One day in May 2008 I returned home from work to find a very posh envelope amongst the bills and circulars that had been delivered that morning. It was very classy indeed, ivory white with a smooth velour texture and certainly of a much higher quality than I am generally used to receiving. On the front were the words the ‘Office of the Lord Chamberlain’ and the printed franking machine mark in the top right hand corner said ‘Buckingham Palace, London’.
Inside the envelope there was even more special stationery and an expensive invitation card from the Lord Chamberlain himself stating that he has been commanded by her Majesty to invite me and a guest to a Royal tea party at the Palace on 15th July. Commanded no less! The Lord Chamberlain is one of the chief officers of the Royal Household, he is a peer of the Realm and a Privy Councillor and is the chief functionary of the court who is generally responsible for organising all court functions. The current Lord Chamberlain is William Peel, who has held the position since October 2006 and he is a very important man indeed.
Ordinary people like me don’t get letters from the Lord Chamberlain everyday and let’s make this absolutely clear, these invitations aren’t just handed out to any old riff-raff. Getting an invite to Buckingham Palace isn’t easy because Individuals cannot simply apply for an invitation to a garden party because nominations are made through Lord Lieutenants, and organisations such as the Civil Service, Armed Services, Diplomatic Corps, charities and societies and people are only allowed to attend one tea party in their lifetime.
As well as the invitation there was also information on dress code, suits, day dresses and hats, uniforms, but no medals! No cameras or mobile phones and useful security information and tips on how best to enjoy the day.
The tradition of throwing open the royal residences dates back to the 1860s, when Queen Victoria held what were known as afternoon ‘breakfasts’. It has carried on ever since and during the present Queen’s reign, over a million people have attended garden parties at either Buckingham Palace or at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, which is her official residence in Scotland.
We travelled down to London by train on the previous evening and stayed at a nice hotel in Bayswater called the Ambassadors that I paid for using my Airmiles points. We had a nice evening out and something to eat in the hotel’s Italian restaurant and a nice comfortable night and a really excellent breakfast in the morning. I had no idea that although she has traveled all over Europe Sally had never properly been to London before so we took the underground to Westminster and quickly did the sights. The Catholic Westminster Cathedral was very good and free but the Protestant Westminster Abbey was £12 so we just looked at the outside and concluded that Catholicism is better value for money. Next we walked down Whitehall and craned our necks through the security railings into Downing Street, went into Horseguards Parade and finished at Trafalgar Square and then returned to the hotel and changed and prepared for the big event. Attending a Royal tea party isn’t cheap of course because this little outing cost me a new outfit for Sally, but it was worth it and she looked fabulous in her new dress and hat.
Dressed in our finest clothes and looking our best it didn’t seem appropriate to travel to the Palace by underground so we ordered a cab and drove through the sights of central London to the Palace and the queue of people waiting to get past security and into the gardens. Like most guests, I imagine, I’m proud to boast that I’ve had tea with the queen but I should point out that there was another 7,999 other people there as well. With all of the security checks to go through, each guest producing a passport and one other form of identity this was quite a slow process, but the weather was fine and everyone was in good humour as we lined up and waited our turn to be admitted.
The Palace was originally known as Buckingham House and was a large townhouse built for the Duke of Buckingham in 1703 and acquired by King George III in 1761. It was enlarged over the next seventy-five years and Buckingham Palace finally became the official royal palace of the British monarch on the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. Like most people I have stood outside it and gawped through the railings but I have never before been inside.
To get to the gardens we had to pass through the Palace itself and once through and inside the garden it was a wonderful experience and I imagine that tea with the queen today looked very much the same as it would have 150 years ago; men in tails and top hats, women in floral dresses and elaborate hats and it reminded me of a scene from a 19th-century painting of a sophisticated social event. And so many military uniforms that it was almost like being in an episode of Foyle’s War! The eight-thousand guests are all vetted of course before the event because the Queen doesn’t want any undesirable republicans or out-spoken anti-monarchists wandering around her back garden and the place was full of people enjoying a once in a lifetime experience.
The magnificent gardens sit on forty-two acres in the heart of central London and walking outside behind the Palace the vast garden is a revelation it is festive and filled with colour and the pond at its centerpiece features weeping willow branches grazing the water and ducks flying free. What is most noticeable is that it is peaceful and serene, except for the chatter of eight thousand people of course, because as if by magic the sounds of the city do not intrude and it is hard to believe this is in the center of the busy city. The gardens are immaculate and goodness knows what the head gardener makes of all these people stampeding over his manicured lawns and falling into his flowerbeds. I expect they give him the day off so that he doesn’t get too upset. Actually I don’t think the Queen puts the garden to best use because there is enough room there to have a nice nine hole par three golf course.
The food tents were open for business now and this seemed an opportune moment to make an early dash for the guest’s tent to be among the first to enjoy the hospitality. Actually there was no need to rush because there was plenty of food to go round and the tables looked immaculate. I especially liked the little chocolates decorated with the queen’s crown and I was tempted to put a couple in my pocket as souvenirs but the sun was out now and they would have surely melted and made an awful mess. At a typical tea party, the kitchens prepare, and the guests consume, more than twenty-seven thousand cups of Twining’s ‘garden party’ tea, as well as more than twenty-thousand carefully trimmed sandwiches and a similar number of delicious slices of cake, so there is plenty for everyone and enough left over to give the ducks a treat as well. The plates were a cunning design with a place for the tea cup and just about enough room for a couple of sandwiches and a couple of cakes which prevented anyone taking too much food.
After a short wait the band struck up “God Save the Queen” and her Majesty, dressed immaculately in a pale blue floral print two-piece and matching hat appeared on the front steps with Prince Phillip and various others, standing motionless in front of the huge crowd. As the music died down there was a spontaneous ripple of polite applause and the Royal party made there way separately into the gardens and along the lines of guests. Most people don’t get close enough to the Queen to meet her, but luckily we choose the right line and we did get a chance to see her up close as she walked along the lines of smiling people stopping every now and again to shake hands and chat with specially selected guests and one in particular who stood and chatted to her barely two metres away from us.
With all the queuing up and pushing and shoving to see the Queen the afternoon passed unexpectedly quickly. As the tea plates were quite small this meant we had to make two visits to the tea tent and had to go through the whole lining up process again. Eventually there was a flurry of activity around the Royal tent and her Majesty was on the move again coming back outside and walking ponderously back towards the Palace stopping every so often to shake a hand here or have a word there and eventually Prince Phillip began to lag behind as he was much more prepared to enter longer conversations. Back at the top of the steps and outside the Palace back door the band once more played the National Anthem and they were gone.
I hadn’t really known what to expect from an invitation to a Royal tea party and although I hadn’t really met the Queen of course I really rather enjoyed it in a snobbish sort of way. We joined the crowds making for the exits and once outside traveled back to the hotel to collect our bags and make for the station and the train journey home at the end of an excellent day.