LONDON-The popularity of afternoon tea has London hotels vying to attract a new wave of customers by inventing twists on the classic English indulgence - although with tapas and takeaways on offer, some say the trend is going too far.

London’s Sanderson hotel won this year’s themed afternoon tea of year award for its Mad Hatter’s version, with every item inspired by the “Alice in Wonderland” story.

The K West Hotel and Spa has given theirs a “glam-rock makeover”, with tea-infused cocktails and electric blue teapots, served on vintage album covers.

And the Lancaster London has a takeaway version to be enjoyed in Hyde Park just across the road, plus an ARTea, delivered in a painter’s box with jam and cream in paint tubes and featuring “miniature edible paintings”.

“There is a lot of competition so you have to stand out from the crowd,” said Keith Newton, the founder of national Afternoon Tea Week, which takes place in mid-August.

“But you have to be careful because people do want the traditional,” he told AFP.

“Sandwiches, scones, desserts: you can be creative within that structure but not stray too far away.”

Afternoon tea conjures up a bygone age of English aristocratic refinement, luxury and leisure.

Attributed to the duchess of Bedford in the mid-1840s, it came about as a way for the elite to fill the gap between lunch and increasingly late formal dinners.

It is typically served in three rounds on plates stacked on a holder: sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, and a selection of desserts or cakes - plus, of course, the tea.

“Afternoon tea was all about accentuating the tea: tea was the expensive product,” said Max “Mr Tea” Eisenhammer, of the Rare Tea Company, which supplies Claridge’s hotel and the Noma restaurant in Copenhagen.

He visits hotels to ensure they are serving the tea properly, through the correct leaf-to-water ratio, water temperature and infusion time for each different tea.

“We provide training. People who go to afternoon tea are expecting the best,” he told AFP.

Newton said the afternoon tea sector had witnessed strong year-on-year growth, leading some outlets to try shaking up the formula in a bid to stay ahead.

“For foreign visitors, it’s on their list of things to do - but most of our business is actually from people within the UK,” he said.

“We’ve seen a big rise since 2012 when we had Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee and the London Olympics: there was a massive interest in all things British.”

Prices can cost from £10 ($13, 11.50 euros) to more than £50 ($65, 58 euros) at the top hotels.

At The Kensington Hotel in west London, the tea selection on offer includes silver tip jasmine tea from China, scented over six days with fresh jasmine flowers.

Customers tend to take around two hours savouring the four varieties of sandwich - including the staple cucumber, smoked salmon and egg mayonnaise, plus the five sweets including an amalfi lemon eclair and strawberry tart.

Fabio Adler, the hotel’s food and beverage marketing manager, said part of the attraction was its conviviality - everyone eating the same food at the same pace.

He said afternoon tea was just one of their five meal slots but more than others reflects a London hotel’s standing.

“It’s a big draw,” the Brazilian told AFP.

“It’s really fiercely competitive. It can get silly with timings: hotels offering it at 11:00 am defeats the purpose.

“And Spanish afternoon tea with mini tapas; for me, that’s going too far.”

At The Bridge Tea Rooms in Bradford on Avon, southwest England, the two-time winners of the UK’s top tea place award also keep to a tried and tested formula.

They maintain a Victorian theme, with the waitresses wearing period white aprons and mop hats with black skirts.

“The look and feel is very important,” owner Alison Hayward told AFP. “Keep it traditional is the best way.”