Inside the UK’s most famous horse-racing event, Royal Ascot
Sue Wallace attends Royal Ascot, the UK’s most famous horse-racing extravaganza, for five days of fashion, sport and Windsors.
Feathers, frills, flounces and frippery all star at Royal Ascot, the pinnacle of flat racing and a major event on the British social calendar. It’s where sport, style and pageantry blend into five days of world-class racing, fabulous fashion and royal-spotting as 300,000 visitors converge on the historic racecourse to cheer on the winners and have a jolly good time.
The racecourse dates back to 1711 when Queen Anne rode out from Windsor Castle and declared the area “ideal for horses to gallop at full stretch”. But it wasn’t until 1768 that the first royal meeting was held; since then, 12 monarchs have been the patrons.
Every day at 2pm, the Queen officially opens the races with a four-carriage Royal Procession, led by liveried staff and Windsor Greys and Cleveland Bay horses, just as other monarchs have done for nearly 200 years.
The Queen, 92, has had 23 winners of her own at Royal Ascot and even if you aren’t keen on backing horses you can bet on the colour of the her hat each day. She hasn’t missed any of the past 64 Royal Meetings since her own coronation in 1953.
Expect excitement to grow as you join the masses in their finery walking along the streets of Ascot in Berkshire, 10 kilometres from Windsor, where more than 1,000 limousines and 400 helicopters descend. Dressed to the nines and following the stringent Royal Enclosure dress code, our bags are checked at the Members’ Entrance and we are given the once over to ensure we are suitably attired. There’s more relaxed dressing in other enclosures, but no matter where you are there’s a great sense of occasion.
Inside the Royal Enclosure, women opt for elegant silk dresses, Chanel-style suits, designer hats and lofty stilettoes, while for men it’s the oh-so-dapper top hat and morning suit that is required for the hallowed grounds.
Smart marquees with banks of pink and blue hydrangeas and delicate peony roses, elegant white linen-clad tables with polished silver and crystal feature along with fine dining restaurants. All up, 330 chefs star.
A name tag is mandatory and celebrities and aristocracy are out in full force, including earls, countesses, ladies, lords, barons and baronesses. I swear I see Cliff Richards in the crowd; Mo Farah, Britain’s finest ever distance runner, is spruced up; and much-loved actor Helen Mirren opts for a floral print and chic hat.
Pimm’s – a perfect June summer drink – and champagne flow and we sit down for a three-course lunch in the elegant Turf Club with a group of Australians.
Royals in attendance
At 1.30pm, we make a hasty exit and head off to see the royal procession. Each day the Queen and her guests transfer into four horse-drawn carriages at Ascot Gate of Windsor Great Park and head to the races.
It’s rumoured the newlyweds, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, will attend, so we stand on the tiered steps around the parade ring and wait.
There’s a great cheer when the Queen is spotted. She’s wearing canary yellow and top hats are removed simultaneously as ‘God Save the Queen’ is sung robustly.
Then all eyes are on the Duchess wearing a white Givenchy dress and a stunning black-and-white Philip Treacy hat. Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall, Prince Andrew and the Earl and Countess of Wessex also accompany the Queen.
Traditions old and new
There’s a rush to watch the first of six races for the day that attracts some of the world’s finest horses. The races are televised to 175 territories, including 650 million households.
There’s lots of dining and wining over the five days and it’s easy to see how racegoers consume 240,000 hand-crafted afternoon tea cakes, 120,000 buttermilk scones, 80,000 cups of tea, 60,000 finger sandwiches, 7,000 rumps of English lamb, 5,000 kilos of salmon, 5,000 Angus steaks, 3,500 fresh lobsters, 3,000 kilos of beef sirloin, 25,000 spears of English asparagus, 7,000 punnets of mixed berries and 1,200 kilograms of Cornish clotted cream.
My luck is in as I collect on race four and I head straight to the Royal Ascot shop that has a small range of stunning hats; two of mine survived the long-haul flight from Melbourne, stuffed in my carry-on luggage, but there wasn’t room for three. I had planned to wear the same hat twice – but I’m tempted. Who comes to Ascot to buy another hat? I do, and even though they put my dainty rose-crowned hat in the largest hat box ever, I’m thrilled.
Straight after the races it’s time for bandstand singing that’s been part of Ascot tradition since the 1970s. The nightmare of transporting three hats back to Australia disappears as we join in the popular singing that reminds me of a Night at the Proms.
A fashionista from Dublin says it’s always a great finish to each day. “It puts everyone in a good mood. Win, lose or break even, you leave on a high,” she says, handing me a British flag and pointing to the words on the large screen. Soon everyone is singing all the favourites, including ‘Delilah’, ‘Sweet Caroline’, ‘New York, New York’, ‘Hey, Jude’ and, of course, ‘Rule, Britannia’.
When it’s all over, some ditch the high heels for ballet pumps and the roadside thong-sellers do a roaring trade.
My new hat gets a showing on the third day and all three make it back to Australia, enormous hatbox and all. It’s the best souvenir ever!
Just as the official motto says Royal Ascot really is “like nowhere else”, and I can’t wait to go back – frocked up, with hats in tow.
Royal Ascot 2019 will be held from Tuesday 18 to Saturday 22 June 2019 at Ascot Racecourse, Berkshire. Be sure to check the official Style Guide for your enclosure before arriving.
Fly to London via Singapore with British Airways.
Arrive in style at Ascot Racecourse with Chirton Grange, which also offers transfers to and from London Heathrow.
Accommodation in Ascot during the Royal Meeting books out quickly, and most racegoers choose to stay in London, which is 40 kilometres away. Two ideal London hotels are The Goring – the city’s only family-run five-star hotel, where you can almost hear the corgis barking at Buckingham Palace – and The Ritz London, full of glamour and history in Piccadilly. The Ritz has its own chic doubledecker bus that it takes to Ascot.
Coworth Park, part of Dorchester Collection, offers a refined manor house experience in Berkshire.
Dressing for Royal Ascot
Regency England’s Beau Brummell was largely responsible for Royal Ascot’s dress code, much of which is still adhered to today. Sure, not many men would take five hours to dress as he did, but there’s a strict code for each enclosure.
Mini-skirts, shoestring straps, halter tops, bare midriffs and tiny fascinators are no-nos in the Royal Enclosure. Dresses and skirts should be of modest length, defined as falling just above the knee or longer, and straps should be a minimum of 2.54 centimetres or greater. Jackets and pashminas may be worn, but dresses and tops underneath should still comply with the dress code. Trouser suits are welcome and should be full length and of matching material and colour. Hats should be worn; however, a headpiece which has a solid base of 10 centimetres or more in diameter is acceptable.
Gentlemen are “kindly reminded” to wear either a black or grey tailcoat, known as morning dress, which must include a waistcoat and tie, no cravats, a black or grey top hat and black shoes. Top hats can only be removed within a restaurant, private box, private club or that facility’s terrace, balcony or garden. Decorating top hats with coloured ribbons or bands is not permitted in the Royal Enclosure. Forget the current trend for bare ankles; socks are mandatory. It’s also worth remembering Giorgio Armani’s quote: “Elegance is not about standing out, but being remembered.”
This article originally appeared in volume 31 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.
Lead image © Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for Ascot Racecourse