“W.I.?” I asked. “Buckingham Palace?” was the lady’s response.
Thus I encountered Anita Smillie from Falkland (Newbury) Women’s Institute at the Waterloo Station taxi rank. We were both carrying large hats, which was a bit of a clue. Our shared cab ride was the start of a day spent together, two excited strangers nominated by their WIs to attend a Royal Garden Party to celebrate the centenary of the founding of the organisation.
There were warnings that the queues to enter the Palace by the front gates would be huge and Anita suggested the Hyde Park entrance. As our taxi drove past the front of the Palace, what a sight there was to behold – there were hundreds and hundreds of WI members, dressed to the nines in every colour of the rainbow. The line stretched on and on, around the side and down Constitution Hill. Much to the amusement of our driver, we kept up a running commentary on the fashions – most of it very positive.
I spotted something next to the queue on the pavement, a gold wedding band. No one in front of us who had not yet entered the Palace gardens admitted to losing it. The Metropolitan Police Officer nearby looked mightily relieved when I took it to him and suggested that we try to find the owner within the WI.
The rain and damp from earlier in the day had been cleared by gusty winds, much to our relief. We left the cab and joined a different queue, this one stretching down from Wellington Arch. There were plenty of photos, chatter, exchanges of introductions, and compliments. After what seemed like an age, and with anticipation mounting by the metre, we entered through the Hyde Park Gate.
The gardens are vast – the lake alone is three acres in size. We took in the sights, sounds and scents as we made our way towards the rear of Buckingham Palace, keeping our fashionista eyes peeled en-route.
Two brass bands were positioned at opposite corners of the lawn, with a flag system to indicate when it was their turn to play, and they entertained us all afternoon.
Everyone neared the palace steps to await the arrival of the Royal party. What a riot of colour. Each one of the 8,000 WI ladies looked resplendent in their special outfits.
We were firmly and expertly herded into order by Beefeaters, the band struck up the National Anthem, and there they were on the terrace, our host HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, HRH The Countess of Wessex, HRH Princess Alexandra and HRH The Duchess of Gloucester, all looking elegant and poised.
After some planned presentations, the royal ladies moved separately through the throngs to chat to the WI members. I happened to be in the right place at the right time and was very fortunate to be selected to be presented formally to the Countess. The equerry gave us some tips: ‘Call her Your Royal Highness the first time, Ma’am as in jam after that. She will shake your hand – remember to let go. A curtsey would be nice, but you are here to enjoy yourself so don’t worry about it’.
It was a little nerve-wracking to see her slowly getting closer, but when the moment arrived I managed my little bob and Sophie was delightful. The Countess has been a member of Bagshot WI since 2007. We chatted about the AGM as I was a delegate and she was to attend with HM The Queen and The Princess Royal. We joked about her having to ‘leave before the interesting bit’.
After this very unexpected and thrilling experience it was time for tea. Anita and I joined another queue and soon we were presented with a rectangular china plate and saucer combined and offered our choice of drink. Then we made our selections from the buffet offered. Everything was bite-sized and perfect, down to a mini-brownie topped by a chocolate button with a gold crown on it.
Off I went in search of a WI Official to hand over the wedding ring I had found, but that proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated – in fact it was impossible. Another solution would have to be found.
There was some unexpected sport next. The gusty wind had strengthened and it was time to play ‘Catch the Hat’ on the Palace lawn. With a particularly nifty sidestep I managed to trap a wayward fascinator. I was able to hang on to the brim of mine, but this meant I had to decline the ice cream tub as I didn’t have enough hands.
On the stroke of 5pm the National Anthem was played again, with the ladies singing enthusiastically. There was a brief pause and then came the sound of the only thing missing from the afternoon. Thousands of women’s voices burst spontaneously into singing ‘Jerusalem’ and the sound soared and floated in the open air, making it a very emotional moment.
Time to leave – through the front door this time. We passed through the Marble Hall of the Palace and the huge portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at various ages, into the inner courtyard, through the arch onto the forecourt, and back to reality via the main gates.
Anita and I shared a glass of Prosecco at Waterloo before heading off for our respective trains. It was a day that I shall never forget and I am so grateful to Acklington WI for the opportunity.
The ring has a continuing saga all of its own.
As Acklington’s delegate to the WI Centenary AGM in the Royal Albert Hall two days after the Garden Party, I resolved to ask for an announcement about the lost ring to be made from the podium. With someone representing every Institute in the country, it was the perfect way to reach the owner. To no avail, my note remained unread.
On my return home I telephoned WI HQ in London. The lady there had my note and had also received an enquiry from someone who had lost a ring. Perfect! A happy ending – or was it?
Two days later the enquirer telephoned me and I asked her to describe the ring she had lost. It didn’t sound like the one that I had found at all. Her’s had been her mother’s ring, not from their wedding, it was bought by her father for their Golden Wedding.
Seeking a definitive answer, I sent a photograph of the ring by email for identification. Back came the response ‘No, I’m sorry to say it’s not my ring’. I couldn’t believe it. What a remarkable coincidence that two gold wedding rings were lost in the same queue.
Maybe it was not such a coincidence after all. The following day another email arrived. After pondering over the picture of the ring for an hour or so, the lady had decided to forward my photo to her sister. The sister felt it looked like their mum’s ring.
My next step is to send it to her to see whether it fits and looks familiar. If not, she will send back the ring and I will be trying to find the owner all over again. I do so hope it will find its rightful owner very soon.
Miss Barbara King