Britain has more than its fair share of ancient heritage, quirky ceremony, and spectacular pageantry – which is one of the main reasons so many people are keen to visit these islands. It’s a country with an amazingly rich history and culture, and despite the fact the glorious days of empire are now fading there’s still considerable pomp and circumstance woven into the fabric of everyday life.
If you doubt this, just observe the ceremony known as “Changing of the Guard”. It takes place in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s London residence at 11:30 daily from May until the end of July, and on alternate days for the rest of the year, weather permitting.
It involves a relatively simple process – the new guard taking over duties from the old guard. The occasion, however, is embellished by impressive marching bands, stirring military music and a colourful display provided by soldiers dressed in bearskins and red jackets. While the music and colour may remind you of Disney the truth is this has nothing to do with Hollywood – you are witnessing the British Empire’s equivalent of “shock and awe” and traditions that go back hundreds of years.
The responsibility of guarding the Sovereign by the Household Troops (as they were known at the time) dates back to the time of Henry VII (1485-1509). The men you see are serving soldiers, elite troops who belong to some of the very proudest regiments in the British Army – regiments who have distinguished themselves in virtually every major area of conflict since the 17th Century.
The impressive bearskin helmets date back to 1815 – they’ve been worn since the Battle of Waterloo, where they were taken as a badge of honour by the Grenadier Guards when they defeated Napoleon’s bearskin-wearing Imperial Guard. The distinctively vivid red uniforms date back even further. The Yeoman of the Guard and the Yeomen Warders, both formed in 1485, have always been clothed in Tudor red and gold. The red coat was adopted by the other infantry regiments in 1645 with the New Model Army ordinance.
While the Changing of the Guard is one of the more public displays of ceremony and tradition another is performed at regular intervals throughout the day in every home in the land – the making of the good old British Cuppa!
Tea, that most quintessential of English drinks, is a relative latecomer to British shores. The use of tea spread slowly from its Asian homeland, reaching Europe by way of Venice around 1560. It was first introduced to Britain in the 1640’s as sailors returning from the Far East brought back packets as gifts. By 1700 it had become a popular drink and was on sale in more than 500 coffee houses in London.
The occasion popularly known as “Afternoon Tea” was pioneered by Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, in 1840. In her household the evening meals were served fashionably late at eight o’clock, which left a long period between lunch and dinner. To stave off pangs of hunger she started to request a tray of tea, bread and butter along with some cake to be brought to her room in the late afternoon. This soon became a habit and she started to invite friends to join her for this daily ritual.
Initially this practice was limited to the upper classes and it is probably from this time that the notion of tea and the aristocracy became associated with each other. In the late 1800’s no well brought up young English women could consider herself socially acceptable unless she knew how to make and present Afternoon Tea.
As with any fashion, the hostesses did their best to outdo each other. Bread and butter were soon replaced by sandwiches filled with exotic ingredients such as lobster, smoked salmon, roast beef and these were served alongside scones, crumpets, teacakes, and English muffins.
“Taking tea” became so popular that the teashop emerged in London so that the sociable occasion could be enjoyed by the general public. In the late 1880’s hotels began to introduce tea courts and Afternoon Tea was established as a fashionable event.
Both traditions, Changing the Guard, and the ceremony of “taking afternoon tea”, converge on the Rubens at the Palace Hotel. As the name suggests, it is the nearest hotel to Buckingham Palace, and the Afternoon Tea is widely regarded as amongst the best in London.
It is served between 2:00pm and 4:30pm from Monday to Friday and between 1:00pm and 4:30pm on Saturdays and Sundays, in the Palace Lounge. With a large window running the entire length of the room, and directly overlooking the Palace Mews, it is the perfect spot for observing the regular comings and goings at her Majesty’s Royal residence.
Guests who order the traditional afternoon tea are treated to a selection of delicate finger sandwiches, freshly baked Scones with Devonshire clotted cream, chocolate truffle cake, strawberry fruit tartlet, cup cake and creamy meringue, accompanied by a tea of their choice. Royal Palace High Tea includes the addition of a glass of Joseph Perrier Demi-Sec Champagne, while the cream tea comprises freshly baked scones, served with Devonshire Clotted Cream.
It was Henry James who observed that “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” And there are few places more agreeable than the Rubens at the Palace for observing those two great institutions – the English Monarchy and Afternoon Tea.