I finally have a few minutes to write up our Royal Garden Party experience as promised. I hadn’t forgotten.
Our Council seems to get a few invites to a Garden Party every year, and the ruling group is kind enough to let the minority parties have them. They seem to come to us every other year, so I suspect the Tories get them in the year we don’t. This year, I was fortunate enough to get them because I was the most senior member of the group who hadn’t been before who wasn’t too much of a republican to be interested in that sort of thing.
So, we allowed our names to be sent to the Lord Chamberlain, then a few months later, the invites arrived. Stiff, gilt edged cards with our names and titles handwritten on. Her Majesty commands the Lord Chamberlain to invite ………… to a Royal Garden Party. The invite includes a parking permit for The Mall, a secondary invitation to bring on the day, and a set of notes on what to expect, what you can and can’t do, where you need to be when, and so on.
We booked rail transport to get there. I wouldn’t really like to drive into central London, even with a Mall parking pass, and my Midland Mainline loyalty card meant we could get first class tickets, meaning we didn’t have to risk getting gum on our finery.
We bought new clothes specially: P invested in a nice new linen suit, and I just had my old one dry cleaned and added a new shirt and tie. We made a picnic for on the train although we probably didn’t need to – in first, the train staff come round with baskets of snacks and offers of a glass of wine.
Flash forward to arrival in London: we get the tube to St James Park and wander through the park down to the Mall. Already we’re following people with lovely hats and in their finest gear. By the time we hit the Mall, there was a steady stream of people to follow. And there were a lot of cars parking on the Mall, so glad we did take the train.
The notes told us there were several different entrances we could queue at. The queue at the front of the palace is the longest, but you get to go through the palace to get the garden. Since we’re unlikely to be frequent guests of Her Majesty, we chose the longest queue to go through the house.
It took about forty minutes to an hour to shuffle through the queue and reach the garden. During that time, there are almost always people joining the back of the queue which stretched out long behind us. There were lots of interesting things to watch – the people, their clothes, their hats. And there were interesting conversations going on all around us. Near us was an Australian serviceman who was making two trips to the palace in two days as the following day, his brother was getting an award. There were lots of servicemen and women, some people with guild medals on ribbons around their neck. There were people in Scouting uniforms, clergymen in different sorts and colours of cassocks, some people in glorious African national dress, and lots and lots of people like us whose finery didn’t let on why they were there.
We passed through a Police checkpoint and had to show our invitations, which were taken from us, and passports and driving licences.
The queue made its way through the house, which was rather fine: lots of paintings and ceramics on display. Further on, we went through a large courtyard, with the queue split in half, half of us alongside one wall and and the other half long out of earwigging distance on the far side of the courtyard.
Finally, out into the garden itself. We knew very little, but we were equipped with the map that gave the basic layout: very long tea-tents on the left, the lake ahead the far side of very large lawn and the Diplomatic and Royal tea tents on the right. There were two military bands, one near the lake, one near the house. The bands had their own tent, and a flag signalling system to ensure only one was playing at once: the first band had its flag up when it was playing. After a set, it lowered its flag, and the band diagonally opposite raised its own flag and started playing. The music was an interesting mix. You think of military bands playing marching music, but the music I recognised was all light – at one point, a Bond medley, including the famous theme and songs from the various films, at another point a Beatles medley. We had fun half listening to the music and seeing who could identify it first.
We knew from the notes the progress of the afternoon: guests arrive, guests go into garden, and then an hour later, the Royal Family arrive and the National Anthem is played. The guests form into lanes, organised by Yeomen of the Guard in full, colourful uniform, and armed with brightly shining pikes. The Royal Family pass through the lanes and take tea 50 minutes later first in the Royal Tea Tent and then a little later in the Diplomatic Tea Tent.
There was a small hiatus for wandering around the lawn, during which I’m certain I saw the two young princes, with Harry’s hair being the thing that caught my eye. By the time I’d got P’s attention and tried unsubtly to point at the young men in morning dress, they’d moved, and I wasn’t so sure it was them.
So, we knew that what we had to do was get into the lanes. They started forming lanes as soon as we got there, so we did suit. We started a little late and so we ended up queuing at the end of the lane, just before the Royal Tea Tent. The lane turned an angle from the house to the tent. We knew the Queen had to pass that way to get her tea, and we also knew when. So we stayed there. And waited. We stood for just under an hour, as more and more people joined the lane. At the end we were very close to the inside of the lane, in prime position to see the Queen as she passed. She spent a long time talking to the people out of sight up the lane from us. At several points, the Yeomen told us she was nearly there. “She’s almost round the bend now, ladies and gentlemen.”
Finally, the Queen passed. She was running late, and passed us at quite some speed. There was no chance to talk, so I suggested we back out through the crowd and take our chance to get our tea. As we did so, a new lane formed behind us for Prince Charles and Camilla to pass through the crowd. This meant we were effectively trapped, so we made our way into the new lane. We looked back over our shoulders and saw that the people right where we had been standing in the first lane, the people we’d been idly chatting to for the past hour, were deep in involved conversation with the Duke of Edinburgh.
We were in the wrong place actually to speak to Camilla or the Prince of Wales, but we did hear them talking to the people in front ofus. The conversation was very much in the “so, who are you, what do you do, type conversations.” And amongst the people directly in front of us was the man who manages the Pickalilly factory.
Finally, the lanes dissipated and we could at last get to the tea tent ourselves. It was at this point we discovered they’d run out food! But not immediately, we got into a queue for refreshments and people at the head of the queue were coming away with cake. But by the time we got there, they only had drinks left. We did have some rather lovely iced coffee, and also some English apple juice from orchards on the Sandringham estate. There was rather an extensive menu of different types of sandwich, cake and icecream that we’d missed out on.
The afternoon was drawing on then, and it was nearly time to hear the National Anthem for a second time that would signal that the Royal Family were leaving. We didn’t know how soon after that we would be asked to leave the garden, so we took the opportunity to see the gardens. Which were lovely. We wandered around the lake, saw a big urn, and the lovely new herbacious border the Queen had planted. By the time we came back to the main house, people were starting to leave, so we joined the queues ambling back through the house and were queuing to leave when the second National Anthem played.
For the rest of the day, we planned either to go and see a film or get dinner. We were ravenous at this point, but we managed to get both in by walking to the South Bank, and seeing a very short 3D show at the bfi London IMAX, then going back to an Italian restaurant not too far from St Pancras which managed to feed us in under an hour.
On the train on the way back was someone in a strappy day dress and a very impressive hat, and we caught each other’s eye and wondered if she’d been at the palace that afternoon too. She had, we later heard from her end of a mbile phone conversation that she had been. Because the rules said we couldn’t take any baggage apart from handbags, she’d had to hang around in central London in a strappy dress and fancy hat for hours until her train. At least our suits meant we could keep our things in our pockets and we didn’t stick out too much.
In all, it was a lovely day, and I’m glad we could go. It was very English – with tea, gardens, and an awful lot of queueing. And it was a little frustrating that we got it a little wrong and didn’t get fed, but no harm done in the end. We got much closer than most do to the Queen, the Princes Phillip, William and Harry, and Camilla. And we had a nice day out in London.