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‘The last time I went to the races it was the Cheltenham Festival… and we all know how that went.’ So mused a fellow Royal Ascot-goer en route to the quintessentially British day out yesterday. Happily, much has changed in the 15 months since the coronavirus pandemic first took hold globally last March (and the finger was pointed at Cheltenham as a super-spreading event), and now, finally, there is light at the end of the tunnel – in the form of testing, vaccines and pilot events like this one, which will see 12,000 revellers at Royal Ascot every day this week.

This year’s Ascot is one for the history books, like a handful of other meetings have been. The first since the pandemic began, last year’s was of course held behind closed doors. Indeed, in its 300-year-history, Ascot has only been cancelled on a few occasions, notably during the two World Wars, while in 1975 there was no television coverage due to picketing stable boys, and in 2005 it was briefly moved to York Racecourse. Then there were the so called ‘Black Ascots’, first in 1901 following the national mourning for Queen Victoria, then again in 1910 after King Edward VII, a great patron of the sport, died.

Of course, there are hurdles to jump, if you’ll excuse the pun, in order to get to the race course. As well as sourcing a fabulous dress, shoes, bag and of course hat, which all tick the Royal Enclosure’s dress code boxes, this year there was the added necessity of testing. We were sent a day-by-day guide to what needed to be done and when. First things first, order your free lateral flow tests. While you wait for them to arrive, download your digital tickets (far more Covid-secure than paper). 36 hours before departing for Ascot, take your lateral flow test and pray for a negative result, which you have to show for entry. Next, send off a PCR test via a priority postbox – on the day before Ascot and five days after, too. Suffice to say, my throat and nose have taken a real prodding this week.

It felt like Christmas morning on Wednesday, knowing that I was returning briefly – via time travel almost – to ‘normal’ life. A parallel universe where there was to be no mask-wearing, no rule of six and no social distancing. Cash was in, again. No QR codes, must-download apps or circle stickers to stand on. There was even to be a buffet – something last seen circa March 2020.

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Rather confusingly, mask-wearing was encouraged until the very moment of entry, when your Covid test status was checked, your ticket scanned and your bag searched. Then, at last, the masks were flung off – a William Wallace cry of ‘Freedom!’ would not have been amiss.

After soaking up the ample photo opportunities (an Instagram-friendly flower wall had been installed, as well as a picture frame backdrop with Royal Ascot emblazoned above it) we set out to find our box in the Royal Enclosure. No longer used to being in such a large venue, or having to read maps, we obviously immediately went in the wrong direction, but happily spotted Rick Stein’s gorgeous new restaurant, a new addition for 2021. Needless to say, our steps for the day would certainly have topped 10,000.

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Hosts found, we settled in to life in Box 657: champagne was flowing, canapés circulated (the smoked salmon, ginger and crayfish was a particular hit) and hats admired. A Rapunzel-haired Hum Fleming arrived with equally glamorous Petrina Hesketh, Sienna Miller’s elder sister, the fashion designer Savannah, was there with friends (wearing society favourite The Vampire’s Wife, of course), and a dapper group of editors surrounded Favourbrook’s Oliver Spencer. Lunch was served but left untouched for over an hour – there was simply too much excitement and catching up to get on with first. It had barely been finished before afternoon tea arrived.

With just a fifth of the usual 600,000 revellers in attendance, it did feel quieter and calmer than in previous years. Looking down from the balconies onto the grass below, there was none of the usual jostling from merry gamblers – no need for the scramble to see over each other’s shoulders at the fence as the horses galloped past. Not to say that there was not a buzz: the collective excitement of our small number more than made up for the lack of bodies on the ground. There was also the added bonus of a distinct lack of queuing, that most British of pastimes, but one that was not missed (our other national obsession, the weather, also held up, with glorious sunshine all day).

We placed bets on the Queen’s horse, the Pied Piper, for patriotic reasons – sadly, it wasn’t Her Majesty’s day (Tatler‘s Entertainment Editor Danielle Lawler faired better, doubling her winnings). The monarch seems unlikely to attend this year, though her family, including the Prince of Wales, Duchess of Cornwall, Earl and Countess of Wessex and Princess Anne, were all in the royal box when we visited. We went down to the paddock to watch Prince Charles bestow the trophy in his name to the winning rider, his fumbling with face masks and um-ing and ah-ing over whether or not he was allowed to touch the gong being the only reminders we are still in a pandemic world.

After the final race it was time to leave for the ‘real’ world again, begrudgingly retrieving our masks for the journey home. No richer in wealth, following some lacklustre bets, but definitely richer in spirit thanks to a return to reality. Roll on 19 July.

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