It may not have escaped you if you read what I wrote here and here that my husband has military connections. So when he asked me whether I wanted to go to a garden party at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the centenary of the Territorial Army I was nonchalent at first, but as the day arrived I found myself getting secretly excited. After all it’s not every day you get to go through those wrought iron gates and nose around the Queen’s private back garden.
We started with lunch at a local wine bar with some friends from our party – at Balls Brothers opposite Victoria Tube station and a 10 minute walk from the palace (or 15 minutes in high heels and a hat). It’s one of a London chain of wine bars and is light and airy – the sort of place you could take a light lunch before collecting your knighthood.
At 3pm an orderly queue of guests formed at the front gates, becoming longer and longer until it stretched in both directions along the sides of the palace. Everyone was dressed in their freshly pressed uniforms, shiniest shoes, and hats to rival a Royal Ascot race meeting with invitations and ID in hand.
After the police checked us through we walked past the sentries in their bearskins, through the interior courtyard that lies behind the front facade of the palace and up the front steps. We walked first into the interior lobby with red carpets and crimson brocade sofas and on through past the full length portraits of Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert on either side of the doorway. Then into a further red carpeted room with gilt plasterwork and displays of porcelain in the glass cabinets at each corner of the room.
Beyond were the doors onto the terrace and we moved down the steps into the gardens of Buckingham Palace. On the far side of the lawn in front of us was the lake with a small island in the middle; to left the main green and white striped tea tent; to the right the Royal tea tent with a gold crown on top and the diplomatic tea tent. As we paused at the bottom of the steps to hear the bands playing, a line of Beefeaters dressed in their Tudor style red uniforms with rosettes at the knee of their stockings marched slowly onto the terrace and down the steps where they started to form an aisle through the crowds through which the Royal family could progress.
We walked along the herbaceous border in full bloom in shades of purple, pink and yellow, past the large glazed summer house with chintz covered easy chairs and garden furniture where one suspects Her Majesty sits with a gin and tonic at the end of a long day. We did a circuit of the lake with some large sculptures of herons – could the royal children have enjoyed some happy hours here dabbling for tadpoles or feeding the ducks?
Finally we made it to the tea tent where the air was perfumed with tall arrangements of yellow lillies and tea was being served from silver urns. At 4 o’clock the service paused as the Royal party appeared on the terrace and the National Anthem was played. We were offered a practical all-in-one arrangement of a large rectangle saucer with place to put the tea cup as well as the cakes and sandwiches. Everything was perfectly presented in miniature – crustless cucumber or ham sandwiches as well as tiny profiteroles, slices of Victoria sponge, strawberry tarts and square chocolate covered cakes with a crown on the top. It was all so very very British!
My tour of the gardens was constantly delayed as my husband kept bumping into old friends, including one of his old military bosses who now works for the Royal household. He was one of those charming, polished men drawn from the services, dressed in the Equery’s uniform of black top hat and tails, shoes polished to a mirror shine, and a neatly furled black umbrella.
Before we knew it he drew us across the lawn down the middle of the aisle of people and presented us to HRH Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, the Queen’s youngest son. We exchanged a few pleasantries before he moved on to work his way down the line of guests hoping to meet him. Later we saw Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, dressed in emerald green as she walked back to the palace from the tea tent, as she and her brother were standing in for Her Majesty that day. I must admit that although you talk about nothing in particular, it does leave a rosy glow when you meet a member of the Royal family.
We did a last turn around the gardens through the Rose Garden with a huge ornamental urn in the centre. Although there was a no cameras rule, by then the guests had become more bold and we found almost everyone taking out their mobile phones and snapping away for the family album. People were even lining up to have their photo taken in front of the pretty little summer house.
We returned through the red and gilt drawing room, pausing to examine the family portraits and china, where guests were now daring to sit on the red brocade sofas and rest their weary legs. I must admit those high heels were killing me. Then out again through the front entrance to where we had left the car in a special area practically opposite the gates of the palace.
As we drove back to Bristol I considered what a wonderful day it had been and vowed to come back again in August when the state rooms of the palace are open and be a tourist in the city where I grew up.
Do take a look at this video about the Buckingham Palace Garden parties.