The English At Play

London Hotel Magazine – 07-1985

In his search for the archetypal English, Christopher Long ventured to Ascot, Wimbledon, Lords and the Henley Regatta.

[This article was specifically commissioned by London Hotel Magazine to appeal
to a largely North American tourist readership]

Now, I'll let you in on a secret! If you find getting to England is one thing but meeting the English quite another, the answer is quite simply to catch the English at play.

Most visitors to Britain have been reasonably satisfied with what they've discovered here but the oft-heard complaint is that tracking down the English is about as tricky as catching a glimpse of some rare, shy and elusive breed of antelope in the wide open spaces of the Serengeti Plains.

Where are they?

They're not in the Tower of London. They don't seem to hang around Anne Hathaway's Cottage. Not too many of them feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. And to judge by appearances none of them ever seems to be shopping in Knightsbridge or eating out in town.

The truth is that the English – the real English! – are indeed a shy and retiring lot who are seldom found anywhere along the tourist trail and feel more at home in the country or with each other.

The best way to catch up with them is to track them down at one of the four great English sporting get-togethers – Royal Ascot, Wimbledon, The Ashes (at Lord's Cricket Ground) and Henley Royal Regatta.

However, describing them as sporting events is not entirely accurate. Each is in fact an elaborate social occasion. Together they form the high point of a packed schedule of dozens of events that fill the Summer Season from The Boat Race in April to Goodwood at the end of July.

So, from all over England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales families gather in a bizarre collection of traditional costumes that in time-honoured fashion celebrate racing, tennis, cricket and rowing – all crammed into the last week of June and the first week of July.

Royal Ascot – is probably the most spectacular flat-racing event anywhere in the world. No-one can deny the thrills and spills of steeple-chasing. Few can resist the chaotic excitement of The Grand National or the more ordered equine chaos of the flat-race Derby on Epsom Downs. But Ascot attracts the cream of Europe's racing thoroughbreds and the cream of the world's owners, breeders, trainers and race-goers at the four-day meeting which is as glamorous a social spectacle as lovers of My Fair Lady might expect. Sure enough, the Grand Stand and Royal Ascot Enclosure are filled with exotically dressed women accompanied by men in their regulation top hats and morning coats.

This annual celebration of the sport of kings truly has royal associations. It was started in 1711 by Queen Anne who, despite her 20 stone weight, was fanatically keen on hunting – despite being restricted to following her Buckhounds in a light carriage because few horses could carry her. She established the Ascot racecourse on the edge of the Windsor hunting grounds and it has had royal patronage ever since. To this day, weather permitting, the Royal Family travel from Windsor Castle to the Royal Box in a glittering procession of state carriages, complete with outriders – a sight which more than makes up for losing one's shirt on the six races that take place each afternoon.

As far as the Queen herself is concerned this is far from a merely ceremonial occasion. As one of the country's keenest horsewomen and a brilliant owner/breeder in her own right, Royal Ascot is known to be one of the most pleasurable highlights in her calendar.

It was the present Queen who helped supervise extensive improvements to the course, grandstands and other facilities – including the massive stand named after her which now dominates the skyline. Not that this diminishes the historic atmosphere – still live to the ghosts of immortal jockeys such as Fred Archer, Steve Donaghue, Gordon Richards and Lester Piggott, and equally immortal horses such as Brown Jack, Elysium, Trewlawny, Aurelius, Brigadier Gerard and Roman Holiday.

Certainly Royal Ascot is exclusive. Only those who have previously applied to the Royal Ascot Office at St James's Palace (or through embassies) can acquire the coveted vouchers and badges that give access to the Royal Enclosure, where formal dress is obligatory. But, from the Grand Stand, the Silver Ring and from across the course on Ascot Heath, thousands of ordinary race-goers get an excellent view of the racing and an opportunity to watch the fashions, foibles and follies of the see-and-be-seen socialites clustered below the Royal Box.

If one day is more worth attending than any other it must be Ladies Day when the Gold Cup is the highlight of that day's race-card. There is almost as much competition between off-course fillies in the glamour and fashion stakes as there is on-course between the 3-year-olds racing for the Cup which was first instituted by Czar Nicholas of All the Russias in 1807.

Situated halfway between London and the Berkshire Downs (heartland of English bloodstock breeding and training) Ascot is 38 minutes by train from London's Waterloo Station (frequent services). Ten minutes from the station visitors can choose to watch the sport and pageantry from Ascot Heath, the Silver Ring or from the Grand Stand, the Paddock and Tattersalls. And, if there are any left, you might even enquire after a private box with its own luncheon menu – conveniently situated next to the on-course Totalisator betting offices.

Wimbledon – The All England Lawn Tennis championships at Wimbledon are probably the nearest equivalent we have to what used to go on in the Roman circuses and amphitheatres. Here, in a leafy London suburb (the birthplace of lawn tennis) thousands gather under the ivy-clad walls and dark-green canopies of Centre Court. Packing the tiered stands around the world's smoothest and most immaculate grass court, they follow the fortunes of their heroes and heroines battling like gladiators in a two-week struggle to survive and win their laurels – not to mention the prize-money. In the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world all the tension, drama, tragedy and triumph of human endeavour is distilled under the gaze of about 350,000 spectators around the 17 courts – while millions sit glued to their TV sets all round the world.

All this is a long way removed from a small and simple announcement in The Field magazine of June 1877 which stated that "The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon, propose to hold a lawn tennis meeting open to all amateurs... Entrance fee £1.1.0d... Two prizes will be given...". That was how is all started.

From the beginning it was a sport that appealed to both men and women because it gave them a chance to meet each other socially. With a few ups and downs, tennis and Wimbledon steadily grew in popularity so that today the crowds who throng to Wimbledon are as good a cross-section of English society as you'll find anywhere – though women outnumber the men!

Unlike Ascot there is little room for snobbery and pageant. The Duke and Duchess of Kent are the only members of the Royal Family to have taken a keen interest over the years in the triumphs of players such as Laver, Newcombe, Smith, Kodes, Connors, Ashe, Borg and McEnroe. Though, having said that, Virginia Wade became a rare recent British champion in Wimbledon's Centenary year, 1977, in front of the Queen who was also celebrating her Silver Jubilee that year.

In most people's minds Wimbledon conjures up strawberries and cream under striped marquees while on-court dramas contrast with a timeless, almost nostalgic other-worldliness around the venerable grounds and club precincts.

There's an easy-going, good-natured camaraderie among the tennis fans which often contrasts rather sharply with the behaviour of certain players one could mention.

Wimbledon is easy to reach from Central London. The club is just a few yards from Wimbledon Park tube station (District Line). Competition for seats in Centre Court and Court One is fierce. Shrewd Wimbledon regulars know that some of the best tennis by some of the greatest stars is to be seen on the outer courts as seeded players fight their way through the earlier rounds in the first week or ten days prior to the finals.

The Ashes at Lord's – While the tennis players are serving, volleying, lobbing and smashing in south London, an altogether different game is beginning at Lord's Cricket Ground in the north.

Throughout the summer months and all over England, schoolboys, village teams, county sides and national 'elevens' gather in their white flannels, taking it in turns to bowl a hard leather ball at three wooden stumps surmounted by two wooden bails. Similarly, they take it in turns to wield bats made of willow with which to protect the stumps, score runs, preserve their honour and win the day.

And that, as an explanation of the intricacies of cricket, is about as sophisticated as a nuclear physicist telling you to 'take one atom and a razor-blade'.

Those who already know and love the game need not be told that its origins are lost in the mists of the English 17th and 18th centuries. Nor will they need to be told that the country's premier club, the Marylebone Cricket Club, asked a certain Thomas Lord to buy and operate a cricket ground near St John's Wood for them to play on. They will know that Lord's opened for play in 1787 and that ever since then the successes and defeats of the MCC have been as important to many Englishmen as the health of their mothers and the state of the nation.

The most important match of all is the annual contest between England and Australia for 'The Ashes' when the two countries take it in turns to host a series of games. This originated in 1882 when England was defeated by the Australians and a journalist remarked of the English performance: "the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia".

So, to this day, the mythical ashes now represented by the remains of two burnt bails in a solemn casket are fought for. This year [1985] England holds both The Ashes and honour of hosting the match at Lord's Cricket Ground (nearest tube station St John's Wood).

Most seats will have been booked by the time you read this but you may be able to stand, sit on the grass or find a bench below the stands. Like Wimbledon, Lord's is quintessentially English – a relaxed, civilised and delightful place to while away an afternoon. If you know the game you need know no more. If you don't, finding a helpful soul to guide you through its intricacies (and eccentricities) could be a rewarding high spot of a stay in London. Then you might tour the MCC museum and boggle your mind at the idea that a game can become a religion with a promise of an eternal cricket match in the great hereafter (umpired no doubt by angels in white coats) with the ashes of immortality as the final reward.

Play starts at 11.00 am finishing in the early evening and can sometimes run on for another day or two.

Henley Royal Regatta – As the cricketers draw stumps at Lord's and Wimbledon builds up to its climax, yet another historic and uniquely English event is beginning on the banks of the Thames, halfway between London and Oxford.

It was the age-old rivalry between the two ancient universities that led the oarsmen of Cambridge to pit their strength against those of Oxford on this wide, smooth and idyllic stretch of river in 1829. That encouraged the burghers of Henley-on-Thames to hold the first official regatta there ten years later in 1839. In those early days, rowing was a popular pastime for undergraduates who had taken up the sport at one of the great rowing Public Schools such as Eton, Radley or Westminster.

Today the small picturesque town is besieged by colourful marquees, bunting, hordes of heavyweight rowers, hundreds of sleek boats, dozens of vintage launches, countless pretty girls and generations of capped and blazered former rowers – all there to celebrate four days of racing by 'eights', 'fours', 'pairs', 'doubles' and 'sculls' from all over the rowing world.

It's a very pretty sight and rather mystifying to those who don't understand the terminology: for example, the etiquette and the subtle distinctions that make a man wearing pink a prince among men because he's a member of Leander, which is the oldest and most distinguished of the scores of riverside rowing clubs.

Like Ascot, there's an exclusive Enclosure reserved for royal visitors, members and VIPs. The green turf between the Remenham and Leander clubs is crammed with regular Henleyites displaying the dottier and more eccentric aspects of the English Establishment at play.

Champagne, smoked salmon and strawberries fuel the roars of encouragement to the rowers while the public line every available vantage point between Hambledon Lock and Henley Bridge – most of them discovering such places as The Red Lion, The Carpenter's Arms and the Little White Hart on the way.

The appeal of Henley is not just its Victorian and Edwardian flavour, nor just the rowing. The whole town comes alive with fairs, exhibitions and attractions for all. It costs nothing to watch if you can find a space. Trains run at hourly or half-hourly intervals from London (Paddington) with a change at Twyford for Henley-on-Thames station.

The finest day of all is Finals Day which starts with the traditional regatta service, includes the Ladies Plate (not a ladies race nor yet a race for the ladies) and the Thames Cup. It finishes long after dusk with crews celebrating into the night along the lamp-lit waterside under a starlit sky.

Captions to pictures in the original printed article:

This article was specifically commissioned by London Hotel Magazine to appeal to a largely North American tourist readership.

See also: Sporting Royals (for London Hotel Magazine 1987)

© (1985) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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