Curious Questions: How do you survive the Summer Season?

Potential faux pas abound in a British summer, but is it possible to find your way through to September unscathed? The answer is yes, says Rupert Uloth, so long as you always carry a brolly, know how to share a carriage with The Queen and own at least seven hats. Here are his tips.

‘Can you tread in with those?’ demanded Ruby Wax incredulously, pointing at a pair of stiletto heels as small as 5p pieces. The owner of the super-fashionable footwear and the well-chiselled calves that arose from them swung her bouncy blonde hair our way and looked quizzical. ‘Well… er…’ I spluttered.

I had been explaining to a group of newcomers to polo at the Cowdray Gold Cup how important it was that we went out to ‘tread in’ the divots of earth thrown up by the galloping horses with one’s heel. However, as the straight-talking comedian identified, spectators at many events in the Season aren’t necessarily there for the sport.

Some observers of the magical few weeks in high summer when the great and the good gather at various events might conclude they’re a series of Champagne-drinking festivals, often in fancy dress. That’s not entirely accurate: for starters, these days we can drink our own home-grown bubbly and make the whole thing as English as possible. And you’ll need to be prepared for the unexpected: at an event I once attended our hosts held up a gazebo in a howling wind as we lunched underneath. Only amid an English summer would a couple dressed for a royal wedding be acting as guy ropes.

Having lunch in  car parks is all part of the fun. Credit: Alamy

Royal Ascot is strict about its requirements in the Royal Enclosure: top hat and tails or dresses that fall just above the knee or longer and no fascinators. Smoked salmon and rare beef are the bill of fare at picnics. We go with friends who have a berth in the hallowed Number One car park — in reality, a rectangle of grass near the Windsor/Ascot junction. They’ve done a deal with their neighbours to come on different days, so there’s space for a full-blown lunch with silver and best crockery.

English people tend to be sniffy about the American practice of using name labels at corporate events, but, at arguably the smartest gathering of all, a name badge is required for entry. Don’t expect acquaintances to look you in the eye at first; they’ll be staring at your lapel.

They’re also sniffy at the Chelsea Flower Show — but for good reason. The scent of thousands of carefully tended blooms fills the air. This is another event The Queen doesn’t like to miss and the Monday evening is when she goes. There’s plenty of room and, yes, the horticultural triumph many are looking out for is the viticultural one of turning grapes into fizz.

Chelsea Flower Show pictures

If you go down to the Chelsea Flower Show today, you’re sure of a big surprise… (Credit: Country Life / Charlie Hopkinson)

Wimbledon is an event at which people really do watch the sport and there’s much tutting from aficionados if empty seats are seen in the Royal Box. We’ve been blessed with gladiatorial contests in recent years, between the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and, of course, our home-grown Sir Andy Murray.

As always, there’s a way to do it. If you’re not a former champion, a minor royal or a sporting icon, try to be a friend of a member. They have their own place for lunch and a private passageway to Centre Court, along which you can line the route for the players.

Now, the Season has broadened to include music and book festivals. Glastonbury began as a mudfest for the committed rock fan, but glamping sites costing thousands of pounds allow it to be done in style. Hay-on-Wye is the big daddy of the book festivals and regulars still talk about Bill Clinton’s mesmeric visit, but others, such as the Chalke Valley History Festival, are vying for Season status.

As a seafaring nation, it’s right that water plays a major part in the shenanigans. Cowes Week is the ultimate in messing about in boats and, ahem, bars. Henley Royal Regatta is an excuse for normally-sober estate agents to wear the most outrageous, coloured striped jackets as if it’s perfectly normal behaviour. If you belong to the Leander Club, you can wear pink hippos with a straight face.

It's not just for boats: the Red Arrows at Cowes Week. Credit: Gary Blake/Alamy

It’s not just for boats: the Red Arrows at Cowes Week. Credit: Gary Blake/Alamy

What to wear and how you wear it has its own ritual. I remember attending Garsington in a party that included a senior old boy doing his best to keep up with the times. As our hostess slipped into a pair of thick-soled trainers under her evening gown to make her way across a muddy car park before she changed into something more elegant, his eyes lit up with sudden realisation. ‘Oh,’ he exclaimed, ‘so those are gymee shoes.’

If you’ve passed an English summer without regularly hearing the pop of cork exiting bottle at Mach 1, the pressure on your forehead of various forms of outré headwear, the thunder of hooves, the smell of thousands of roses, the sound of an alto voice lingering on the night air or the thwack of various-sized balls against different kinds of racket, bat or mallet, then you haven’t really taken part.

But don’t worry — it’ll all come around again soon and you can take the Season by storm.

39 tips to surviving the Season

  1. If you have to have a food allergy, don’t let it include quails’ eggs, smoked salmon, coronation chicken or stuffed olives.
  2. It’s almost cheating to have dinner in the swish Middle & Over Wallop restaurant at Glyndebourne. The whole point is to be perched precariously on a picnic stool alfresco in a steady drizzle, trying to hold a glass of Champagne and a smoked-salmon blini at the same time. Old hands make it look like a well-practised circus trick.
  3. Make the gold-medal-winning garden designer at Chelsea think you’ll commission him. You’ll be hauled from the teeming throng, over the pesky rope and be able to have a really good look.
  4. Don’t ask a hearty, blazered type at Henley why he’s wearing his mother’s curtains. The louder the stripes on the jacket and the more feminine the colour, the more exclusive the club is likely to be.
  5. Binoculars are invaluable. Possibly for viewing the lead tenor or soprano close up, or even to witness the full glory of a Joe Root sweep for four—but mainly to see who else is there.
  6. If you can’t remember a name at Ascot, take a photo of the person and, as you’re checking it, zoom in on their name tag before offering to airdrop the snap.
  7. Polo pitches are big. Wait until treading-in at half-time to cross and join that rather good picnic you can see through your binos on the far side.
  8. Get your wardrobe well sorted before the Season kicks off: linen for Goodwood, top hat for Ascot, trainers for Wilderness and ruffled hair and a corduroy jacket for the literary festivals.
  9. Garsington and Wormsley are now on the map for summer opera and, once you’ve worked out that Grange Park Opera has moved to West Horsley Place and the Grange Festival is the one in Hampshire, the picnic gazebo is your oyster.

    Garsington’s spectacular opera house at Wormsley. Credit: Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

  10. The social pinnacle is to attend one of these events with The Queen, but be careful what you wish for. A friend found himself, at the last minute, in her carriage travelling down the course at Ascot. He was dimly aware of the band playing, but it was only when Her Majesty gently patted his knee and said ‘I think this is when you take your hat off’ that he realised it was the National Anthem.
  11. Never leave home without an umbrella. Yes, it’s June, yes, it’s summer — and yes, it’s England.
  12. If you think Cowes is something to do with agriculture, then you need to strap on your sea legs. The place to be is the Royal Yacht Squadron, if only for the views, but take your earplugs — the starting cannons have to be heard out at sea.
  13. They wouldn’t call it a pop-up, but clubland sets up shop at Ascot: White’s, the Turf, the Garrick and the Cavalry & Guards are superb places to have lunch, but don’t miss out on the racing by snoozing in the corner afterwards.
  14. Impress your friends by lurking near the marquee for members of the Royal Household at Ascot and then suddenly appear as if you’ve just come out of it. Careful they don’t best you by leaving you at the entrance to the owners and trainers.
  15. Chelsea can be done one of two ways. Über-smart for the first-night reception or practical and dowdy on the last day to take your horticultural bargains home.
  16. If you can’t get a lift with The Queen, there are other ways to arrive by coach at Ascot. Being in the Household Cavalry or a member of a coaching club helps. The journey through Windsor Great Park is sublime.
  17. A top hat should be silk, preferably with your great-grandfather’s initials inside.
  18. The Goodwood Revival has thrust itself into the mix. Dress is supposed to be vintage, but, handily, your shooting tweeds should do the trick.
    Goodwood Revival 2017

    Dressing up is part of the fun at the Goodwood Revival. Credit: ©Rolex/Guillaume Mégevand/Nick Dungan/Jad Sherif

  19. Arriving in a car at Goodwood as vintage as the ones racing not only looks the part, but gets you automatic parking at the front.
  20. If you’re a lawn snob or herbaceous-border fanatic, beware: if a garden at Chelsea looks wild and unkempt, it’s meant to and probably cost hundreds of thousands.
  21. If you’re not in England in June, then you’ve been ordered abroad on military operations — or something’s gone very wrong.
  22. Some people take the rowing very seriously at Henley. It’s important to know that, if you’re asked ‘Bow or Stroke?’, you’re not being asked to do something.
  23. Get ahead and get a hat. It’s quite impossible to get through the Season without at least seven.
  24. The shop at Lord’s sells the best plastic beach-cricket sets. The branding from the home of cricket will deflect any potential derision later on.
  25. It’s all about bagging your spot. That’s why black-tie-clad figures are seen at Glyndebourne’s lake maintaining the challenging combination of a nonchalant gaze and a jog trot.
  26. June may belong to England, but August is well and truly north of the border. Ditch the tails and dig out the tartan.
  27. The Reel of the 51st is not counting how many drunks there are, but a Scottish dance you must know to avoid shame and being hurled across the room by a broad-shouldered lassie.
  28. Stalking is a summer activity in which you’re actually expected to do something. Crawling through heather and lying in a burn may make you whimper with nostalgic longing for the Mill Reef Bar.
  29. Dad dancing has become a requirement at most music festivals. Blame it on the organic beer.
  30. If you’ve somehow not been invited or failed to obtain a ticket, you can still turn the occasion into a TV event (with Champagne, obviously). We enjoyed a Royal Wedding party last year with a mid-Atlantic theme, those impressively realistic Harry and Meghan photo-masks and lots of dressing up.

    Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on the steps of St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle after their wedding. (PA Wire/PA Images)

  31. If you want to sound knowledgeable about the players at Wimbledon, see them at Queen’s first.
  32. Gentlemen would be wise to wear a buttonhole before they arrive at Ascot (ideally picked from your own garden) to avoid being mobbed by flower sellers in the car park.
  33. The Wilderness Festival at Cornbury Park is dress down, including swimmers, but remember you may still bump into the Governor of the Bank of England or a former Prime Minister.
  34. Brown in town is a minor skirmish. Brown with tails? Never. Brown tails? Never, ever.
  35. It may be all about June, but January is big, too: time to book those tickets.
  36. A familiarity with certain expressions is useful: chukka, Group 1, Love-40, well-mulched soil and Pol Roger.
  37. The rules at Ascot have apparently evolved this year: men can wear ladies’ clothes, but still no spaghetti straps.
  38. If your host’s wine includes the words Margaux or Latour and the numbers 2000 or 2005, then, yes, you are in some kind of heaven.
  39. Never forget: there’s nothing ridiculous about perching on a picnic stool in clothes suitable for a state banquet.

Henley Royal Regatta: An insider’s guide

Received an invitation to Henley? Charlotte Peters tells you everything you need to know, from dress code to star-spotting.