Back in the days when “Downton Abbey” was for real, the British aristocracy would pour forth from their stately homes in summer for a series of social events when seeing and being seen were just the right thing to do. New dresses would be shown off and eligible daughters paraded in the hope that a young chap of good standing - and a large bank account or the right title, hopefully both - might take a shine to her. Welcome to “the Season".
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Although it no longer exists in a formal fashion, the season certainly does in a more democratic informal sense, centred around sports where the actual action often comes in second place to the drinking, gossiping and dressing up. Nowadays it’s a chance for a fun day out with friends with the chance to glam up, plus you never know who you’ll bump into from royalty to reality TV.
The Epsom Derby
Popularly known simply as “the Derby” – pronounced “darby” by the way – this prestigious horse race for three-year-old colts and fillies is run over one mile, four furlongs and ten yards (2,423m) and first took place in 1780. Its home is Epsom, in south London, easily accessible from Victoria station.
Nowadays it is Britain’s richest horse race (with winnings of £1.25m) and the event – held on the first Saturday in June – is usually attended by the Queen, Prince Philip and other members of the royal family. It’s a fun day out even if you don’t know a thoroughbred from a donkey. You can have a bet from as little as £2, there are plenty of opportunities to buy food and drink as well as have a good view of the action. If your ticket allows you entry to the Queen’s Stand, gentlemen will be expected to wear black or grey morning dress with a top hat or national costume, while ladies are expected to wear a fascinator or a hat.
Sporting purists would argue that the five days of racing that take place just to the west of London during Royal Ascot – this year June 18 to 22 – are some of the most dramatic and high quality during the whole year.
But then there are those – and they are many - who just want to observe the ladies’ fashions in the grandstand and beside the parade ring, because the week has become known as much for being a giant fashion parade as for anything that actually takes place on the turf.
It’s a chance for women to dress up and wear an amazing hat – the more amazing the better your chance of being on TV or making the front page of the newspapers the next day. This is especially true on Ladies Day.
Royal Ascot dates back to 1711, when it was founded by Queen Anne. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth attends with various members of the royal family, arriving each day in a horse-drawn procession from Windsor Castle.
The Royal Enclosure is the most prestigious part of the course and entry is highly prized – even to apply to enter you have to be nominated by someone who has attended the enclosure for at least the last four years. A dress code is strictly enforced: a day dress of a certain length with hat for ladies and black or grey morning dress with top hat for gentlemen.
Over 300,000 people attend over the five days making this Europe’s best-attended race meeting. Oh and if you are here for the horses, the Gold Cup is considered the top ranking prize to win.
Goodwood is another horse race meeting that takes place each August and as you stand looking at the gorgeous, rolling hills of the South Downs near Chichester in West Sussex you will agree it really is glorious indeed. More than 100,000 people flock through the gates during the five-day meeting – many dressed up in vintage outfits – to enjoy an atmosphere that is stylish but very unstuffy and relaxed. This year Ladies Day is on Thursday August 1st when tickets cost from just £14, so go along, take a picnic and enjoy some of the world’s best racing on what must be one of the most beautiful courses anywhere.
Henley Royal Regatta
To the west of London, just over an hour by train from Paddington station, Henley on Thames transforms over five days of the first weekend each July from a pleasantly sleepy town to the absolute epicentre of world rowing. The Grand Challenge Cup is what it’s all about, but there again so is meeting up with friends and having a drink or two.
The regatta was first held in 1839 and has taken place every year since, with the exception of the two World Wars. Nowadays crews enter from all over the world and the races can be watched from the banks of the Thames, with the Stewards Enclosure being “the” spot from which to observe the goings on.
If you like messing about on the water in sailing boats, this is the week for you. And if you just like looking at it all, enjoying fireworks and hard-fought races with plenty of socialising with hardy outdoor, salty-seadog types, then you’re still in the right place. This year the festival takes place from August 3-10 in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England. All in all it’s a great spectacle.
While dashing young chaps charge around the polo field on their well-groomed ponies, equally well-groomed young ladies do their best to catch their eye hoping, at the very least, of an invitation to an estancia outside Buenos Aires after Christmas.
Whether the players are British, Argentinian or some other far-flung corner of the globe, there’s nothing nicer in summer than standing watching the action with a chilled glass of champagne in hand. Nowhere more so than the Guards Polo Club near Windsor, just outside west London. Matches begin in April and take place throughout the summer, with the Cartier Queen’s Cup climaxing on June 16th with the trophy presented to the winners by Her Majesty.
Or why not join in? The Ascot Park Polo Club in Surrey (about an hour’s drive out of London), offers 2 hour ‘Discover Polo’ lessons for beginners and ‘those wanting a great day out’, from £95. Or else Coworth Park, the Dorchester Collection’s country house hotel, offers guests the chance to learn and train with some of Britain’s best players, from the Guards Polo Club.
Information courtesy Visit Britain