John Young explores the social ‘season’ of London’s cricket crowds.
This article first appeared in The Weekender, 2008.
There is a small patch of grass in west London that on one day of the year assumes an importance vastly disproportionate to its size. This is the Coronation Garden in the Lord’s cricket ground. On the Saturday of the Lord’s Test match this little plot – no bigger than a tennis court – becomes the focus of the English Season. This is where the great and the good, and the middling and the mean, gather for the culinary marvel that is the Lord’s picnic.
The idea of The Season (what social historian George Trevelyan bitingly called the “London marriage market”) officially came to an end when the last of the debutantes were presented at the royal court in 1958, but the English have found a way of maintaining and extending their social whirl through faithful attendance at a series of events. Most of these are sporting occasions (tennis at Wimbledon, yachting at Cowes, rowing at Henley, polo at Windsor, horse-racing at Ascot) and, some, like the opera at Glyndbourne, are very high-brow affairs, but there is one thing that unites them – the picnic.
No-one does a picnic quite like the English. Whether the result is a lavish spread of lobster, salmon and Stilton cheese washed down with bottles of Bollinger or a cooler box containing cold pork bangers, brown bread and beer, picnic planning is a serious affair. A hundred years ago picnics could happen just about anywhere at Lord’s. Supporters of the university teams of Cambridge and Oxford (and schools like Eton and Harrow) would draw their horse-drawn carriages up on the edge of the field, take their extended lunches there and still get to see their heroes in action if lunch segued into tea.
Now that stands surround the playing area, space is at a premium. Actually, there is a lot of grass at the Nursery end of the ground behind the ET-look-alike media centre, but at the premium end of the ground (near the hallowed Pavilion) space is very limited. Only the very early birds get to picnic in the Coronation Garden.
“There is a mad dash to go and claim your spot, “ says Grant Halstead, the Capetonian who has been working at Lord’s since 2003. As Pavilion Manager he is perfectly positioned to watch the picnic place gallop. He says that ‘people literally bring their full Sunday lunch’ including, on one memorable occasion, a giant carving knife. It was discreetly confiscated.
The lawn is neatly trimmed and contains memorials to the most important men in the history of Lord’s: Thomas Lord and W.G. Grace. Grace was cricket’s first super-star and a statue immortalises him in action. Lord was the cricket-playing entrepreneur who bought the land in 1814 and hired it out to the aristocrats who loved to play and bet on cricket. The lease for the ground was bought some years later by a John Henry Dark but the game’s administrators wisely stuck to the original name. Given the importance of the grass on the pitch to the game of cricket it is appropriate, if a little odd, to find on the edge of the lawn The Thomas Lord Memorial Roller.
Having rushed past the doors of the Pavilion, potential picnickers then choose their space on the lawn in much the same way as people entering a lift choose where to stand. Eye contact with other rug-layers is avoided and the blanket is laid down equally far away from all other rugs. There are no regulations but using a ground sheet is considered rather bad form. Most use modest rugs in cheerful checks.
And then the most remarkable thing happens. Everyone goes away and leaves their blankets and cooler boxes just where they left them. For hours and hours! There’s lots to do in the hours before play starts. A circuit of the ground is a sure way of bumping into old friends and at the Nursery End the players will probably still be practising in the nets. Beatles’ fans can pop around the corner to cross the Abbey Road and Madame Tussaud’s is one stop away on the Jubilee Line. In the ground there’s the library and museum (11,000 volumes, the Ashes and an original Pissaro called Cricket on Hampton Green are among the splendours on offer), there’s the well-stocked shop and for most of those who will take lunch in the Coronation Garden, there is the Pavilion.
Although there are no entry requirements for picnicking in the Coronation Garden, it tends to be dominated by members of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), the owners of Lord’s. Entry to the Pavilion, by contrast, is very strictly controlled and the only way to get in is to wear the exotic, egg-and-tomato coloured club tie. To become a member your great-grandfather had to put your name down when Queen Victoria was a princess and anyone without the MCC tie should not even think of trying to enter the pavilion, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu discovered in 1994. (Tutu eventually did get to celebrate with the Proteas and recently delivered the annual “Spirit of Cricket” address to MCC members).
There is something about watching the first delivery of a Test match that is sacrosanct so no-one would dream of starting lunch early. When the umpires eventually call a halt to the first session of play, the hungry spectators return to the Garden to find their rugs and cooler boxes exactly where they put them, untouched.
A lucky few (the earliest birds) get to sit at one of the tables that line the edge of the lawn. The really organised bring their own tables. Framed by a blaze of patriotic MCC tablecloth, a really ambitious spread might include thinly-sliced ham, salmon, melon, cheese and grapes, with crystal glasses for the wine and stirrup-cups for the port. Whereas the opera at Glyndbourne breaks for more than an hour (they do a lot of Wagner!) cricket’s lunch break lasts only forty minutes, so it is probably unreasonable to expect the majority of the picnic-goers to be sitting bolt upright in their seats when play resumes. In fact, it has been observed that some people spend most of the second session of the match flat on their backs, but their day at Lord’s was no less fulfilling for missing a bit of the cricket, free from the pressures of the office and the roar of London’s traffic.
For visitors to Lord’s who don’t want to pack their own cooler boxes, London’s emporiums have a range of picnic hamper options, all of which include small bottles of wine. Carluccio’s La Scampagnata menu for two people (£80) includes stuffed olives, balsamic onions, pate, lamb cutlets, salad, breads and cheeses. For the same price, Green’s of St James’s have quail eggs, smoked salmon, marinated chicken breasts and three British cheeses. Baker and Spice ( £65 for two) offer roast pepper shortbread biscuits, soup, hummus, roast ham sandwiches, brownies and a lemon drizzle cake while Harrod’s present a choice of The Richmond, with marinated fillet of lamb (£34.95), The Hyde, which includes lemongrass and coriander chicken (£29.95) and The St James’s for vegetarians (£27.95). The Harrod’s options include a cooler box, cutlery and wine glasses.
Tickets for the first three days of the Lord’s Test match are usually sold out months in advance. A good seat in the Grand Stand can cost £80. Restaurant food (and a jazz band) is available on the Harris Lawn, the other tennis-court sized patch of grass behind the Pavilion. See www.mcc.org.uk