It was beguiling day in May when I received the email. London was blooming a pastel pink and the sun beamed confidently down. “Another reason to dress up and drink Champagne,” my friend wrote, “lets buy tickets to Ascot.”
I looked out of the window. The sun spilled like caramel across the street below and beyond the row of red brick houses the tops of oak trees swayed in the breeze, green halos of leaves bright and beckoning. I couldn’t really afford Ascot, and yet . . .
My friends and I are lounging on a vast picnic blanket, decked out in bright summer dresses and flashy hats. In the center of the blanket lies a large wicket picnic hamper—one of those regal baskets lined with tartan cloth and filled with a voluptuous array of provisions. There are pates, cheeses, and olives, a long crusty baguette, generous fruitcake and an ice bucket cradling a bottle of champagne. The sun is beaming down and we have an unobstructed view of the course. The races are thrilling and the Champagne flows.
“Yes!” I typed, succumbing to that bucolic vision. “I’m in.”
One month later I found myself struggling along the side walk, sweating under the weigh of a picnic basket—aesthetically pleasing perhaps, but an awkward burden to manage in high heels. It is a contraption clearly designed in the days when those with romantic picnic visions could leave the actual transportation of their feasts to menials, strong armed servants with fewer sartorial constraints. To make matters worse the sky, which had been gathering black and ominous clouds all morning, chose this moment to fulfill its threat and let loose a deluge, soaking my jacket, bare legs, and the infuriating hamper, and turning my carefully arranged hair into a thin, deshevelled mat.
I met Elizabeth and Catherine at Waterloo and we travelled to Ascot by train, eating strawberries and trying valiantly to maintain the vision. After an hour we arrived at a diminutive station and made our way towards the course. Struggling yet again with the cursed hamper, it occurred to me that perhaps it had been slightly extravagant to pack an entire carrot cake for three people. But it was too late.
There were loudspeakers set at intervals along the way and from them a cheerful voice emanated, redundantly informing us of our location. “Welcome to Royal Ascot.You are now in front of a pedestrian bridge,” No, really?
Before entering the grounds we had to pass through a security gate. The guard opened my hamper, gave the contents a cursory glance, and was on the point of closing it when something caught his eye. “What’s this,” he asked rhetorically, picking up my bread knife. “You can’t take this in. Why did you bring it?” It was large and gleaming with a heavily serrated edge.
“To cut the bread,” I replied, bristling and bewildered by the question. “We need it. Why can’t we bring it in.”
“It’s, um, rather large.” He replied.
The knife was confiscated and we continued on, my mood blackened by the episode. Honestly, if I were a psychopath with a predilection for slaughtering racing fans I would a) choose a standard chef knife, not a serrated one, and b) stick it down my shirt, not in my picnic hamper. Evidently, however, the knife-wielding criminal element at Ascot is not credited with even this level of creativity.
From this inauspicious beginning our experience of the Royal event did not improve. We had bought cheap tickets and found ourselves fighting for a vacant patch of mud on which to spread our beach towels (none of us possessing the visionary picnic blanket). At last we found a spot, settled down and cracked open the Champagne, trying not to shiver in the damp, chill air. We sipped and looked about, still determined to enjoy ourselves.
The scene differed from my vision of English country bliss with its dignified picnicking groups arrayed on sunny lawn. Instead, there were throngs of men staggering about with pints of beer, these sloshing at intervals over the sides of plastic cups, adding a sticky, bitter odor to the air. There were also throngs of women, sporting orange tans and bleached hair. A good portion of them also appeared sloshed, although in fairness their lurchings and wobblings may have been the consequence of attempting to navigate the muddy field in spindly, vertiginous heels.
Entertaining as this spectacle was, we were hungry and turned our attention to the picnic. I opened the hamper and surveyed the contents. Besides the monumental carrot cake there was a farro and lentil pilaf with ginger, chili and cilantro. There was a tomato peach and fresh herb salad, a jar of olives, and a smoky eggplant and white bean dip.
“Oh no,” I said, staring into the hamper in dismay. “I’m afraid I forgot the bread.”
There was a pause as we all stared into the hamper and then at each other. It was too much. We burst out laughing—we laughed at the absurdity of the day, at the mud, rain and cold, our forlorn picnic and at how damply and endearingly English it all was.
We ate, half heartedly watched a race, and went home.