The taxpayers' guide to a Buckingham Palace garden party

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The Independent Online

They are the reserve of the great and the good: polite, genteel gatherings where guests juggle tea and dainty sandwiches on the lawn, strain for a glimpse of the Queen and are congratulated for work carried out for the public good.

They are the reserve of the great and the good: polite, genteel gatherings where guests juggle tea and dainty sandwiches on the lawn, strain for a glimpse of the Queen and are congratulated for work carried out for the public good.

But beneath the veneer of respectability, Buckingham Palace's garden parties have been revealed as an almighty bunfight, where guests each wolf an average of 14 cakes, sandwiches, scones and ice-creams and which cost their hosts £500,000 a year.

So gluttonous are guests that the Palace's contract caterers are making a loss and the Royal Household is facing higher charges to make the business pay.

A value-for-money costing showed that the 14 items of food consumed on average by the 8,000 guests invited to each of the three annual summer garden parties "does not include cups of tea", according to the Palace. "Fourteen [items] is the average - and somebody is eating a lot more than that" said an official. "It's not easy to get the costs down if people are going to eat that much."

So what are the other secrets of taking tea with the Queen?

How do you get in?

That's the tricky bit. The gold-embossed invitations tend to be limited to councillors, charity workers, members of the armed forces and others who have served the public. Tickets are zealously sought and are seen by minor council officials as one of the perks of the job. But once invited, there's the huge cachet of walking across the gravel, up to the Palace. "The Japanese tourists assume you must be terribly important," said one guest.

What's the food like?

Memorable. There are no crusts on the cucumber, smoked salmon or asparagus sandwiches but there's a choice of white bread or brown and they are "at the substantial end of dainty", according to one guest. Then there are cakes to die for: mini chocolate eclairs and scones, chocolate lemon cake, Dundee cake, Majorca slice, chocolate Swiss roll plus vanilla and strawberry ice-creams.

Why do guests eat so much?

One theory being put forward yesterday was that they might be taking home cakes and scones as souvenirs. There's also a lot of time on the lawn with nothing to do but eat. Guests arrive at 2.30pm, food is served at 3.30, the Queen arrives at 4pm and the event doesn't wind up till 5.30pm. That's a full two hours of eating and drinking.

What are the loos like?

"The top end of portable," according to several distinguished guests. They have an impressive-looking wooden finish and the ladies' loos are adorned with flowers.

Who will you see there?

Possibly your local councillor. But if you fancy someone A-list you'll need a place at one of the occasional celebrity events. "I saw Naomi Campbell, Brian from Big Brother and David Trimble at mine," one former guest said. The Royals walk individually down lines towards the "diplomatic tents" as their own enclosures are known. At the golden jubilee classical concert in 2002, "the Wessexes" were by passed by several autograph hunters desperate to reach the BBC's Jennie Bond.

Any souvenirs to take home?

For those who think they'll sneak a piece of Buck House china into a handbag there's some bad news: the crockery is plain white, with no insignia.

High point

The iced coffee and the obliging staff.

Low point

The occasional streaker. Barney Keen, 17, famously ran naked across the lawn in 2003 after a brotherly dare as his father looked on. He was wrestled to the ground by the Yeomen of the Guard.

What else did the royals spend their millions on last year?

The Royal Train, which cost the taxpayer £700,000, despite making only 19 outings. The Palace defended the cost but some Labour MPs said it should go, like the Royal Yacht, Britannia.

The total cost of keeping the monarchy in the past financial year was £36.7m - down from £36.8m in 2003-04. Alan Reid, Keeper of the Privy Purse, said that amounted to 61p per head for every member of the public.

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