By now we all know the outcome of this year’s tournament and tennis courts around the country gradually lapse back to normality after the frenetic rush to replicate our heroes with ill-timed lunges and swipes, using straining ill-prepared muscles, at elusive exhausted balls.
Meanwhile, at Wimbledon, the work begins to return it to the immaculately groomed and pristine venue that it is each year. Much is always debated about the performances of the players and the tournament as a whole, so we’ve chosen to cast our eye over what kept us happy beyond the smash and volley of the courts.
Over the years we’ve attended Wimbledon by various means – from the glossy corporate junket, which does more for Bollinger and Perrier Jouet than Murray and Williams, to the do-it-yourself scramble to Henman Hill; all with varying degrees of enjoyment but this year is probably one of the best.
We’re assuming here that you’re not a Debenture holder with privileges that remove you from the great unwashed who, like us, strive each year to make their Wimbledon a little special. We were also banking on the fact that weather predictions were correct, with clear sunny skies for at least the first day. We’d secured Day 1 tickets for Centre Court and Number 1 Court tickets for the last Saturday, in the ballot for tennis club members. This gave us an opportunity to try two different ways of enjoying the days.
We elected on both days to dispense with driving to, congestion in and parking at Wimbledon; more from the perspective of having a couple of drinks than the sheer inconvenience of it. The train took the strain all the way to Wimbledon and allowed a certain amount of pre-match preparation with a small hamper of croissants and pastries, helped down by quite palatable railway coffee.
Arriving at the gate we declared our regulation bottle of bubbly and two tins of personal Pimms (each person is only allowed to enter the grounds with one or the other) and the security guard took great delight at rummaging through our selection of salads, dressings, cold meats, scones, utensils, glasses and crockery; deciding which he would prefer given half the chance.
We wandered into the grounds, to be held at bay by smartly suited lady steward who in a strident cut-glass voice informed us that we would be released some five minutes after the courts were declared open in order to assure best crowd flow. She repeated the same litany to the gathering crowd every two minutes until it became an item of amusement for everyone; her included. Like racehorses straining at the tape, the crowd when finally released nevertheless strode at a sensible pace past the practice courts where Djokovic was already going through his warm-up routine.
We’d elected to pack a picnic for Day 1, believing that we’d spend most of our time in the Centre Court as we were eager to see the consecutive Djokovic, Sharapova, Wawrinka line-up on the pristine scuff-free rye grass but also mindful that our picnic would not see us through the duration of the day. After a short interlude with Pimms poured into glasses topped up with freshly cut fruit and ice on Court 14, whilst watching Verdasco in his opening match (unfortunately we couldn’t stay for what turned out to be a nearly four-hour marathon against Klizan) we slipped quietly out of the court and made our way to Henman Hill.
We always choose to tart ourselves up for these quintessentially English events as a nod to tradition and ‘upholding standards’ but as we settled onto a free patch of grass it was interesting to see the eclectic mix of people who had managed to offer their own interpretation of the Wimbledon guide to advised attire. Over the course of the couple of days we spent much time tennis and people watching. It was interesting to see that, in our opinion, over eighty percent of ladies took the trouble to dress smartly, whilst less than forty percent of gentlemen managed to improve on the ‘sack of spuds’ fashion favoured by those who seemingly CBA – or more politely, couldn’t be bothered. To us, ‘special events’ warrant the courtesy of reflecting that in the way people dress; if we bring everything to the level of the everyday, what remains special about them. If the players regard Wimbledon as the Holy Grail and adhere to a strict code of attire, why shouldn’t we? Needless to say people appeared to be unanimous in their support of the tennis
Seated on our invaluable Wimbledon cushions (acquired some years ago and absolutely vital for prolonged tennis viewing) we unpacked our selection of early lunch. Carol Kirkwood, the BBC weather presenter cast a shapely shadow over our spread as she presented a short package of weather information; informing all those at home less fortunate than ourselves that we were to be bathed in thirty degree heat for the duration.
If we’d been quick enough to secure one of the picnic tables on Henman Hill then juggling with a plate and a glass of bubby wouldn’t have been quite the trial that it became – especially as we’d packed awful plastic cutlery in anticipation of not being allowed to stab people. A lesson learned for another time is that the ideal fare for Henman Hill is finger food and fizz – so from the array of choice before us today, what came out on top were the humble pork pie and its ritzy companion Taittinger. Others seemed to be of the same opinion – giving a miss to wrestling with cutting sliced ham on a gimbal plate with children’s cutlery and flute in hand.
Henman Hill is definitely worth the visit, especially for lunch, as the atmosphere is infectious with everyone eager to enjoy the day, share their delight with those around and peek at what’s coming out of the hampers next. There are few enough occasions when a crowd can demonstrate such a collective feeling of wellbeing.
The tennis on Centre Court was riveting, as expected, although we did delay our return for the Sharapova match for a double comfort break that included minimising, for us, the duration of her screaming. Access corridors at all levels of Centre Court were rammed solid with people with the same idea between sets; when movement was almost impossible. We’d hope that Wimbledon or the AELTA have thought this one through, but we’re not sure how a complete evacuation would ever be accomplished in a hurry.
For those who read our Zimbabwe review you’ll already know of Geoff’s gaffe with David Perry (son of the great Fred) and because of several missed emails, (by accident or design) we missed meeting him and his wife under the Fred Perry statue by fifteen minutes.
We made a couple of forays out of Centre court but were deterred from purchasing anything further to eat by the snaking queues at almost every concession stand or food outlet. This is the one area that Wimbledon never seems to get right, either by virtue of insufficient staffing, inadequate length of service areas or provision of food in a timely manner – a real task but one which doesn’t seem to improve with the years. We joined a Pimms queue for light refreshment and although the staff had a speedy conveyor belt routine underway at the front we were nevertheless still in a queue of about eighty others! The consolation was that we met a few pleasant people to pass the intervening time with; including an attractive French girl whose English boyfriend despaired of her dislike of most things British – Pimms was his last option. We caught up with them afterwards – both with a huge smile on their faces.
By the eve of the day we were ready for a final drink before departing. We didn’t fancy champagne, although the champagne bar outside Centre Court did have the smallest queue and the adjacent al fresco restaurant was pulsing out great live jazz; so we elected for a chilled glass of Stella from the Long Bar – the name referring to both the bar and the queue – and returned to listen to the jazz.
The shuttle bus back to Wimbledon station was crewed by some of the happiest London transport staff you’ll ever meet and Waitrose provided a cluster of tins of Gin & Tonic for the train ride home. Boarding an already busy train we warned our fellow passenger at the table we’d chosen that we might be a little rowdy but as we broke out the G&Ts and a spread of cheeses for the journey he revealed a couple of tins of his own and got stuck into our spread and started a lively conversation. The ride home seemed to pass in a flash.
Our next visit, on the final Saturday, was a much quieter affair. Anticipating that the grounds would be devoid of the majority of players, who by now would have departed during the course of the championships, we elected to dispense with our tour of the courts and headed towards lunch in the Wingfield restaurant at Centre Court. We’d pre-booked our lunch some weeks before but not wishing to turn up on the doorstep as the restaurant opened on the dot of 11.30am we’d delayed slightly for a Pimms between the show courts; which we’d brought together with sliced and diced fruit and a bag of ice so that we could sit at ease without the need for queueing. This was a mistake. By the time we reached the Wingfield at about 11.40am a third of the restaurant was already full. Seating was allocated on a non-bookable basis, working back from the open veranda in the front, into the bowels of what looked like a smarter school refectory. We were fortunate enough to be in the last row before we became part of the refectory and could still enjoy natural light. If it had been cold and wet we’d have been more grateful for our position.
All staff were courteous and helpful and the lunch (from a selection of three dishes for each course) was faultless. Wine was provided within the ‘package price’ and not necessarily offered in a timely manner but never refused on request. We shared a bottle over a lunch that was diminished only by the feeling that, quite understandably, we were part of a mass catering exercise. Whilst the brief seemed to be ‘feed as many as possible as quickly as possible,’ our waitress has to be congratulated on having the ability to delay our courses for sufficient time to allow each one to digest slightly before the next arrived.
We finished lunch with sufficient time to make our way to Court Number One in order to watch some thoroughly entertaining doubles semi-finals and a girls singles semi, which although under the shadow of the ladies final on Centre Court nevertheless kept us highly entertained for the afternoon. After a final visit to the Long Bar, as we had done on Day One – this time with a short queue – we closed our time for this year at the Championships.
Lessons learned? As a general principle for the future, we think we made the right choice with catering for the days we attended. Lightest, most portable for the first day that had the most variety of tennis and entertainment available; more formal dining on the last Saturday, where tennis is at a premium and there’s more time to sit and savour lunch. We made these decisions based on predictions of the weather – often harder than predicting the winner of the championships! Without its compliance our choices could have been disastrous.
Whilst there’s always a leaning towards luxury, we feel on balance that our alfresco picnic on Henman Hill imparted the best atmosphere, camaraderie and generic ‘spirit’ of any of the ways that we’ve enjoyed Wimbledon. True, we had access to the Show Courts as well but in terms of ‘being at Wimbledon’ you have to include it in your catering itinerary.
So, in short; ‘pork pie and pop on top at Wimbledon’, for us.