Most days of the year, Ascot's simply a well-to-do commuter outpost in deepest leafy Berkshire. But for five days a year, when the Queen turns up to watch the horses, Royal Ascot is THE place to be seen. I went along, not to be seen but to do the watching.
I took the bus. This is not the generally accepted means of transport by which the majority of spectators arrive. Most came by car, maybe the Roller if they had one, or in a big coach full of fellow spectators. Once settled in one of the expensive car parks around the perimeter of the racecourse, some got out the picnic tables and chairs for a pre-meeting hamperfest. The personalised numberplate count was high, even for a neighbourhood like Ascot, including (I noted) a Bentley Continental convertible labelled MED1A. Best not linger too long, though, because Day Five's first race kicked off at half past two.
As a mere passer-by, I wasn't expecting to see very much. Car parks and front of house yes, but surely the main action would be off limits behind a security screen. Not so. Ascot's newgrandstand faces the high street, with only a low shrubbery and understated black railings dividing the hoi polloi from the elite [photo]. The grandstand's out of this world, as if some ocean liner made of glass trees has docked beside the racecourse. There are two decks, on which were gathered crowds who looked like they could have been waving off the Titanic [photo]. They'd paused from their wining and dining to cast an eye down over the parade ring - usually the upcoming horses, but earlier the Queen and her Royal Procession. I couldn't see any of that, alas, I could only watch the vertically-segregated spectators watching whatever was going on in the arena bowl beneath.
Not everyone comes dressed to the nines - some merely to seven or eight. Formal morning wear is de rigeur only in the Royal Enclosure, and many men had opted for a less flashy jacket and tie. The tie's important - no gentleman will get inside without neckwear, and it's a fiver extra at the ticket office if they have to sell you one. Ladies gain entrance only if the crown of their head is covered (like a synagogue, but with the genders reversed) which means improbable millinery wherever you look. Pert feathery ensembles seemed more popular than massive floppy creations, at least among the younger ladies. It was as if they were trying to see how small a hat they could get away with, maybe a few spiky flowers, possibly a miniature topper, or merely a flyaway fascinator.
A steady stream of punters nipped out to Ascot High Street to stock up on important essentials. I'd never seen a branch of Starbucks with such a well-dressed crowd inside, and the folk gnawing on sarnies at Subway looked very much out of place. Two cleancut buskers regaled the escapees with a limited repertoire which seemed to consist solely of Wonderwall. Across the road a marquee in Budgens' car park was selling burgers and bubbly to an audience of zero, but no doubt hoped to do a lot better when the racegoers started streaming home. And there were police everywhere, either walking the streets or buzzing around on motorbikes, presumably because they can't be too careful when Her Maj is on the loose inside.
The Ascot course is triangular, but with a long straight sticking out to one side including a bridge over the Winkfield Road. I was surprised to discover a public walkway leading almost up to the edge of the track, where one young family and myself were the only spectators at the four furlong marker. I was even more surprised to walk up just as the Golden Jubilee Stakes kicked off, and 24 horses came storming towards me. I'd not previously appreciated the enormous speed of a sprint race - one second the pounding's in the distance, the next a mass of hooves and multi-coloured jockeys is thundering by. I managed one action photograph (a bit blurry, but hopefully you won't notice in this miniature version). Even better I've captured the eventual victor, Starspangledbanner, right at the very front in the blue and orange trim. But I never saw the win, because that privilege belonged to the better-dressed in the mega-grandstand.
I sloped off to the station well before the meeting ended, in the hope of getting a seat on the UpperClassExpress to Waterloo. Several racegoers joined me, despite the fact there were still three races to go - I can only assume they'd started revelling early, or else they'd got free tickets and they were bored already. For many ladies, reaching the platform meant the relief of being able to take off their high heels and drop the pretence. But back in town, they created a bubble of undeniable glamour as they tottered across Waterloo's concourse and flagged down a taxi home. Same time next year?