Every year the Queen hosts a series of garden parties – three at Buckingham Palace in London, one at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. As you may have guessed, they are held in the gardens, it’s invitation only, and everyone gets all dressed up. It’s a chance to see the royal family, if you’re into that sort of thing, drink really amazing tea – like, perhaps the best I’ve had outside of Sri Lanka – and eat absolutely delicious cakes and cookies.
We got an invitation this year, which was pretty exciting, considering we’ve been here eleven months, and it’s the only one that the Queen does outside of London. So we got dressed up, and went, and at one point when the queen was a few yards away, I turned to Alice and said, “Next time we get an invitation, we’ll know what to do to get as close to her as possible.”
Alice said, “There won’t be a next time.”
She was right. It turns out that you get one invitation, and one invitation only. Ever. They keep lists and everything. No re-dos.
I was going to keep any observations I had to myself. I didn’t want to give tips to anyone else, just in case if we went in some future year and everyone read this post they might know what our competitive strategy would be and then we’d be fighting to get a chance to be on the front lines. But seeing as I won’t ever get to go to another garden party, it doesn’t matter; everyone may as well know exactly how to plan their day. If you can finagle an invitation, that is. Without further ado, here’s my advice on how to get the most out of a Holyrood Palace Garden Party with Queen Elizabeth II.
1. Get an invitation. Marry well. I mean, I don’t know what else to say. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten an invitation on my own merits.
2. Get there early. The invitation tells you when the gates open; you should be there waiting, with your two forms of ID and your invitation in hand. If you come late, you have absolutely no hope of getting close to any majesty whatsoever.
3. Dress fancy. The invitation says morning coat or lounge suit for men, dress and hat for women; most guys ended up just wearing standard suits, and women were in summer dresses with hats or fascinators (although a few gauche damsels opted to go noticeably headpieceless). I work for a tuxedo rental company, and my workmate David hooked me up with tails, a tophat, and as fancy a suit as I could ever imagine wearing. I mean, I looked GOOD. There were a few other men dressed up like me, but we were definitely the standouts, and we matched the men who walked around behind the queen, so we ended up blending in with the best-dressed, most prominent men at the whole event. I try to remember that it is always good to set yourself a bit apart in your appearance, and that still holds true when you’re in the presence of Royalty.
4. Lanes. Now that you look better than everyone, it’s time to pay attention to location; lanes are perhaps the most important thing to understand. Here’s the deal: the Queen comes out of the palace, walks down some steps, and the Archers – not the radio show stars, but her bodyguards, all carrying bows – create “lanes” of people. There are two lanes – one for the Queen, called the Queen’s Lane, and one for whoever is accompanying her that day (Prince Phillip isn’t doing official events anymore). The lanes aren’t fenced or anything; they are just organized by the Archers for the royals to walk down, greeting people and being seen. When you arrive early, you’ll be able to ask the Archers where the lanes are; then, you can place yourself at the edge of one. And wait. You’ll wait for an hour or more, just standing there, as people mill about, or go off and explore the tea and biscuit tents, or try to meet someone who might be a suitable mate. They will all wonder why you’re just standing there, waiting, like something is going to happen. You’ll look terminally uncool. Then, suddenly, everyone will GET IT and they will start crowding in behind you, and you’ll have the last laugh, sort of like when all the cool kids in high school laugh at all the “losers,” then at your twenty year reunion you can’t make it because you’re hanging out in Europe with entrepreneurs and rock stars and royalty. Not you, I mean; “one.” Anyway. If you’re me, and you’ve been standing in place for an hour and suddenly everyone realizes that you were smart to place yourself on the line of the lane, two older women will stand behind you, passive-aggressively bumping you with their elbows and purses because they didn’t get there as early as you, talking about how tall everyone is around them, saying how they want to get photos with the Queen. They didn’t get there early enough. Their problems are not your problems. If they assault you, it is not your fault, and you’re allowed to get a bit of elbow room. When they shriek into your ear like teenagers at a Justin Bieber concert because they can see the top of the Queen’s pink hat, and they try to pull your shoulder down so that their iPhone video is at a better angle, ignore them and realize that suddenly you’re as close as you can possibly be to the Queen without shaking her hand.
5. Be First. If you’re smart, you’ll also put yourself toward the beginning of the Queen’s Lane. What happens is that she walks down the lane, slowly, meeting people – or, rather, having people presented to her. All those people are pre-selected by the Palace for some reason or other; it’s out of your control. Place yourself between two of the Archers. She will come by, people will be presented to her, and she’ll chat; after a while, she will give a secret signal and an Archer will come get her and she’ll move on. When this happens…well, you can’t really just follow her around, because there’s a line of other people waiting along the lane, and you’ve already gotten as close to her as you could. Now, you have time to explore. We decided to go to the fully-stocked tea and biscuit tents; they were almost empty of people, all of whom were still trying to see the Queen in person, and I must have had thirty or forty little cookies, cakes, tarts, and amazing macarons, with special Garden Party tea. After she’d made her way through the lanes and went into the special Royal Tea Tent, everyone rushed for refreshments, and then the tents were full and they ran out of macarons and, well, it wasn’t as easy to get a really really good sugar high. Don’t be like them: be early in line, get out early, stuff yourself on the Queen’s food.
6. Walk around. Enjoy the surroundings. Think. There’s something glorious about the whole thing; the pomp and ceremony and pageantry, the rules, and how much this tiny woman means to everyone. At the same time, as an outsider, it is a bit bizarre. I was standing next to a navigator on a nuclear submarine who had just gotten back to port; he’d been playing war games around the arctic, and his skill had won whatever competition they were having. He was really, really cool, and really impressive, and I wondered why he wasn’t the one being celebrated by all these people, but we were all waiting around for someone who had just been in the right womb at the right time. It was like a mass psychosis; the only reason she was important was that everyone was waiting around to see her, literally waiting on her, and the only reason they were waiting on her was that she was important. And I was part of that. And as much as I hated to admit it, it was cool to see her. The Queen. And I broke my one-year-of-no-photographs rule to get a photo with her in the background.
7. Think of what you’ll say if you meet her. They tell you not to introduce topics of conversation, and yeah, I get that. But I kind of wanted to follow Mike Birbiglia’s lead and say something like, “Your majesty, my wife is pregnant, and if we have a baby, we’re going to name it after you no matter what. We’re going to name it…Queen.” Oh man, the archers would have tackled me, but it would have been worth it.
But that tea. It was a special Twinings blend, and it was incredible.