The traditional afternoon tea has been around since the mid-19th century, when Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, decided there should be an additional meal between lunch and dinner. Today, what was once a light afternoon snack has transformed into a veritable feast, comprising finger sandwiches, scones and cakes, plus plentiful cups of tea and a glass of fizz (or two). With the ability to be either formal or relaxed, the classic meal provides the perfect platform for both a celebration or a simple gathering with friends and family. If you’re wondering how to throw an afternoon tea party, let this guide be of assistance. We asked Interior Designer and expert host Juliette Byrne for her tips – read on for her advice on setting the table, creating atmosphere and making guests feel welcome.

Blue-and-white striped mugs and plates are laid on a garden table; the plate holds a cake decorated with berries.
A sunny conservatory is decorated with a patterned rug and a white metal bistro set.

Start with a Sociable Set Up

There are so many questions to ask when enjoying afternoon tea; for example, do you opt for fruit or herbal? Are you partial to a glass of fizz? Plus, there’s the age-old scone debate of which goes first: clotted cream or jam? But before you begin pondering these queries, there’s another you must tackle if you’re entertaining at home: where you are going to host your event? There are a number of different options, and your choice should come down to how formal (or informal) you wish the occasion to be. “It very much depends on the space and whether your home is a contemporary flat, a traditional Victorian property, or in the countryside,” says Juliette. “You should adapt your style to the type of event and environment that you’re hosting in.”

Those with more space to play with may prefer a more informal affair, where guests can spread out between rooms and, should the weather permit, flit between indoors and out. “If you have the space, you could place a round dining table in the hallway – or make one out of plywood – and place a beautiful OKA tablecloth over the top so you’ve got impact as soon as people walk in,” the designer explains. “You don’t necessarily need to put chairs around it; you could put them in different clusters, or do a mixture of chairs, ottomans and benches.” For something more formal, why not arrange a series of long tables together in one room? This allows you to adapt to the number of guests you have arriving.

Set the Table

How do you set up an afternoon tea at home? Look to your prettiest tableware and serving accessories for help. Afternoon tea is as much about the aesthetic as it is the food, so pay close attention to the details. “I think using a tablecloth is always really smart, as well as a mix of vintage and OKA napkins,” says Juliette. “I quite like putting a little something on each napkin, such as a hand-tied lavender sprig or a few sweet peas.” With the linens selected, think about how you might set the table. The designer is a fan of a layered look, with different patterns and designs brought together with a cohesive colour palette. “Pick out different types of cutlery and plates – I think having an eclectic look where it’s not so set works quite well, so you can mix in a little bit of personality,” she explains. “Use different coloured glassware too, and match the theme to the china, tablecloth and flowers. You can have it all quite neutral, but bring in a couple of colours to set the scene a little bit.”

As afternoon tea typically involves finger food, you needn’t be too formal with your place settings. A dinner plate at each setting, cutlery and perhaps a side plate will be enough for your guests. When it comes to serving food, you could stick with tradition and place vintage cake stands in the centre of the table, or fashion your own by placing a dinner plate on top of an upturned bowl. For something more relaxed, look to serving boards and giant chargers.

Cake and tea is served with red-and-white striped plates and white tea cups, set on a round stone table.
A blue patterned teapot is set on a table with a plate of cucumber sandwiches and embroidered napkins.

Serve a Delicious Feast

While afternoon tea tends to involve sandwiches (with the crusts cut off, of course), scones and sweet treats, you needn’t stick too close to tradition – use the classic afternoon tea menu as your base, and be bold with flavours. Ensure there is a good mix of savoury and sweet, and that there’s plenty to go around. When it comes to drinks, tea is of course essential, but don’t feel you need to stick to traditional English breakfast. “I think it would be fun to lay out different tea bags on one of OKA’s big plates and give everyone their own individual tea pot and teacup, so they can help themselves,” says Juliette. Depending on the occasion, it might be nice to have some champagne or Prosecco on offer, too. “I would use little vintage coupé glasses; they’re really fun and quite feminine,” the designer adds. “I would also put some nice decorative jugs on the table with either juice or elderflower cordial.”

Create Atmosphere

When it comes to hosting an event, as much thought should be given to how a space feels as to how it looks. Atmosphere is important to get right, as this is key to ensuring your guests feel comfortable and welcome. “I think scent and music really play into how a place feels,” Juliette says. “Tealights make a space feel very welcoming; light your candles a little bit in advance, so you’ve got a really nice look.” Flowers, too, can really help to bring an event to life, adding colour, pattern and a potential parting gift. “There are so many different ways of doing flowers; you can either do faux mixed in with real stems, or if you don’t want big centrepieces, you can create little bud arrangements in glass jars,” the designer says. “When guests leave, you might want to give a tiny present – just something small to help them remember the occasion, such as a little posy of hand-tied flowers.”

It’s little touches such as these that make the biggest difference to your guests’ overall experience, and it’s this, more than anything, that should be your top priority when hosting at home – whether an afternoon tea, a dinner or a simple catch up with friends. “The most important thing is to really make people feel welcome and at ease,” Juliette agrees. “I think having super formal occasions are not so good for socialising; when people relax and feel at home, it becomes a little more gregarious and people want to spend longer there. It’s about catering for the individual and making sure everyone feels welcome.”

To find out more about Juliette's world, visit her website.