The day I took tea with the Queen (and 8,000 others)

The day my wife and I had tea with the Queen started inauspiciously: No Rolls-Royce to take us to the Palace, no chauffeur -- just two workmen in rubber boots hosing down our local railroad station platform with water that threatened my wife's pale pink dress, shining summer shoes, and wide straw hat.

The party was almost rained out: In fact, some drops did fall on us as we stood to watch Her Majesty walk slowly across the Palace lawn to the Royal Tea Tent, where the tea came from gold-plated tea urns attended by footmen in scarlet tailcoats.

But the day turned out well after all. The Queen passed within feet of us, stopping to chat twice to people nearby, her smile lovely and the blue of her eyes matching the sapphire and diamond brooch on her white summer coat. And when we left, slowing walking across the Palace courtyard toward the real world, my wife glanced down into the rear window of a dark-blue station wagon that had slowed in front of us and was delighted to find the bronzed face of Prince Charles smiling back at her.

It was a step backward into an era of gray silk top hats and flowing Palace gardens, an oasis of elegance in a Britain disordered by urban riots, wrestling with racial and social disturbances, and beset by unemployment and recession. It was the monarchy at work.

And royal work it was, for the affair was not exactly a private "cuppa" with the monarch and her family. Ten thousand people are invited to each of three Afternoon Parties usually held in July: "We count on about 8,000 actually showing up," said a Palace spokesman later.

People actually refuse? "Holidays and that sort of thing," said the Palace apologetically.

This year there is an extra one (July 23) to mark the International Year of the Disabled. Last year there was also an extra, for the Queen Mother's 80th birthday. The Queen holds one more at Holyrood Palace, her official residence in Scotland.

I did not, to my wife's disappointment, hire gray morning dress from Moss Bros.

The line of guests waiting at the main entrance was so long we turned and went to the Grosvenor Park gate. We gave up small blue entry cards ("On no account with these be replaced" the cards warned sternly on the back.) A policeman opened my wife's small bag as part of a security check.

A crunchy gravel path led to a lake, a flock of royal flamingos, some royal ducks, and two green-and-white-striped "cloakroom" tents.

On a wide expanse of green between us and the tawny stone of the Palace rear unfolded a scene of beauty and grace.

By no means were the figures strolling, sitting, drinking tea, chatting, and listening to the bands of the Welsh Guards and the Royal Marines, all straight from the pages of Debrett's Peerage.

Some were bishops in magenta or black frock coats and gaiters. Others were admirals and field marshals. Still others were highlanders in kilts, scarlet-clad Queen's chaplains, and captains of industry and government in gray or black toppers.

There were the usual diplomats: Africans in resplendent pink and white and orange, and an Indian with a superb purple turban, black frock coat, white leggings, and immense black and gold slippers whose toes curled up and back and round and in, like a grand vizier from an Arabian Nights fairy tale.

But thousands of the guests were like us: people belonging to organizations around England and Wales and Northern Ireland, whose names had been put forward months before.

There were local mayors wearing their seals of office around their necks on blue ribbon, local government officials, university staff, and women with Lancashire accents who walked about on cork-soled shoes beside Mayfair hostesses in shantung and high heels.

All were able to see close-up the vivid gold and scarlet of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (Beefeaters), who look like the Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London, but aren't. Founded in 1485 by Henry VII, their original duties included searching the king's bedchamber for possible assassins. They still use their ancient titles of Yeomen Bedgoers and Yeomen Bedhangers.

Currently they guard the Queen at garden parties and investitures. Before she opens Parliament each year, they still perform their age-old duty of searching the cellars.

All of us were schooled in separate lanes to watch either the Queen walk slowly to the Royal Tea Tent, or the Duke of Edinburgh, or Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Tall, top- hatted members of Her Majesty's Bodyguard of the Honorable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms marshaled us. Unlike the Yeomen of the Guard (retired warrant officers and senior NCOs), the Gentlemen-at-Arms are retired military officers, or former members of the Queen's household.

Those around us had carnations in their buttonholes, wore well-used and clearly nonhired morning attire, and drawled in the most aristocrat of tones.

We ate plum fruitcake or open pate sandwiches or fruit slices or small tubs of ice cream, all dispensed by white-aproned waitresses from an outside caterer ("No, we do not give out the name," said the Palace firmly) working under more green-and-white- striped tents.

It was the monarchy adding that touch of something extra to British life. It was an escape from the ordinary, a link with history, and yes, a sense of privilege, of rubbing shoulders with the elite.

At one point one of the bands played the theme music from the British TV serial "Upstairs, Downstairs" and a woman near me remarked, "That's right, we're the downstairs at the upstairs today."

It was a chance to hear two women naval officers drop names in front of us: "My dear, I shall never forget the duchess of Kent and me in my flip-flops and my pinny [pinafore]."

An elderly clergyman reminisced:

"The only time I spoke to her was at Paddington Station. She was on her way to the races. I shouted out, 'Good luck, Ma'am,' and she gave me the most bewitching smile. I was in naval chaplain's uniform at the time, which was a disadvantage, because people kept coming up to me and asking the time of the next train to torquay."

We took a quick stroll around the Royal Tea Tent after royalty had gone. A look at the royal flower beds (blue delphiniums, sweetpea, ivy geranium, marigolds, dahlias, impatiens, and riots of begonias), and it was time to go.

Through a gilded Palace foyer and hall we moved, out into the courtyard behind the long facade the tourists see, through an archway, past a lavender-and-black 1926 Rolls-Royce.

A glimpse of the Prince, a nod to the policeman at the gate, and it was back to traffic, headlines, tourists, and the train home.

We didn't see Lady Diana in the crush, and didn't know she had attended until we saw her on television later that night.

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