Racing: York's royal fling as Ascot moves north

Royal Ascot is moving north - for one year only - bringing the biggest invasion to the gates of York since the Viking hordes came to town. By Christopher Hirst
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The Independent Online

It wasn't the crowds massing the ancient streets of Swinegate, Whipmawhopmagate and The Shambles. Nor the extra tourists gaping at York's many attractions. It was the unusual scent, at least for the weekend, of freshly mown grass. The overtime, admitted the council workman clipping a privet hedge, was "very welcome".

It wasn't the crowds massing the ancient streets of Swinegate, Whipmawhopmagate and The Shambles. Nor the extra tourists gaping at York's many attractions. It was the unusual scent, at least for the weekend, of freshly mown grass. The overtime, admitted the council workman clipping a privet hedge, was "very welcome".

With every patch of green manicured to within an inch of its life, the flower-decked city looked terrific. Even the river Ouse, prone to invading the ground floors of riverside dwellings at the slightest opportunity, was on its best behaviour. As they tend to say in this area, summat's up.

The Yorkshire capital is braced for its biggest invasion since Ivar the Boneless and his Viking hordes stormed the city in 867. Over five days from tomorrow, York anticipates an additional 50,000 visitors per day.

Royal Ascot, the biggest and most fashionable meeting on the British racing calendar, is moving to York racecourse during the refurbishment of its customary home. Apart from being in an unusual place, it is pretty much service as normal, with the Queen attending for all five days and other top royals putting in a good stint.

To mark the event, the city has mounted a nine-day "Streets Alive!" festival. The highlight, which takes place today, is an event called "History Alive", when streets will be "filled with entertainment from throughout the ages" including Romans, Vikings, Civil War characters and (an invasion omitted from the history books) Samurai warriors.

Somewhat surprisingly, the city's single most important tourist asset is not mounting any special events for Ascot week. Though York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps, receives more visitors than Westminster Abbey or St Paul's, it is not jumping on the Ascot bandwagon. "We have no special services but racegoers are very welcome to our normal service," said a member of the cathedral's staff. "The more the merrier."

The city hopes to benefit by upwards of £50m from Ascot-on-Ouse. The impact of the event is being felt in a host of different ways. For weeks, no hire suits have been available for love nor (more importantly in Yorkshire) money. The city's branch of Austin Reed has closed its books after renting out about 200 morning suits, including grey topper and gloves, at £75 a time. "Most gents shove their gloves in their pockets," I was told, "but they have to wear hats in the Royal Enclosure."

With a view to capitalising on this sudden dearth of morning suits for hire, Edmund Jackson, an independent gentlemen's retailer on Davygate is selling them at £325. "We hope to do well in the week," said Graham Moore, the manager.

For the first time since it was founded in 1936, the chain of Yorkshire tea rooms known as Betty's is allowing pre-booking of tables on one floor of its York branch. "It's going really, really well," said Louise Taylor, the company's PR manager. "I'm sure our visitors will have a great experience. After all, they haven't got a Betty's down south." A number of special dishes, including smoked salmon and scrambled egg pikelet (£5.10), have been introduced for the week. At the racecourse, the company is giving away packets of Yorkshire Tea specially blended for hard water, "so people can take a little bit of Yorkshire home with them."

In the window of its half-timbered premises on Stonegate, York's fine china and crystal specialists Mulberry Hall displayed a specially-commissioned line of Frankie Dettori candle-snuffers. Sadly, the jockey fell under a ban for careless riding at Haydock Park after the shop had placed its order for 200 of the hand-painted porcelain figurines. This does not appear to have depressed sales. Ten were sold on Saturday morning at £175 each. Seven pairs of Royal Derby "dwarves" decorated as Ascot racegoers have also been snapped up at £1,950 each. Sales staff were confident they would sell a larger porcelain study of the horse Mr Vitality ridden "at full speed" by the jockey B. Marcus (£9,975) and a horse's head, only slightly reminiscent of The Godfather, in Bacarrat crystal for £6,430.

Yorkshire ladies, no slouches in the fashion department, have jumped at the spending opportunities. The Hat Company at 24 Pavement was bursting at the seams. Amid an array of feathery explosions, the manager Elizabeth Coulter declared: "We've had a fabulous week. We've sold at least 120 hats a day at anything from £20 to £400. We must have sold half a dozen hats at £400 and another six at £300. The most expensive hats we've got left in the shop are £250. Ladies here think nothing of spending £8,000 on an outfit. I had a woman in here the other day who was wearing a Gucci dress that I know for a fact cost £2,500, because I saw it myself at Harvey Nicks in Leeds. Mind you, a lot of it is on credit. I'd say 65 to 70 per cent of our sales last week were on credit cards."

Occasionally, Ms Coulter would address a customer. "It's all about proportion. There's no such thing as people not suiting hats," she told Penny Evans, who was looking for something in black. "Let me show you something with a bit more wow. That is a Philip Treacy. A hat for a younger woman. Looks lovely on you."

Ms Coulter said one of her customers had spent £30,000 on a private box for 20 people on one of the race days. "Lots of people have bought £400 tickets, but I don't think it's sold as well as they'd hoped. York racecourse said they'd sold out of tickets in January, but now they're saying members can take up to six guests into the Royal Enclosure. I don't think we're getting many of the southern aristocracy up here. There's nothing to draw them up. We've never had a Michelin star restaurant in York and as for the hotels..."

She turned to Margarita Rust, who was looking for a "fascinator", a form of female headwear that is half hat, half hair ornament. "A fascinator has to cover the crown if you're going into the Royal Enclosure," Ms Coulter announced. "Now that looks fantastic on you. Isn't it a stupendous colour? Only £162."

Not only York's upmarket outlets have benefited from the Ascot phenomenon. "The knock-on effect has been incredible," said Kay Hyde, PR manager for York Tourism Bureau. "When I bought my Ascot dress last week, I took it to be altered at Sew & Sews and there was a queue down the street. The haberdasher Duttons for Buttons is inundated with people looking for the correct accessories."

At one of the stops on my whirlwind tour of York, a shopkeeper informed me that her decorator had just painted the Queen's bedroom at the Archbishop's palace in Bishopsthorpe, where she is staying for part of the week. It is painted green and cream.

The dress code of the Royal Enclosure is a matter of concern to Maria Abu-Rish, co-owner of Rish's, a stylish York restaurant on Fossgate, patronised by the likes of Greg Dyke and Raymond Blanc. Ms Abu-Rish's three days at the races will culminate on Friday with a visit to the Royal Enclosure. "Is it tights or not tights?" she asked nervously. "Someone told me you can't have bare legs. I know skirts have to be knee-length and no bare midriffs are allowed. Well, I wouldn't do that anyway - but I'm a bit worried about my fascinators. I've got two of them. Do they have to cover the crown?" Now something of an expert, I said that I thought this was indeed the case.

Ms Abu-Rish was not convinced. "I had a friend who went into the Royal Enclosure last year with a fascinator that didn't cover the crown and she got away with it." Ms Abu-Rish will be wearing a dress by Amanda Wakely in mink-beige silk. "I'm not saying how much, but it was half-price in a sale. It's got long ties that wrap around the bust and waist and there's a fishtail at the back. It's kinda sexy. I don't know if the Royal Enclosure allows sexy. I still want to look a bit funky."

Turning to her business, Ms Abu-Rish said this week promised to be the best since the restaurant opened five years ago. "I was annoyed to hear that some people were putting up their prices for Ascot. We've kept our prices at the same as usual. It will be great for us anyway - the place is pretty much full every evening - it didn't cross my mind to raise prices. The only thing that's different is we've got Whitby lobster on this week. It's around £29, but you get a whole lobster."

Kay Hyde of York Tourism insists: "This is going to be a fantastic week. People have the impression of York as ancient and beautiful, but we think people will be pleasantly surprised at how York has changed. It used to be known for pubs and cosy tea rooms, but now we promote the city as funky, cosmopolitan, continental."

Such untrammelled enthusiasm for modernity is not, however, universal in York. After all, the city is capital of a county famous for its dourness. In the York Evening Press on Saturday, Shaun Collinge, landlord of a real ale pub, The Maltings, said the Queen would be very welcome, but only if she stuck to real ale. "If she wants champagne, she can bog off ... Our beer is our champagne." Extending his welcome, Mr Collinge said he had stocked up on lager and "lemonade tops" to "make our southern brethren feel at home".

Lynn Henshellwood, whose delicatessen on Newgate appears in Rick Stein's Guide to the Food Heroes of Britain, expressed misgivings about the effect of Royal Ascot on the local economy. "The hamper trade for the race week has been brilliant. We've got orders for around 20 Ascot hampers at up to £8 a time, but the majority of my regulars are leaving York for the week. It's swings and roundabouts for us."

The local press has worked itself up into a fine old tizzy. Yorkshire Life, never a journal to underestimate the importance of the social round, panted in its June issue that "Royal Ascot is the event Yorkshire has been waiting for". On the eve of the event, the Evening Press took a more hard-nosed approach. "50,000 volts to zap security threats," it trumpeted over a report about the issuing of Tasers to North Yorkshire Police at Royal Ascot. "When the darts strike, a five-second, 50,000-volt charge causes the suspect's muscles to contract uncontrollably." Some racegoers may suffer the same reaction when their next credit card bill arrives.