'Forget tennis - we're here for the queue'

One of the British summer's great traditions is the long line of hopefuls waiting to get into Wimbledon. With three children in tow, Jane Sanderson sees if humour and middle-class stoicism can save the day
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The queue for tickets; one of the most enduring images of Wimbledon fortnight, and my three children and I were at the very end of it, in car park 10, on Wimbledon Park golf course.

The minute we took our place, one of the many charming, resoundingly middle-class stewards handed each of us an "I've queued at Wimbledon" sticker. This was the first manifestation of the curious psychology among the waiting hordes, which elevates the queue above the event itself. But you have to be part of it to truly understand.

Happily, you do not spend long as the losers at the end of the line. Someone even more foolishly optimistic than you always turns up to make you feel better. Soon, before we'd made any shuffling progress at all, we had been joined by at least 100 other people hoping to buy a ground pass for what remained of the afternoon's play. It's amazing how good that is for morale.

Behind us was a group of amiable Aussies from Brisbane, joking about the miserable weather. "I like the English summer, it's not too hot," one said. We all laughed. But his smile faltered when a young steward handed him his queuing card. "Erm, excuse me, mate," he said. "My ticket says 6,767. That doesn't mean there are 6,766 people in front of me, does it?"

"Well, not exactly sir. There are people getting in all the time," the steward said. We still had not moved, but I was beginning to appreciate the optimism peddled by the stewards, who were as sunny as the weather wasn't. Not so the Aussies. Next time I looked, they'd sloped off. Lightweights.

In their place was a group of young locals, who had clearly done this before.

"Do you expect to get in?" I asked them, anxiously.

"Yeah, as long as we're over halfway by five, we'll be fine," one said. I was impressed by her authoritative tone. But my watch said 3.45pm and the kids looked at me, appalled, suddenly aware of the scale of this undertaking.

"Look!" I said brightly, "we're moving." And we were. A gap had magically appeared in front of us and we had the satisfaction of trotting a few thrilling steps forward to close it again. A crumb of hope. Then another steward arrived with some good news.

"We're letting 250 people in in a moment," he said. "A whole bunch of corporates are leaving." There was a ripple of excitement in our section of the queue.

"What are corporates, mummy?" asked Jacob, my eight-year-old.

"They're the people who're not real tennis fans," the steward said. "Not like you, young man." Jacob swelled with pride, and uttered not one word of complaint for the rest of the long afternoon.

In front of us was a couple of weathered queue veterans, with a bottle of ready-to-drink Pimm's, some sliced cucumber, sprigs of mint and a punnet of strawberries. "We're only here for the queue," the man joked, as he caught me enviously eyeing his glass. But was it a joke? The longer we stood, the less focused I was becoming on the tennis.

"I don't actually mind if we don't get in," said Joe, my 12-year-old. "This is fun." Elly, the 14-year-old, looked at him askance - she needed more of a story to tell her mates back home. But I knew exactly what Joe meant. I had just had an exchange with a guy walking along the queue trying to decide whether to join it.

"The trouble is, the weather's against us," I said. "It's not raining. We need a downpour, so everyone will leave and we can all get in." "Ye-e-s," said the man. "Except then there'll be no tennis."

Then the locals behind us decided to leave. It was a low point, because it meant that, at just after 5pm, we still had not made it to the halfway point, the mini-roundabout on Church Road. I had a brief, internal struggle, and was about to suggest mini-golf in Wimbledon Park, when Elly piped up: "Imagine that. Waiting all this time and then just leaving! I'd never do that."

Humbled by her stoicism, I kept my mouth shut. Anyway, the girls' departure meant a new set of punters behind us, and there's nothing like new neighbours to help pass the time in the Wimbledon queue. Now we had a woman from Atlanta and her friend from New York.

But 10 minutes later we miraculously started an almost constant forward shuffle. "Hey, I'm getting a stitch," said Elly, and was rewarded with a smattering of laughter.

"Oh my god, we're there!" screeched the woman from Atlanta. We'd passed the mini-roundabout and could see a line of security staff. Shortly afterwards, 15 of us were counted in, taking the place of 15 who were leaving via another, unseen gate. It was 5.52pm and I confess to a fleeting feeling of anti-climax. We were getting in to Wimbledon and something strangely wonderful had come to a close.