An eclectic guest list and bright outfits: Inside the King’s garden party to celebrate British arts

king charles Creative Industries Garden Party at Buckingham Palace May 15, 2024
king charles Creative Industries Garden Party at Buckingham Palace May 15, 2024

“You have to try the sandwiches,” my colleague Lisa Markwell, the editor of The Telegraph Magazine, counselled when I casually mentioned I’d been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the UK’s creative industries.

“I’m not eating UPFs,” I heard myself saying (not my fault – blame Prof Tim Spector). “Is there a cloakroom?” I added. “They’re saying flat shoes on the emails. Mind you, everyone wears heels in the YouTube videos I’ve been watching since the invitation arrived. So maybe heels to start, then a change of footwear midway?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said (to my point about UPFs), “the sandwiches are excellent. And no cloakrooms.” There are 775 rooms in Buckingham Palace, apparently. No cloakrooms for the 4,000 guests expected today? This is a relatively small garden party, by the way.

There are six held annually everywhere between London and Holyrood. In the course of these, according to the office of Really Important Statistics, 27,000 cups of tea, 20,000 sandwiches and 20,000 slices of cake are consumed …at each party. In case you’re wondering about the correlation with Britain’s soaring obesity crisis… No. Normally there are 8,000 guests at each party, so that’s a mere 2.5 sandwiches each and 2.5 slices of cake.

Gates open at 3pm and guests begin streaming in, syphoned towards the archway on the far right as you face the palace, through to the gardens. To the left, a rather ugly temporary erection – Portaloos? Security hold-out? To the right, a military band plays a hotchpotch of film classics and 40 acres of immaculate verdant lawn, trees, beds and a lake. This is the largest private garden in the world – far bigger than the north London park I used to live opposite.

Nothing, not even that documentary starring the late Queen and Sir David Attenborough, prepares you for how large the gardens are. Someone had told me they were a bit municipal-looking, but the lake (I wasn’t expecting a lake), the willows… Can you imagine a back garden that can comfortably swallow 4,000-8,000 people and their hats? There are marquees dotted on the grass and vast groups of chairs splayed out like packs of cards. Guests are officially encouraged to explore the recesses, wander down the less traversed lanes, but no one wants to miss the grand entrance of our hosts.

Creative Industries Garden Party at Buckingham Palace May 15, 2024
The King and Queen hosted the event in their back garden, which just happens to be the largest private garden in the world

At about 3.40pm, guests are gently herded into four separate lines. I’ve been to palace events before, and the way palace staff seamlessly move people into their positions takes some serious choreography, worthy of Kenneth MacMillan. Every 20 feet or so, in the middle of the lanes, are little clusters of the chosen few who have been allocated guaranteed face time with the members of the Royal family. I see Sir Ridley Scott, Toby Jones, Emilia Wickstead, Eudon Choi, Erin O’Connor, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley… but not Mike Ashley of Sports Direct, who late last year bought, the luxury e-tailer, which was put into administration a few months later, leaving scores of British designers out of pocket to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Creative Industries Garden Party at Buckingham Palace May 15, 2024
British models Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Erin O'Connor were granted face time with the King
Creative Industries Garden Party at Buckingham Palace May 15, 2024
Love Island presenter Maya Jama was one of many well put together guests - Aaron Chown/PA

I see a hatless Tess Daly, Vernon Kay, Dame Arlene Phillips, Louis Theroux and Tracey Emin. This is mesmerisingly eclectic. A well-known-in-the-fashion-industry hairdresser tells me rather wistfully that he’s never seen so many badly dressed people. Bit harsh. Many look very well put together and I spot only one dress gaping at the back to reveal plenty of bra.

Creative Industries Garden Party at Buckingham Palace May 15, 2024
The King spoke to documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux - Reuters/Yui Mok
Creative Industries Garden Party at Buckingham Palace May 15, 2024
Choreographer and former Strictly judge Arlene Phillips with the Queen
Creative Industries Garden Party at Buckingham Palace May 15, 2024
Guests also included artist Tracey Emin - Aaron Chown/PA

There’s a lot of colour – including a hot pink Me and Em trouser suit. Brave. Not because it’s trousers but because Me and Em is now so popular, there’s a chance you could bump into someone in the same outfit. But I think she’s safe.

Florals are still in evidence, though less so, I suspect, than in previous years. There are plenty of really good hats, some fascinators (it’s so sunny I’m grateful for my brim). And lots of heels – so much for the flats memo.

I spot the same beatific look on faces I’ve seen whenever there’s royalty in the vicinity – even on people who say they’re staunch republicans. These garden parties are surely good at winning members of the Royal family new friends. At any rate, they’ve been a regular part of Buckingham Palace’s calendar since the 1860s, when Queen Victoria, the first monarch to live in the newly revamped, Nashed-up Buckingham Palace, inaugurated them. But today’s is the first held specifically for the creative industries, which according to Buckingham Palace’s own press release generated more than £124 billion in 2022, employ 2.4 million people and harbour muscular ambitions to add another £50 billion and one million jobs to its accounts by 2030.

Creative Industries Garden Party at Buckingham Palace May 15, 2024
Prince Edward was seen chatting to representatives across the creative industries

Britain is outstanding at creativity. From 2010 to 2022, the creative sector grew more than one and a half times faster than the wider economy. So why would any government even consider cutting funding to school and college art departments? Good question, which, one suspects, the King might himself ask Rishi Sunak at one of their weekly meetings.

Time to focus, oh so casually (I’m not obsessed), on plates. Some of the iced cakes have crowns on them. If the same number of sandwiches are allocated as at the parties for 8,000 guests, that’s a lot of food. Then again, at the rate this lot are munching, is it enough? OK, I am obsessing. I’ve got to find the tea tent.

At 3.55pm, I see the King and Queen emerge from the Palace on to the terrace above the steps to the garden, the King in a rather delightful pale pink waistcoat, sweetly matching the Queen’s outfit (also not in flats). I decide I’ll ask Charles if he wore pink especially for the Creative Industries if I get the chance. Luckily for everyone, I don’t.

Britain's King Charles III (L) and Britain's Queen Camilla host The Sovereign's Creative Industries Garden Party
The King's pale pink waistcoat sweetly matched the Queen's outfit - YUI MOK/AFP

At 3.59pm, the national anthem starts up. Then, Their Majesties disappear into their two different lanes. I’m standing a third of the way down the King’s. “He’ll be hours yet,” a Gentleman at Arms tells me. ”He’s very chatty, forever going off-piste, to talk to members of the crowd. I don’t know if he and the Queen are in competition to see who can chat the longest but…”

One woman pops her tea plate down on the grass next to us – practically in the middle of the lane. This is a spectacularly high-risk gesture, but the Gentleman at Arms is remarkably relaxed and the plate is quietly relocated. The Gentleman at Arms is so laid-back you’d assume he were a guest, dressed as he is in morning suit and top hat.

It turns out most of the security people are in morning suits (I try to imagine H from Line of Duty in one; it’s not working). “You must be hot,” remarks one guest as we continue to wait for chatty Charles. “We normally pray for cloud cover,” replies the GaA. “And rain at 6pm.” The sky is cloudless. “If all else fails and people aren’t leaving, the band will strike up the national anthem again and hope everyone takes the hint.”

Oh and the egg and cucumber sandwiches? They did not disappoint. Light yet creamy, in a good way. And very small.