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By Royal Invitation: Behind the scenes at a palace garden party

By Heather Large | Weekend | Published:

We go behind the scenes at one of Buckingham Palace’s garden parties. . .

Dainty cucumber sandwiches, scones with cream and jam and cups of tea all served on the lawns of Buckingham Palace – it doesn’t get more British than that.

Every year thousands of guests get dressed up in all their finery after receiving a coveted invitation to enjoy afternoon tea with the Queen and her family.

And Weekend was royally invited to go behind the scenes at the first of this summer’s highly-anticipated prestigious garden parties.

There’s already a buzz in the air hours before the Palace gates are due to open as guests start gathering outside the Queen’s home and in nearby Green Park.

It makes for a colourful scene thanks to the sea of summer dresses and elaborate and decorative hats and fascinators.

There’s also a host of dapper-looking men, including some in top hats, coats and tails, and many in uniform.

War veterans proudly wearing their military medals also make up their crowds along with many donning mayoral chains.

Everyone’s aware that it’s not every day that you get an invitation to Her Majesty’s back garden and so they all want to look the part.

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And what might be a once-in-a-lifetime day for many needs to be recorded so everywhere you look people are posing for photographs.

There’s a lot of moving around to get the best angle and to ensure that both the palace and the Royal Standard, which is only flown in when the sovereign is in residence, are in the background.

People start queuing up at the gate entrances early – we British love a queue – and there’s a celebratory mood as people start swapping stories and explaining to each other how they earned their spot on the guest list.

From a hospital volunteer who has clocked up years of service to a captain in the Merchant Navy – they’ve all got a tale to tell and everybody talks about how privileged they feel to have been nominated for the honour.

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The outfits of fellow guests joining the line get regularly complimented with women often pointing out a fancy hat or fascinator in the crowds that has caught their eye.

Buckingham Palace says the usual dress to a garden party is morning dress or lounge suit for men, and day dress or trouser suit, usually with a hat or fascinator, for women.

National dress can also be worn with countries including Malaysia and Japan represented at the event.

As people continue to wait patiently for their first glimpse inside the palace gates, the conversation turns, as it often does, to the weather.

London is basking in glorious sunshine with not a single cloud in the sky and a balmy temperature of 22C, which is all gratefully welcomed by the crowds.

“Aren’t we lucky,” says one lady who can’t quite believe their good fortune at the hands of the weather gods. “I brought an umbrella just in case – I feel a bit silly now,” says her friend, although it was to turn out that she would be in good company as the Queen also arrived at the party clutching her jade Fulton umbrella.

Outside the palace gates, excitement continues to build as it gets closer to 3pm because this is the time guests are finally allowed inside.

But before anyone can think about crossing the royal threshold, they first must show their party invitation along with two forms of identification.

Once this has been checked by police officers on the gate, they are welcome to walk through the courtyard to the back of the Palace.

Many people stop to take more photographs to remember the occasion by – because who knows when or if they might ever be there again – before continuing on their way.

Guests get the VIP treatment as they walk up a flight of red-carpeted steps and are welcomed to the party by one of the Queen’s Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard, dressed in their distinctive Tudor uniforms of red, white and yellow.

Also saying hello to everyone as they enter the Palace are Girl Guides who had been chosen to act as stewards for the event.

From here everyone walks out of the palace doors and finds themselves at the top of the steps overlooking the Queen’s lawns – the same steps later used by Her Majesty to enter the garden.

The sight that greets the 8,000 guests is quite breathtaking as the sheer size of the party is revealed for the first time. The garden is in fact around 40 acres of meticulously sculpted parkland that was first laid out by James I in 1609.

To the left, on the very green lawn, is a vast tea tent where 27,000 cups of tea, 20,000 sandwiches and 20,000 slices of cake will be consumed during the afternoon.

Straight ahead is the Royal Tea Tent where the Monarch will greet guests and to the right is one of the two band tents. Music at the party is being provided by the Band of the Irish Guards and the Band of The Royal Logistic Corps.

Some people, understandably, make a beeline for the tea tent as soon as they arrive – a cup of tea or an iced coffee is very welcome due to the warm weather and lengthy wait outside.

Others start to get in position ready to get the best possible view of the Queen when she makes her entrance at 4pm.

Her arrival marks the official start of the party and people line up with their cameras at the ready hoping to get the perfect shot.

Suddenly it’s the moment everybody has been waiting for since they arrived, the crowds fall silent and the musicians start to play the National Anthem.

Her Majesty arrives accompanied by Prince Andrew, Duke of York, and the Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex.

After the music has stopped, the head of state, wearing a jade coloured coat by Stewart Parvin and a matching hat by Rachel Trevor-Morgan, walks down same steps as her guests and onto the lawn. The Queen, who’s also sporting a pair of sunglasses to protect her eyes from the glare of the bright sunshine, makes her way along the gap in the crowds known as the ‘lane’.

This is unique to royal garden parties and is designed to give as many people as possible the chance to see the monarch.

Cameras flash and people walk on their tip toes to get a better view as the Royal Family walks along the lane with Yeomen of the Guard standing at regular intervals. As they go randomly selected guests are presented to the Queen and there is plenty of laughter and smiles as she spends time chatting to them and finding out why they have been invited.

Among those who were lucky to chosen were James and Mia Walduck from Adelaide who successfully applied to the Australian High Commission in London for tickets.

James, who is in the capital on a two-year secondment program with Australia’s Defence Aviation Safety Authority, said they were delighted to have the chance to speak to the Queen, describing her as ‘lovely’.

“She’s like the grandma you would all like to have. She was interested to know why we were here and was asking about Anzac Day, the national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand, which we’ve just celebrated,” he added.

Her Majesty then makes her way to the Royal Tea Tent to meet further guests but the Duke of York and the Earl and Countess of Wessex stay behind to greet more members of the public.

Prince Andrew was dressed in a coat and tails complete with a formal top hat while his brother Edward wore an almost identical coat save for a different coloured waistcoat.

His wife Sophie wore an elegant, coral coloured dress paired with a wide-brimmed straw hat and clutch.

When guests are ready for their refreshments they can join the queue inside the lavish tea tent where they are given a crisp, white party plate that will also hold their drink.

To quench their thirst, they have a choice of the aptly-named Twinings Garden Party tea, Sandringham apple juice, iced coffee and iced water.

The tasty finger sandwiches on offer are summer vegetable garden; free range egg mayonnaise with cress; cucumber with fresh mint and black pepper and gammon ham, tomatoes with wholegrain mustard.

There’s also a smoked salmon bagel with black pepper and cream cheese and a chicken, tarragon and asparagus wrap baby spinach to tempt the tastebuds.

Sweet treats include a traditional scone with blackcurrant jam and clotted cream along with Dundee cake.

The other mouthwatering delights available to sample are rose cheesecake, passion fruit tart, raspberry shortbread, chocolate croustillant, complete with a crown embellishment, and a dark chocolate éclair with salted caramel. It almost looks too good to eat and people choose to photograph their plates before taking a bite. The cakes, in particular, prove a huge hit with the guests around us.

There are tables and chairs dotted about the lawn so people can sit down as they eat or take the weight off their feet as they listen to the music which includes lively tunes such as Lord of the Dance.

Despite the grand venue, the event feels very relaxed and there is a merry atmosphere as guests wander around the beautiful garden at their leisure. The Bishop of Dudley Graham Usher was among the attendees strolling around the grounds.

“Diocesan bishops are invited every year and suffragan bishops every other year. I think it was about my fourth one! Bishops are certainly expected to chat to the guests and I love hearing their stories because to be invited to a Royal Garden party is a huge honour. I go round asking people about why they might have been invited. Many have given endless hours of voluntary commitment to charities, or shown immense bravery, or served in the military or emergency services. Others have been recognised for caring for a loved one or giving service to their local community.

“I spoke to a man on Tuesday who had given much to his community but sadly his wife had died recently. With eyes welling up, he showed me a little wooden angel that had belonged to his wife – he was taking it with him in his pocket. I also met a young black woman who has been working in schools, including schools in Dudley, raising aspirations and talking about the perils of gang culture.

Incredible

“Wearing a purple cassock certainly makes you stand out in the crowd and it’s great to have people from Dudley and Worcestershire coming up to say ‘hello’.

“Garden Parties involve an incredible spectrum of society, you get to walk around the amazing garden and lake at Buckingham Palace, and to enjoy a cup of tea with the most wonderful cakes and cucumber sandwiches!,” he tells us.

The event draws to a close with the National Anthem at 6pm to mark the end of the party and the Queen and her family leave the garden. Then it’s time for everybody to make they way home and tell their friends and family all about their visit.

After the Royal Wedding today there will be further parties at Buckingham Palace on May 22 and 31 and on June 5 before festivities move to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh on July 4.

But the first garden party heralds the start of the summer season which includes Royal Ascot and Trooping the Colour.

It’s certainly been a day to remember for every guest, especially those who got to meet Her Majesty, with the great summer weather being the icing on the cake.

Among those looking forward to enjoying the garden party experience are Aldwell and Margaret Bosanque, from Stafford, who have helped to raise more than £4,000 for worthy causes. They are going to a party at the end of the month.

They were nominated for the honour by SARH independent living co-ordinator Bernadette Rhoden, who says the kind-hearted couple are always helping to organise fun events for their neighbours to enjoy.

According to Margaret and Aldwell, known as Bos to his friends, the royal invitation came as a huge surprise.

“We’re both really excited and I’ve already been out and bought a new hat,” said 66-year-old Margaret, a retired hospital domestic and supermarket cleaner.

“We plan to make a weekend of it, staying in a hotel in London overnight and doing some sightseeing while we are there, including taking a cruise on the Thames.”

Bos, who met the Queen 50 years ago whilst serving in the Army, says he’s not sure what he’d say if spoken to by Her Majesty. “We don’t like being in the spotlight so we’ll probably find a quiet spot and stay out of her way!” joked the 70-year-old retired machine operator.

“However, the invitation really reflects the efforts and hard work of everyone who has supported the events at the scheme, which is a great place to live where we all help each other out,” he added.

We are are sure they will have a fantastic day. As, we overheard someone saying as we walked out of the gates of Buckingham Palace, ‘we definitely do pomp and ceremony well in this country’.

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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