Dear readers, many of you will know that last week I was invited to the garden party at Buckingham Palace. Many of you have asked me for full details, which I am happy to provide, so this blog post is long, longer than usual, and describes the day in full. Because this event is only by invite (I’ve written about that in my previous post), and it’s not something that many of us ‘subjects’ will get to go to, a once in a lifetime opportunity. So… this could be a description of a lazy summer afternoon strolling around the gardens at Buckingham Palace, sipping tea and eating delightfully small cucumber sandwiches. Which it is. But it’s also a reflection on what modern Britain actually means.
On Tuesday, Fiona Shaw, publisher and editor of my book as well as good friend, suggests we leave Liverpool at a ‘civilised’ time, so we catch the 9.48 from Lime Street, and arrive in London just before midday carrying, not wearing, our hats.
We are both frustrated at how difficult it is to carry a hat and try and do ‘normal’ activities, like put your ticket into the underground machine. I am also carrying my parasol but I soon learn how to hang it over my wrist so it’s out of the way.
It’s the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain and there’s a celebration at the Southbank Centre of British culture and creativity, which is where we’re going first. We leave the underground at Embankment and cross the pedestrian bridge over the Thames. London sprawls before us. The sun comes out. The main avenue of the Southbank Centre is set up like an urban beach, with beach huts, sand, seaside planting and ice cream vans, plus the world’s longest bunting (really). It has a carnival atmosphere. We stroll around for and hour or so, and then find somewhere for lunch.
‘Love. Eat. Live.’ That’s the slogan of the restaurant. I like it! We sit outside even though the sky has now turned grey and rain threatens. After a full examination of the menu, we both decide on the British heritage selection, of fish and chips. Someone had said to me, ‘Make sure you have a big lunch because the sandwiches at the palace are tiny.’
Fiona suggests a glass of fizz… after all, we are on a big day out she reminds me. A big day out. Recognition of the work we’ve done. And being friends through it and because of it. Bread and butter pudding and custard follows (heck why not?).
We set off replete and happy for the palace. At Green Park as we emerge from the underground we start to notice other obvious palace-goers. Men in suits and women in fancy hats. It’s a short walk to the palace across the park and then we are outside the gates and join the queue. Tourists, there are always tourists here, but they photograph us like we are special, being allowed into the palace, by invitation.
We queue, but not for long, police check our ID and we pass through the front entrance flanked by red-coated guards wearing bearskin hats, enormous black boots and holding even more enormous guns. They stamp their feet and perform their ritual guard performance as we pass by. Through the entrance then into an enormous, I mean enormous, courtyard and across the gravel to steps covered by a red carpet and into a grand reception hall, where our yellow invitation slips are handed over to elderly men in butler outfits wearing white gloves. Men wearing gloves, have I ever seen that before?
The space is large, overwhelmingly large. Ostentatious. Grand Chinese style pots planted with palms, gold plaster work everywhere, dark wood. Up to the left I see an enormously wide and long staircase, red carpet and brass rods, ornate banisters, and oil paintings on the walls. We pass through a sort of ‘lounge’, the walls are covered with glass display cases containing the largest collection of plates I’ve ever seen (outside of a museum, or perhaps not), all individually hung, many of them with a Chinese or Japanese theme. The carpet, a muted red, is very thick and soft. Fiona, wearing heels, whispers to me that she is sinking into it. We snigger.
And then we emerge onto the West Terrace. A huge balconied terrace with steps that sweep down into the garden. A huge expanse of lawn set up either side with green and white stripey ‘Tents’. They call them tents on the map, but really they are what I would call very posh marquees. A military brass band, under another stripey marquee with a pointed roof, is playing.
Having studied the map beforehand I’ve decided on the route I want to take to look at the garden so we turn right and walk across to the herbaceous border, a mere 170 metres long. There are huge plane trees which have benches built around their trunks. People are drifting around in their finery. Some are clergy, others in military uniform. It’s very British and almost surreal, like an old master painting. All opulent green lawn and people in hats and frocks. At this point I would have photos to show you, to illustrate this, but the information we receive beforehand asks us not to bring our cameras, that photographs are ‘Not Permitted’, so I will have to give you a description.
The garden is very manicured and neat. The edges of the paths are neat. The lawn is neatly mowed. Nothing is out of place. We follow the path meandering down to the lake, past the rose garden and the Waterloo Vase, which was owned by the French but is now British. It was intended for Windsor Castle but at 20 tons of marble, a single block, is too heavy for any floor to support it, so it’s a garden ornament. Handy to have a garden big enough for such an ornament.
The flamingos I have read about are not around today. Jugs of water and barley water are served on a table by the lake, but in blue plastic disposable beakers. Tsk. Not glass? We slurp our drinks and do what we do a lot of today. Standing and observing. We look at the outfits, the hats, the display of what… what actually is this?
Over on the other side of the lawn there are two large open fronted tents, both empty but containing gilt furniture – the Royal Tea Tent and the Diplomatic Tea Tent – and a very stately red rope marks off a large expanse of lawn in front of them both. And along the rope, people have positioned the green plastic chairs (so much more discrete than white don’t you think?), and are sitting there waiting and watching. Later I learn that this is what a lot of this day is about. You sit, if you’re lucky, or stand, and watch.
We head for the Main Tea Tent. There are staff who politely organise the queues, their earpieces and the curly wires that tuck into their collars showing that there is a security presence at work here, I’ve already noticed the three snipers on the roof of the palace. In the queue and we have the now regular conversation of the day, which is, ‘Have you come far?’ And the response of ‘Oh, Liverpool?’ said in surprise. Surprise that people from that far north are at this sort of event? I’m not sure. In the tent, crammed up close to so many people you can almost smell money, that sort of old inherited money which shows not just in clothes, and especially shoes and bags, so expensive and new, but also in the confidence of the possessors of the wealth. It is a strange feeling.
Inside the Tea Tent is even posher than the outside. A gauzy white gathered lining covers all the inside walls, thick natural matting is pegged down on the grass and silver posts with ropes create separate serving areas along the 408 foot long buffet table. 20,000 sandwiches, 20,000 slices of cake and 27,000 cups of tea will be served today by 400 staff. But before we can help ourselves to our afternoon tea a hush descends on the crowd. The band has stopped playing and the servers have downed tools and are standing to attention staring straight out of the tent, even though all you can see is a sea of people and umbrellas. This must mean Her Majesty has appeared. Sure enough the national anthem strikes up, after which most people politely clap, and then the food service is resumed.
The serving tables are fully covered with white linen cloths which go down to the ground, pristinely clean. I am presented with a small rectangular plate which has an indented circle at one end, and am offered tea, iced coffee or apple juice. In front of me is a selection of the neatest buffet food I have ever seen. Immaculately laid out plates of cucumber sandwiches, how on earth did they cut them so precisely all the same size without crusts? And they fit the width of the plate exactly. There is ham and tomato too, tiny buns filled with salmon, raspberry tarts, slices of victoria sponge cake, strawberry tarts, custard tarts, ginger cake, fruit cake – all in the most smallest and perfect finger sizes. Oh, and the chocolate square soft cake with a gold royal crest on top. Then I am given a cup of tea which fits into the indent on the plate. But no napkins.
Fiona and I find two chairs under a large plane tree by the lake and listen to the music provided by one of the two military bands who alternate playing tunes; easy listening jazz, film themes and at one point the Beatles. I’m not sure how John (Lennon) would feel about that. The music drifts and we eat and resume watching and observing. The royal tea is actually very good and we have a second cup.
I’d secretly hoped the toilets would be in the ‘house’ but they’ve got more of the stripey tents and have created ‘Lavatories’ with ceramic flush toilets, ceramic wash basins and a touch of class with antique wooden dressing tables and chairs and a very grand free-standing full length mirror.
We wander over to where people had gathered along the rope outside the larger tents where the royals meet selected guests, people who have been pre-selected to meet the royals. In the crowd there is now a collection of people about four deep who are hopefully craning their necks for a glimpse of a royal or famous guest. I see a brief flash of jade green and recognise the Queen. Then she is lost inside the tent and all I can see is a group of people chatting. The crowds are parted by guards, called Yeoman of the Guard, resplendent in their red and gold uniforms and Charles and Camilla appear, striding royally across the lawn. Then there is a ceremonious display by the Yeoman of the Guard who march across the lawn behind the rope, with their long standards across their shoulders. They’re the oldest serving royal guards, having been created in 1485 following the battle of Bosworth, a defining moment in British history, and their uniforms are practically unchanged since then. It is described as ‘Tudor State Dress’ which consists of a tunic, breeches, stockings with rosette garters and a Tudor hat, the brim covered in red, blue and white ribbons, and the whole outfit is all highly embellished and embroidered, and trimmed with a white neck ruff (think Queen Elizabeth 1) and white gloves. It’s the first time I’ve observed anything so royal and so historical at close range. And I’m quite bemused by it. I only know all this because I research it afterwards. The Yeoman of the Guard, who are men although women can apply, are all former officers and sergeants from military forces, and they are present at ceremonial royal events.
‘Who’s that?’ I ask Fiona as the next guests arrive. She shrugs. But we are surrounded by people who are experienced royal watchers, actually we are so close together the brims of our hats bump, and I hear them say, ‘Oh that’s such and such.’ I am none the wiser.
We lose interest and wander up the lawn towards the terrace. Waiting staff appear with silver trays containing pots of vanilla and strawberry ice cream which are offered to us. It starts raining and we take refuge under the Indian Chestnut trees, grateful for my parasol which is also a stylish umbrella. I’ve chosen this accessory for its functionality, but also it’s style, it’s described as ‘Edwardian’ and the top comes up to an elegant point rather than a dome. I see two other people using the same model, but in a different colour, I am pleased mine is red. And how chuffed am I when another guest asks me where I got my ‘umbrella’ from.
And then the Gentlemen Ushers appear, there are many of them, all dressed in black and grey butler type suits, and top hats and white gloves. They authoritatively organise the crowds, and me and Fiona find ourselves in the front row of a corridor of people through which the Queen will walk back to the palace. We exchange looks, it seems we are actually going to be up close to royalty after all. The ushers tutt and fuss and move the crowd so that the ground which the Queen will walk along is not too muddy. Imagine that you have someone, several people actually, who walk ahead of you checking the ground you are about to walk on? I mean, that’s quite bizarre isn’t it?
Polite clapping from further down the crowd indicates the passing of royals. Yes, here they come. Most I don’t recognise. They walk in that royal confident way in their staid formal expensive dress. The Queen is wearing a jade green knee length dress coat, a matching hat and carries her own umbrella by her side, which is clear plastic trimmed at the edge with ribbon of the exactly same colour of her outfit. Prince Philip beside her. They look small and oddly old. But then, they are old, she is 85 and he is 90.
Time to leave. The Yeoman Guards fall in step after all the royals have passed, and march back into the palace. Do the royals feel they have met a representative cross section of the British population today? It’s just, from where I stood, it didn’t look like it. At least, it didn’t look like the people who I consider to be my understanding of what modern Britain looks like. I can’t help noticing that the guests, for example, are overwhelmingly white, but not the catering staff, who are mostly women; and the guards and ushers are men.
We walk up the steps to the terrace again, to leave through the palace. As we are about to leave the garden I say to Fiona, ‘Just turn round and look at this view, you’ll probably not see this again.’ The largest private garden in the UK, a lawn big enough for 8,000 guests. Military bands. More hats than you’ll probably ever see in one place. The scale of this is so big, so different from what my ‘normal’ life is like. One of my readers described me as: ”opinionated, funny, often emotional and frequently angry. She does not try to be perfect and so is an unlikely heroine. She is one of us.” But here, right now, that is not what I feel, that I am not one of these people. I reflect that the reason that I am here, the fact that I am being honoured for speaking my truth about breast cancer, has not been mentioned today. Maybe it’s British reserve?
Back through the palace, a different route this time, but more glass cabinets, more china collections – are they gifts? Are they used? What’s the room for anyway?
I find out later that Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms. It’s owned by the state, so the government provides £15M annually for palace upkeep and it’s the workplace of 450 people (thanks to Wikipedia for this). Windsor Castle is also state owned, but Sandringham and Balmoral are personally owned by the royal family. Four homes. Why? My research also shows that many people support the existence of the monarchy in the UK because it boosts tourism in the UK. Does it? Wouldn’t tourists come anyway for many of the other attractions of Britain? Those critical of the monarch say it’s expensive, that a hereditary monarch is unfair and elitist. I didn’t get born with guards and ushers to walk in front and behind of me did I? And it’s also seen as archaic and unrepresentative of modern Britain. Supporters of a republic believe we can never be a modern nation while we continue the monarchy. This gives me much to think about.
Back on the tube it’s hot and crowded. Horrible. But once on the train to Liverpool we kick off our shoes and relax into our seats and raise a glass. To us. To a fun day. To have had this opportunity. This experience. I am glad. Cheers Fiona.