Georgian era (1714–1830) English Christmas begins early. Inspired by Sarah Beeny’s A Very British Christmas program, this list will make sure your hair is properly coiffed, your guests are satiated and your knickers aren’t in a wad.
2. Employ at least 15 servants so everything runs smoothly.
3. Gift-giving officially began on December 6. Some good options: money, apples, eggs or a castrated cockerel.
4. Put the children to bed — they aren’t invited or even included in the festivities for a few more decades. This is good, as things will get a bit racy.
5. If your party falls on Christmas Eve, find a yule log, drag it home and burn it for 12 days. Don’t let a bare-footed woman or a flat-footed visitor near it, though. That’s bad luck.
6. Feasting takes place every day, so wear your most comfortable gown. Luckily, high waistlines with loose skirts are en vogue, so you won’t have to suck in at all. Some women choose to wear corsets in this era, but this is not advised as it will severely impair your figgy pudding consumption.
19. For entertainment, play a game of snapdragon. Guests must try to pull raisins out of a flaming bowl of brandy. Be sure to have the ladies remove their gloves.
20. How’s that horse hair doing?
21. The Christmas pudding is a staple. It’s made of eggs, suet, plums, flour and breadcrumbs. Let it stand for 12 hours before boiling it for eight. Then boil it for two hours right before serving. Mmmm.
22. Hide a pea and a bean in the cake: whoever finds them in their slice is allowed to reign as King or Queen for the day, servants included. If only they played this in the Post-Edwardian era! Just imagine Mosley from Downton Abbey telling Lord Grantham to lick his boots, or Daisy ordering around Lady Grantham. Hilarious. More Wassail punch, please!
23. Don’t put up a tree. This is not a thing yet. What are you, German? No. You’re not. You’re an English lady in the Georgian era.
24. End the night with blind man’s bluff, which is blind-folded tag. Watch out for your bosoms, your tall hair, and the burning log. This could lead to a fatal disaster.
25. Kissing under the mistletoe is all the rage during this period, so expect to make out with a few Georgian gentlemen.
26. But that’s where this party ends. If you’re a single lady, then you’re a Georgian-era virgin. Have sex before marriage and you’ll be ostracized — the ultimate party killer.
25. Comfort yourself with more Wassail punch. Pat your towering hair and glance down at your elevated bosoms. Who needs men? Not you. You’re a Georgian lady. The kind who eats pig head pâté and has her own horse hair. A real lady.
27. Slide into bed. Take off the goddamn wig. Put on your skullcap to stay warm. Congratulate yourself on your epic Christmas party.
28. The next morning, nurse your hangover by sucking on a sugar cube with clove oil and chewing on a sprig of parsley. Feel better? Good, because the holiday party season lasts for a month. You have 26 more mince pies to eat.
“Every time I see a local ripping off a tourist for some ‘authentic’ experience, I think, ‘Who the hell is going to fall for that?’” Dylan, my ex-roommate, remarked a few months ago over breakfast. “And then I think, ‘Oh wait. There’s you.’”
“Why?” I asked.
“You paid money to shear a sheep in New Zealand,” he replied.
“So what? That was a great experience,” I said. (It was disgusting.)
“You’re the kind of person who would pay money to see the ‘fairies’ on Ireland’s marshes,” he insisted.
“No, I’m not,” I said. “Wait, are they real fairies? Tell me more.”
“Exactly,” Dylan said.
I couldn’t resist the pull of elf school.
Elf school in Iceland costs $48. This would be a steal if you walked out of the classroom transformed into a full-fledged elf; however, nearly $50 to listen to a non-elf tell you about Iceland’s so-called “hidden people” does not seem like a great tradeoff.
Infamously, 54 percent of Icelanders are said to believe in elves. (Icelanders protest that this ‘fact’ originates from a very carefully phrased question which asked, “Can you be 100 percent sure that elves do not exist?” Logically, 54 percent of them concluded that just because they have never seen an elf, that doesn’t mean that elves do not exist).
Before I attended elf school, I spent two weeks driving around Iceland looking for elves with my husband Sam, reveling in the 24-hour daylight that occurs during the height of summer. This meant approximately 12 extra hours during which I could be on the lookout for elves. Finding none, however, I turned to the locals for some insider knowledge.
Somewhere off The Ring Road, we stayed at an Airbnb house that belonged to a blond, burly Icelander named Börkur. In his early 20s, Börkur liked to drink and chew tobacco. His English, like most Icelanders’, was excellent. After he let us into his apartment, he crossed his arms and leaned back against a wall, eyeing me up warily. When I asked about the tattoo of a ram on his arm, he explained that he’s an Aries.
“Me too,” I said.
“Really?” he asked, his icy demeanor breaking. “That’s cool. That’s really cool.” He looked at me with approval, until I blurted out:
“Do you believe in elves?”
The look on his face showed that I’d lost all the points I had gained by being born in March. “No,” he said, sighing.
“Not at all?”
“No, but the woman next door thinks they live in a rock on the hill.”
Over the course of our 14-day road trip, I found that elves and “hidden people” (or huldufólk) are always spoken of together and the terms seem to be interchangeable, representing supernatural Icelandic beings (apparently they exist elsewhere, too, but the rest of the world is too jaded to see them). According to lore, they’re people just like us—we just can’t see them. To them, we are the hidden people.
That’s a little too convenient, even for me. I have two older brothers. I know how these things work.
The Elfschool, or Álfaskólinn in Icelandic, is located in the most un-elvish place in the entire country: adjacent to a parking lot, upstairs from an empty storefront, in a musty room stuffed with papers and elf tchotchkes. Elf school shouldn’t be like this. Elf school should be held on a grassy hill surrounded by trees. It should have maypoles and frolicking. The teachers should play music on little carved pipes. Elf school should be like Zooey Deschanel’s best acid trip ever.
Instead, we have Magnus. A former historian, Magnus is the “headmaster” of elf school. 60 years old and gray-bearded, he described himself as “a strange man” and has spent his life collecting paranormal experiences (4-5,000 to date). When I met him, he was wearing tracksuit bottoms, a blazer, and socks without shoes.
I probably could have bought into elf school just a little bit more if Magnus had been different. He made a lot of jokes about American Republicans. In fact, that was his main joke. He laughed very hard at these jokes, which are technically not even jokes, unless adding “because you’re a Republican” to the end of people’s sentences and snorting qualifies as a joke.
As soon as I met Magnus, a new fear developed. What if I’m the only person at elf school? As Magnus took my money with a gleeful “I bet you’re a Republican,” I felt my desperation rise. Please don’t let me be the only one. Please don’t let me be the only one, I thought frantically.
Eventually, I heard the unmistakable sound of other Americans. Three couples walked in behind me: six lawyers in their late 20s from Washington, D.C. They came because a coworker told them elf school was “a hoot.” The men wore boat shoes and polo shirts. It was clear they were not ready for elf school.
We sat in a circle around Magnus. He started off with a rehearsed spiel, explaining how he interviews people all over Iceland about elf sightings. While sightings do occur in other countries, we learned that most occur in Iceland because it’s a special place, so remote that the Age of Enlightenment—with its crazy ideas about science and reality—was late to reach its shores.
Unsurprisingly, Magnus told us that he believes in the paranormal and in elves, even though he’s never seen them. But “my children have,” he said. “Look, did any of you have an invisible friend as a child?” One of the male lawyers raised his hand. Prompted by Magnus, he shared that it was his sister’s imaginary friend. The story made Magnus feel justified. Point proven.
After this, we were given a book full of illustrated elf stories and typos. Magnus explained that elves can be all different shapes and sizes. They can fit on the palm of your hand (flower elves, or Blómálfur), they can be slightly smaller than humans (tree elves, or tréálfur), or they can fit inside your house (house elves, or búálfur); some are as tall as buildings. Overall, there are 13 different types of elves.
“Can you tell us a story you’ve personally heard?” I asked Magnus. He told us a tale from the 1980s, of a child who got lost on his way to a neighboring farm when a snowstorm struck.
“After six hours of wandering in the snow, he nearly gave up when he spotted a farm with lights in the windows. He’d never seen the house before but he knocked on the door and begged to come in. A family let him in and gave him dry clothes. But these were very old clothes, as were the ones they were wearing themselves. He said, ‘Where am I?,’ and they said that he was in his own neighborhood. ‘But I’ve never seen you before. You must be new.’ ‘No, we’ve been here longer than your family.’”
They were, of course, a family of hidden people. They wore old-fashioned clothes and ate old-fashioned food. The boy was nursed back to health and returned home, and, despite looking, never found them again.
“Does anyone have any questions?” Magnus asked.
“Do elves eat human food?” I asked. The lawyers stared at me. Yes, we were all technically in elf school, but they were there as a group, which meant that for them it was joke activity—a lark. A future shared anecdote. I was there alone. If this was elf high school, they were the cool kids and I was the nerdy loner, desperate to capture the teacher’s attention.
“Of course,” Magnus replied.
“And what about—do they…do the elves…” I trailed off, looking down at my notes. The only thing more humiliating than paying money to attend elf school is actually sitting in elf school, in front of six judgmental lawyers, asking about the mating rituals of elves.
Before the session, I had reviewed my questions with my husband, a typically skeptical Englishman who was completely against elf school but was also totally opposed to me asking any inappropriate questions about elves. “Do not ask if they have sex,” Sam said. “You just can’t ask that.”
But I had to. “Do they…multiply?” I finally asked.
Magnus looked at me, and snorted. “Yes. Elves fuck.”
His words hung in the musty air. The lawyers said nothing. Neither did I. No one laughed.
I had to cut out of the session early because the class was running over, and Sam was due pick me up to return our rental car (if you think it’s hard to find elves, try to get an Englishman to go with you to elf school. You’ll locate at least sixteen elves before that happens). As I left, Magnus shouted after me, “Is it because you’re a Republican?”
I’m not sure there was much to learn at elf school that you can’t find online or in a decent history book. (Although online reviews say that Magnus serves pancakes after the session, so there is that consolation prize.) Unsatisfied, I picked up The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdóttir. According to Alda, life was a bitch in Iceland back in the day. People lived in abject poverty under harsh conditions: brutal weather, volcanic eruptions, possible starvation, lice infestations, oppressive governments. Elf stories strengthened Icelanders’ “heroic efforts to survive—physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
The elf stories made them feel better. According to legend, hidden people ate sumptuous food and wore glamorous clothes and were far more attractive than normal, seen people. They lived in hills and inside boulders—which explains why Icelanders have been known to protest if a new building project will disturb known homes of the Hidden People.
Hidden people stories are often morality tales in which a human helps an elf or vice versa, but it definitely got complicated. At times, the hidden people would manifest as lovers of despondent women in Iceland. And sometimes the tales turned weirdly dark, with hidden people murdering non-hidden people on Christmas (it’s also said that eventually tales of outlaws and elf folklore began to merge, which explains a lot about the stories that end with “and then the elves murdered her”).
My friend Dylan will not be surprised to hear that I’m with the 54 percent of Icelanders who can’t say without a doubt that elves do not exist. Although believing these stories is akin to taking the Brothers Grimm fairytales as fact, I like the idea of elves. I live in London. It’s dirty, and loud, and every Saturday morning my front door is covered in urine. I’m comforted by the idea of some magical creature helping out when all hope is lost.
“I shall eat Ice and drink French wine, and be above Vulgar Economy.”– Jane Austen, in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, 1808
Let’s live today as though it were 1808 and we are Jane Austen vacationing at our rich brother’s house in Kent. Our days are long and filled with entertaining guests and writing letters to our sisters and eating Georgian ices, as well as ice cream, in such varied flavors as burnt filbert ice cream, royal ice cream and the most unusual of all, parmesan ice cream.
When you’re little, you think that any combination of your favorite foods would be great (think Friends: “Custard, good. Jam, good. Meat, good!”) Just a little something to keep in mind as we journey through Jane Austen’s culinary landscape.
So Parmesan ice cream was brought over to the UK from the Italians. Are you intrigued? I was. Cheese, good. Ice cream, good!
According to 16th century confectioner Frederick Nutt, this is how you make parmesan ice cream:
Take six eggs, half a pint of syrup and a pint of cream, put them into stewpan and boil them until it begins to thicken; then rasp three ounces of parmesan cheese, mix and pass them through a sieve, and freeze it.
As the ingredients begin to boil in your stewpan (or whatever your twenty-first century equivalent is), the wet mixture will begin to stick to the sides, like a very wet omelet. You’ll find that, by the sieving point, this mixture will actually resist sieving (try to imagine straining on omelet), but repeated banging will produce a full ramekin of the warm creamy egg-y sweet cheese liquid.
Then, freeze it. Let’s hope that you had the good foresight to save chunks of ice from a nearby river or pond during the winter and store them underground in a forest of tall trees, like they did in Austen’s day, so that you will be able to enjoy this cold dessert.
I recommend halving this recipe, for I could not even give this “delicacy” away. I offered it to friend after friend after friend and pretty soon, I had no friends at all.
Therefore, I had to sample it myself. I approached the cold mess with trepidation. Let me put this in perspective for you: it was the first time I’ve truly been afraid of what I was eating. And I lived in Beijing for three years with a peanut allergy, so please consider the significance of the statement.
VERDICT: It looked like crème brûlée, but I knew better. In short, I spat it out. At length, the cheese ice cream, while creamy and frozen, was too disgusting for me, mostly because it tasted and smelled like frozen Parmesan cheese. Mostly because it was like frozen Parmesan cheese with syrup. I do not know what the hell Regency Era people were thinking. Reader, do not make this recipe. Cheese, good. Ice cream, good. Cheese ice cream? BAD.
We’ll just say that I took one for the team here, okay?
Luckily, I found another Regency Era ice cream that was delightful.
The best thing about this 1807 recipe is that you probably have all of the ingredients in your house right now. This means that, even if you are not Jane Austen vacationing on a large English estate, but instead, say, a hungry lady whose cupboards are bare save for stale bread, a couple of eggs, and some sugar, you can actually have ice cream!
Granted, the flavor of the ice cream will be “brown bread” but beggars can’t be choosers (even Jane knew that± — that proverb was written in 1562). Besides, we like bread, right?
As the recipe is from the 19th century, you do not need an ice cream maker (and if you do have one, what are you doing reading this? You have everything a woman could ever want).
For the toasted bread crumbs
100g demerara sugar
150g wholemeal breadcrumbs (don’t bother to make your own bread — this is the 1800s, after all — we can buy bread).
For the meringue “ice cream”
2 egg whites (like in the old days, hold them up to candle light to check if the yolks are solid or not)
pinch of salt
a few drops lemon juice
90g caster sugar
For the cream Double cream (Jane’s family had a few cows in Steventon, in Hampshire, if you happen to be close. Though they are probably dead now.)
1. Preheat the oven to 390 F. Mix the bread crumbs and sugar together and spread onto a lined baking sheet for 10 minutes. Remove, stir and bake for another five minutes. Stir again and set aside to cool.
2. Whisk egg whites, salt and lemon juice in a bowl until frothy. Then, beat until they form stiff peaks. Gradually add 2 tablespoons of the caster sugar and whip until stiff, glossy peaks. Set aside.
3. Heat the remaining 60g of sugar and add 60 milliliters of water to a pan, until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup bubbles up to form a sticky mass (to test the consistency, drop a ball into cold water — if it remains solid, it’s ready).
4. Very slowly, pour the hot syrup into the egg white mixture with beaters running, until the mixture is cool to the touch (10–15 minutes).
5. Add vanilla extract to the double cream and whip to soft peaks.
6. Stir the caramelized breadcrumbs into the whipped cream. Then, fold in the
7. Divide into ramekins and freeze. Serve with caramelized breadcrumbs on the side.
VERDICT: Crispy sweet frozen soufflé all made with the ingredients found in your household. The crunchy chunks and creamy meringue complement each other well. Very tasty. Super impressive. No gags. For extra fanciness, keep them cool in this French porcelain ice cream pail.
Like Jane, we too, “shall eat (brown bread) Ice (cream), drink French wine (coolers) and be above Vulgar Economy” (whatever that means — at the very least, we will not squabble about who has more Twitter followers).
And, no matter how religious you are or aren’t, let’s all say a word of grace before our next meal that Parmesan ice cream is not a thing anymore.
After six Pimms, 20 squandered pounds, two purchased hats, and one final race at Royal Ascot, the five-day premier horse racing event in England, Rachel and I board the crowded train back to London and end up sitting in the First Class car. We’d somehow found ourselves, two Americans, returning from a day at the races.
A slim woman in her thirties with long, blond hair enters our small coach. “Just ladies in here, is it?” she asks in an English accent, smiling and glancing at us. “This is the smallest First Class coach I have ever seen.” She adjusts her black-and-white checked dress and slips her shoes off as she sits down at the table next to us.
“Did you win any today?” I ask her.
“I won on every race,” she says, smoothing her blond hair into a long ponytail. “It was a winning streak.” She looks around and points to the narrow aisle between our seats.
“Is there going to be a drinks cart on this train?” she asks. “How could it even fit in here?”
She places her black hat on the seat next to her and we start to make small talk about the strict fashion rules at Royal Ascot this year. “Oh, I just thought the Royal Enclosure this year was appalling. Just appalling. Some girls slipped in wearing mini-skirts, as if it’s a nightclub. I have nice legs, too, but this is Ascot. A rule is a rule,” she says. “Dresses should hit the knee and hats need to have a base of four inches or more.” She gestures emphatically: “Those are the rules. That’s what makes it so English. That’s what makes it Ascot.”
“My mother won’t even come to Royal Ascot anymore,” she adds.
Most girls grow out of the crazy horse phase as soon as they discover boys, but my friend Rachel — who is 28 years old — was intent on getting me to attend Royal Ascot with her this year. I agreed, even though I knew little about it: I assumed it was an English horse race and that we’d get to drink gin outside. It was only after an elaborate effort to secure tickets (or badges) to the restricted Royal Enclosure section — a process that, for Americans, involves writing to the US ambassador to the UK and sending in character references by mail — that I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Suddenly it began to feel less like we were going to a horse race and more like we were going to Prince Charming’s ball.
The five-day horseracing event dates back to 1711. Members of the Royal Family are always in attendance. The dress code is strict, and it’s only gotten stricter, as a way to stave off unsuitably dressed attendees. Inside the Royal Enclosure, which Rachel and I would have access to, women’s dresses must be knee-length, straps must be at least an inch wide (nothing strapless, no halters, no bare midriffs), and hats are required for both women (FOUR-inch base minimum) and men (top hats like Mr. Peanut). In case that wasn’t clear enough, Ascot put out this mesmerizing video for guidance.
In contrast, the Kentucky Derby merely states that tennis shoes, jeans, shorts or athletic apparel are not allowed. Hats for ladies are recommended, and men can wear khakis. Next to Ascot, the Derby looks like a picnic at a high school softball game.
I’ve never witnessed this world before, and for good reason: it’s really hard to get inside of it. My English husband is aghast that I am allowed here because even he can’t gain entrance into the Royal Enclosure area: all English guests must be sponsored by an existing member who has attended the annual event at least four times. Even babies and young children aren’t allowed here (minors aged 10–16 are admitted on Friday and Saturday only).
Even though I moved to London last year, I hadn’t brushed against the posh English sphere in the slightest. I often ride the red double-decker buses on bridges across the Thames while gazing upon Big Ben, but even Big Ben can’t shut out the fact that the man sitting next to me is blowing his nose directly into his hand. Watching Downton Abbey is far closer to experiencing high society England than living in London. When Rachel asked me to accompany her to Royal Ascot, I decided that I wanted to experience that world up close, just this once. What was it really like?
The week before, we went shopping for our requisite hats. We were hopeful: the hats were so flowery, so whimsical, and so perfectly unflattering. Every hat in the store seemed to transform us into either the Mad Hatter or the Dowager Countess Grantham.
The only beautiful, flattering ones were incomprehensibly expensive. With our money pooled together, Rachel and I could afford one relatively nice hat between us. We debated whether getting into Royal Ascot was akin to getting by a bouncer at a bar when we were under 21 with only one fake ID between us. Could Rachel wear the hat and, once safely inside, send someone else to pass it back to me?
No, says a woman in the department store, firmly. Hats must remain on at all times. “I know women who have been turned away at the Royal Enclosure,” she informs us. Who would actually turn women away? The fashion police, obviously. Officially known as Dress Code Assistants, they wear shiny silver dresses and rule with an iron fist — if your hat isn’t suitable, they will give you another or offer to sell you one. If your dress has spaghetti straps, they will forcibly drape pashminas over your shoulders.
I settled for the cheapest hat I could find (it looked like a frilly white Stetson with gauze and a bow) and Rachel caved and purchased a fancier, angled navy hat that dipped towards her shoulder.
A few days later, we took an hour-long train to Ascot, a town 25 miles west of London. We walked in a crowded procession — a sauntering sea of colorful hats — until we reached the entrance to the grounds. The fashion police were guarding the entrance. One policewoman tapped a lady on the shoulder who was holding her hat in her hand. “Madam,” she said, and pointed to her head. “Your hat.” Another measured the base of woman’s fascinator (one of those headbandy-feathery things that make women look like birds) to ensure that it was at least four inches in diameter (a size that would render it, I kid you not, a “hatinator”). Men and women who arrive unprepared were offered outfit fixes for purchase. The assistants were half fashion police, half that mean saleslady in Pretty Woman.
I wore my Royal Enclosure badge and slipped on my hat. I felt a little like Indiana Jones, infiltrating a secret society. We both passed muster and made our way into the manicured grounds that surround the stadium and then to the tearooms, where Rachel informed two men that we have a reservation for 1 p.m. They looked back at her, puzzled. Men in morning dress, it turns out, look an awful lot like waiters.
We wander around until 2 p.m., when everyone gathers around the racecourse fence and waits for Queen Elizabeth II & Co to go around the track in horse-drawn carriages. The band was playing an instrumental version of Adele’s “Skyfall.” Earlier, the posh crowd had been buzzing away in their own conversations, but when the Queen finally rounds the corner near the finish line, the men remove their top hats, and a hush falls over the grounds.
In her horse-drawn carriage, the Queen, Prince Charles and Camilla glide by. The horsemen are in their traditional red uniforms, the horses are white and the Queen, in a light pink suit and hat, look so regal, but her expression seems blasé. This is, after all, her 60th year on the throne, and each day at Royal Ascot opens this way, so she’s easily done this routine some 300 times. Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie follow in their own carriage, and pass by so close we can see them scowl.
It feels like a still from a movie that would be played on A&E: the band members wear those furry black hats (bearskins), they begin to play “God Saves the Queen” and horse-drawn carriages trot past while men in top hats and women in fascinators hold their breath. They pass, and it’s over. The man next to me puts his top hat back on and begins to talk about his summerhouse. At Ascot, everyone is on perfect behavior. No one breaks character. To better fit in, we must drink the Kool-Aid. And here, the Kool-Aid is Pimms.
On the lawn, a few Pimms in, every conversation I hear is scripted like a parody. “Oh look at you, you’re matching! Even your toes and fingers match!” a man tells a woman dressed in fuchsia from top to bottom.
“Oh, yes!” she says. “I had my nail varnish out last night, but you know how when you paint your nails you can’t do anything! I just had to lay on the bed like this!” She slinks into the posture of a horizontal zombie while still managing to stay on her feet.
“Did you really? Well, that’s very sexy!” the man says to the woman and her husband. “Did he jump on you? ‘Mind the fingers!’”
“Oh, it’s the day-glo orange woman again.”
“Such an unfortunate color.”
“Remember two years ago when it was so terribly hot and we all wore bowlers hats?”
“And Guildford station was full of men in bowler hats! I had to get the later train.”
A woman jumps in: “I used to ride horses wearing a bowler hat.”
“I made such a lovely duck dinner last night.”
“Oh, we men are so good, so versatile, aren’t we? What did you serve with the duck?”
“Oh, broccoli, pasta, garlic bread. We bought the duck and wrung the neck.”
“Oh, terrible! Did you feel terrible?”
“They only live eight weeks!”
“Well, it’s easier to pluck their feathers when they’re young.”
“Is it, really? Well, I imagine it does damage the skin if you wait until they get older.”
“And it’s such a good meal because you can have either red or white wine with duck.”
We lose about £20 (or $31) on the first race, so Rachel and I give up and leave the lawn to wander into the Royal Enclosure garden. We pass Rosé Bar, where everything — the champagne, the wine, the cupcakes, and the macaroons — is pink. We also pass a restaurant serving lobster, crab and caviar. Last year, 4,500 pounds of fresh lobster, 35,000 asparagus spears and 30,000 chocolate éclairs were consumed during the week.
Within the Royal Enclosure, there are more layers of exclusivity. In the garden, gentlemen’s clubs, private members’ clubs, and The Jockey Club are members’ only areas. We are not allowed inside, but can gaze upon the people eating at tables with white tablecloths. Nevertheless, I do manage to sneak in long enough to get a snapshot of the wall of patrons’ top hats in the Royal Ascot Racing Club.
Even though I keep waiting for someone to call us out for being impostors, everyone we encounter or accidentally bump hats with is very polite, which is at once a relief and a disappointment. In London, I’d never come across such a concentration of these Horray-Henry types and the constant refrain of “Oh my dear old chap, that was delightful,” begins to rub off on us in a bad way. Whenever either of us accidentally lets ourselves slip into an English lilt or use English jargon, the other one quickly threatens to slap her in the face. We must make sure we don’t become actual impostors.
During the half-hour intervals between races, we mingle and leave the Royal Enclosure to wander around the Grandstand Admission section. This area is more egalitarian and less expensive to attend and has a marginally more lax dress code. It still feels fancy, but is slightly more crowded and has more casual dining options (fish and chips and sandwiches are available). I spot one drunk woman who has removed her shoes and keeps asking her friends where they are going to go out to later. Her accent doesn’t match the posh ones around us, but I’m too much of an outsider myself to place it. Here, we can afford the food. All the better, because even though by the end of the day I’ll have won on a horse named Dawn Approach, I still have a net loss of £20 (or $30). We down two more drinks, wait out the final race, and then head to the train.
The blond woman crosses her legs. “Five years ago, Royal Ascot was the crème de la crème. Then, it became appalling with girls wearing fascinators instead of hats in the Royal Enclosure. Strapless dresses. Finally they tightened the rules. Even so, this year, I saw someone in six-inch sparkly stilettos,” she says, shaking her head. “This is a daytime horse race, not a nightclub.”
Rachel and I nod in agreement, as if the sparkly stilettos also offended us and violated our own personal code of fashion protocol at this, the first horserace either of us has ever attended.
Her phone rings. What followed was a conversation that resembles the over-the-top pretend conversations my husband and I have when we put on fake posh accents.
“Darling,” she says into her phone. “Mary is going to give my shoes to the Captain, and he’s going to drop them off at my London flat. And I told the Major that he could take a bottle of champagne as a thank you, so you take one bottle and give the other to him.” She laughs. “Thank you again, Darling,” she says and hangs up.
She turns to me. “What’s the fastest way to get from the train station to St. Paul’s?” she asks.
“There’s a bus that takes you directly there,” I tell her and she says, “Oh no, I don’t do buses. Taxi or the tube.”
“A taxi might be expensive,” Rachel says and the woman replies and shakes her head, “Oh, I don’t care about the money.”
Rachel and I finally cast aside our hats and begin to relax as the train approaches London. Playing posh English was fun for a day, but we were happy to return to a reality where we could bear our shoulders and speak improperly and not pay through the nose for a cup of tea. The woman from the train, like the other attendees inside the Royal Enclosure, seem to be trying to hang onto a society that only exists in these brief moments that they have to construct themselves. The world has slowly moved away from such elitism in daily life, even though it still has a long way to go.
Still, the next day when I’m on the bus and the girl in front of me begins flossing her teeth, I find it almost reassuring to know Royal Ascot week will always be one moment of Old England frozen in time, where everyone is impeccably groomed and gracious as they wave to the Royals and sip their cocktails. They have one perfect week to live out their posh, privileged glory — and we have plenty of occasions for the nightclub.
Spotted this guy eating a nut, but my presence frazzled him, so he dropped it. This is also the same squirrel that likes to scare the living daylights out of me when I’m running, so I consider this revenge.*
And later that day, RIGHT next to SHERLOCK HOLMES’ APARTMENT on Baker Street, I spotted this lovely pair of paramours, just trying to enjoy a stroll in Regents Park and live their lives freely – unfortunately, the chains of humanity had other plans. Still, I managed to catch a happy moment.