Queen Holds Tea Party For 8,000 People

07/17/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

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 Sanderson 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.

Some reporters are asked two or three times. My first time, I made sure my shoes were perfectly polished, so the queen would not think poorly of me. But when I realized there were thousands of other guests, and that the queen was not likely to scrutinize my footwear, I let my standards drop a bit this time around, although I still tried to look my best.

Like most guests, I imagine, I'm fond of saying I've had tea with the queen _ and not keen to point out that we were joined by 7,999 others. And like many of them, I've framed the photo I had taken that first time, although I wish my wife had told me my tie was askew.

As an American in London, I don't feel the deep connection many Britons do with the queen. But I enjoy thinking back on memorable events here _ the royal family's appearance with Winston Churchill on the balcony at the end of World War II is my favorite _ and I always marvel at the warmth and reverence the crowd has for the queen.

Walking through the palace, the building seems austere and almost forbidding, its walls lined with formal portraits, its dark rooms with very little natural light.

But walking outside, the vast garden is a revelation, festive and filled with color. The pond that is its centerpiece features weeping willow branches grazing the water and ducks flying free.

The sounds of the city do not intrude; it is hard to believe the gardens are in the center of a major metropolis.

The food is ample, with little chocolates decorated with the queen's crown _ it's hard to know whether to eat them or take them home to freeze as souvenirs. Mindful of my diet, and my manners, I pass them by completely.

The most moving moment for most of the guests comes when the band strikes up "God Save the Queen" and Queen Elizabeth II, dressed in lilac, and her top-hatted husband appear on the front steps, standing motionless in front of the huge throng.

As applause ripples through the crowd it's easy to feel the hold this elaborate pageantry has on the people gathered here.

It's hard not to admire the queen's stamina. Here is an 82-year-old monarch willing to plunge into a crowd of thousands of strangers on her back lawn, stopping to greet hundreds of them as she walks to the royal tea tent, where a few thousand more are sitting just outside the security rope to see her up close.

Her husband stays at it even longer. Prince Philip, with his familiar craggy features, spends nearly an hour chatting up guests on his way to the tent.

Even the dicey weather cooperates. Storm clouds gathered several times but the threat of rain faded after a few drops fell and the crisp late afternoon was bathed in light.

Tuesday's party will be followed by several more.

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 _ don't try making any special requests_ 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."