One of the things I like to stress is that living life to the full – enjoying the journey – is not only about adventurous experiences or travelling to distant lands. There is everything right with enjoying the finer things in life, and close to home. Last weekend LincsGeek and I headed up to Harrogate, one of the UK’s oldest spa towns, to take afternoon tea at arguably the country’s most famous tea rooms – Bettys.
Afternoon tea is one of those British traditions that dates back years. It goes back to the early 19th Century when the norm was to only eat two meals a day – breakfast first thing in the morning and dinner at around 8pm. Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, is said to have complained of “having that sinking feeling” during the afternoon and so would request a pot a tea and a light snack to be taken privately in her bedroom during the afternoon. She started to invite friends over to join her, and when she moved to London the tradition increased with invitation cards and a more formal setting in the stately home drawing room. I am not surprised it caught on.
Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms, Harrogate – Image from Bettys.
Bettys (that’s right, no apostrophe) opened in Harrogate in 1919, and is one of the original public tea rooms. Our afternoon tea vouchers meant we could book ahead of time, which is always a good idea – if you’ve ever been to Harrogate (or York, or any of the others) you will know there is pretty much always a queue of people waiting to get in the cafe snaking around the building. On arrival at our allotted time slot we were able to bypass the queue and head up the stairs to the Imperial Suite.
The experience starts from the moment you reach the top of the stairs. We were greeted by a very cheery and properly dressed lady who took our coats and introduced us to another lady who showed us to our table. We were seated by the window overlooking the Montpellier Gardens, which meant I had a great view of the apartment block where my Nan was based during the war when she inspected Spitfires. The sun was bright and while the room was traditional in its decor, it was spacious and large. I was surprised to see only a few tables occupied considering the queue for the cafe, but afternoon tea here can only be pre-booked, and by the time we left the room was a buzz with groups and couples taking high tea at the more traditional time of 3.30pm.
To add to the atmosphere, there was a gentleman sat in the corner playing background music on a piano. He played all kinds of things – show tunes, classical music, pop classics. LincsGeek and I played spot the tune as he seemed to add little snippets of one piece into another, and often in unusual time signatures. The music was a lovely addition to the setting.
We had a menu allowing us to choose from 18 speciality teas, which is a much harder decision than you might think. There were traditional every day and afternoon teas as well as green and white; but I decided to go for the strongest tea on the menu – the Pure Assam, a strong bodied from north east India. It was brought in a silver pot-for-one along with extra hot water (done properly!), milk, sugar and of course a little silver tea strainer. As we had different teas LincsGeek had his own little teapot; the pots poured perfectly, a lot of cafes could learn a lot here, no dribbles or leaks from these spouts! I must have drunk seven or eight cups of mine, it was very tasty and I was making the most of it – I feel I should add that (of course) the cup was of the little-china-variety so it wasn’t like I drank eight mugs of tea!
I sneaked just one photo of our cakes; I didn’t want to raise any eyebrows in the traditional setting by taking lots of snaps on my phone.
Traditional high tea includes quite a lot of food, and while everything might have been in miniature, LincsGeek and I had plenty to eat and did not need any dinner that evening. Our menu explained what we should expect and our waiter asked if we had any preference on the sandwich fillings – we didn’t and so he brought out our three-tiered afternoon tea serving plate and gave us a well rehearsed description of its contents.
The bottom plate consisted of eight small rectangular sandwiches, two each of prawn and salmon, ham and mustard, Coronation chicken, and egg and cress. They were really delicious; the crusts had been cut off the bread of course, and there was plenty of fresh and very tasty feeling inside. As we finished the last one our waiter returned to our table to see if we wanted any more sandwiches before we moved on to the sweet food – I was impressed as this showed the wait staff were being very attentive as they noticed the right point to come and ask. For the record we declined.
The middle plate contained four small fresh sultana scones and little dishes of Yorkshire clotted cream and strawberry preserve. The scones looked tiny, but once we started eating then we realised they were (of course) just right. There was just enough cream and jam for the four scones, we could have eaten more but with some careful sharing out it was fine – I am certain we would have been given more if we had requested it. The scones were perfectly cooked; a little crisp on the outside and light and soft inside. The best bit of the afternoon tea, in my opinion.
The top tier was full of miniature cakes and pastries. The main event, if you like, and definitely the bit that LincsGeek had been waiting for all day! Rather than giving us two each of three cakes, we had six different cakes to try; each was two or three bites in size and so could easily be halved to share, but we chose to pick three each. They were exquisite. Really beautifully made, they both looked the part sat on that tall plate, and tasted excellent. My favourite was the mini Victoria sponge, LincsGeek’s was the double chocolate brownie with chocolate mousse (the one in the photo above). The fruit tart came a very close second for me. Really wonderful.
The relaxed atmosphere continued once we had finished and there was no rush for us to finish chatting away and leave the Imperial Suite. We were presented with the bill, which we ‘paid’ with our two Afternoon Tea vouchers, and were able to leave in our own time without feeling any pressure to vacate the table. We were quite full, even having not eaten since breakfast, and I can definitely see why the Duchess of Bedford included a “walk in the fields” in her afternoon tea invitations to friends.
If you are considering treating yourself to afternoon tea then Bettys is definitely one of the best places in the country to take it. My recommendation is to go for the one in the Imperial Suite, which is slightly dearer than the cafe, but it was such a nice all-round experience those few extra pounds are worth it. It was a delight to tick this one off my bucket list, a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon.