The British summer Season is a collection of sporting, artistic, cultural and social events. Whereas many countries have similar types of events at various times of the year, only in the UK are they all packed into the short period of (comparatively) good weather, and insist on the right kind of hat.
These social events are as much about seeing and being seen as they are about the event that is taking place, but are always a good way to spend a few days relaxing, soaking up the atmosphere, and enjoying some of the traditional accompaniments (more on those later).
The Summer Season started in the 17th and 18th centuries, and had its heyday (in the original incarnation) in the 19th century. The social elite at the time consisted almost exclusively of the landed gentry, whose main place of residence was their country house. In order to maintain their contacts, socialise and find suitable matches for their sons and daughters, the gentry arranged a series of exclusive events held in London throughout the summer. So that they might be able to attend all of these events, the gentry would move to their London town houses and reside in London for a few months.
The Season was timed to coincide with the sitting of Parliament, and as a result the parties were attended by a large number of politicians of both Houses, and had a political element to the social mix.
Many of the events are actually held a long way outside London, but have been incorporated into the season over the years.
The Season actually starts much earlier than the official start of Summer, which lies on 21st June, with the first events kicking off in April and the last ones occurring in August.
The Events of the Season
The Grand National
First run in 1839, the Grand National is a handicap steeplechase horse race over 4 miles 3.5 furlongs, with horses jumping 30 fences over two laps. The fences are higher than those found on conventional National Hunt tracks, so offer more of a test of for the horse and rider. The race is held at the Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool.
The Grand National has evolved into a three day festival, the first day of which is the Grand Opening day, Ladies day on the Friday, and the Grand National Day with the big race on the Saturday.
There are many areas available for paying guests and members, but there is no official dress code.
The Oxford Cambridge Boat Race
The Boat Race is a side-by-side rowing competition between the University of Oxford (‘Dark Blues’) and the University of Cambridge (‘Light Blues’). First held in 1829, the race takes place on the 4.2 mile course between Putney and Mortlake on the River Thames.
For the first time in history, there were 3 races on the same day in 2015. The main mes race, and the reserve races were joined on the same day by the ladies race (which had previously been held at the Henley Regatta).
Traditionally, the challenge is extended by the team that lost the previous year. The overall score in the men’s race is currently very close, so competition is a fierce source of pride for both Universities.
Spectators line the sides of the river for the length of the course to cheer on their teams, and refreshments are put on by the local bars and restaurants throughout day.
The Glyndebourne Festival is an opera festival held at Glyndebourne House in East Sussex. The festival started in 1934 when the founder John Christie met soprano Audrey Mildmay, and has been particularly noted over the years for its Mozart productions. The stadium at Glyndebourne House seats 1,200.
In the days of performances, the grounds open at 3pm (2pm on Sundays), and the opera itself starts early, and has a 90 minute interval, so that patrons can have a picnic dinner in the grounds of the House.
While there is no official dress code for Glyndebourne, it is customary to attend in black tie for gentlemen, and in short evening dresses for ladies.
Chelsea Flower Show
The Chelsea Flower Show is the main event of the calendar for the Royal Horticultural Society. The event was started in 1912, and is held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Over the years, it has become the most famous flower show in the UK, and maybe event the world.
The show is limited to 157,000 visitors each year, and all tickets must be purchased in advance. The first two days of the five day show are only open to Royal Horticultural Society members.
In the 2015 show there were in the region of 900 displays. The displays are a way for designers to launch new plants, re-establish old verities, and introduce new ideas and technology into the gardening world.
The only day that has a dress code is the formal day (the Monday of the week) when the Queen and press visit the show, and the gala dinner is held in the evening.
Lord’s Test Cricket
The Lord’s Cricket ground, located in St. John’s Wood in North West London is said to be the ‘Home of Cricket’. It was founded originally in 1787, but moved to it’s current location in 1814. Although the cricket season lasts for most of the summer, the big attractions are the two international Test matches.
The ground opens at 09:15 on the days of the test matches, and play starts at 11:00 (provided that the weather is good enough). Lunch is taken between 13:00 and 13:40, with afternoon tea from 15:40 to 16:00.
Lord’s is the only international cricket venue where you are allowed to bring alcohol into the ground, but there are strict limits on what it is that you are allowed to take in with you.
There is no official dress code to get into Lord’s, but there is no fancy dress allowed. The various members enclosures, pavilions and boxes all have dress codes, which are strictly enforced, so make sure you check what is the dress code of the area to which your ticket gives you access.
The Derby Festival
The Derby is one of the most famous races in the world, and is Britain’s richest horse race. It is held in the Surrey downs near Epsom. The race is a flat race and is one mile, four furlongs and 10 yards long.
The Derby originated in 1779, and was named after the 12th Earl of Derby, and was initially run on a Thursday, and was changed to a Wednesday to fit in with the train timetables, but in 1995 was changed so that the main race is now held on a Saturday, with the Ladies Day happening the day before.
Tickets can be purchased for either day, and for the Queen’s Stand, Grandstand, and Grandstand Reserved seating areas, the famous coaches, and the standing areas trackside or in the centre of the racecourse. Gates open at 11:00, with races running from 14:00 to 17:50.
The Queen’s Stand and Grandstand have strict dress codes: Jacket, collar and tie for gentlemen (or full morning dress with a top hat in the Queen’s Stand on Derby day) and hats or fascinators for ladies (with a formal day dress in the Queen’s Stand on Derby day).
If the Derby is the horse best race, Ascot is the best social race meet. Ascot is held at Ascot racecourse, which was opened by Queen Anne in 1711. Until 1945, the only races to be held at Ascot were the Royal meeting races. Since then other race days have been added throughout the year.
Royal Ascot is a five day event, starting on the Tuesday with the most serious racing, a slightly quieter Wednesday, Ladies day on Thursday, and the final two Group 1 races on Friday and Saturday.
Tickets can be purchased for the Grandstand or the Silver Ring on any of the days, but access to Royal Enclosure is restricted, and can only be gained by repeat visitors, or by application and the assistance of someone who has been a member for four years. Gates open at 10:30, with the Royal Procession at 14:00, the first race at 14:30, and the last at 17:35.
In the Royal Enclosure, gentlemen must wear black or grey morning dress, with a waistcoat, tie and top hat. Ladies must wear a dress below the knee with straps more than one inch wide, or a trouser suit. A hat or headpiece with a base diameter of more than 10cm must also be worn. In the Grandstand, gentlemen must wear a suit, collared shirt, and a tie. Ladies must wear a dress which covers the shoulders, a full length trouser suit, and a hat or fascinator. In the Silver ring, guests are encouraged to dress smartly, but the only restriction is a ban on replica sports shirts.
The Championships, Wimbledon
Most commonly referred to as ‘Wimbledon’, the Championships held at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in south west London, and is the oldest and probably the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. It originated in 1877 and was started to celebrate the change of name of the club.
Wimbledon is 14 days long, and includes Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s singles, Ladies’, Gentlemen’s and Mixed doubles. The highlight of the fortnight is the Gentlemen’s singles final, held on the last day (second Sunday) of the tournament.
Tickets can be purchased on any day that there is play. There are different levels of tickets: Centre court; court numbers 1, 2 and 3 (collectively called the Show courts) and general admission, which allows for access to unreserved seating and standing areas on courts 3 to 19.
The gates open daily from 10:30, with play beginning on the outside courts from 11:30, and at 13:00 on Centre court on days 1-11, and at 2pm on the final weekend. On court Number 1, play is scheduled to begin at 16:00 on all 13 days.
The dress code is mostly relaxed, and even the members areas have relaxed their dress codes on 2014.
Goodwood Festival of Speed
The Goodwood Festival of Speed is an annual hill climb featuring historic motor racing vehicles held in the grounds of Goodwood House, West Sussex. The event was founded in 1993 as an attempt to bring motor racing back to the Goodwood estate. Since the first one day event, the festival has expanded to a 3 day extended weekend, and has now had to cap the numbers of tickets to 150,000.
Tickets are available for members enclosures, and roving grandstand tickets, as well as general admission. The members enclosures and grandstands have smart casual dress codes.
Henley Royal Regatta
Henley Royal Regatta was first held in 1839, and was originally staged by the Mayor and the people of Henley as a fair, but the emphasis shifted to the competitive amateur rowing Regatta became the main attraction. It started as a one day event, but has increased over the years to its current 5 day festival.
The Regatta has its own rules, but is still recognised by the official governing bodies. Only two boats compete in each race, and the winner progresses to the next round. There are up to 88 races a day, with 5 minute intervals between each race. The race is slightly longer than the standard international distance of 2000 metres, and there are 20 events in total.
On the first 3 days races start at either 08:30 or 09:00, and 10:00 on the Saturday, with the last races at 19:30. On the Sunday (the day of the finals) races start at 11:30, and finish at 16:00.
The Stewards Enclosure is only open to members and their guests. Gentlemen are required to wear a lounge suit with a tie, and ladies are required to wear dresses or skirts with hemline below the knee. It is also customary for ladies to wear hats. The Regatta Enclosure is open to anyone who purchases a ticket, and there is no dress code.
The Proms started in 1895 by Robert Newman (who had previously organised symphony orchestra concerts) as a way to reach a wider audience with a more popular programme, and lower ticket prices. Today, the Proms is 120 years old, and has 76 formal events, and many other events surrounding the main events.
The main social event in the series of the Proms is the Last Night, like most of the events, it is held in the Royal Albert Hall. In order to book a seat in advance for the Last Night, you have to have bought tickets to five other Proms concerts in the season, and you have to purchase a ticket of the same (or lower) category as the other five tickets. For those unable to get seats, there are standing tickets available, and also there are the Proms in the Park concerts, which have their own live music and the a live video link with the Royal Albert Hall for the traditional finale.
There is no official dress code for the Proms, but black tie is only worn by performers. The last night sees a lot of national flags and costumes on display, which follows the more nationalistic theme of the music.
The Royal Salute Coronation Cup
Polo is called the ‘Sport of Kings’ and the most prestigious event in the British polo calendar is held every year at Guards Polo Club, Smiths Lawn in Windsor Great Park. It is the event that has the largest cross over between the world of polo, and the celebrity world. This is the major event in the calendar of the Hurlingham Polo Association’s calendar, with international teams competing for the silverware. This year, it will be England and South America.
Guards Polo Club was founded in 1955, and was originally called the Household Brigade Polo Club. The club changed its name in 1969.
The gates open at 10:00, with the British 10 Goal Championship game at 11:00. Lunch is at 12:30, and the Coronation Cup game starts at 15:30.
The dress code is smart casual (unless in one of the invitation only boxes or members enclosures), with collared shirts for gentlemen, and ladies to be dressed to the knee or below. It is part of the tradition of the day for spectators to tread the divots at half time, so stiletto heels are not often worn.
Glorious is a 5 day horse racing festival held at the Goodwood Racecourse near Chichester, West Sussex. The Goodwood racecourse was established in 1802 as a practice ground for the Sussex Militia. The first two-day meeting was so successful, that the following year, a three-day meeting was held the following year under Jockey Club rules.
The gates open at 11:00, with the first races starting between 13:55 and 17:25 on the first 4 days, and from 14:05 to 17:35 on the final day. The course closes at 20:00 on each day. Ladies day is held on the Thursday (the third day of the races).
The Richmond Enclosure is only available to members and their guests, and gentlemen are required to wear jackets and either ties, cravats or polo-necked sweaters, but the suit and Panama hat is the traditional dress. Ladies are encouraged to wear hats. Jeans and shorts are not permitted. The Gordon and Lennox enclosures are available to paying guests. Bare chests and fancy dress is not allowed, and gentlemen are discouraged from wearing short sleeves in the Gordon Enclosure.
Cowes week has been held since 1826, and has traditionally been held between Glorious Goodwood and the Glorious Twelfth (the first day of the grouse shooting season). Held on the Isle of Wight, the Regatta now lasts for 8 days, and between 800 and 100 boats compete in up to forty different classes.
Spectators can either watch from the shore, or can take to the water in one of the many spectator boats. With many bars, and restaurants, there is plenty to do.