As the Platinum Jubilee weekend approaches, thoughts are turning once more towards throwing garden parties – a pastime at which we have become remarkably more adept over the past couple of years. Retailers such as John Lewis have seen spikes over recent months in sales of dining tables, table runners and wine glasses (up 50 per cent, 46 per cent and 19 per cent respectively), suggesting that entertaining is very much on the agenda. And when it comes to styling a table for an outdoor event, there’s no reason why a lavishly decorated setting can’t work just as well in the garden as it does indoors – with a few practicalities taken into account.
Sisters Alice and Jemima Herbert, who started up their table-styling and tableware-rental business Lay London just before the pandemic hit, are very accustomed to decorating tables for outdoor events – for the Jubilee celebrations, they are currently working on a 200ft street party in North Audley Street, Mayfair.
“We did so much outside setting-up in our first year especially; we love it,” says Jemima. “The more elaborate the dining table when it’s outside, the better. It’s a wonderful surprise for your guests when you really make an effort outside.”
Their approach, as seen here at a table set up for a party in Jemima’s garden, is to decorate an outdoor table in much the same way as they would an indoor one, with proper table linens, crockery and glassware. “Using fabrics to create that indoor-outdoor feel can transform a garden dining area,” says Jemima. “A tablecloth is always the best place to start, and use proper linen napkins if you can: it helps to give that signal that you’re not having a picnic, you are dining al fresco.”
Here, they have gone for a Jubilee-appropriate theme of red, white and blue, but with not a string of Union Jack bunting nor a commemorative teacup in sight. Instead, they chose a blue block-printed tablecloth from their online shop, teamed with red and white plates, rattan place mats from Anthropologie, bamboo-handled cutlery, and customised napkins with corgi and beefeater motifs from Initially London, as “a nod to the Queen”. Cabbage-leaf bowls by Bordallo Pinheiro filled with strawberries are an easy (and edible) extra table decoration, and red and white dinner candles add height at the centre of the table.
The floral display is a blend of electric-blue delphiniums and white campanulas in tall vases, mixed with bud vases filled with white and red peonies, deep red carnations and blush-pink roses. “We wanted to do red, white and blue to keep it quintessentially British,” notes Jemima, “but it’s quite a strong palette, so we also added in the softer peachy roses to just slightly take the edge off and add a bit more of a vintage feel.” Blush-pink ribbon, to match the roses, makes for simple but pretty napkin ties.
“We always say that you don’t need to go shopping to make a beautiful table setting,” says Alice. “You don’t have to have an amazing florist to do the flowers, you can get them from a local shop and arrange them yourself in a mix of different vases. A couple of tall vases add that banquet feel and a sense of occasion – you can move them off the table and put them inside when you sit down to eat, but if they’re on the table when your guests arrive, that wow factor hits them straight away.”
Creating an impressive set-up is one thing, but making it comfortable is another. Alice and Jemima used gingham seat pads from John Lewis that tie in with their colour scheme to make hard garden chairs more inviting (H&M Home also sells inexpensive seat pads, as well as long tasselled bench cushions that make a garden bench a far more appealing proposition). If you’re entertaining children as well as adults, Jemima suggests setting up a separate, less formal children’s area on the ground, with a large picnic blanket and cushions, so that they have space to play. “It doesn’t have to look like a crashmat, it can still look pretty and fun,” she says.
The finishing touches that make all the difference when it comes to creating atmosphere are lighting and music. Dinner candles can be used outside as long as it isn’t too windy, and as long as the candles are fitted securely into holders so that they don’t wobble (Jemima advises wedging a small piece of card between the candle and holder if the candle isn’t entirely stable). Otherwise stick to hurricane lanterns, and dot candles at lower levels around the garden to illuminate plants and trees, or hang tea-light holders from branches.
“Bring your music outside too,” advises Alice. “Classical music is nice for a lunch party, and we have been known to play crickets sound effects when we’ve done a Mediterranean-themed dinner – it’s amazing how that sound makes you feel as if you’re somewhere far more exotic than your garden.” The idea is to create a sensory experience that will elevate a simple garden lunch into something more celebratory.
As Jemima says, “There are only so many months in the year that you can entertain outside in England, so from now on really, you’ve got these extra hours in the evening to bring people together outside. You don’t have to go to town with it: just throw a cloth over a table and add a few candles and sharing platters, and you can sit and chat for hours.”
The best al fresco dining essentials
Bunting, £26.95, Nessa Foye Designs; Platinum Jubilee napkins, £60 for set of six, Initially London; Jubilee tea towels, £19.50 for two, Sophie Allport; Rectangular tasselled cushion, £29.99, ; Strawberry jug, £86, Petra Palumbo; Nala place mats, £24 for four, La Redoute; Fringed gazebo, £345, ;; Stainless-steel champagne bucket, £45, John Lewis
Simple ways to host a successful outdoor celebration
- Opt for proper linens, plates and glasses – not only will they look better and give your party a more luxurious edge, they are also less likely to topple over or blow away than plastic or disposable paper ones (as well as being a more sustainable choice). Add tablecloth clips or pebbles on the corners of the table to help keep everything in place if it’s windy
- Find ornaments around the house that you can use as table decorations for extra character: the frog candle holders used here, for example, are from Alice’s home
- For a finishing touch to place settings, tie napkins with ribbons that match the colours of your table, as done here, or tie them simply with string and tuck a sprig of greenery or a small flower into each one
- If there’s space, set up a separate drinks table – a folding table covered with a cloth will give you somewhere to chop lemons and limes and keep an ice bucket and glasses, which will help to keep the dining table clearer (and will also provide another opportunity for decoration)
- If there’s a chance of rain, you’ll need some coverage, but a white plastic gazebo can kill the vibe. Alice and Jemima suggest hiring parasols or pergolas from a company such as Raj Tent Club.
- If your outdoor dining furniture isn’t up to scratch (and rain isn’t forecast), consider bringing your indoor table and chairs outside for the day
- Keep a basket of blankets and scarves near the table, so that guests can wrap up if the weather turns cooler in the evening
- Serve sharing food that can be brought out in bowls and on platters, rather than plating up each dish inside
Top tea party treats
The Jubilee Tea Party hamper, £150
This hamper is ideal for those wanting an indulgent tea party. Biscuits, preserves and special teas are included.
Chelsea hamper, £100
A perfect party all-rounder, comprising two brilliant wines, snacks including olives and fancy crisps and options for the sweet of tooth such as malted fudge and millionaire’s shortbread.
The Platinum Jubilee cheese cake, £60
Cheesemonger by royal appointment since 1850, it’s no surprise that Paxton & Whitfield has released this stellar cake with British artisan cheeses such as stilton, cheddar and tor.
Wensleydale Creamery platinum Jubilee box, £45
This collectors’ tin comes with two Wensleydale cheeses, chutney, oatcakes and fruitcake for the ideal royal afternoon tea.
Bradfords chocolate fudge jubilee cake, £18.50
Add some celebratory cheer to your celebrations with this gloriously indulgent chocolate fudge cake, complete with Union Jack banner.
M&S all butter shortbread with strawberries and clotted cream tin, £10
This is worth it for the cute tin alone, but the shortbread, strawberries and cream within make it a real winner.
Strawberry gin liqueur with vanilla and black pepper, £20
A summery tipple with a twist, this gin liqueur boasts a fine blend of sweet strawberry with foraged wild botanicals and a delicate peppery hit.
Nyetimber Queen’s Jubilee classic cuvée, £37.50
Nyetimber has emerged as a consistently impressive British sparkling winemaker, and it’s celebrating in style with this beautiful limited-edition Jubilee-themed bottle.
This article is kept updated with the latest advice.