Taking a lesson in British etiquette at Beaverbrook estate

Philip Sykes and Lady Isonel Kershaw (Andy Newbold Photography)

Philip Sykes and Lady Isonel Kershaw (Andy Newbold Photography) - Credit: Archant

Good table manners have long been a source of national pride but in this modern age of social media are our longstanding traditions being left behind? Rebecca Younger visits the stately Beaverbrook estate for a lesson in British etiquette

The nation’s eyes continue to be fixed on Meghan Markle, some no doubt waiting for her to slip up on the strict traditional royal protocol. It’s a world away from her Hollywood life and one the new Duchess of Sussex has been thrown into at quite some pace – so can one really learn the art of British etiquette?

I meet Walton on Thames resident Philip Sykes, who is principal of The British School of Etiquette, and fellow Surrey resident Lady Isobel Kershaw, who is founder of style consultancy The Stylist London, at the magnificent Beaverbrook estate near Leatherhead for a lesson on the proper way to do things over a spot of afternoon tea.

Prior to setting up the British School of Etiquette five years ago, Philip worked in hospitality both in London and in South Africa, where he grew up. In his 20s, he was the proprietor of Pages in Thyme, which was renowned for its high-class service and considered one of South Africa’s top 10 restaurants in the 90s. After moving to the UK, he was asked by an old friend who owned a butler school to help run some courses and from there, decided to set up his own school of etiquette.

The school collaborates with a number of people, like Lady Isobel, who have expertise in all manner of areas from fashion and posh dinners to wine, cigars and even etiquette for children.

“We’re about far more than just etiquette and manners however,” explains Philip. “We give people the tools and skills to help build confidence. Everything is about confidence in this world and when you feel comfortable in what you’re wearing, comfortable in who you are and how you present yourself in a room, comfortable in how you introduce yourselves to people and the right things to do in any given situation, you will have great confidence.”

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Dress to impress

Coincidently, on my way to our meeting, a segment came on the radio about etiquette at funerals and in particular what you should wear. So I ask Philip and Lady Isobel what the correct protocol is.

“My opinion is to see that person off to wherever they are going with great joy and respect and if you wear something that’s flamboyant but that respects the character of that individual, then that’s fine,” says Philip. “Generally I think there should be some form of black but that doesn’t mean you can’t wear some colour; a tie or pocket handkerchief for example.”

The conversation continues about dress codes for different occasions. I was slightly concerned that the sleeveless dress I was wearing (and was much needed on what was one of the hottest days of the year) wasn’t quite appropriate for afternoon tea but Isobel says that when a dress code has not been stipulated, it’s really just down to the individual to make an effort.

“No one begrudges anyone for making an effort,” she says. “If there’s no dress code then just make sure you wear something that shows you’ve thought out that outfit and not just thrown something on.” Thankfully, as I was wearing a knee-length summer dress and heels (“a lady should always wear heels,” adds the stylist, who tells me she does her vacuuming in heels and even clip-clops across mountains in a pair of heeled boots), I would do.

But back to the job in hand and as we began to tuck into the afternoon tea put on for us in the aptly quintessential Dining Room at Beaverbrook, my lesson in etiquette began.

First things first; cream tea, high tea or royal tea? High tea is an entirely different meal, an early, savoury dinner traditionally taken by the lower classes. However, afternoon tea is sometimes referred to as high tea in America and other countries. A cream tea simply signifies tea with scones and cream, as opposed to the sandwiches and other delicacies served in an afternoon tea, while a glass of champagne makes your afternoon tea royal.

So let’s get down to the finer details. Firstly how should tea be served: milk or hot water first? “There’s no right or wrong here,” says Philip. “In the old days, poor people couldn’t afford bone china so they would put the milk in first to temper the cup otherwise it would break if they put the boiling water in first so it was all the well to do people putting their hot tea in first to show off.”

However, there are some rules; you should never hold a tea cup with two hands, you should pinch the handle and not insert your fingers through it (and never, ever lift the pinky), and when you stir, you should never move the spoon in a circular motion but back and forth from 12 to six o’clock. These days afternoon tea is usually served on a tiered stand and the correct practice is to eat up the tiers; sandwiches first, followed by scones and then the cakes or pastries last.

Whether you choose to put cream or jam on your scone first is really a case of personal preference but there is a set way to prepare your scone before taking a bite. “Never put your knife into a scone,” advises Philip. “You should always break it, in the same way you break bread. Then you should break small pieces and spread the cream and jam on each piece as you go, not all at once.”

I ask both Philip and Isobel what their response might be to those who suggest their field of work is surrounded in snobbery and elitism.

“No amount of money can buy manners,” says Isobel. “What we do is teach people how to elevate themselves in life. When people stop making an effort, they stop striving in life and you’ve only got one life to live so why not try and make yourselves better? There’s so much psychology that goes with our jobs, it’s not just about having afternoon tea.”

“It’s about being the best you can be with what you have,” adds Philip. “And it’s also about how you make other people feel and how to become confident in your surroundings.”

So Meghan, it seems you really can learn the art of etiquette – it’s all about the confidence.

For more on the British School of Etiquette visit thebritishschoolofetiquette.com or visit thestylist.london for more on Isobel’s styling services and style academy