Having been fortunate to travel several times in England as a young man, I remember being quite pleased with the custom of high tea. It reminded me of younger days when my family would “beagle” on Sundays after church.
Beagling is a civilized sport, alternating between quiet moments walking through the woods listening to dogs working the leaves to wilder episodes running behind a pack of hounds on the trail of a wild rabbit. The sound of the master’s horn and the words “Pack together!” along with the barking of a happy pack of beagles before a chilly hunt is a memory etched in my mind. After several hours of walking- and sometimes running- through the woods, the “field” would retire to a prepared English tea.
The offerings included all sorts of finger foods, both sweet and savory and of course, hot tea. Sandwiches are a tea time standard.
I cannot resist the amusing distraction of sharing etiquette tips as explained by various tea time experts. Afternoon tea is an activity among friends. I cannot remember an afternoon tea in my life that did not follow several hours of hiking when traveling or hunting with the beagles, so loud conversations, big fireplaces, ruddy cheeks and lots of banter are part of the discipline. To me, tea time is something that follows sport. The focus on etiquette might suggest tea time is somehow more, well, "refined." While the refined among us may enjoy the social aspects of tea time, I can say from experience that it is most assuredly a tradition for all ages and sexes.
What might seem at first a focus on fussy manners actually has practical application, particularly after an afternoon of outside sport. Conditions might include mud encrusted pant legs and other aspects of the day’s adventures. So it is not by accident that you do not put your napkin back on the seat when getting up from the table. The proper etiquette is to leave it to the left side of your place setting. This avoids any unsightly and expensive stains on the seat cushions. Some tea customs are rooted in common sense, some originated as stylish convention and others have to do with the whole art of the story.
Pinkies up: This was originally about balancing a cup in the days before handles were common. From my view, this concession to manners is purely stylistic.
Scones: Never use a fork and no dunking in tea, please. Tea is not ever to be dunked in. Being a Yank, I am sure I have broken these rules. Hungry after a hunt, I may have applied a fork to a scone- or dunked. I think I tried to use my lack of training as an excuse.
Stirring: Do not stir your tea with your spoon in sweeping circular motions. Place your tea spoon at the six o’clock position and softly fold the liquid towards the twelve o’clock position two or three times.
Spoons: Never leave your tea spoon in your tea cup. When not in use, place your tea spoon on the right side of the tea saucer.
Waving: Never wave or hold your tea cup in the air. When not in use, place the tea cup back in the tea saucer.
Buffet seating: If you are at a buffet tea, hold the tea saucer in your lap with your left hand and hold the tea cup in your right hand (unless you are left handed). When not in use, place the tea cup back in the tea saucer and hold in your lap.
I am sure I have seen the Master of the Hunt and the occasional Whip break most of these rules. But it was always in the context of a story about chasing down a wayward beagle who had raised a deer, or a left handed rabbit being chased by a well humored right handed beagle. The very breaking of rules only made the story more important. It provided an emphasis that most friends noticed because of the variation from standard etiquette. Attention would ebb and flow from individual to group conversations. It seems to me these rules are actually important nonverbal cues to pay attention to each other and, of course, to not break the china.