The British have long been known for their love of tea -- a custom acquired from the Chinese back in the 16th Century, when British entrepreneurs discovered this most refreshing of beverages and started to bring it to England, turning London into the tea capital of the west.

This started the tradition of the clippers: swift, square-rigged sailing vessels, which would race each other round the Cape of Good Hope in an effort to be first to dock in London with the new harvest of tea from China. One such tea clipper, The Cutty Sark, is preserved and is moored on the Thames at Greenwich, to the east of London.

The oldest tea merchant in the world is Twinings, who opened their tea warehouse in London in 1706. Today they are still very much in business, still selling tea and still run by the Twining family.

Two other tea merchants followed Twinings, eventually diversifying into selling more general goods. The oldest of the two is Fortnum and Mason, the world famous food store in Piccadilly. This was started by William Fortnum -- a retired footman, who used to work in nearby St James's Palace, serving the then monarch, Queen Anne. He was already in partnership with Hugh Mason, as he was allowed to keep the burnt down stubs of the candles that lit the royal palace, which Mason melted down to make new candles for sale.

Fortnum and Mason opened just a year after Twinings, in 1707, and immediately started to sell a wide range of high quality food -- including tea -- to the royal household and the local gentry. They also shipped tea to Florence Nightingale, when she was nursing in The Crimea. They are still going strong today and, when you visit London, you must visit "Fortnums", as they are known, and see the liveried shop assistants. And, if you are seeking that special Christmas gift, Fortnum and Mason gift hampers, presented in monogrammed wicker baskets are the epitome of fine food for the festive season.

In 1834, Henry Charles Harrod opened a wholesale grocery, specializing in tea, in Stepney in the east end of London. In 1849, he shrewdly moved to the new district of Knightsbridge, then in the countryside west of London. This lay just south of the original royal hunting area of Hyde Park, which was due to be the location of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

This relocation paid off handsomely for Harrod and his store grew and grew into the world famous Harrods, now occupying an impressive site in the same location as the original shop. They still sell tea today -- and a lot more besides. In fact their proud boast is they sell anything you might want. To reinforce this, their telegraphic address is: "Everything, London".

Taking afternoon tea in London has become something of a tradition. One of the most desirable locations for this is just along Piccadilly from Fortnum and Masons, at the Ritz Hotel, overlooking Green Park.

"Tea at the Ritz" became particularly popular in the early twentieth century, because it was the only place young ladies could visit unchaperoned. Today, it is a delight to be savored, with or without your chaperon! The standard of the tea, sandwiches (another famous dish invented in London by The Earl of Sandwich) and the cakes is impeccable.

Another excellent location for afternoon tea, when in London, is the English Tea Room of Brown's Hotel in Albemarle Street, Mayfair. This fine, traditional hotel was founded in 1837 by James Brown, butler to Lord Byron and his wife, who was Lady Byron's maid. Their hotel quickly became a meeting place for the local nobility and today is frequented by a wide clientele carrying on the tradition of enjoying English afternoon tea.

Copyright 2006 Jon Michael and

Jon Michael is a lifelong resident of London, England and owns His hobby is discovering the hidden stories about this fascinating world class city. Add to all that the daily honing of his knowledge of London as a taxi cab driver and you need look no further for information on the real London.

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