It is said that Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford had the idea of asking her butler to bring tea and bread and butter to her chambers at 5 o'clock, as she found herself hungry before dinner, and soon started inviting her friends to join her in her sitting room for this new social event.
High Tea is a term used mainly in the United Kingdom and Ireland to describe an early evening meal, typically around 5-6 PM, eaten as a substitute for both afternoon tea and the evening meal. The term comes from the meal being eaten at the "high" (main) table, rather than the smaller table common in living rooms. It is now largely replaced the later meal tea.
It would usually consist of cold meats, eggs and/or fish, cakes, and sandwiches, all served at the same time. The cakes may either be full sized and cut into slices, or smaller individual cakes, or muffins, toast or other sweet breads.
In a family, it tends to be less formal and often it is essentially either a regularized snack, usually featuring sandwiches, cookies, pastry, fruit, and the like, or else it is supper.
Afternoon Tea" (or Low Tea) is a light meal from Britain (but forms of it exist around the world, mostly in places formerly part of the British Empire) taken at around 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and was originally done as a superstition to help fight off the demons. Many parts of this meal come from the fascination of wealthy Britons with China and Japan in the 18th century - the Orientalist craze.
The chosen (loose) tea is served in a teapot with milk and sugar provided. Traditionally the hostess will pour the tea and add the milk and sugar as requested by the guests. This is accompanied by a variety of finger sandwiches, customarily cucumber (the sandwich most associated with afternoon tea), egg and water cress, tuna, ham, and smoked salmon. There may also be scones, served with butter, clotted cream and jam (see cream tea), and usually either small iced cakes and pastries and/or slices of a large cakes such as Battenburg, fruit cake or Victoria sponge. These items are often served on a tiered stand.
These days many hotels market a champagne cream tea, as above but with the addition of champagne (and commensurate price hike).
While afternoon tea used to be an everyday event, nowadays it is more likely to be taken as a treat in a hotel, cafe, or tea shop, although many Britons will still have a cup of tea and a slice of cake at "teatime".
Information on Tea
A fairly well put together site on the topic of tea can be found at http://members.aol.com/wazee17th/TOC.htm
"Tea Service" as part of BDSM play
Quite a few Mistresses like the idea of being served tea. They train 'tea boys' to act in an appropriate manner and serve tea to the ladies present. One group here in California is The Northern California Ladies Tea and Discussion Society. If you log into their site, they have links to other such groups. (It should be noted that "Tea Service" is about serving tea, and not about sexual favors or behaviors.)
High Tea, Locally
I personally think that everyone should partake of High Tea at least once in their life, if for no other reason than for the experience. (It explains a lot about "our relatives across the pond, as it were.")
If you live in the Bay Area, I can personally recommend Lisa's Tea Treasures. They have several outlets, but I truly enjoy the one in Los Gatos, California. They serve, complete with the proper aprons, a wonderful assortment of teas and treats.
A Funny Story
Quite a few years ago, when I was talking to Lorrett, she said she had never experienced "High Tea".
Letting the topic drop, I started scheming. The following week, I suggest that we meet 'next Wednesday morning' about 8 AM. We went to the Oakland Airport, and hopped a flight to Seattle. Once on the ground, we rented a car, drove to Tswassen in Canada and boarded the ferry to Victoria, BC. Once in Victoria, we checked into the Empress Hotel, just in time for High Tea.
The following morning, we boarded another ferry back to Seattle and a flight home.
When she got back to work, her friends asked where she had gone. With typical, almost British aplomb, she responded, "I flew to Canada had High Tea with Robin", at which she turned and walked away as if she had High Tea every Wednesday afternoon.