Britain’s summer social season evokes a time of genteel social pursuits and flamboyant parties, and was traditionally when the aristocracy embarked on several months of ‘see and be seen’ at all the most important social events.
It was the annual period when elite society would hold debutante balls and dinner parties, which would frequently involve matchmaking between the children of marriageable age of the nobility and gentry.
An inherent part of Britain’s heritage, the ‘Season’ has roots going back to the 18th century when, for several months of the year, the British elite would spend time in London to socialise and hold exclusive events. This traditional season went into decline after the First World War, with more society events taking place outside of London, such as Royal Ascot and the Henley Royal Regatta. This continues today and, what is regarded as ‘the season’, now revolves around summer’s top sporting and arts events, typically up until August, and is much less informal. Some traditions and customs remain – particularly the onus on enjoying oneself!
The horse races
Kicking off the horse-racing season is the Epsom Derby (5 – 6 June), a horse meet that has been thrilling racegoers since 1780. Held at Epsom Racecourse in Surrey, less than an hour’s train journey on frequent services from London, you can go as luxurious or as purse-friendly as you want. For the latter option you can put a bet on for as little as £2 and enjoy all the action. But if you’re channelling lavish and glamorous, choose to visit on Ladies Day on 5 June, the perfect opportunity for the girls to put on their finest. If you buy a ticket to the Queen’s Stand on either of the derby days, the men have to sport black or grey morning dress with a top hat or national costume, while ladies are expected to wear a fascinator or a hat. And there’s always the chance you may get to spot a royal or two.
Royal Ascot (16 – 20 June) near Windsor is, of course, a notable event for royal-spotting. The Queen attends with various members of the royal family (she has done so every year since 1945), arriving each day in a horse-drawn procession from Windsor Castle. There have been royals in attendance since Royal Ascot was founded in 1711 by Queen Anne and has been attended by 11 monarchs since the 18th century.
The event is as well-known for its stylish dressing as the horse racing, particularly on Ladies Day when spectacular hats often make the news headlines. If you’re fortunate enough to have entry to the Royal Enclosure (and you really do need fortune on your side – to apply for entry you have to be nominated by someone who has attended the enclosure for at least the last four years!), this is where the most luxurious, stylish dressing is expected.
Fashionistas can also dress to impress at Ladies Day at Sandown Park Racecourse in Esher, Surrey (half an hour by train from central London) on 3 July – there’s even a Best-Dressed competition – before the headlining Coral-Eclipse flat race on 4 July.
Propping up the end of the summer racing season is Glorious Goodwood (28 July – 1 August), set in beautiful countryside in the South Downs, near Chichester (a two-hour drive from London). This is a five-day festival meeting with a rich horseracing heritage – it’s been hosting the Sport of Kings – as horseracing is sometimes referred to – for 200 years. Goodwood is one of Britain’s great estates and historic homes whose horseracing roots started life as a flat horseracing course for local officers in 1802.
www.epsomdowns.co.uk/racing/investec-derby-festival, www.ascot.co.uk, http://sandown.thejockeyclub.co.uk, www.goodwood.co.uk
There’s nothing so quintessentially British as a summer’s day spent watching a regatta, and nothing that epitomises the destination’s rowing heritage as much as the Henley Royal Regatta (1 – 5 July). Attracting thousands of visitors over a five-day period, spectators can cheer on rowers in more than 200 races that include every standard from new crews to Olympians. It’s a regatta that’s been enjoyed since 1839, and is a fun social event too. So pop on your straw boater, pack up a picnic and sit riverside to experience some of the world’s finest rowing just over an hour away by train from London.
If sea sailing is more your style, then Cowes Week is the place to check out. Between 8 – 15 August, the biggest event on the sailing calendar takes place off the coast of the Isle of Wight, south England, and has played a part in the summer social calendar since 1826. Today spectators will witness more than 1,000 yachts and 8,000 competitors take part in first-class sailing. While primarily a sailing regatta, visitors can enjoy a whole host of entertainment throughout the week, from live music to stalls and markets along the marina.
The ball games
While the footballers are taking a break, the summer season is still packed with ball games – but this time hitting against tennis racquets or polo mallets! One of the top draws, of course, is the Wimbledon Championships (29 June – 12 July), only a 20-minute train journey from central London. The tournament, which is now arguably the most coveted of the Grand Slam prizes, was created back in 1877 and attracts the best in international tennis. And even if you aren’t lucky in the ballot draw, you can queue outside during the Championships for the chance to buy tickets for the show courts or ground tickets on the day. With the latter, treat yourself to strawberries and cream and a jug of Pimms, take it up to sit on the hill that has been christened ‘Murray Mount’ (in honour of 2013 Wimbledon champion, Brit Andy Murray) and watch all the Centre Court action live on a big screen with the crowds.
Also a firm fixture on the summer season calendar is polo (you might have heard that one or two princes are partial to a game!), a sport that became popular in Britain in the mid-19th century when army officers saw it being played while stationed in India. One of today’s most prestigious polo tournaments is the Cartier Queen’s Cup at the Guards Polo Club near Windsor, less than an hour’s train journey from central London. It’s a highlight of the social calendar as well as on the polo scene, where champagne and caviar are plentiful and a prince or princess may never be far from sight. Finals day (15 June) is always attended by the Queen.
And don’t forget the most English of all the sports – cricket. It may have some in-depth rules to follow, but Test cricket is popular, with two Test matches – matches that last five consecutive days – held at the historic Lord’s Cricket Ground in Marylebone, London, every summer. Fancy dress is not allowed – as you may see at some other cricket matches – and dress code is generally smart. It’s also home to the annual Eton versus Harrow (two of England’s most exclusive private schools) cricket match.
The flower shows
From the colourful, artistic blooms at the Chelsea Flower Show (19 – 23 May) to the elegant floral displays against a historical background at the Hampton Court Flower Show (30 June – 5 July) and over to vibrant horticultural features at the RHS Garden Show, Tatton Park in Cheshire, north-west England (22 – 26 July), Britain’s flower shows embody the brightness of summer and have done for more than a century.
Indulge in some of the finest operatic performances with a ticket to the annual Glyndebourne Festival, which runs between 21 May – 30 August in the county of Sussex, just over an hour by train from London. Offering a programme of six operas covering 120 performances in a state-of-the-art auditorium, part of Glyndebourne’s fun social element is the chance to relax, socialise, picnic and drink champagne in the beautiful grounds during the long mid-performance interval of 80 minutes. Here you’ll see festival goers of all ages dressed in their finest – a great chance to see and be seen! In 2015 the Glyndebourne programme includes revivals of popular past festival productions, such as Georges Bizet’s Carmen and Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia.
The crowning glory of classical music in Britain during the summer is the BBC Proms, which take place in the Victorian splendour of the Royal Albert Hall in London. For over two months orchestras and soloists from around the globe perform nightly to classical music’s most appreciative audience.
Art lovers are often found at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition (8 June – 16 August). Held every year since 1769, it is the largest open-submission art exhibition in the world, and features works in painting, photography, sculpture, film and architecture.