27,000 Cups of Tea
When I was living in London a couple of years ago, I learned that every Canadian is entitled to attend a tea party at Buckingham Palace, hosted by the head of state, currently Queen Elizabeth II, once in their life. I made an application, and two weeks later an email from the Royal Events Coordinator at the High Commission of Canada arrived, saying that I had been accepted and that instructions would soon follow. A month later I received another email saying that my invitation and further instructions were ready to pick up at Canada House, down on Cockspur Street in Trafalgar Square.
The invitation was printed on thick off-white paper, embossed with the queen’s insignia, ER (Elizabeth Regina), in gold letters. Accompanying the invitation were instructions for ordering a DVD of the tea party; a parking pass; instructions on how to get to the party by public transit, coach and car, including a warning about charges for driving in the Congestion Charge Zone; a
map of the Buckingham Palace garden, including walking distances between entrances; security guidance for guests saying that cameras and mobile telephones were forbidden; and a checklist for the day: each guest must bring personal identification and a Royal or Diplomatic Tea Tent Card (if applicable), and must not bring any hand luggage or anyone under eighteen years of age.
Gentlemen were instructed to wear a morning coat or lounge suit, and ladies to wear a day dress (trouser suits permitted providing they were of matching material and colour), gloves optional, and a hat or “substantial fascinator.” I decided that I was going to wear my one formal dress and that I would find a “substantial fascinator” to match.
Since I had no idea what a “substantial fascinator” was, I searched online. According to the Internet, the fascinator is a lightweight ornamental piece of headwear made of feathers, flowers and ribbon, attached to a headband or clip, worn instead of a hat for formal occasions such as weddings or horse-racing events, or as an evening accessory. The fascinator in its present iteration became popular in London in the 1990s as a way to wear formal headgear without ruining one’s hairstyle. A substantial fascinator is simply a large fascinator.
A couple of days before the tea party I headed to Liberty, a well-known luxury department store in Oxford Circus, and marched over to the hat section. The hat racks were covered with driver caps, fedoras, wide-brimmed felt hats, decorative hair clips and head scarves, but no fascinators of any size. My next stop was Accessorize, a small accessory shop just down the street, jam-packed with glitter, fake diamonds and shiny purses; on the back wall hung a handful of fascinators, small and substantial.
I tried on the simplest fascinator, navy blue with a lace bow on top. It sat too high on my head. Then I tried on a huge fascinator. It had a white bow tie and white feathers; it was too big for my head. The next fascinator was less substantial, beige with light polka dots and a bow; I chose this smaller one because I thought it would be easier to manage as I moved through the crowds.
On the day of the tea party, I put on my dress, slid the fascinator onto my head and walked to the tube. Some of
the passengers were wearing baseball caps and toques (or beanies, as they are called in the UK); I was the only one wearing a fascinator. By the time I arrived at St. James’s Park station and started walking to Buckingham Palace, women in dresses and fascinators and men in suits had increased in numbers. I met my friend Anna, who was my guest, in the queue outside Buckingham Palace. She was wearing a black mini fascinator with flowers on top and mesh that hung over her face; she had tucked the price tag inside so she could return it after the tea party.
At the gate the security guard demanded to see my invitation and two forms of ID before letting me through. In the garden, hundreds of people roamed and mingled, each woman in a fascinator or hat. A military brass band at one end of the garden played a Stevie Wonder medley, and when they were finished, another military brass band at the opposite end of the garden played that Adele song from the James Bond movie, and when they were finished, the first band played an old Bon Jovi classic, and they went on this way all afternoon, playing popular rock hits as well as “God Save the Queen.”
Inside the white Royal Tea Tents, servers wearing black pants, aprons and white-collared shirts offered Anna and me Twinings Garden Party tea, iced coffee, apple juice and ice water. Food choices included three kinds of sandwich: free-range egg mayonnaise with watercress; gammon ham, tomato and whole-grain mustard; cucumber with fresh mint and black pepper. There were chicken and asparagus wraps with baby spinach, smoked-salmon bagels, black pepper and crème fraîche, lemon tarts, Dundee cake, coffee éclairs, strawberry tarts, Victoria sponge cake, raspberry shortbread, strawberry and cream Battenberg, chocolate and praline croustillant and fruit scones with blackcurrant jam and clotted cream. The official website of the British royal family claims that guests consume around 27,000 cups of tea, 20,000 sandwiches and 20,000 slices of cake at each garden party.
Anna and I got some tea with milk and a side of sandwiches—cucumber with fresh mint and black pepper—and scones with clotted cream, and headed over to the big pond and sat down.
Throughout the afternoon, guests in fascinators and hats mingled in the garden. There were small and large bows, stacked flowers, protruding feathers, netted mesh draped over faces. There were wide brims, curled brims, half curled and half flat brims, rounded crowns, square crowns. There were tall and short fascinators. There were fascinators that sat on top of and off to the side of the head.
At one point I looked over at the Royal Tea Tents and saw the Queen. She wore a yellow knee-length dress, matching rounded flat-top hat and black patent leather shoes; a small black bag hung from her arm. She mingled with other royal family members for about an hour and then she began to head for the exit, at which point the crowd applauded. She kept her gaze fixed straight ahead, looking tired, perhaps even bored. Charles and Camilla, who was wearing a light blue hat, followed the Queen, looking around and smiling, just ahead of some fifteen men in top hats and tails, chatting among themselves.
When the royal family had vacated the grounds, a server came by with a silver tray of ice cream. I asked for vanilla, but there was none left, so I got strawberry instead. Anna had chocolate.
That evening we hung out in west London. We went to a pub and had a beer. We watched a gig in a small downstairs venue. I held my fascinator in my hand.