Afternoon tea, that ubiquitous British ritual, was invented by Anna, Duchess of Bedford, in the early 19th century. Tea had long been established as a fashionable drink for the British upper classes (its popularity began when Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, brought it over with her from Portugal, where it was a popular beverage at the Portuguese court), but it was customarily drunk alone. Anna found that she tended to get a little peckish in the afternoons, since dinner was typically served late, between 7 and 8:30 p.m., if not later. So, she asked her cook to prepare a light repast to be eaten with her tea. Since she was a duchess, it wasn’t long before this became fashionable amongst the British aristocrats, and soon enough it spread to middle and upper class households across the country.
Nowadays, a formal afternoon tea is commonly taken as a treat in a tea shop or hotel, and it usually includes a three-tiered stand with sandwiches, scones with jam and clotted cream, and dainty desserts, served with a pot of loose-leaf tea. Although most places stick to the traditional tea service, some have begun to branch out and have a little fun with it. The Berkeley Hotel in London, for example, serves a Prêt-à-Portea, which features treats inspired by the latest fashions from Fashion Week!
It should be noted that Afternoon Tea is not the same thing as High Tea, although the two are often confused. High Tea was typically an early evening meal consisting of cold meat, eggs or fish, cakes, and sandwiches. Historically, High Tea was taken by the working classes, while Afternoon Tea was enjoyed by the middle and upper classes.