I first realise that I’ve done the Wimbledon queue all wrong the moment that the couple next to me unfurl a purple picnic blanket, then unwrap egg mayonnaise sandwiches and a packet of rich tea biscuits from a wicker picnic basket they’ve brought. A steward walks by and tells them, “excellent picnicking, sir and madam”, then glances at me and just nods politely. I’ve brought nothing to sit on, and the grass is too wet with dew to risk my trousers on, so I’m standing up, clutching the emergency banana I’ve found in the bottom of my bag.
As a Wimbledon queue rookie, I hadn’t fully appreciated that the queue isn’t simply a way to get tennis tickets, but is part of the Wimbledon experience in and of itself. It’s 5am on an early July morning when I arrive and I am already 1,847th in line. Although the sun has only just risen, the queuing is already well underway – and it’s a vision of peak Britishness.
The grass of Wimbledon park is filled with lines of people perched on blankets and in deckchairs reading books, chatting in groups, and having naps, with big Waitrose, M&S and Tesco cooler bags beside them. Two men beside me are playing frisbee, waiting for the coffee van to open in half an hour. A woman lies under a duvet with an eye mask on, while her friends discuss whether she’ll want an Americano or a latte.
Laura, 67, from Deal, wraps herself in a Wimbledon-branded towel and gets out a deck of cards to play with her adult son and his girlfriend. “I like how orderly it is here,” she says to me. “We just need the sun to break through now. I can feel that it’s coming! It’s so nice in this queue because we’re all kindred spirits through our love of tennis.”
A little further up the queue, people are beginning to emerge from pop-up tents they’ve camped in overnight. A man in flip flops, white shorts and a white shirt carries a khaki washbag and his toothbrush to the portaloo to freshen up. Hayden, a 50-year-old software engineer from Farnborough, got here with his tent at 10.30pm on Wednesday evening. He’s sitting in a camping chair, reading. “This is my 14th time camping,” he says, “but compared to other campers here, I’m an amateur. I like tennis but I also do the camping for the social aspect – it’s one of the friendliest atmospheres ever. I’m not a camper in general, just for Wimbledon.”
Everyone in the queue has a card with their position in the line printed on it, so they can leave and walk around for up to half an hour. The idea is that you can fairly reclaim your place and nobody will think you’re pushing in front of them. Not that anyone here would possibly think that, because everyone is so well-behaved.
A small boy in a colourful jumper and navy Wimbledon-logo hat skips along, holding a bacon roll. The most scandalous, ASBO-worthy behaviour of the morning comes from a 30-something man who is gently urged by a steward to “quieten down a little” when he laughs very loudly for several minutes at a joke his brother tells him. He apologises and he and the steward share a low-decibel joke. The closest thing to a grumpy exchange I have is with 67-year-old Reg who tells me, when I ask if he’ll be enjoying strawberries and cream inside the grounds, that he will not. “No strawberries and cream for me, because I’d need to take out a mortgage to buy them. Prices are getting ridiculous.” He then adds, matter of factly, “This is the highlight of my summer, though. Isn’t it lovely?”
The queue seems to me a benign utopia, but it has been a contentious topic for Wimbledon goers earlier this week, with some fans complaining that heightened security measures – implemented in an attempt to prevent Just Stop Oil protestors, who did manage to break onto the court on Wednesday and interrupt play – had been badly communicated and were causing huge delays. Some who queued for hours didn’t manage to see any tennis and were left disappointed that their time and efforts had been wasted.
Alain Schutz-Sengel, a 58-year-old primary school teacher from Cologne, Germany, queued on Monday for eight hours and “saw no tennis”, so he has come back today to try again. “It was because of security,” he says, “ it was a long time to wait and not see anything at all. It wasn’t great.” Is he worried about missing out again today? “No, today I’m sure I’ll get in, things seem back to normal.”
He says that although he was disappointed on Monday, it’s hard to get truly riled up in the Wimbledon queue. “People are so relaxed, reading, playing games, drinking. In Germany, people would be drinking but it’d be out of stress.” Alain has befriended 61-year-old Londoner Jackie, who last queued for Wimbledon in 2016 and it was far easier to get in. “There are a lot more people this time. I showed up at 7am and I was 5,700th in the queue.”
We’ve got a long while to go – will I even get in? – and the sun has not presented itself yet, so I’m in need of a warming cup of tea and a sugar-filled waffle. To get this, I queue for an hour in another queue, and then queue in a mini-queue to collect the tea and snack that I have ordered and paid for. All the while aware that drinking this tea will mean I’ll later be in another sub-queue for the portaloo.
An American woman next to me in the queue after the queue after the queue tells me she’s come to London for a few days before heading to Ireland for a golfing trip. “Everyone’s very civilised here,” she says, “It would not be like this in America. This queue is the most British thing ever!” A man beside us nods. “We do queuing rather well here, it has to be said.”
At 9.30am, a steward tells my part of the queue that we’ll be moving along into the grounds quite soon, because the ticket offices open at 9.45. I’m told that I’m likely to be buying my ticket by 11am. Success! At the very front of the queue is John Waters, 48, who got here at 2pm on Wednesday afternoon with his brother to camp for Thursday’s (golden) Centre Court tickets to watch Andy Murray take on Stefanos Tsitsipas.
“The only way to be at the front and get the tickets you want is to get here at 2am or camp,” he says. “I’d rather camp, as it’s more fun, and we chat to other campers, and have a glass of wine or a beer.” In a world of online bookings, isn’t queuing a bit archaic? “It’s absurd in a way,” he says, “but it’s also the most democratic way to do it. I camp most years and it’s a waiting game – but a very fun, traditional one.”
A couple from Dover has just arrived to set up their tent not to see tennis today, but to buy tickets tomorrow. “We’ll be near the front of the queue tomorrow morning, and in the busy rush of life,” they say, “we like sitting in the field and slowing down. We’ve done this a few times before but had to check the tent was still working.”
My queue neighbours and I get to the ticket offices just after 11am, six hours after we started queuing. We are ushered along through the last part by stewards telling us, “well done!” and “nearly there”, and the queuers smile back. Later, when I’ve left the queue to go home, a man pushes past, presumably trying to get to work rather than having a leisurely day at the tennis. “F****g w****er,” mutters a man in tennis whites, rearranging his picnic basket. He must have won his tickets in the ballot, I decide, because he’s not got the spirit of a Wimbledon queuer.