are very proud of The Woburn Estate’s heritage and the link we have to afternoon tea thanks to Duchess Anna Maria.

“We are really looking forward to welcoming people from all over the region to our indoor street party celebrations. The Woburn Estate offers the idyllic backdrop to relax with friends and enjoy a delightful afternoon tea while celebrating Her Majesty’s birthday.”

Visit http://www.thewoburnhotel.co.uk/events/indoor-street-party-celebrate-queen-elizabeths-90th-birthday/