There are few things more synonymous with Britain than drinking tea, especially from dainty china cups and saucers, served with sandwiches with the crusts cut off, scones and jam and petite cakes; and there is nowhere more synonymous with a classic afternoon tea than one of the archetypal, vintage London locations - The Savoy, the Ritz or Fortnum & Mason.
Fortnum & Mason is the quintessential British emporium.
It was founded in 1707 by William Fortnum, a footman to Queen Anne, who saw an entrepreneurial opportunity due to the insistence of the royals that they must have fresh candles every day. Fortnum took the half used ones, melted them down and sold them on.
With his landlord, Hugh Mason, they set up a small grocers in St. James's Market. Business boomed, particularly with the increase in travellers heading west, and they set about making portable food for the journeys.
They invented the Scotch Egg, developed luxury ready meals, created a special tea blend for Edward VII and introduced Heinz baked beans to the UK. Their famous hampers travelled the globe, with beef tea sent to Florence Nightingale for the wounded in Scutari, hampers donated to suffragettes to build up their strength after release from prison, to the front lines in Flanders and they were even taken up Everest and into the heart of Africa on assorted expeditions.
They are still innovating to this day, with the invention of the famous 'fourth blend' of chocolate, rooftop hives across the city and in 2020 they launched a website so that locked down citizens could still get their fix of Fortnum & Mason goods.
The shop today takes up much of Piccadilly. The building has undergone several changes, but their famous neo-Georgian design and Eau-de-nil green has remained. The intricate Fortnum & Mason clock was added to the exterior in 1964, with 4 foot high models of Mr. Fortnum and Mr. Mason who come out and bow to each other every hour, accompanied by 18th century music. In 2016 it was joined by a statue called 'King and Queen, sitting couple on a bench' by artist Lynn Chadwick, their modern steel, triangular bodies a complete contrast to the ornate Georgian architecture, yet looking strangely at home.
The interior of Fortnum & Mason is magnificent. Of all the old, classic shops in London, and there are many, this is easily my favourite. Everything just feels so very civilised. There are six floors which can be accessed by a modern helical stone staircase under a large atrium, or you can use my favourite, the traditional double staircase; wrought iron and a deep mahogany polished to a gloss by over 300 years of customers hands, the floor thickly carpeted giving a soft bounce to your step as you glide past the panelled walls.
The displays within are impressive; goods are stacked in perfect symmetry, lined up in faultless rows, piled in sumptuous mounds. Even the vegetables in the food hall are arranged in consummate harmony. Food on offer includes a huge variety of cheeses, condiments, scotch eggs of course, champagne, gin, biscuits, 500 types of chocolate, sweets and so much more.
Tea is ubiquitous, with a whole area of the first floor dedicated to a tea blending station where you can create your own bespoke blend. Their beautiful ceramics are on display, delicate china tea services with tea pots, silver tea strainers and cake stands.
The Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon is on the fourth floor, one of several restaurants and bars within the shop and it is the pièce de résistance of them all. Your entrance is accompanied by the music from the Steinway, with the resident pianist tickling the ivories while you check in. Your coats get whisked away to an unseen cloakroom and uniformed staff show you to your table.
The dining room is exquisite - all pale wood, linen tablecloths, soft padded chairs, light and airy white walls with accents of eau-de-nil. There is a cheerful yet peaceful ambience, the piano music drifting through the room mingling with the laughter and chatter from other guests. Glasses and cutlery shine, corks pop, teaspoons clink against bone china.
There are several types of afternoon tea on offer - traditional, savoury, vegetarian, vegan and gluten free. You just pick one and your type of tea, adding a glass of bubbles if required (which I felt I just had to, to really make the most of the experience). The tea arrives in tea pots with silver tea strainers and you can't help but feel the picture of elegance as you strain your loose leaf tea and sip it delicately, putting your cup back down into a dainty saucer.
From the moment you sit down, the service is wonderful. Understated yet attentive, everything arriving at the right time with regular offers of refills. Food varies according to which menu you order and the time of year - visiting in December we had the festive vegetarian afternoon tea.
The tea comes on a three tiered cake stand - sandwiches, scones and cakes, with a further cake stand for jam and clotted cream to go with the scones. An extra plate of cakes is brought out, so you don't have to argue over who is going to eat what.
It goes without saying that the food is fantastic, although it is far more filling than it looks and I made the classic rookie error - eating the scone before I had the cakes, leaving me little room for them. I did the best I could and valiantly struggled on, but had to admit defeat in the end and to my shame, I left a couple of cakes untouched.
The whole experience is wonderful, and while neither your wallets or waistlines will thank you if you eat there regularly, I do think that it is something that everyone should try once for the ultimate, classy London afternoon tea.
Tips for Afternoon Tea at Fortnum & Mason:
Book in advance
Don't worry too much about dress code, they are quite egalitarian
Allow at least a couple of hours
Make sure you are hungry!
They add a service charge to the bill - bear that in mind when working out if you can afford it
Visit off-season as apparently in summer the tearooms can be filled with tourists in shorts and t-shirts with their rucksacks lining the walls, which detracts from the rarified atmosphere you are paying for
Visiting at Christmas adds an extra air of festivity and means the shop and tea rooms are beautifully decorated