The was a time in England when it was an awfully long time between lunchtime and dinner. A stomach-rumbling eternity.
That was back in the horrid 1700s. Mercifully, in 1830, Duchess Anna Maria, wife of the 7th Duke of Bedford, created an ingenious solution, in her Blue Room at Woburn.
Tea. Afternoon tea. Tiny sandwiches and impossibly intricate cream cakes, rounded off with scones, jam and cream, all served on a three-tier dish for maximum accessibility.
Afternoon tea was an instant hit, because not only did it fill a lady’s stomach to prevent it making loud and brash observations in the early evening; it filled a spiritual gap, too.
Four and six in the evening, in England, is an odd time. It can drag its feet somewhat. Gape, even.
I have a feeling that was in the mind of Lewis Carroll when he wrote about that famous tea party hosted by a mad milliner around 1865. The Mad Hatter’s tea party has a nightmarish quality. It is endless, with a garrulous host who will not shut up and another guest who keeps falling asleep. It has a familiar ring to it; I surmise that Carroll was no stranger to the Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.
These days, though, the afternoon tea is Heritage. It can set you back more than £50 at some of the big hotels, and even the English occasionally succumb to the inflated prices for a plate of sandwiches and cakes and a hired pianist. It is teatime theatre: porcelain, hats, raised pinky fingers. Classic.
A word in your ear.
If you head out of London towards the M3 you wil happen upon Kew Gardens.
A horticultural feast, Kew is full of the wondrous. The architecture alone causes gapery, with its steampunk Victorian palm house and temperate houses, great 19th century glass habitats; a treetop walkway affords views across gorgeous mature forest and that area of London; there are installations and a boating lake and a towering Chinese pagoda and suchlike.
But ignore everything except the path to the Palm House. Look not to left or to right; climb the winding white stair to the first floor walkway and look out over the back lawn.
And you will see a tea party in full session.
Gracious, I though; I had no idea you could hire this place for events on the lawn outside the Palm House!
And then I looked closer. People were milling around the table for 28.
How impertinent, I mused.
I forgot about it until later, when I ambled straight into the table. It is part of the Incredible Inedible festival at Kew. I was ambling absent-mindedly back from the Temperate houses, on the phone to my mother, and there it was: a tea party in session. But in every teapot was a plant growing, in every cup an enchanting English country flower.
The Rose Garden Tea Party is an installation by Kirsti Davies. Every piece of porcelain has been collected especially for this table, and especially to hold the plants which are used to create an English afternoon tea party.
It is, quite simply, delectible. And though one does not get cream cakes, the visual feast is sumptuous.
I took pictures and pictures and pictures. And now I want to go back and take more pictures. Everlasting, sunkissed, al fresco, porcelain teatime.
And then I pottered off to the Orangery for afternoon tea.