This glorious Diamond Jubilee has vividly revived some of my own brushes with HM. Upon three occasions, I've been privileged to receive an invitation to a Buckingham Palace Garden Party, not, I hasten to clarify, through any personal merit, but because both my husbands happened, in very different fields, to have been honoured.
My first visit was in July, 1981, three weeks before the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer. It was by no means the best occasion and I'm glad to have been summoned twice more and to have met Prince Philip.
The following article is an account of this first experience and was published in a Leicester journal during September of that year:
The Royal Standard was flying high when we crossed the greensward at the top of the Mall. The Queen was at home. And to us!
Five weeks had elapsed since the envelope from the Lord Chamberlain's Office, bearing an invitation to a Palace Garden Party, issued through the letterbox along with a gas bill. Five weeks of looking forward to what promised to be the experience of a lifetime.
It seemed, when we reached Park Lane to find traffic at a standstill, that half the mantelshelves of Britain must bear one of those distinctive gold die-stamped cards. The windscreen of every other vehicle displayed the familiar yellow cross which was our licence to park in the Mall or on Constitution Hill. We hadn't calculated for any long delays at this stage!
However, a frantic hour later and with just five minutes to spare, we were walking in at the gates. Strange, for once, to be on the other side of those famous emblazoned railings, participants in a light-hearted ritual the tourists outside were clamouring to see. The solemn-faced sentries didn't bat an eyelid!
Despite its classical echoes, the façade of Buckingham Palace has always struck me as austere and uninviting, but no sooner had we reached the central archway, than the courtyard disclosed the main building of Bath stone, a lovely mellow ochre colour, redesigned by that inspired Georgian architect, John Nash, to whom the capital owes much of its elegance. At the door, (where their open laudau set down the Prince and Princess of Wales after their marriage) we were ushered over the threshold by a liveried footman, into a wide reception gallery, all red carpets, chandeliers and buttoned furniture in the Rococo style. The walls were hung with priceless portraits by old masters. And not a lick of Dulux anywhere: it was all gold leaf!
Out on the lawn where the band was playing, a multitude had gathered. There were morning suits and military uniforms, cardinals in claret red and bishops in gaiters. All the ladies were turned out like fashion plates. But it would be wrong to suggest that this was an occasion largely for the noble and renowned. The majority of guests were rank and file citizens like us, lucky enough to represent their organisation or profession. We spotted many familiar faces from Parliament and the world of entertainment.
On the stroke of four, Her Majesty appeared on the terrace accompanied by Prince Philip, Prince Charles and his fiancée, Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips, and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. The Blues and Royals struck up the national anthem, the crowd stilled and, in an automatic reflex, the uniformed guests stood to attention, presenting a stiff salute. Then everyone relaxed. A respectful informality was the order of the day. The Royal Family moved down the cordoned aisles between the crowd, lingering now and then whilst particular guests were singled out for presentation.
It must be admitted that we did not obtain as close a view of the Queen as could be wished. But many had no view at all and wandered off to explore the gardens which are pleasantly informal. There are some beautiful specimen trees. Freckled orange tiger lilies grow in wild profusion along the banks of the lake, but there is a notable absence of flowerbeds.
Eventually, we found seats among those arranged in a semi-circle around the Royal tea tent with its spindly gilt chairs and gold tea urns. This was of the same white trellis work, with a green and white striped canvas awning to match the visitors' tent on the opposite side of the lawn. Little islands of fuchsia, lobelia, geraniums and petunias, imported from the nurseries at Windsor Castle, had been created at the entrance.
As we waited, dignitaries from overseas began to file into the tent. Expectation ran high. A contingent of beefeaters marched past, brilliant against the summer verdure. If only we had been allowed a camera! Photographs, other than official ones, were forbidden inside the grounds. Whatever security measures had been taken were unobtrusive at ground level, but we were conscious of the lenses of film crews and guards directed at us from the Palace roof. It says much for the Queen's warmth of heart and her determination to remain approachable in these turbulent times, that she preserves the social graces and does not subject her guests to a search at the door as is often the case in our public buildings.
After more than an hour, our patience was rewarded. We had an unobstructed view as Her Majesty crossed to the tea tent with Prince Philip. It was a blustery day and she was holding on to her hat like the rest of us! She was dressed in ivory with black accessories. In her wake came the Heir Apparent and his lady. There was a spontaneous burst of applause which, I understand, was unprecedented and not usually the thing! Lady Diana, of course, was radiant and stole the show in a filmy confection of pink and yellow and turquoise with the ruffled neckline she favours. She wore a plumed pillbox hat to match. She certainly did the lion's share of the socialising, the Queen happily retiring into the background to engage in conversation with her daughter and son-in-law. Our First Lady is animated and fun-loving and gave the appearance of thoroughly enjoying what to her must have been a mundane, and perhaps tedious, afternoon.
At six-o-clock, as punctually as she had arrived, HM took her leave and made her way back to the terrace which was the cue once again for the national anthem. Then she disappeared into the Palace.
It was all over. People began to surge towards the exits. In the lobby, taxis and limousines were called for. Some lingered, while the crowd dispersed, for a cup of over-brewed tea, scouring the length of the refreshment tables for the few cakes which were left. Limp scraps of garnish strewn over the linen cloths were all that remained of the finely-guillotined sandwiches.
Back again through corridors lined from floor to ceiling with Minton and Meissen, into the crimson and gold gallery, down the staircase and out into the courtyard. At the archway, we paused for a last fleeting look before returning to the hectic world outside. For all the activity within, there had been a curious sense of peace and order. One lady leant against the railings to empty her shoes of the Royal quarter-and-dust which was promptly pocketed by her husband as a memento.
Nothing is surer than that everyone who attended the Garden Party will emerge with his own personal impression. People's view of the Monarchy and its representatives tends to be subjective. They are whatever we perceive them to be. We mould them, as we mould God, in our own image. A lot of water had passed under the bridge since the Divine Right of Kings held sway, but of one thing I am sure, it is we who are poorer, we who are demeaned, if we fail to accord them our love and loyalty. Today, there is worldwide unrest, many countries struggle in the grip of experimental regimes, but never has Britain had a Sovereign more worthy of the office than our present Queen.
Well, we had had our glimpse, our vision. The next morning, when some of the national dailies gave front-page coverage to the event and Lady Diana was seen bending an ear to a person on the crowd, we could both say: “I was there.”
Photographs taken on the last visit in 1999 with my late husband G A Cole