Author Ian McLean recounts his visit to Buckingham Palace.

IanMcLean When a very official and somewhat ornate letter from the Lord Chamberlain’s office dropped through the mailbox, I thought I’d got recognition at last. Was Prince Charles studying for a Microsoft examination? Did the Duke of Edinburgh want me to autograph a book?

Alas it was not to be. My wife’s work representing her profession on the Council of the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists was being recognized. That’s me in my place. My only function was to pay for her new outfit. Nevertheless, an invitation to Buckingham Palace is a considerable honor. There are only three such events each year and few are lucky enough to attend. It was an experience to savor.

However, I need to make something clear about royal garden parties. They are not intimate events where the chosen few get to sip tea at the same table as the Queen or exchange casual chat with the Duchess of Cornwall. Few might attend, but in a nation of sixty million “few” can mean up to three thousand people. The programs of major members of royalty such as the Queen and Prince Philip are carefully controlled, and the royal equerries decide in advance whom royalty will speak to, for how long, and in what order. If you are just back from a war zone with a fine record of service and an honorable wound, you might get to talk to Queen Elizabeth. I can’t complain about that.

So what actually happens? You queue with a large number of people outside a palace entrance. It must be one of the best-dressed queues in the world. The longest queue is at the main entrance but it’s well worth waiting there, because you go through two Buckingham Palace rooms to get into the gardens. The other entrances lead directly to the gardens and you don’t get to see inside the palace, with its impressive rooms and a quite incredible staircase.

In the garden, marquees are erected. You are politely directed to the public marquee. It is most definitely not the done thing to enter the royal marquee or the one reserved for diplomats. In the marquee you sip tea or iced coffee (I recommend the latter) and eat tiny cucumber sandwiches and chocolate cakes with crowns on them. You chat to the great and good and wonder what they did to get invited. They are wondering the same about you. It’s not polite to ask. You then wander round the gardens and see all the plants that have been donated by foreign nations. There’s very little from the local garden center in Buckingham Palace Gardens.

The event starts at 15:00 hours (3pm). The royal party appears at 16:00 hours as the band strikes up the National Anthem. Unfortunately at this point the sun stops shining and the rain pelts down. All you can see is umbrellas.

When the torrents stopped, however, we found ourselves standing beside a slim, elegant lady in a fetching red suit—the Princess Royal (Princess Anne) with her husband, Rear Admiral Timothy Laurence. I think, left to herself, she would have been happy to chat to us, but an equerry steered her away. She seemed to be quite a charming lady. She’s also my son’s Colonel-in-chief so it’s probably as well I didn’t get the chance to say anything dumb to her. A lady in Anne’s entourage did chat to us. We thought she was a lady in waiting but it turned out she was a Royal Duchess (I confess humbly that I did not recognize her, but I’ll try to identify her from the official video). We had been honored by royal attention, if not by the immediate Royal Family.

Of course we then went royalty-spotting. There can be very few opportunities to get within five feet of Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, all on the same afternoon, although we did not get as close as we did to Princess Anne. It is remarkable that a head of state still gets as close to her people – thousands of people – in today’s troubled times. Of course there were security people about, but they were very discrete. The Queen has always loved to go walkabout and meet her people. At the age of 83, on a very wet Tuesday afternoon, it appears her enthusiasm had not dimmed. She really seemed to be enjoying herself.

The royal party makes its way through the crowds, chatting to honored guests. Royalty, by the way, does not give autographs and it would be impolite to ask. The Queen and her family take tea in the royal marquee. The band plays God Save The Queen, the royals leave, and the guests join the queue for a taxi. Sounds like an anti-climax, but actually the atmosphere is very nice. So that’s it. I’ve been to London and visited the Queen. I rather enjoyed it.

Ian McLean