“ I say,” said the gentleman in his pin striped grey pants, tails and top hat, “Would you happen to be interested in two tickets to attend the ceremony at Windsor Castle this afternoon?” It was a warm June day in Windsor, just outside of London, and my husband and I were touring around in our little rental car. On the spur of the moment, we turned off the highway following signs to Windsor Castle. Something was obviously going on because ladies everywhere on the streets were in frocks, hats and little bags dangling from their arms, while the men, despite the heat, were in three piece suits or tails with top hats.
The distinguished elderly gentleman whom we had approached to learn the reason for all of the festivities, explained “Oh, don’t you know? It’s the Order of the Garter Ceremony with the Queen up at the Castle.” Then he asked if he could have a lift to the back of the parking lot where he had left something in his car. He pushed aside all the clutter on the back seat of our little rental, climbed in and we drove around the lot, looking for his car.
It was a big lot and it took a while to locate his vehicle, and find a place for our own little car In the meantime, we chatted and he seemed rather fascinated that we were from America, and thought perhaps we might be curious to see the Queen. “Look here,” he said, reaching into his inside pocket, “I don’t suppose you might be interested in two tickets to the ceremony this afternoon? Two members of my family aren’t able to attend.” We both turned to face him, astonished, eyes wide in surprise. Not waiting for my husband to protest, I said eagerly “Oh, that would be wonderful. Thank you so much.” He paused for a moment, still clutching the tickets and said, “You, madam, will of course need to wear a dress, hat and gloves…. and you sir, will need tails or at the very least, a formal suit.” “No problem!”, says me, images flashing in micro seconds through my head as I see us heading over to Moss Bros. to rent a suit for hubby and a trip to Marks and Spencer’s for a dress for me.
Tickets securely put away in the back pack, we parked the car and went in search of clothes suitable for meeting the Queen of England! I gathered what I needed in no time. Dress, check; gloves and bag; check. Hat, well that was a whole other problem. I don’t look good in hats. Never have.
So truth be told, any old hat would look as bad on me as any other. I don’t seem to remember being too fussy but at least I ended up with something on my head. Sadly I don’t have a photo to remind me how ridiculous I looked (hopefully not quite as silly as this Valentine’s Day get up)
I mean, wearing the right hat is serious business when it comes to the Royals, even if they themselves can verge on the ridiculous at times.
Finding a man’s suit was much more of a challenge than I realized. No rental suits to be had anywhere in town. Resigned, we then switched to thinking we had better purchase a cheap suit. Back to Marks and Spencer’s in search of suits. None. How about second-hand charity stores? Nope, no luck there. We were getting a bit anxious. It was already noon and we had just two hours before we had to walk the red carpet in “formal” attire.
As we walked along the street, my eyes searching for any sort of store that might possibly sell cheap suits (not exactly your most common type of store in Windsor), we passed a real estate office. Being a realtor, I was naturally curious as to what a real estate office in Windsor looked like. The window was open, and there, hung over a chair, was a jacket, beige or camel in color, a nice contrast to the slightly darker brown pants my husband was wearing. Without a thought (I do have a spontaneous streak at times!) I went inside. “Can I help you” asked a young lady. “Yes, please, I would like to speak to the owner of that jacket”, and I pointed towards the window. “That would be Brian” she said and called over a young man in his thirties.
“Brian, we have to meet the Queen this afternoon and we need a jacket and tie. Would you mind loaning us yours”, and I pointed over at the chair. A big grin spread across his face and I think he was rather tickled by the idea that even if he couldn’t personally meet the Queen, at least his jacket could.
My husband and I popped into a cafe for a quick bite and changed into our clothes. Leaving the jeans and tops in the car, we joined the other “toffs” and headed for the Chapel. Those of us with tickets were led into a “holding area” where we briefly waited before beginning the procession. Finally, there was a fanfare of trumpets, a band started playing, and the group began to move towards the roped off walkway leading to St, George’s Chapel.
First in the procession were the Knights wearing their blue velvet robes, hoods of red velvet over the right shoulder, and on their left shoulder, the large emblem of St George surrounded by radiating silver beams. On their heads, were black velvet hats with white plumes.
Behind them were various other officials and dignitaries, followed by distinguished guests (including us). Music from the military band wafted through the warm air, dismounted squadrons of the Household Cavalry dressed in ceremonial uniforms lined the route, and hundreds of people crowed along the path. It was all very British and very thrilling!
We proceeded to walk the red carpet, shoulders back, noses in the air, while the “ordinary folk” lined the path on the other side of the ropes . I had watched the Oscars enough times to know how to do this walk. You take your time, smile nicely, gentle nod of the head, don’t let the bag swing, and perhaps a gentle wave of a white gloved hand held in a condescending way, as if to say “I am one of the chosen few.”
We left the warmth of the street and entered the coolness of St. George’s Chapel, our eyes adjusting to the dim light. A footman checked our tickets and we were positioned next to our generous benefactor who had already arrived. Oh dear, if looks could kill! He glanced over at us, my husband not in tails (not even in a formal suit), and me in my department store dress and cheap hat. He turned his head completely in the other direction and never said a word to us the rest of the afternoon. No worries because at that moment, the Queen and the Royal Family arrived.
Incredible! There they were, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip and Prince Charles. Had I had a longer arm, I could have reached out and touched the Queen. It was a most remarkable experience to actually view a ceremony that has been going on for seven hundred years. The Order of the Garter is bestowed on those men (and now women) chosen personally by the Queen to honor those who have held public office, or who have contributed in some way to national life, such as Sir Winston Churchill.
After the service, which is relayed via loudspeakers to the crowds outside, there is an open-carriage procession back up the hill to the main part of Windsor Castle. We decided to quietly slip away without embarrassing our host any further, feeling a sudden responsibility to return the jacket to its rightful owner. At the real estate office, my husband slipped a 20 Pound note into the pocket of the jacket as a thank-you to Brian, the agent. As for my hat, it got left in the rental car along with a pair of white gloves. But the memories of that day will be with us forever.