A traditional afternoon tea on the banks of the River Thames in the incredible 900-year-old setting of the Palace of Westminster.
Talk about amazing venue. What better location to have afternoon tea – something so traditionally English – than in a place so full of English, and British, history as the Houses of Parliament.
As a Londoner, I haven’t done a lot of the touristy things, perhaps because I can go to the Tower or Westminster Abbey whenever I fancy it. I’m not sure why I grouped visiting the grand buildings where my country’s parliament sit in the touristy bracket but I did, so I jumped at the chance to tour the corridors of British history and sample the treats from the Thames-side afternoon tea rooms.
Having made it through the airport-like security, our footsteps echoed into Westminster Hall, the grand entrance to the Palace of Westminster. Just like the confectionary curiosity before being led down to the afternoon tea terrace, the grand hall holds a special feeling of anticipation for what the rest of this incredible building will offer. Built in 1097 by the son of William the Conqueror, William II, the hall has seen over 900 years of British history, law and life pass through it. Which other sovereigns and laws, prime ministers and plots have journeyed through this grand Palace? We spent an hour strolling through the chambers, lobbies and along corridors finding out before letting it all soak in over afternoon tea on the terrace.
The afternoon tea doesn’t come as a stand-alone option, it’s the cherry on top of the cake after either a guided or audio tour through the Houses of Parliament. We chose the audio tour so we could go at our own pace.
This table service afternoon tea is taken in a riverside room, two sittings per afternoon at 70 people at a time. We waited in the central lobby, the core of the Palace of Westminster which is used as a meeting place for Members of both Houses (Lords and Commons). We were taken down stairs and along corridors and welcomed like dignitaries onto the enclosed terrace. Senior Doorkeeper Kieron Power beamed a warm-hearted welcome to us in the central lobby while dressed immaculately in tails. In fact, all the staff who we met that day, either on the tour, in the shop or who served us during the afternoon tea, were genuinely lovely with big smiles and easy laughter who wanted to make our experience as pleasant as possible. (Although I did secretly hope we’d be served by a few MPs).
Let’s face it, sandwiches in an afternoon tea are a bit like the beginning of any tour – you enjoy them but sort of want to get through them quickly so you can get to the good bits. The cream cheese and minted pickled cucumber sandwich was particularly nice, as was the char grilled cajun aubergine and vegan pesto on tomato bread. As your feet click on the stone floors and you walk past the statues and the dark wood soaked with whispers and sights of years gone by, you enjoy it but are intrigued to see the grand chambers ahead (I would have been happy to have had an extra cucumber sandwich though).
Although the afternoon tea is hosted on the marquee-style terrace rather than in beautiful dark panelled rooms, you’re never far from remembering where you are. The House of Commons has its own crockery and cutlery, along with the option of House of Commons labelled wine and champagne should you choose to raise a toast to your tour. And of course, the view of the Thames is wonderful, I’m not even sure where you can get closer to it while eating in London.
Unusual perhaps to compare the House of Lords to scones. The middle of the tour, the second tier of the afternoon tea – full of tradition, properly English, rich. The nice curl of cream was deceiving, it looked smaller than it was but it was the first time I’ve ever been given just the right amount of cream and jam. Maybe it was down to having just one raisin scone each, but it made me savour the warm scone more. Very tasty with my earl grey and the view of the Thames at dusk.
The House of Commons is the treat at the end of the tour, the dessert of your afternoon tea. So this is where it all happens, the country is led and decisions are made. Your feet may be weary from all the walking but do not sit down on one of the worn-out green leather benches. If you ignore the very polite requests, you’ll soon learn that it is not ok to sit down in a seat you weren’t elected to. MPs only on those green benches (green in the House of Commons where laws are made, red in the House of Lords where those laws are stopped if they are no good). Instead we listened to our audio guide tell us about the history of the House of Commons, looked up at the Strangers Gallery (public gallery) and stood at the despatch boxes where the leaders of Government and the Opposition debate.
Although very attractive, the deserts were a little bit like how Parliament are right now –underwhelming. The lemon macaron was a bit too sharp for me, but some people really enjoyed them so it’s all about personal taste. The other two deserts – millionaires shot and a tart – didn’t really have as much taste as they looked as though they should so I just had half of each.
Remember though that this is about the venue – the afternoon tea is a lovely way to end a special afternoon in London rather than your main reason for going. It’s a real privilege to be able to walk around this incredible building and it’s not often you get to enjoy afternoon tea at a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Soak up the history, slurp up your tea, devour the scones and enjoy the views.
Afternoon Tea at the Houses of Parliament Menu:
- Salt beef with grain mustard mayonnaise and watercress in brioche bun
- Salmon gravadlax with horseradish cream and lemon gel on ciabatta
- Cream cheese and minted pickled cucumber on rye bread
- Char grilled Cajun aubergine, vegan pesto and oven dried tomatoes on tomato bread
- House of Commons sultana scone with strawberry jam and Devonshire clotted cream
- Passion fruit, strawberry and pistachio tart
- Millionaires shot
- Seasonal French style macaron
- Vegetarian and gluten-free options can be arranged if requested when booking. No dairy-free option.
- Full English, Decaffeinated, The Earl, Assam, Sencha green tea, fruit tea, camomile, peppermint
- House of Commons labelled red and white wine, plus House of Commons labelled champagne
The children’s afternoon tea option is recommended for younger children (up to age 12):
- Cheddar, cream cheese and chive sandwich
- Tuna mayonnaise and cucumber mini brioche roll
- Selection of vegetable and potato crisps
- Vegetable sticks with houmous dip
- Chocolate cake pop
- Seasonal natural fruit jelly
- Big Ben shaped shortbread biscuit
- Warm chocolate chip scone
- Strawberry milkshake