Friday 4 June 2010

Happy Birthday, Lillibet

It's Queen's Birthday weekend, to celebrate her official birthday, and the last holiday before real winter sets in (as far as it ever does up here, anyway) - and, unlike Waitangi Day and Anzac Day, it isn't a date but a day, so we don't ever lose it over a weekend (still bitter about that - goodness knows how people with proper jobs must feel.)

Her Majesty and I have crossed paths several times: there was the time at the Badminton Horse Trials at (doh) Badminton in Gloucestershire, where we used to go every year on cross-country day to marvel at the astonishing obstacles the horses flew over. I still remember standing next to the Whitbread dray, a high, wide wooden trailer that I fully expected to see the horses jump on to and off again, like an Irish bank - and being totally stunned to see them clear it in one leap. They jumped into and straight back out of a narrow lane, over walls with precititous drops on the far side, into and out of a lake... it was so dramatic, and thrilling to be able to stand so close to the action, just a rope between us and the course.

Sometimes, at the more spectacular jumps, it took a while to work to the front, and I was surprised once, as I was worming my way along the side of a Range Rover, to see the Queen Mother through the glass. Her daughter, though, I saw standing on a wagon with the Dukes of Beaufort and Edinburgh, and scriggled closer to take a photo before being challenged by one of her body-guards. "Not so close, sonny," he growled, and I scuttled away puzzled that vision tests were clearly not a requirement for royal guards. Mind you, I almost walked right past Prince Charles, too focused on the horse to notice who was in the saddle.

The three-day event circuit, by the way, makes for an excellent day out: you don't have to be a horse fan to appreciate their amazing power, courage and skill over these huge jumps; they take place at beautiful and ancient stately country houses where you can wander freely around the grounds; and the stalls are legend: everything from hot pork rolls and cider to green Wellington boots, art and tat. Brilliant. We once went to the one at Gatcombe Park, Princess Anne's place, where we spotted her and the kids bustling about wearing T-shirts labelled 'Menial Tasks Division'. And last year when we went to Blenheim Palace, they were just setting up for one, which would have been terrific to stay for.

And then there was the Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace, which I would like to say we were personally invited to - but the truth is that NZ House, along with all the other embassies in London, is sent a quota of tickets each year for the half-dozen parties, and we won our invitation in the very democratic lucky draw that they run for the spares. It arrived, with no stamp, handwritten on thick card.
It was all rather a thrill: being beckoned out of the traffic by a policeman who saw our special windscreen sticker, walking across the Palace forecourt gravel inside the railings lined by rumpled tourists poking their cameras at us, passing by the guardsmen in their boxes and going through into the huge inner courtyard, where we queued at the entrance to have our names checked on the list (only 1982 - yet no X-ray machine, no body search, no explosives sniffers, not even a request to open my handbag. Amazing) and then going through the Palace - glimpses of red carpet, towering portraits and flower arrangements, lots of gold and marble, footmen in uniform - and then out on to the terrace and down the steps into the gardens.

Nowadays you can do tours of the Palace and see much more than we did - but back then this was the only way for members of the public to see inside, and it was a real privilege. We wandered the lawns, spotting piles of corgi poo by the herbaceous border, listened to the bands, looked for famous people amongst the great (not us), the good (not us)and the just plain lucky (over here!) - but everybody had scrubbed up so well that there was no-one who didn't look distinguished.

Lucky again, we were at the front of what turned out to be the Queen's route to her cup of tea, but then we dipped out, auditioned briefly by a Gentleman Usher who decided we didn't cut the mustard as sufficiently interesting, and so weren't invited to stand out in the open to have a brief chat with the Queen as she strolled past, and tell her how far we'd come.

Never mind, we gawped freely (we were on our honour not to bring cameras) until she'd passed by in her shimmering blue silk number, and then we stampeded to the striped marquees for a cup of Fortnum's special blend tea and a slice of fruitcake. At 6pm they played her song and she left her VIP enclosure to disappear again into the Palace, and we drifted away, watching the Changing of the Guard from a couple of metres' distance before passing through the gates and becoming plebs again, and going home to scoff pizza in our trackies in front of the TV. No doubt Her Majesty did likewise.

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