And so to London to see the Queen

Children's author Joyce Dunbar describes her recent visit to  Buckingham Palace

'I was invited to the Royal Garden Party as guest of Alison Pressley, our stalwart chair of East Anglian Writers, for reviving and linking the group to the Society of Authors in 1990, when I moved to Norwich.

Hats! We must have a hat! Weather! We must keep an eye on the forecast!

Southwold is a place full of charity shops with once used wedding hats in mint condition and on a literary trip in the footsteps of W.G Sebald, two were duly purchased. 'Not to be worn in rain' said the label. The forecast changed from day to day, but at the last minute I abandoned my oversized hat in favour of a bootlace ribbon fascinator on a clip with a single green flower.

There are no cloakrooms at Buckingham palace for garden party guests, so you have to decide whether to take a coat or not, which you may end up carrying throughout. I decided on a lightweight coat, Alison wore a blazer over her floral dress. We had a jaunty start at Norwich railway station - which is appropriately smart these days.

Our troubles began as soon as we stepped off the train to catch the 11 bus to the Palace. Rain! Definite rain. Then we noticed that the bus was going in the wrong direction - Lambeth - on account of political disruption. We had to dismount at Westminster Bridge. 'Never mind,' I said, 'we'll get a taxi.' There was a whole row of taxis on the bridge - at a standstill. We asked a traffic policeman what was going on. 'Taxi strike,' he said.

'What shall we do?' we asked. He pointed to a couple of rickshaws across the road. Hobson's choice. The driver indicated the price on a sign. £10 - which seemed fair. An open rickshaw over a windy rainswept bridge carrying two tempest-tossed ladies hanging on to their garden party hats was not what we had in mind. Weaving in and out of traffic, mounting pavements, breaking every rule in the traffic laws, he got us there. We offered £10. 'No' he said. '£10 each.' `Even that seemed fair, considering the miracle of our arrival almost on time. A queue of umbrellas streamed from the gates. Two queues. Security checks. All those people, attired in their best, some with bare arms and summer sandals, shivering in the wind and the rain, mostly unfazed. I thought of all the hours and hands that had gone into the choosing of outfits - barely to be paraded.

And so it went on. Empty chairs and empty tables. Most of us huddling in a tea tent. We queued again for tea, sandwiches, cakes, which were daintily delicious with not a crust in sight. Then a hush fell over this massive, rain soaked gathering. The royal family were about to appear on the palace steps. This was something akin to the appearance of Pan in the Wind in the Willows. Reverence descended. Tiny figures appeared at such a distance it was impossible to make them out. I left my tea and cakes hoping to get a glimpse. I was lost behind waves of hats and fascinators. But there was something about this moment that took me by surprise. It was tribal, almost primitive - homage to the immortals in our midst. 

I returned to the tea tent to find my tea and cakes had been cleared away but there was plenty more. Alison, stauncher than I, braved the crowd and on her camera caught a glimpse of the Queen in pink, smiling. And another of Princess Eugenie, and the back of Prince Harry. On a second attempt I saw only the Duke of Kent, looking fed-up.

There was something so moving about the crowd, a mix of social classes, clerics in red robes, the posh people looking curiously burnished, the occasional mayor clanking his chains, though no medals allowed.  I even spotted the dean of Norwich Cathedral. But the royals have a separate tea-tent with invited guests, so there wasn’t much chance of hobnobbing, though the younger royals made short forays into the crowd. Even so there was a sense of pride at being so honoured which the rain didn't diminish, soaked and freezing in their finery. A high point for me was sitting on a pre-warmed lavatory seat in the excellent facilities and then warming my hands on the hand drier.

To get home to Liverpool Street, we had to take another rickshaw to Trafalgar Square, more aggressively reckless than the first, cutting across pavements, traffic islands, grass, and again, £10 each, but this time with plastic covering, cheap at the price. Then a bus to Liverpool Street and a stiff drink at Merchant of Bishopsgate to warm our cockles.

Ever since the Coronation Street tea party on a prefab estate in Scunthorpe, with coronation mugs and my first sight of TV on a neighbour's set when I was seven years old, I am programmed in favour of the Queen. On this occasion it was mixed with pity for the royals for having to spend their lives being gawped at. But something else too - a sense of the mystery of this 93 year old woman, dressed immaculately in pink, smiling throughout, so admirably, resolutely, cheerful.'

 

www.joycedunbar.com

The Mouse & Mole books are recently published by GRAFFEG

 

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