LONDON — For the first time in her nearly 70-year reign, Queen Elizabeth II is allowing the people to picnic on her front lawn. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the courtiers say. And the grass? It really is a little greener on the other side.
“The boss,” as the staff openly call the monarch, thinks the people need this bit of fresh air after a wretched year: a scone with jam and cream, a cup of tea in an otherworldly oasis.
And so for the rest of the summer, starting on Friday, the paying public may sprawl upon the Main Lawn behind the high walls of Buckingham Palace.
This kind of access is unprecedented in the modern era. A ticket holder who pays the 16.50 pounds, or about $23, can arrive with a bucket of chicken and a bedsheet, if they want, in ripped jeans and flip-flops, and recline on some of the most sublime, privileged, historic, protected acres on Earth.
Before? Do Not Walk On the Grass.
Now? Please Do.
In a normal year — the last two summers were not normal — the queen would host several Royal Garden Parties in May and June, before she and her retinue went north for 10 weeks in Scotland (see Netflix’s “The Crown” for details).
These garden fetes were prized invites — and would be attended by 8,000 invited guests per party, decked out in summer frocks and fascinators for the ladies, top hats and morning coats for the gents, who were served 20,000 pieces of cake and a torrent of Champagne.
In a typical year, another 8,000 paying guests a day typically tour the State Rooms inside the palace, filing out through the back garden along the paths — no lingering or picnicking.
But because of the bummer coronavirus, the state rooms remain closed. And there are still no Royal Garden Parties. And so the idea of allowing for picnics for the rest of us.
There are some rules, naturally. No knives to slice your sausage or Brie. No dogs. No beer, no prosecco, no booze at all, not even a bottle of the Buckingham Palace Dry Gin (available in the gift shop for $50).
“The idea is ‘sober picnics,'” said Sarah Davis, head of media relations for the Royal Collection Trust.
Davis said they expect 2,000 people a day.
A Thursday preview was attended by the contractors who built the loos, hoteliers, tour guides, concierges, caterers and the media. The vibe was super respectful, even as the garden geeks pressed against the rope lines to take close-ups of the gorgeous hollyhocks in the famous Herbaceous Border.
Frances O’Neill, 64, who teaches English as foreign language, enjoyed a “low-key plebeian picnic,” with sandwiches brought from Pret a Manger, a popular chain.
That was followed by an ice cream and a lovely stroll through the gardens, which include lakes, wildflower meadows, ancient oaks, beehives and the descendants of mulberries planted by James I in 1608. (He wanted to make silk but got the wrong trees.)
O’Neill was walking with Gerald Smith, 66, a retired tour guide from Cambridge, who was licking a mint chocolate chip ice cream. The gardens, he said, are a “haven of peace and quiet.” He identified as a republican (versus a monarchist) and agreed that it “about time the public got to see this.”
Derek Tarr, 75, a guide who specializes in garden tours all over England and Scotland, was sitting on a folding picnic chair on the queen’s lawn, and described the scene as “very pleasant.”
Asked what made the Royal Gardens so special, he said, “the fact that you have 42 acres slap bang in the middle of London. Apart from seeing one or two tall buildings” over the trees, “you wouldn’t know,” he said.
Tarr hoped things like this would be a boon to the tourism industry, which he said had taken a “massive hit” with the pandemic.
“Normally we’d be working this time of the year, but most of us haven’t got any work. But hopefully it will come back this year,” he said.
Patricia Ellis, 66, a London tour guide, said, “I just think it’s a lovely, lovely occasion, a chance to get to see something that you wouldn’t normally see in a beautiful time of the year.”
When she checked the website for future tickets recently, she found she was 78,000th in the queue.
“If you love gardens, it’s popular. If you love the royals, it’s popular as well,” she said. “And if you love seeing somewhere that the public don’t usually like to go, well, then it ticks all the boxes really.”