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I took a 'quarantine etiquette' class with the royal family's former butler, and it completely changed my lockdown experience

INSIDER logoINSIDER 06-04-2020 Mikhaila Friel

As people across the globe practice social distancing, not being able to socialize with friends at this time can be increasingly difficult for some. 

Elizabeth II wearing a hat © Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

While many people are keeping themselves busy with Instagram, Zoom, and TikTok, there's one traditional activity you can try that's been favored by the royal family for hundreds of years. 

In pics: 40 Moments That Changed the Royal Family Forever (Slideshow provided by Marie Claire)

Queen Elizabeth invites an estimated 30,000 commoners for afternoon tea at her famous Garden Parties every summer. 

While the parties have understandably been canceled this year, there's nothing to say you can't host your own. Of course, to comply with government guidelines, the guest list would have to be restricted to your own household.

One person who knows afternoon tea better than anyone is Grant Harrold, former butler to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall.

Harrold, who runs his own royal etiquette school, has started teaching the popular "quarantine etiquette" classes to his 11,000 subscribers on YouTube and to private clients.

Grant Harrold holding a dog © The Royal Butler, YouTube

Having already interviewed Harrold several times before, he was happy to give me a private afternoon tea etiquette lesson via Skype.

As this is my third week working from home in Scotland - and the second week of the UK's lockdown - I couldn't think of anything better to lift my spirits.

I will admit though, as someone who enjoys venturing out to restaurants and cafes for weekly catch-ups with friends over tea, I was skeptical of how enjoyable the experience would be in comparison.

It certainly exceeded my expectations. Here's everything I learned about how to host the perfect afternoon tea party while in lockdown.

NEW DELHI, INDIA - (ARCHIVE) : A file photo dated on November 8, 2017 shows the Prince of Wales, Charles attends the Elephant Family charity event held at the British High Commissioner's Residence in New Delhi, India on in New Delhi, India. Prince Charles, next in line to the British throne, has tested positive for coronavirus. (Photo by Imtiyaz Khan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) © Getty NEW DELHI, INDIA - (ARCHIVE) : A file photo dated on November 8, 2017 shows the Prince of Wales, Charles attends the Elephant Family charity event held at the British High Commissioner's Residence in New Delhi, India on in New Delhi, India. Prince Charles, next in line to the British throne, has tested positive for coronavirus. (Photo by Imtiyaz Khan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) Knowing how to set a table is important - but good conversation is far more essential

To start the class, Harrold gave me a detailed history of the origins of afternoon tea and how it became popular with the royals.

According to Harrold, the activity was popularized by Queen Victoria, who was a "PR machine for it."

"And as we know, when a royal starts something, it becomes the fashion," he said.

"Victoria would apparently still have afternoon tea for her and Albert after he died - she would still pour him a cup," he explained.

Then, it was time to share some useful hacks and tips on how to properly set the table.

Using a dining table he sweetly nicknamed "the William and Catherine table" (he bought it from a thrift store using money from a tip given to him by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge), Harrold taught me how to set the plates.

a man and a woman sitting at a table with wine glasses © WPA Pool/Getty Images

He said you should use the length of your thumb - "from the knuckle to the tip" - as a measurement of how far to place the plate from the edge of the table.

I won't share all of his tips here in case you wish to take the class yourself, but one of the most interesting things I learned was that traditionally, women should place their napkin with the crease facing away from them, "so they can pick up the corner and dab their lipstick."

"Of course, the gentlemen can do that as well if they wish to wear lipstick today," Harrold assured me.

But it wasn't all facts and tradition - Harrold is one of the funniest people I've ever met, and he certainly showed his sense of humor throughout our call.

He sprinkled in plenty of anecdotes about his time with the royal family - including the time Prince Charles found him accidentally hiding in a storage closet when they first met.

Harrold had spotted HRH walking down the hall and, wanting to get out of his way, got in the closet thinking it was the entrance to another room. Alas, it was not.

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall cutting a cake © Chris Jackson/ Pool/ Getty Images

I shouldn't be surprised at this point. Harrold has had plenty of opportunities to adapt his conversation skills after attending several of the Queen's garden parties at Buckingham Palace over the years.

"You're not allowed to talk about sex, religion, politics, and money," he explained. "It depends on the conversation, but weather and travel are allowed."

However, he added that for those who want to have their own afternoon tea parties with their household during lockdown, an exception can be made.

"Now, though, it would be a bit boring," he said. "'Did you travel far from upstairs?' There's not much conversation on travel.

"I would avoid these subjects at the moment, just stick to the weather."

Afternoon tea for two © Getty Afternoon tea for two There's one royal etiquette myth that almost everyone gets wrong

When it comes time to actually sit down for afternoon tea - which traditionally consists of tea, sandwiches, and cake - Harrold says there are a few things you should avoid doing.

I was surprised to learn that the rule about drinking tea with your pinky sticking out is just a myth.

"Don't stick out your pinky finger - you're not testing the wind direction!" Harrold said. "I've seen people do it, they think it's right. It's definitely not right."

He added that you should never stir your tea in a circle, but instead stir it "gently back and forwards."

Harrold then asked for my opinion on the age-old question that every British person has pondered at least once: Does the milk come before or after the tea?

a woman holding a cup of coffee © Danny Lawson/Pool/Getty Images

Hesitantly, I said the milk should come after. "You're an aristocrat, then," was his reply.

He explained that traditionally, pouring the boiling water first showed you had status because it meant you were using fine bone china that wouldn't crack.

Of course, these fun facts are all well and good for any royal fan - but what makes the difference between an afternoon tea party and a royal afternoon tea party, I wondered?

Queen Elizabeth II arrives at the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey, London on Commonwealth Day. The service is the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's final official engagement before they quit royal life. (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images) © Getty Queen Elizabeth II arrives at the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey, London on Commonwealth Day. The service is the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's final official engagement before they quit royal life. (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images) What is the Queen eating at Windsor Castle, where she is currently self-isolating?

"I think if you were to have tea with the Queen, you would find she would go more traditional, so that would be ham and mustard, salmon, or cucumber. And always crusts off," Harrold said.

He also suggested making the cake yourself, if you have the ingredients at home to do so.

"The way things are just now, people are going back to home baking. So to make a cake, it's the perfect time," he said. "And that's why I'm hoping these demonstrations are beneficial, because it means even if people are at home they can have a tea party."

When it came time to hang up from our Skype call, I couldn't believe we had spent just over an hour talking all things quarantine etiquette. It felt like fifteen minutes.

In pics: Prince Harry and Meghan: Life after the royal exit 

You can watch The Royal Butler's "quarantine etiquette" series on his YouTube channel, or request a Skype lesson on his website.

It was the ideal escapist experience - and for a moment there, I almost forgot we were in lockdown.

It has now been a few days since the class, and I am yet to feel that usual pang of missing my weekly catch-ups over tea. Perhaps it's because I know that next time my friends and I talk, I'll be equipped to host my own virtual afternoon tea with them.

It's also something I plan to try out in real-life with my family, who I am currently self-isolating with.

Of course, being a royal fan certainly played a big part in my enjoyment of the class. It would be a dream come true to dine with the Queen - and luckily, afternoon tea with Harrold felt like the next best thing. 

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