Britain's Top 5 Tea Shops

Where to find the best, authentic, afternoon tea in the UK
Afternoon tea at Bettys tea room in York.

Strong-brewed builders’ tea, molten tea in Styrofoam cups served from roadside food vans, tea in a thermos at the seaside with rain lashing against umbrellas and Wellington boots — the British and their tea are never far apart.

But taking tea, whether it’s afternoon tea, high tea, or any variation on the ceremonial tradition, is something everyone can enjoy — no umbrella necessary and not a Styrofoam cup in sight. Usually consisting of a selection of cakes, scones with jam, delicate sandwiches, and carefully "mashed" tea, afternoon tea is as pretty as it sounds and twice as tasty.

London’s poshest hotels compete to be the afternoon tea destination of choice, but the best tea rooms are far from the maddening crowds of the capital. Come along for a tour of Britain's top five tea shops, from deepest Wales to the rugged North.

Britain's Top 5 Tea Shops:

5. Where could you find a more fitting location for a tea room than the village of Sandwich in Kent? A short drive from the dramatic white cliffs of Dover on the southeast coast, Sandwich is a sleepy settlement in the county known as "The Garden of England." It’s fitting, then, that this dainty tea room should be part of The Secret Gardens of Sandwich, which have delighted visitors for 100 years. The Salutation Tea Room, a bright and breezy café serving loose-leaf teas and homemade cakes and pastries, makes for a relaxing stop after an amble through the blooms.

4. For a U.K. city break on a smaller scale, York can’t be beat, and tea aficionados will know the northeastern city for Bettys, the tea room to end all tea rooms. With live piano music and the genteel Art Deco surroundings, Bettys at the Belmont Room is the epitome of high tea — and the cost reflects it. For an equally charming, if more relaxed (and cheaper!) experience, try the snug Gatehouse café, located within York’s ancient city walls. Lovely cakes are served in the closest thing to a cozy home inside the fortified stone walls.

3. If the tea party in Alice in Wonderland is your idea of a magical way to spend the day, pop into Biddy’s Tea Room, "a vintage tea house" in the small-but-perfect city of Norwich. Two hours northeast of London, Norwich is an easy daytrip by train and is packed full of Tudor buildings crookedly leaning over cobbled pedestrian areas such as Lower Goat Lane, home to Biddy’s. With its quirky assortment of mismatched cups and saucers, retro furniture and furnishings, and whimsical taxidermy, stepping into Biddy’s is like discovering your bonkers great-aunt’s immaculately preserved attic. But it’s not all style over substance: Biddy’s serves a serious afternoon tea, or even just a cup with a creatively flavored scone (lavender, anyone?)

2. Not strictly a tea room... OK, not a tea room at all but Quayside Lawrenny deserves a visit for its location as much as its outstanding cakes, scones, and tea. Tucked deep in the Pembrokeshire Coastal National Park, you’d have a hard time finding a prettier — or more out-of-the-way — place in Britain. It’s a long, long drive to this part of southwest Wales, but worth every liter of petrol (that’s gas, and incredibly expensive by American standards). Dramatic coastlines give way to gentle inlets of turquoise surf but Lawrenny — just down the winding road from the remarkable Carew Castle — sits quietly alongside a scenic estuary with sailboats bobbing gently in the tide. Inside, gooey banoffee pie competes with the "Quayside Lemon Thing" for your cakey affections, while more substantial offerings (local crab, lobster, and mackerel) are equally delicious.

1. In Britain, the National Trust is synonymous with immaculately maintained historic or otherwise significant properties, and its Sandleigh Tea Rooms are a stunning example. Perched above the gloriously sandy stretch of Croyde beach and surrounded by carefully tended flower and vegetable beds, Sandleigh’s location would be recommendation enough. But combined with its top-notch cream teas, it’s quite heavenly. For the uninitiated, cream teas are a particular specialty of the West Country, where the key ingredient, clotted cream, is produced. Now I know what you’re thinking: clotted cream does not sound very appealing, but trust me, the first time you taste this sticky cousin of butter spread thickly on a lofty scone with a dollop of strawberry jam... well, all doubts will be overcome. Add a pot of tea, a sea breeze, and views over the sunny Atlantic and all will be right with the world.

 

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