Some cultural events are so rarified and so famous, that you’d be hard pushed to find more than a handful of natives that have actually taken part, for fear of appearing to be a walking cliche. The wearing of a bowler hat, for example, or living in a thatched cottage. And the rakish topper on all of this is the fabled afternoon tea at the Ritz.
First of all, afternoon tea isn’t really a thing. It may have been a thing once, among people with the time to spare, but it certainly isn’t now. Tea is nice, afternoons are nice, but afternoon tea as a ritual that the English observe regularly has gone the way of the Oliver Hardy moustache.
However, there is still the magical pull of the Ritz, the creme dans la scone of well-to-do hotels, with a particularly, er, ritzy restaurant, the Palm Court. Tourists love it, and when I say tourists, I’m not restricting myself to those from outside of the British Isles either. You go to London, visit a few museums, book tickets for a show at the West End, and treat yourself to afternoon tea at the Ritz: bone china, sandwiches, a selection of scones and cakes and you can pretend to be royalty for a couple of hours.
And as with any ritual, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. Gentlemen, you’ll need a jacket, shirt and tie. Ladies, dress with decorum in mind, and raised and sweary voices are not welcome. Do not flop your laptop on the table and demand to know the wifi password. Be respectful, just as you would be to a masseuse with long fingernails. If you treat the situation with respect, there is far less chance of injury.
Incidentally, should you find yourself elsewhere in the UK, amid signs offering a cream tea, this is a kind of scaled-down version of afternoon tea. You don’t need to dress up, you still get the tea, but not the sandwiches. Instead there are scones, which you spread with clotted cream and strawberry jam. If you’re in Devon, you put the cream on first, and if you’re in Cornwall, you put the jam on first. These things matter if you’re in the middle of an intense rivalry. It’s like Crips vs Bloods, only with cakes.