The English Season
There is no better time to watch sport in England than the summer months. The unique collection of sporting events is known as the ‘season’ and runs from May to August each year. Many of these sporting/social events evolved in the 17th and 18th centuries by the landowning aristocratic and gentry families to affirm their privilege and social superiority. The social elite lived, for the most part, on their country estates but spent the summer in London to socialise, play and watch sport. It was also an opportunity to mix with royalty, as most events had, and still has, royal patronage.
The Sports season remains heavily biased towards equestrianism. Royal Ascot, founded in 1711 by Queen Anne, is still owned by the Crown Estate. The Queen arrives each day during Ascot Week, with members of the Royal Family, along the track in horse drawn landaus. Fashion is a huge part of Ascot culture, particularly the impressive and over-the-top hats worn by the ladies.
The Derby is the richest horse race in Britain and the most prestigious of the five classics and was first run in 1780. The Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey brings rich and poor together and to this day crowds need not pay a penny to watch the race and all can enjoy the race and funfair from the Downs. This famous flat horse race, over a distance of one mile, four furlongs and 6 yards (2,420 metres) is on the first Saturday of June each year. It has inspired many similar events around the world including the Tokyo Yushun.
The Grand National first ran in 1839 over the National Course which includes 16 fences, at Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool. It is now estimated that up to 600 million people in over 140 countries, including Japan, watch this most valuable jump race in Europe.
Tennis started at the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC), home to Wimbledon, in 1877 and it’s estimated that over 1 billion people watch Wimbledon worldwide. There’s only 375 Full Members of AELTC which is based on the number of seats in the original stand. Around 70 honorary memberships are held by past singles championship winners.
The world’s first multipurpose sports complex to be built in 1886 was The Queens Club in Hammersmith. It still has 27 outdoor lawn tennis courts, 2 Real Tennis courts and organises one of the pre-Wimbledon competitions each June.
The Lords Test Match takes place at the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) which was founded in 1787. There are 18,000 full members and 5,000 associate members of the MCC who collectively own the ground and the Ashes. The term ‘ashes’ was first used after England lost to Australia on home soil in 1882. The MCC members wear the famous red and gold striped jacket and tie, affectionately referred to as ‘egg and bacon.’ The waiting list to become a full MCC member is 27 years.
The Boat Race, on the River Thames, between Oxford and Cambridge Universities, began in 1829 and takes place each year with an estimated 250,000 spectators watching from the riverside and bridges. The spirit of competition is so strong between the teams that Olympic standard rowers often compete. Sir Mathew Pinsent, who rowed for Oxford in 1990, ’91 and ’93 went on to win 10 world championship gold medals and four Olympic gold medals.
Outside London on the Isle of Wight, Cowes Week which began in 1826 and is run by one of the most prestigious and exclusive yacht clubs in the world. The Royal Yacht Squadron which was started in 1815 by 42 original members who agreed to meet every three months for dinner. 200 year’s later membership has grown to just 450, there’s no waiting list, you wait to be invited. 1,000 boats in up to forty different handicap multihull classes race every day for eight days. It’s the mixture of classic, including several boats that raced more than 50 years ago, plus ultra-modern designs, that gives the regatta its uniqueness. Around a third, of the 8,000 competitors, are women and the range is from Olympic and world class to weekend sailors. Traditional seafaring members can also be found at the Royal Thames Yacht Club, founded in 1775 it is the oldest continuously operating yacht club in the world with its prestigious club house in Knightsbridge overlooking Hyde Park.
The most colourful water event is Henley Royal Regatta, the undisputed home of British Rowing and rich pageantry. First held in 1839. Rowing crews and former oarsmen wear handmade blazers in the colours, stripes and monogram of their team all topped off with a straw boater for men and a silk item for ladies. There’s a ten year wait to become a full member.
Dress codes apply to all events, particularly where the Queen plays an official role and if you have access to the Royal Enclosures, Member Areas, or Stewards Enclosure. At Royal Ascot, (pronounced Ascut), in the Royal Enclosure, gentlemen are required to wear either black or grey morning dress including a waistcoat with top hat. At Henley in the Steward’s Enclosure gentlemen must wear a jacket and tie and rowing club colours on a blazer or cap are de rigueur. Besides the dress code most events also insist on enamel style lapel badges and tags to comply with the traditional expectations of an Edwardian period garden party.
Between the sports wider arts and horticulture events began including; the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in 1895, the Chelsea Flower Show, organised by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1804 and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, 1768. The Trooping of the Colour, one of the oldest seasonal events began in 1748. Many newer events have become firm favourites of the ‘season’ including opera in the country, like Glyndebourne and in London at Holland Park, Kensington. Polo on Smiths Lawn, Windsor, home to the Guards Polo Club the largest in Europe in terms of members and grounds. Badminton Horse Trials started in 1949 against the backdrop of the Dukedom that was created in 1682 and the 17th century Badminton House. The Royal Windsor Horse Show, first started in 1943 is now the only show in the UK to host international competition in show jumping, dressage, carriage driving, endurance and showing.
This year the ‘season’ has also had a sell-out exhibition at the British Museum, Hokusai, Beyond the Great Wave. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849 is one of Japan’s most famous artists and this exhibition takes you on a journey through the last 30 years of Hokusai’s life. A time when many of the English ‘season’ events were just starting.
- David Minton
Director at The Leisure Database Company
Special Advisor, Sasakawa Sports Foundation