A Posh Picnic With An Ascot Accent

April 21, 1991|By Lynn Williams

The thunder of hooves, the fizz of champagne.

These two sounds, equally intoxicating to aficionados, can be heard anywhere the sport of kings -- horse racing -- still makes pulses pound. Including, of course, Maryland, which this month plays host to three of the world's most famous steeplechases -- My Lady's Manor, the Grand National and the headiest of all, the Maryland Hunt Cup, run in Glyndon on the last Saturday of the month.

The Hunt Cup, its four-mile course studded with tall timber fences, is an exceptionally challenging race, and enthusiasts thrill to the spectacle of the powerful horses surging across newly green fields, with jauntily silk-clad jockeys aboard.

But you don't have to be a racing buff or horse fancier to have heard that the Hunt Cup is a great party. Picnicking is as time-hallowed a tradition as watching the races, whether you are one of the college students swilling beers and flipping Frisbees in the parking lot, or one of the tweedy country squires who set up picnics in the shade of their Bentleys, complete with roast chicken, brie, Chablis, and a little discreet Vivaldi on the boom box.

Can picnicking get any grander?

But of course. There's always Ascot.

Ascot is a racecourse in Berkshire, England, about an hour southwest of London. Many races are held there each year, but when one talks of "Ascot," one naturally means Royal Ascot, the famous race meeting held for four days in mid-June.

"It's part of what they call 'The Season' in London," says Bedford Pace, public relations director for the British Tourist Authority in New York. "There are a number of events, several of them involving racing, and they all have great social connotations."

The first Ascot race was held in 1711, at the command of Queen Anne, and it has been a social must-do ever since. When Americans think of the race, though, they tend to think in Edwardian terms; specifically, the Ascot scene conjured up by Cecil Beaton in the film version of "My Fair Lady."

"Every duke and earl and peer is here," sang the sumptuously dressed chorus, and are they ever. Not to mention the Queen and members of the royal family, any visiting royalty who may be in the area, politicians, and assorted millionaires. The Queen traditionally hosts a house party at nearby Windsor for her most important visitors.

For a taste of what Royal Ascot at its most royal is like, here's an excerpt from Godfrey Smith's book "The English Season":

"The Queen's elegant landaus [open carriages] are drawn by Windsor greys, with outriders in scarlet coats and gold-laced hats. The bewigged postillions wear purple, red and gold. The Royal Box, always filled with flowers, is arranged on two floors with bamboo chairs and panelled walls."

The "simple folk" come to Ascot, too, and much of the racecourse might remind visitors more of the Pimlico infield than anything from "My Fair Lady." (Except that it has a particularly British stamp, from the patter of the English bookmakers and the Gypsy fortunetellers to such Cockney snacks as whelks, winkles and jellied eels.)

But, says Barbara Gilliam, "The Royal Enclosure is the place to be. That's where you can stroll around graciously and have lovely lunches of poached salmon and strawberries and cream -- which cost a fortune, I might add."

Tickets to the Royal Enclosure, says Ms. Gilliam, the travel editor of Glamour magazine, are closely guarded, and gate-crashing is unheard of. Britons must not only pay a hefty fee, but must apply to Her Majesty's Representative at the Ascot office for tickets, and must be sponsored by someone who has been to the Royal Enclosure not less than four times. As a United States citizen, Ms. Gilliam was required to apply to the American Embassy in London, with letters of sponsorship from two members of Congress!

Those admitted to the Royal Enclosure must dress in formal morning attire: striped trousers and top hats for the men and dressy silks for the women. Large, festive hats and white gloves are a traditional part of the Ascot fashion parade, and some women are even moved to show up in Edwardian-style gowns and picture hats of which Eliza Doolittle would have been proud.

Ascot food is equally posh, Ms. Gilliam says. Many visitors

choose to dine in a large wedding-style tent which is run as an elegant white-tablecloth restaurant.

But a more popular choice is to bring a picnic. The British are devoted to picnicking, despite a notoriously unstable climate; the rewards evidently make up for the chance of raindrops plopping into the potted shrimp.

But you don't just plop down and eat in the Royal Enclosure, Ms. Gilliam warns. The place for picnicking is in the parking lot, where some racegoers lay on tailgate picnics, others bring tables and chairs, and still others spread a blanket and, despite their formal attire, dine on the ground.

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