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Our Great Adventure...

We launched ourselves upon our Great Adventure in a spirit of cautious optimism, a large scotch and a couple of Ibuprofen each (for our arthritic joints you understand - that's my story and I'm sticking to it).Thus drugged up to the eyeballs we handed ourselves over to the tender mercies of our son, Guy, and his wife Jane who (foolishly) volunteered to chauffeur us to the capital and Buck House. The journey was swift and uneventful… at least as far as I could tell with my eyes shut!

As all guest's cars had a special sticker we were easily picked out by the multitude of police around the Palace and swiftly and efficiently parked up in the horse-riding lane alongside the Palace in Constitution Hill. Literally twenty-five yards from the main gates! Needless to say, Maggie was cool and lovely in a floaty frock and posh hat whereas I was done up like a smoked kipper in striped pants, black tail coat, grey waistcoat, shirt, tie and top hat and the uneasy feeling of sweat trickling down my back! The fact that it was brilliant sunshine and very, very HOT added nothing to my equanimity. We were early, which is the understatement of the year 'cos we were two hours early! Anyway, had our pictures taken at the Palace gates by one of the (hopefully) official photographers and parted with twenty quid (Guy and Jane laughing fit to bust and hordes of rubber-necking touristos not helping one little bit!).

We then went walkabout, which in my comic opera outfit added nothing to my comfort. We went walkabout lured by a lying photographer who said there was a pub "just around the corner." I think he meant the corner of Piccadilly, two miles away, 'cos we never found it. We crossed St. James Park, oo-ah'd at the baby ducks, crossed the Mall, at which point Lady Maggie decided she needed a loo and, as you do in these circumstances, asked a policeman and disappeared back the way we'd just come. Guy and Jane had meanwhile departed on their own adventures and I was left standing trying to look inconspicuous near the Palace… which was a joke 'cos every passing tourist took my picture like I was one of the sights of London! (And I probably was!)

When Maggie returned we hurried to find somewhere to sit down before I fell down and found a bench in the park just alongside Constitution Hill which, in turn, runs alongside the Palace wall. Here was an oasis of calm with a woman who was attending the next Garden Party, but wanted to see what the form was first.

By this time the queue of guests extended from the Palace gates, along Constitution Hill and into Wellington Place in the distance! At this point we began to get some idea of the numbers involved (we later discovered it to be around two thousand!)

We were in the shade, comfortable and saw no point in standing in the queue so we simply sat and waited for the queue to come to us, which it very quickly did. We passed through the gilded gates, across the forecourt, through a carriage arch and into the inner courtyard. From here we entered the Palace itself. Up a flight of red-carpeted stairs, through a luxuriously appointed ante-room (we paid particular attention to the china - naturally), another flight of red-carpeted stairs, two more well appointed rooms with flunkeys everywhere to cut off the too inquisitive and out onto the balustraded terrace overlooking the gardens. Gardens you understand is a euphemism for VERY large landscaped park complete with lake!

Maggie, being the nosy type, wanted to see EVERYTHING so we trekked around the lake, the rose garden, the flower garden etc., etc., with me grabbing every opportunity to sit down that came our way. At 4pm the band (there were two military brass bands playing alternately throughout the afternoon) struck up the National Anthem and the Queen and entourage: Phillip, Charles, and various minor royalty appeared on the terrace and we all foregathered on the tea lawns.

One of the great features of this day was the unobtrusive organisation of everything, from the parking of a thousand or so cars, getting two thousand people into the gardens and suddenly, without anyone noticing, to two double lines of guests through which the hosts strolled and chatted. The ease with which they chatted to complete strangers and their incredible stamina was wondrous to behold.

In my imagination I had a little chin-wag with Phillip and the Queen, very interesting. Out of fellow interest I asked him how long it took him to mow the lawns. He seemed a bit taken aback, but obviously recognised a fellow sufferer and replied, "We have a sit on lawn mower that the gardener rides."

"Mmmm, Gardener," I thought, "There's posh."

At that point Maggie joined in with, "It's a big house, Elizabeth, how do you find time to keep it all clean with all your other duties?"

"We," she answered, again a bit taken aback I thought, "We have staff to do that."

Personally I thought it was all a bit showing off what with gardeners and 'staff'.

But I suppose when you are putting on a 'do' for some two thousand people you're entitled to put on a few airs and graces. Added to which when you have a 'lake' in your back garden instead of a two by four foot pond (that leaks!) it is one up on the Jones' of this world.

Reality intruded rather abruptly if one glanced up at the roof of the Palace and saw, outlined against the sky, the figures of the police security with their binoculars, AK47s and sniper sights.

We took tea in the tea tent (where else?). A nice mixture of hors-d'oeuvres, cakes, ice cream and tea. From which advantage point we sat and watched the world pass by: diplomats, Arab Sheiks, uniformed officers from every service, and people just like us, we enjoyed several conversations with those who joined us at the table. At 5.30pm people were beginning to wander out and as the whole thing was scheduled to end at 6pm we too made our way out through the Palace. Once again enjoying the Chinese porcelain and Derby dinner services all around us. Guy's car was parked in Constitution Hill and we all arrived together.

Within seconds I had divested myself of jacket, waistcoat, tie and, luxury of luxuries, my shoes! At this point Guy and Jane produced their trump card, a cool-bag full of drinks. Gin and tonics for Maggie and rum and tonics for me (a new favourite of mine… thanks Bob). Bliss! The ensuing journey was conducted in an alcoholic haze (driver excepted) and gently aching feet.

The Dirty Duck pub in Stratford upon Avon

But, this was not the end of our Adventure. Guy and Jane had very thoughtfully booked a table for dinner at The Dirty Duck pub (aka. The Black Swan) in Stratford upon Avon. This you must understand is not just Maggie's hometown, but the very place where, forty years ago (on the 8th August), we first met. Maggie was barmaiding at The Duck prior to her first teaching job and I was a local habitué of The Dirty Duck.

My very first words to her were, "Half a Keg and a kiss, please." It must have been the way I said it because I got both! Less than a year later we were married and spent our first night as guests of The Dirty Duck, courtesy of the then owner, Ben Shepherd. I think he felt he owed us something for all the beer Maggie sold and all the beer I drank! That place has a lot to answer for.

Needless to say it was a very fitting end to a wonderful day, thanks in no small part to Guy and Jane. Why are we telling you? Don't be silly, we're telling EVERYBODY!

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