A clock plods through its strict rhythm as the clink of china echoes through the drawing room. A Union Jack plays hide-and-seek at the window when the teapot isn’t watching and a platter of cucumber sandwiches make themselves comfy for afternoon tea.
It’s hard to play tourist in your own country. Particularly when your own country’s customs derive from other countries and when even the question of which country you come from turns a straightforward question into a geopolitical Sudoku. England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, Wales. They’re not the same thing, in case you were wondering…
I’m at The Cranley, a luxury boutique hotel in the devilishly handsome London borough of Kensington & Chelsea. Upstairs waits a four-poster bed with free wifi, a fluffy dressing gown and that quintessential British biscuit the Jammy Dodger, sidling up to its old ally, the plain digestive. But they can wait…
Right now, I’m sitting here enjoying Afternoon Tea and reflecting on the unusual journey of those small brown leaves.
Just a few weeks ago, I stood in the sweaty hills of the Cameron Highlands, where shrubs tickled the ridges and contours of the tea plantations that rise and fall across central Malaysia.
We walked between them, the sun pressing against our skins, the hum of insects and scattered birdsong crowding into our jet-lagged minds.
Behind panes of glass, tea leaves withered, rolled, fermented and then dried themselves before freshening up and hopping into packets ready to travel the world.
Malaysia is hardly the world’s top tea producer. Yet, back in London, scone in hand, I remembered just how Asian this English custom is.
In Japan I knelt on the floor, kneecaps howling, as a woman performed the Karantei Tea Ceremony in Matsushima. There tea came with rice cakes and perfection, served on a tatami mat.
In China, men carried around jam jars, sloshing with a warm cocktail of pond juice that tasted surprisingly good.
And in the Boh plantation in central Malaysia, tea came with the offer of a Firecracker hot dog.
Here in The Cranley, Afternoon Tea obeys the traditional English customs.
Juicy strawberries with scones dusted in the softest white sugar. Plum, cream and chocolate treats beneath the twinkle of the chandelier. Silver tongs for rough-edged cubes of sugar and paper doilies resting provocatively on gleaming plates.
And among this elegant feast of cakes and tea, fresh salmon and chopped egg sandwiches, I find the component that mystifies me still: the near tasteless and always soggy fingers of cucumber sandwiches.
I think it’s time we took on another Asian tradition. Rice cakes anyone?
Disclosure: I received a special rate for my Afternoon Tea at The Cranley and in Matsushima. Nothing from the Jammy Dodger Foundation though…
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com