The English Social Season

The Social Distancing Season: A Guide to the Key Summer Events

The English Season is the name given to a number of social and sporting events that take place during the spring and summer. This calendar of prestigious events traditionally attracts Royalty, celebrities and high society as well as visitors from all over the world. Think Pimm’s, strawberries, fascinators and picnics at regattas, festivals, concerts and races.

The Season has its roots in the 17th and 18th century, when the aristocracy would leave their country houses and travel to their London residences for a three-month whirl of extravagant social events.
Until the 1950s, the Season marked the coming-out of high society daughters at debutante balls, where they could meet and mingle with eligible, young men. Highlights of the Season included the opening of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, the Chelsea Flower Show, the Henley Regatta and Ascot – as well as all kinds of balls, parties and dinners.

The majority of these events have stood the test of time and still take place annually in the summer months, although attendance is no longer restricted to the aristocracy. This year, the coronavirus pandemic has led to many events being cancelled or postponed while others are being held virtually or behind closed doors. With guidelines on social gatherings and sporting fixtures being updated on a weekly basis, read on for your guide to the 2020 Social Season. 

Glyndebourne, East Sussex

Glyndebourne (pronounced Glyne-bourne, with a silent ‘d’) is an English country house near Lewes and the venue for the annual Glyndebourne Festival Opera since 1934, playing classics from La Traviata to Cosi Fan Tutte to a backdrop of the South Downs. It usually runs from May until August but this year the organisers were forced to cancel all Festival performances, following Government advice around COVID-19. 

With no income from ticket sales, the future of the festival is at risk and an emergency appeal has been launched to raise funds for Glyndebourne charity as well as its seasonal staff and artists. To create a taste of the Glyndebourne experience during the closure, world-class opera from classic Festival productions is being broadcast via YouTube every Sunday. 

A statement on Glyndebourne’s website encourages opera lovers to embrace the spirit of the festival from afar: “In true festival style, we hope you’ll use this as an opportunity to make memories – dust off your finery, clink a glass with friends and family and be united with opera lovers from across the globe. We can’t conjure the smell of the Glyndebourne roses or a view of the lake, but we can still create an experience to share.”


RHS Chelsea Flower Show, London

Held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the century-old Chelsea Flower Show is said to be the world’s most prestigious flower show. Over 150,000 visitors attend over the five May days, including members of the Royal Family, and it is broadcast on the BBC.

The Duchess of Cambridge, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie and The Countess of Wessex have been known to hit the horticultural displays, mingling with celebrity guests such as TV chef Mary Berry, designer/ model Alexa Chung and Bond girl Gemma Arterton.

This year, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) took the floral extravaganza online for the first time with designers, florists and celebrities hosting virtual tours of their own gardens. There were also children’s gardening clubs to encourage budding horticulturalists to try their hand at potting and planting. 

Chelsea flower show

Royal Ascot, Berkshire

Royal Ascot is the pinnacle of the English Social Season and is also said to be the Queen’s favourite event. The monarch has attended the horse racing extravaganza every year since 1945 and takes part in a Royal procession at 2pm sharp before the racing on each day .

With a history that spans 300 years, Royal Ascot is as famous for its fashion and extravagant headwear as its flat racing. It is the most formal event in terms of its dress code, although even that is being relaxed – jumpsuits are now allowed in the Royal Enclosure for women. The Royal Ascot Style Guide is published every year to help racegoers plan their outfits and make sure they comply with the guidelines. 

Skirts must still be worn just above the knee or longer, with straps no less than one inch wide and headpieces with a “solid base”. Men must wear black or grey morning dress with a waistcoat and a tie wider than 7cm with black or grey top hat and black shoes. In the Queen Anne and Village Enclosures, formal day dress is required – meaning lounge suits for men and hats or fascinators for women. But it’s not all about the horses or the clothes… over 50,000 bottles of champagne are consumed each year, enough to fill almost 500 baths. 

With lockdown restrictions being lifted on sporting events this month, Royal Ascot is taking place behind closed doors for the first time between June 16 and 20. Join us for a live webinar on Wednesday June 17 at 6pm, and find out more about the history, etiquette and all-important dress codes of this key event in the social calendar.

Royal ascot

Henley Royal Regatta, Oxfordshire

Straw hats and stripy blazers are the order of the day at Henley-on-Thames, where the rowing races – with 600-plus boats, often containing Olympic champion rowers – have been taking place on the river since 1839. A staggering half a million spectators watch the Henley Royal Regatta annually but this year the event has sadly been cancelled because of the coronavirus crisis.

Henley regatta

The Championships, Wimbledon, London

Wimbledon is traditionally a time for Pimm’s and strawberries while watching some decent tennis at the oldest tournament in the world, played on outdoor grass courts.

The live tennis matches may be on hold until 2021, but Wimbledon has just announced the launch of Wimbledon Recreated to celebrate the annual fortnight of tennis. The centrepiece of this virtual event is The Greatest Championships – a re-telling of some of Wimbledon’s greatest matches to be shown on TV, digital and social media.

Tennis fans are also invited to recreate their favourite Wimbledon traditions and moments on social media using the hashtag WimbledonRecreated. When the last ball has been hit over the net, make sure that you reward yourself and your opponent with a well-deserved bowl of strawberries and cream. To find out more about how to get involved, visit the Wimbledon homepage.

Wimbledon tennis

Cowes Week, Isle of Wight

The oldest and largest sailing regatta in Europe usually takes place at the end of July or in August and sees 100,000 visitors head south to the Isle of Wight to compete in or watch the Cowes Week races.

Apart from the yachts racing on the Solent there are bars and bandstands on the shoreline and fireworks displays for the guests, who often include Pippa Middleton, Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall and Duran Duran frontman Simon Le Bon.

Last week, the organisers Cowes Week Limited, announced the cancellation of the 2020 regatta with a statement that said: “It’s clear that running a large event in nine weeks’ time, that will bring many thousands of visitors to the small town of Cowes, will not be possible while sufficiently protecting all those involved.”

Cowes week

Last Night of the Proms

While it may come after the Glorious Twelfth, there is nothing quite so patriotically British as the Last Night of the Proms. This is the pinnacle of the Promenade (Prom) concerts in the Royal Albert Hall, which take place over the eight weeks of summer.

Rousing renditions of Rule Britannia and Union Jack outfits (there is no formal dress code) are normally the order of the day at the Last Night. It even has its own terminology: if you are lucky enough to get hold of a ticket , you are said to be ‘promming’.

This year the Proms will celebrate their 125-year anniversary with a digital Prom season that will see past concerts as well as live performances broadcast across BBC television, radio and online. As one would expect, there is a special treat in store for the Last Night of the Proms, with the organisers promising a “poignant and unique” event.

Last night of the proms

Other events that could be considered part of the Season include:

• The British Grand Prix Formula One race at Silverstone
• Festivals such as Wilderness and Port Eliot
• The Badminton Horse Trials
• Cartier Queen’s Cup Polo
• Trooping the Colour
• The University Boat Race.

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