Some time around mid to late July every year, a very odd thing would happen in 19th century London: anyone who was anyone (if you know what I mean) vanished. The members of the Ton disappeared from Hyde Park, from the shops in Bond Street, and from the clubs in St. James. With the conclusion of the annual horse races at Goodwood, the Season was over…and one did not want to be seen in London once the Season was done if one wished to be thought in the least fashionable.
So where did everyone go?
In the middle and later parts of the century, the place to see and be seen in late July and the first days of August was Cowes, the main town on the Isle of Wight, a small island off the southern coast on England. The island had become fashionable after Queen Victoria bought Osborne House for a family getaway there in the 1840s, and became even more fashionable when Victoria’s son, Bertie the Prince of Wales, took up yacht racing in the 1860s. Suddenly everyone became sailing-mad…or if they weren’t, they pretended to be and rented a house on the island so as not to miss all the good parties.
Sailing at Cowes came to an end around now, because on August 12—the “glorious Twelfth”—the grouse-shooting season officially opened in Scotland. Fashionable ladies packed away their amusingly nautically-themed dresses in favor of tweeds and stout boots and headed north to join in the astonishing (and to modern sensibilities, appalling) annual slaughter of thousands of these large upland game birds. Not that many ladies participated in the actual shooting—grouse hunting was definitely a male activity. But if one wanted to avoid being stuck indoors all day with the other ladies gossiping or writing subtly gloating letters to those of your friends who hadn’t managed to wangle an invitation to a shooting party, then one dressed in “rugged” clothing and went to join the hunters at a picnic lunch at mid-day. I am, of course, using the term “picnic” a little loosely here…generally lunch was served at trestle tables nicely set with linens and silver, with the butler and footmen on hand to pass out the game pies, hams, and hearty stews followed by apple dumplings and plum puddings washed down with beer, wine, cider, sloe gin and cherry brandy. Not summertime fare as we know it!