Queen Elizabeth invites 8,000 subjects to tea

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

LONDON -- The times they aren't a changing. Not at Buckingham Palace, at least.

Tea with the queen Tuesday looked much the same as it would have 140 years ago when Queen Victoria started the tradition: men in tails and top hats, women in floral dresses and elaborate hats. It resembled a scene from a 19th-century painting.

The queen's first garden party of the summer season was a step back in time to an age when the food was flavorless -- pass the cucumber sandwiches and milky tea, please -- and everyone was ready to curtsy or bow when her majesty came by.

The roughly 8,000 guests did not include any outspoken republicans or anti-monarchists, but was filled with people who had dreamed for years -- even decades -- of attending a soiree like this.

Beryl Sanderson, whose husband is mayor of the south Yorkshire town of Barnsley, surveyed the scene with wonder.

"Everyone here is so proud and honored to be here today," said Sanderson, 63. "It's so peaceful, so dignified. Is there a word to describe the atmosphere?"

Her husband, Ken, said he found the scene overwhelming.

"It's very humbling," he said. "It makes the hairs on your neck stand up on end. For the 8,000 guests, it's recognition of what they're doing in their communities."

No one can ask for a coveted invitation. Guests are nominated by civil servants, charitable organizations, the diplomatic corps, the military and other groups.

For most, it comes once in a lifetime, if at all: an invitation on special stationery from the Lord Chamberlain reporting that he has been commanded by her majesty to invite you -- YOU! -- to a party at the palace.

Many couples choose to mark the occasion by hiring one of the photographers working outside the palace to take a portrait of them in their formal clothes outside the black and gold palace gates.

Most guests don't get close enough to the queen to meet her, but they do get a chance to see her up close if they choose to wait in the lines that form wherever she walks.

"She's a wonderful lady, wonderful for everyone," said Beryl Sanderson, who spent five weeks choosing the purple dress and matching hat she wore.

Each summer the queen throws at least three garden parties in London and one more at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. Some have special themes -- among the most memorable was a 1997 event to mark the 50th anniversary of her marriage to Prince Philip. The guests were other British couples celebrating their 50th.

The food may be simple, but preparations are elaborate. Some 27,000 cups of tea are served along with 20,000 carefully trimmed sandwiches and 20,000 slices of cake.

For the guests, it is a rare chance to see firsthand just how pleasant the queen's circumstances are. The magnificent gardens of Buckingham Palace sit on 42 acres in the heart of central London, and this isn't even the queen's favorite palace.

She much prefers nearby Windsor Castle and Balmoral Castle, one of her Scottish retreats. But when she has to be in the city, Buckingham Palace, with its 775 rooms, will do just fine.

Plus, it's a great place for a party.

"I love this for three reasons: history, heritage, and the reality of sovereignty," Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne said on her way into the party. "This is not a game, this is real."

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