Last updated on June 20th, 2022
The Chelsea Flower Show may officially kick-start the London Season, but for me, it’s the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy that gets summer in London off to a rip-roaring start. The world’s largest open submission art exhibition signals a tee off for strawberries and cream, cucumber sandwiches, Pimms and lemonade, racing hats, flowing dresses, opera and outdoor theatre and music, school fêtes and regattas. Get your hats ready for my guide to the Summer Social Season in London.
“I don’t care about the London season! It is too matrimonial. People are either hunting for husbands, or hiding from them.” Oscar Wilde
The London Summer Social Season
Coming out in London
‘The London Season’ was the summer interlude when society families made the pilgrimage from their vast country estates to the grand squares of London’s Mayfair and Belgravia. Debutantes would ‘come out’ to the Queen (or King), and young ladies could make their entrée into society.
The London Season began sometime after Easter and ended on August 12. Outings included opera, theatre, concerts, horse and boat racing, lawn tennis, cricket, balls, dinner parties, breakfasts and rides along Rotten Row in Hyde Park.
I guess the London Season has changed somewhat since Oscar’s day, but I’m going to start with a nod to the great man in my first port of call: the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly.
The Summer Exhibtion
In 1883, the artist William Powell Frith exhibited the magnificent ‘A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881.’ The painting is a who’s who of Victorian society and includes famous politicians, novelists, journalists, cartoonists, sculptors and painters. Actors Ellen Terry and Henry Irving make an appearance together with Lillie Langtry, Anthony Trollope and the President of the Academy, Lord Frederic Leighton.
But all eyes are on the young man with his signature lily buttonhole: a 26 year-old Oscar Wilde. He had not penned a single book or play, but he was already a ‘cause celèbre’ due to both his wit and his mantra that art needed no justification: for Oscar it was art for art’s sake. You can read more about Oscar Wilde and the Summer Exhibition in this wonderful speech given by a modern-day Oscar, Stephen Fry (who also played Oscar in one of my favourite films ‘Wilde.’) Stephen Fry at the Royal Academy
The Summer Exhibition is now in its 251th year, and Jock McFayden is in the curating seat. Highlights will include an animal-themed menagerie with works by artists Polly Morgan, Charles Avery and Mat Collishaw. Other artists in the Summer Exhibition include Tracey Emin, Wim Wenders and Jeremy Deller. The exhibition will spill out onto Bond Street with the annual display of arty flags.
Most of the artwork is available to purchase and you can pick up some reasonably-priced gems. If you plan on buying, go as early as you can once the Summer Exhibition has opened,. The artwork does fly off the walls (not literally as it’s on until August, but most pieces sell quickly). The Summer Exhibition at The Royal Academy is on in June every year.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
This little beauty of a theatre is open all summer, and I mean literally, regardless of how soggy it gets. I have happily sat through two productions in the summer rain.
Chelsea Flower Show
Chelsea Flower Show is the second largest of its kind in Britain (Hampton Court being the largest). It’s been a London fixture since 1862 apart from two interruptions during the World Wars. The show has been held in the grounds of the Chelsea Hospital since 1913, and the Royal Family make an appearance every year. The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is on every year in May.
Opera Holland Park
Opera Holland Park is one of London’s summer musical highlights. Like Regent’s Open Air Theatre, it’s an outdoor event but set under a temporary canopy. The park’s Holland House was largely destroyed during the Blitz, and its magnificent ruins now provide the backdrop for Opera Holland Park. You can bring your own picnic or you can order one from the organisers. The season normally runs from June to August.
Trooping the Colour
Trooping the Colour marks the official birthday celebration of the British sovereign, and it’s been going since 1748. The Queen’s actual birthday is on the 21 April, but it is celebrated on the second Saturday in June (as April was deemed too cold for the ceremony). 1000 service personnel, 200 horses and 200 musicians participate in Trooping the Colour. Events begin at 10am when the Queen travels from Buckingham Palace with her Household Cavalry to Horse Guards Parade near St James’s Park. She inspects her troops before returning to the Buckingham Palace balcony with the Royal Family. The ceremony ends with a 41-gun salute and the Royal Air Force flypast at 1pm.
Queen’s Club Championships
This men-only grass court tennis tournament, which dates to 1884, takes place in the Queen’s Club in West Kensington and is the warm-up to Wimbledon. The Queen’s Club Championship is on in June every year.
If ever there was a London Summer Season fixture which was about strawberries and cream, then this is it. 28,000 kilos of strawberries and 10,000 litres of cream are served on average each year, all washed down with 29,000 bottles of champagne. Wimbledon is the world’s oldest tennis tournament, established in 1877 at the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club. Tickets are obtained through a ballot system, or you can join the long queues for tickets on the day of the match. Wimbledon is on from 1 to 14 July.
Lord’s Test Match Cricket
Let me start by saying I do not understand cricket. Having said that, there is something so very British about watching a cricket match in a village green, the players doing what they do in their immaculate whites (or flannels). My friends who go to Lord’s in St John’s Wood don’t watch much cricket. Instead, there seems to be a large consumption of booze. With a side of afternoon tea.
Out of Towners
This is the event that really kicks summery things off for me. Garsington is what the sound of music really looks like. You can read more about what to expect from a day at Garsington, or you can come for a trip around the beautiful grounds with me here.
Grange Park Opera
Tread in Henry VIII and Elizabeth I’s footsteps in the beautiful West Horsley Place, also home to Grange Park Opera. The opera house – the Theatre in the Woods – came to being in 2017 and it’s modelled on La Scala no less. Pack a picnic, dust off the bow ties and enjoy a practically perfect evening in the heart of Surrey.
More country opera
The other main opera event of the Summer Social Season is Glyndebourne in East Sussex. There’s dressing up, picnics in magical settings and some pretty decent opera. And don’t forget the delightful Waterperry Opera Festival set in the magical gardens of Waterperry Gardens and Vache Baroque for a bucolic evening of opera and picnicking.
Derby Day Epsom Downs
The first recorded race was in 1625 with Samuel Pepys making references to it in his famous diaries. Charles II is said to have raced there, and suffragette Emily Davison ran in front of the King’s horse in 1913 (she died from her wounds two weeks after). Towards the end of the 18th century, Derby Day was the ‘Londoners’ Day Out,’ an event accessible to all, although Dickens Jr. thought that Ascot was ‘far superior to Epsom for the general quality of its sport and its visitors.*’
Cartier Polo – Queen’s Cup
I’ve lost count of how many iconic images there are of Princess Diana and Prince Charles at the Guards Polo Club which takes place in Windsor. It’s a relaxed event with tickets starting at £30 for the semi-final and £55 for the final. The tournament runs for three weeks with the final normally taking place in June.
This is the pinnacle of the London Summer Social Season. Dust off your hats and your tails, and remember to check the website for the Royal Enclosure dress code. You can read more about Royal Ascot here.
RHS Hampton Court Flower Show
This is the world’s largest flower show and takes place in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace. It’s organised by the Royal Horticultural Society (of Chelsea fame) and it’s a newish member to the summer diary, having only launched in 1993.
Henley Royal Regatta
This is the rowing event of the year, taking place in Henley-on-Thames (about an hour outside London). It lasts 5 days during the first weekend in July. The first regatta took place in 1839, and has been royally titled since Prince Albert became its royal patron in 1851. There are some strict dress codes if you are in the Stewards’ Enclosure. There is a 10-year waiting list to become a member of Henley Royal Regatta, but if you want to purchase a ticket to the Regatta (public) Enclosure you can do so here.
The Proms start in July but it’s the last night in September which closes out the London Social Season. It’s a big fanfare of a night, with jingoistic British flag-waving and classical music. It’s the one day a year the British allow political correctness to fly out the window. The word ‘Prom’ originates from ‘promenade concert’, which refers to outdoor concerts in London’s pleasure gardens. The Royal Albert Hall has been home to The Proms since 1944, an eight-week classical music extravaganza. The last night of The Proms usually takes place on the second Saturday in September.