“It’s actually my first time” I smiled back at the lady sitting beside me with her small son on their picnic blanket. There must have been almost ten thousand people sprawled out across the field. Some were treating the day as a military exercise, with baskets of snacks, heavy-duty matting and several games to provide distraction. Others merely showed up, hoping for a chance to get into one of the world’s most famous sporting events of the annual calendar: Wimbledon.
As I mentioned, it was my first time and I had little idea what to expect from a day that I’d only glimpsed highlights of in the comfort of my own lounge. On TV it had always looked rather glamorous, quite exciting and above all, extremely British. Of course another benefit of watching on TV is that you’re transported directly into the thick of the action and can switch off if rain hinders play. As I was to find out, the real experience demands a strong will to succeed and if possible, a far more British outlook than usual.
We joined the queue at a bleary eyed 7am, fresh from the District Line and with hopes of beating the crowds. As the field opened out before us, I realised that I would have to rely on my stiff upper lip to keep that hope alive. Tents lined the hedgerows, children ran to catch tennis balls in distant corners and a colourful collage of human beings filled the remainder of the pasture like a tightly worked Moorish mosaic. A well-spoken volunteer interrupted my internal disappointment by handing me two fliers. The first, a ticket for the queue that told me I was the 6377th person to arrive to this field; the second, a shiny, neat booklet entitled “A Guide to Queueing”.
We took our place at the back of the concertinaed line and immediately realised we were unprepared. Sharing only one small anorak to sit on, we borrowed a pen from the young lads in front of us and bought a paper to do the crossword. Breakfast would be a cold hotdog. I felt very inadequate compared to the groups of friends who had obviously done it all before. In fact, I thought, the organisers should probably start issuing badges for completion of levels. A proper picnic rug is a clear Level 1 pass, while a bat and ball, sunscreen and supermarket bought picnic stools are a smug, and very visible attainment of Level 3. As I was mulling this over I was indeed handed a badge telling me that I had successfully queued in the sun for Wimbledon. That was an extremely premature gift. We still had a long way to go.
The only thing more British than my queueing guide was the camaraderie between my fellow waiters. Within an hour we were all best friends. This was maybe due to the fact that one hour seemed to take a lifetime to pass, or maybe, more positively, because we British are just bloody good at queueing. Well, it’s understandable of course, with booklets telling us how to do it, we can’t possibly go wrong! We sat in that field for almost four hours in total. The only moments I left the queue, were to join another polite line for the food van or the port-a-loos. One queue was substituted for another and made quite a decent change of scenery. Or possibly, I had just gone mad.
As we eventually filed through the narrow gates to be herded the final 800 meters through a golf course, it was evident that some people hadn’t read their booklet. Forlorn faces of shattered and shoulder-slumped queue participants greeted us as they were held by guards. They had inadvertently queue jumped and were penned like sheep until their number came up. Still, chin up as we Brits say. What’s ten more minutes of waiting amid a five hour stint?
We haughtily shuffled past the doormen holding our numbers aloft to prove we were able to count to 7000. The anticipation was building, and as I passed cardboard cut-outs of Nadal, Federer and Murray I could finally taste the end of the queue in the air. Despite being stricter than airport border control, the last security check seemed a breeze after the hours spent with nothing to occupy myself. I enthusiastically showed the uniformed inspector the contents of my handbag, listing them one by one and asking if he required anything else. On the home stretch the feet in front of me strode quickly towards the entrance and gradually dispersed, leading me to arrive at what I noticed suddenly was a brisk jog. How embarrassingly un-British of me! I collected myself and smiled sweetly as I paid for the privilege of my five hour queue. This was it. I had arrived at Wimbledon 2014!
Once we were in, of course, the time flew by and the next five hours passed in a blur of oohs, aahs and overpriced Pimms. There was also a bit of tennis. The atmosphere was exactly as I had imagined it – the perfect picture of a tranquil British summertime. Ladies with large floppy hats walked arm in arm between courts and bars, young men stood tall in chinos and aviators and stewards promenaded the grounds in pristine white shoes, wide rimmed lapelled blazers and bowler hats. Murray’s Mount harboured the less sophisticated, but slightly more fun spectators, who cheered unreservedly at the giant screen and sent friends indoors for the next round.
Just when I was of the opinion that the day couldn’t possibly become any more British, it rained. The bilious grey clouds overhead opened up and unleashed on the crowds below. People scuttled like roaches for the nearest cover, abandoning their games as huge tarpaulins were hauled and dragged across the manicured greens. Looking out towards a dismal view of Centre Court, I felt elated that I had finally experienced the Wimbledon of my expectations: A truly British institution.
However contentment soon turned to tiredness as the rain persisted. I slipped and slopped in my ill -chosen footwear towards the exit, safe in the knowledge that there would be no queue to get out. I left Wimbledon unceremoniously, and in complete contrast to how I had entered: Head down, back bent and with as much determination to leave, as I had held to arrive.
How very, very British.