The day dawned; grey, cloudy and damp. Looking out of the bedroom window the trees were also bending at funny angles and looking a tad menacing. However with all the ‘it will brighten up later’ talk on the Facebook page I tried to think positive and spent the hour after breakfast cramming all and sundry into my handbag from sun cream to a brolly and pac-a-mac just in case. In the end the contents of said bag included; flat pumps (for sore feet) pac-a-mac, brolly, cardigan, pashmina, sun cream, paperwork and ID, money, keys, phone, lippy, hair pins, mini hair spray, pen and notepad (for blogging notes), snack bars, drugs, mossie repellent, wet wipes….into my usual handbag-and it isn’t even that big a bag!
Anyway as instructed I left in plenty of time to meet the coach outside the ‘Queens Head Pub’ in the village. I stood in the wind (holding down the hat and being grateful that my dress had sleeves and that I had chosen the ‘sensible shoes’) and then the coach goes flying past-to the bus stop 100 yards down the road. Forgive me but that is in fact no longer ‘The Queens Head pub’ but ‘the bus stop about 100 yards down the road from the Queens Head pub’ frankly I could have done without the mid-morning jog thanks very much! One of these days I will learn the art of grace and elegance and how to run in heels…..
The coach was pretty full already and I had agreed to text Kathy, my fellow Ladybird with my coach location so she could find me once we got to the park and ride for the final collection. I only saw one other hat on the already ful llooking coach….I was determined to wear mine for the entire day-including the coach journey! We collected the final group of ladies…including Kathy and then had the ‘rules and regs’ explained…mostly don’t disappear into London and the coach departs at 6.15pm-so be on it!
Kathy and I then spent the next two hours getting to know each other and sharing the odd banana (I had forgotten to bring a packed lunch in my bag of tricks). As we got into central London we started to notice the number of ‘ladies in hats’ and at virtually every street corner or bus stop, there was yet another coach depositing its ‘load of ladies’. There were literally thousands of hats everywhere you looked and in some places; tourists were stopping them to take pictures! At all four sides of Buckingham Palace were queues of hundreds of ladies and Mark, our driver was trying to get as close as possible to drop us off. He did a cracking job and we then tried to find the end of one of the queues (joining queues did seem to end up being a theme of the day). It was a colourful sight and over the road was a group of tourists started taking our photos and shouting ‘Look there the queen’. Really it was just someone of a similar age and hair colour in a hat….but it seemed to make them happy so we went along with it. There are probably people around the world who now think British ladies normally dress like that on a Tuesday afternoon!
We got chatting to some other ladies in the queue and behind us were the ‘Chester Divas’ which is the WI founded by our previous president Rebecca….small world. We also heard ‘hey it’s the Ladybirds…we follow you on Twitter!’ from over Buckingham Palace road…but the traffic was too heavy to hear where they were from-they spotted us by our ladybird badges. I had sent a message to Katy and Ros from our twins at Rothbury WI and arranged to meet at the first aid tent at 3pm. However by 2.40 pm we were just going through the main gates. We were told to turn our phones off and cameras were strictly prohibited….we passed in through the front of the palace and into the courtyard. Kathy said she was sure she spotted someone up on the roof with a machine gun….security was tight and there was no messing around-even with the WI. We were ushered through the hallway along lush red carpets and lots of important looking paintings, past staff in all their finery and brocades and out of the ‘patio doors’ onto the rear terrace. Everyone was being ushered to one side as the royals were due to arrive at 3pm and by now it was almost that…Kathy and I headed for the WC as there didn’t seem to be a queue for it and by 3pm we were at the first aid tent. The royals arrived to the sound of the national anthem being played by the band of the royal marines….they were too far a distance to clearly see who was who but the crowds were packed in close…when we were not joined by anyone after ten minutes we decided to make the most of the short queues for refreshments and by 3pm we were certainly ready for lunch!
The tea tent is easily a half mile long and serving staff a plenty to keep everyone moving….plus we met some lovely ladies from Tiverton (Devon) in the food queue. We were given a small plate and asked what we would like to drink; tea, coffee, fruit juice or lemonade and we could then select the morsels we fancied. As the plates were quite small there was a lot of creative balancing going on! I wasn’t able to get any pictures as staff were still being quite vigilant about phones and cameras…so I am afraid a list will have to do. I can say that the food was excellent and very pretty indeed. The attention to detail was amazing when you consider they were catering for approximately 8000 ladies….and ladies from the WI no less (so they couldn’t get away with dodgy scones and cake really could they)
- Egg and cress/ham, tomato and mustard/cucumber and mint finger sandwiches
- Smoked salmon canapés/blinis
- Chicken mayonnaise mini wraps
- Fruit cake slices
- Pink mini Battenberg
- Mini Victoria sponge
- Mini lemon tart
- Strawberry and raspberry tartlets
- Toffee caramel mini éclairs
- Mini scones with jam and cream
- Chocolate mousse brownie bites (with little gold crowns on the top)
Plus, providing you were willing to queue again, you could go back for repeated servings. Kathy and I certainly did and a couple more times besides….but for tea refills. Then the staff brought out tubs of ice cream for everyone later in the afternoon. The staff work incredibly hard and the organisation and efficiency were top notch-we were really impressed.
After we had some lunch and the crowds seemed to have dispersed, we went for a wander and joined the nearest gaggle of ladies. They were from Tetbury in Gloucestershire and from somewhere in Hampshire and were waiting to meet the Countess of Wessex. She was wearing black and beige and looked very classy. Close up she is incredibly dainty and elegant and really very pretty indeed. She seemed genuinely interested in what ladies were telling her and spent a good deal of time with those she was introduced to.
Kathy and I then wandered over to the next gathering which was much deeper and yeomen of the guard were stationed every few yards to the entrance to the royal tea tent. We couldn’t see very much, but a lady on a chair (with a camera!!) said it was the Duchess of Cornwall…we saw the top of her hat, which looked navy blue but we were getting too squashed-so escaped promptly! We then spent a few minutes people watching….and hat spotting. Several of the larger and less practical creations were being chased across the lawns by their owners and by this time it was certainly brightening up but with very gusty wind. Those ladies who had come in skyscraper heels and high fascinators seemed to be now regretting it! There was a real rainbow of colour and fortunately most people had dressed up for the occasion…some were surprisingly casual and a small few had decided to dress in a more eccentric style with homemade hats or outfits. Mostly ladies had stuck to the afternoon dress, hats optional dress code. One younger representative had worn a rather short chiffon floaty number which was caught by a gust of wind and showed a little too much to those behind her….surely one should not need to be told to wear knickers to a palace garden party!
We went for a wander to hear the bands and explore the garden as her majesty had opened them up to have a look at. By the way the queen was in residence at the palace, the standard was flying. By 4pm the ‘no phone rule’ seemed to be relaxing and all the royals were in their own tent having tea and being observed by hundreds of ladies! We took a couple of sneaky selfies behind the rose bushes and then found dozens of others all doing the same thing…so we all started swapping phones and taking shots of other people. By the time we had been for a walk around the grounds and the royals had departed, nobody seemed to care about camera phones any more so we took advantage! It was too late to get many of all the crowds or of the wonderful food, but a few to give you a feel for the day.
We met up with Cam City outside the royal tea tent-now deserted and decided to gate-crash before they packed it down. They have a carpet and chairs so we actually sat down for the first time since the coach! They do have chairs for people on the lawns but the guests being who they were…tended to get mountains of food and sit down on them for the duration. I think a rampaging elephant wouldn’t have made most of them move for anyone once they were in position. Our coach was due to depart at 6.15 and was a decent trek up the mall, so we didn’t want to leave too late and risk causing a fuss….however we decided to join one final line for the WC before we left. In the spirit of the day we met more ladies from Chislehurst in Kent and from Nottingham in this queue. I was worried at the start of the day, how on earth they would manage the ‘lines for the lavs’ with so many ladies and many of a certain age….but they did an amazing job and nobody had to wait for very long.
Kathy and I were one of only a handful of ladies left in the grounds by 5.30pm as all of the coaches were staggered leaving times. Thankfully we were one of the last to leave as we ended up being late to arrive at the start-so it all made up in the end. We all found the coach (eventually) and there were a lot of very tired but happy Cambridge ladies on the trip back. We hit London rush hour so it was a rather long journey.
I was very proud to be representing the Ladybirds and it stayed in my mind the whole time, that we were celebrating 100 years of such a fantastic stalwart organisation. I wonder if I will be asked to recount my memories of the day a book being written in 70-80 years about the WI in the 21st century. Will these records be kept for celebrations and recollections for the bi-centennial? I like to think so. I like to think it is something I can tell my children and grandchildren about one day. I wish you could have all been there to experience it and I hope my account helps you to do just that in some small way.