My friend Karen and her daughter are late, and I’m as jumpy as a cat. My stepdaughter Annie and I need our sugar hit. We’re at The Wolseley in London for afternoon tea. Waiters are cruising the Florentine marble floors, delivering tiered towers of finger sandwiches, small cakes and fruit scones to neighboring tables. I can almost taste the flaky scones hiding beneath the silvery dome atop each tower. My husband, meanwhile, is fortifying himself with a gin and tonic for the two-hour ordeal of women’s gabfest and sweets.
Some traditions must be carried on, no matter the cost. When I was a young foreign correspondent in the ’80s, firing off news bulletins about coups in Africa or the war in the Falklands from the safe environs of London, afternoon tea was usually a tired tea bag dipped repeatedly in hot water from the office kettle. Work hardly stopped: Telexes still chattered, and we slogged away in front of massive VDTs (video display terminals, which displayed just one color: green). But no matter what crisis was developing, we all snuck away for tea.
Click here to read about Associate Editor Jan Hubbard’s tour of the best food in England.
The custom of afternoon tea apparently started with the Seventh Duchess of Bedford in the early 19th century. Dinner in the English countryside was served late, 8ish or 9ish, and the duchess would get peckish, so she started ordering tea and cakes as well as bread and butter to her room in the afternoon. (Where she put all that food is a mystery: Pictures show her with an impossibly tiny waist.) Then she invited friends over, and the idea took off. Today, afternoon tea includes little cakes and scones as well as finger-sized sandwiches made with the freshest bread possible (crustless, of course) and a variety of fillings: egg salad, salmon, thinly sliced cucumbers with butter, chicken salad with tarragon. Everyone around us at The Wolseley is already eating. Where are they?
An aside about food in London: We ate fabulously, though it was a tad ruinous on the pocketbook. We started at Amaya, the chic Indian restaurant in Knightsbridge created by the Veeraswamy family, who initiated me to the subcontinent’s food in the ’80s. We dove in with the chef’s tasting menu, sampling moist chicken tikka, sea bass with potato chaat, and the best lamb chops ever. It was worth the three-figure ransom (per person). A day later, when we could wait no longer for fish-and-chips, we popped into chef Jamie Oliver’s Covent Garden digs at Union Jacks and crunched our way to fried-fish happiness while diners around us dug into wood-fired pizzas.
At vacation’s end, we even nabbed a reservation at The Ivy in the West End theater district, the place to be seen during the heyday of Laurence Olivier and Marlene Dietrich. (These days, it might be Kate Moss or Sienna Miller.) We marveled at the room’s energy as we feasted on lamb and veal, followed by a Baked Alaska dessert in honor of Annie’s graduating high school. The dessert prep — flames leaping off the cake, ice cream and meringue — had panache, but the flambéed liquor aftertaste was a bigger hit with aging mama than it was with the ingenue.
London has changed a lot since the ’80s, beginning with the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel cantilevered over the River Thames near Parliament. It is now the city’s biggest attraction. We enjoyed sights I snubbed as too touristy while living there — the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London, the Egyptian mummies at the British Museum and the tombs at Westminster Abbey (3,300 tombs and counting!). Highlight of our trip? The Churchill War Rooms, located underground just blocks from Westminster.
From 1939 until World War II ended in 1945, Prime Minister Winston Churchill retreated to these underground headquarters whenever the German blitz got too bad. The Map Room, the 24-hour hub of information during the war, has been preserved to look as it did when the lights went out in August 1945, with maps on the wall showing the war as far away as Java. A central desk still sports the “beauty chorus” — a row of color-coded phones (red, green, white and black) that connected the War Cabinet to the outside. Here sits Churchill’s bedroom (with a map of possible invasion routes by Hitler’s armies), as well as the prime minister’s trans-Atlantic telephone room — a space so small and secret that staff thought it was a toilet for VIPs. The Churchill War Rooms alone are worth a half-day, taking viewers from the whiskey-swigging war correspondent to the iconic statesman who held Britain steady through its darkest hour. The museum is a sobering reminder of why we travel — to learn.
Karen and Claire, victims of London traffic, finally arrived for tea, and we demolished nearly three towers of sandwiches and scones. When we finished, it was cocktail time, so we ended the day with gin-infused Pimm’s Cups — and a toast to trans-Atlantic friendships.