How to entertain in style this summer with tips from Sophie Lillingston, the founder of Lillingston
‘Oh, to be in England now that Summer is here……’ There is no greater feeling than entertaining in the great British outdoors. All your senses are awakened to the smell of freshly cut lawns, the sight of gardens in full bloom and butterflies dancing among the flowers. There’s the warmth of the sun, freshly picked fruit that tastes all the better for being in season.
The English are known both for their passion for gardens and their natural love for entertaining at home.
Before you start, it is essential to have a vision in your mind, be it a ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ dinner in a formal herbaceous bordered garden, a surprise lunch in the middle of a blue bell wood, or a party in a walled garden where everything is served out of flower pots. If the setting is spectacular you are already half way to creating magic, and you can draw inspiration from your surroundings for all the elements of your shindig.
It is always important, both for you and your guests, that you as the host are relaxed – so make the party as simple or as complex as you can cater for. Even if you are just having a relaxed affair, guests will appreciate a simple crisp linen table cloth, or a bunch of flowers in a tea pot. Both are easily achieved.
Invitations set the tone of a party, whether you use an arty e-vite, a card with hand drawn calligraphy, or something created especially for the event. At Lillingston, we relish creating really special invitations, and these have included ones sent on fruit trees in wooden crates; seed packs with personal instructions on the back linked with the party; engraved wood invitations for a surprise party in a forest; turf in boxes with the invitation embedded into it; and many more.
When planning the flow of the evening, don’t always go for the most obvious spot. Guests love to do something different, and it is memorable to explore a garden through the course of a night. Imagine starting the evening with drinks in a garden and not being able to see any tables or any obvious marquee in sight. It makes you curious as to what is in store for the party ahead. Then, as it gets darker, you are led down a candle lit path to a different part of the garden, or to a clearing beside a lake, for dinner. Maybe there will be a bar with chill out furniture on an island, or a night club in the woods or in a folly. All these fun ideas have to be backed up with practical things like cover, power, warmth, the logistics of getting all the suppliers there, and a well thought out plan for whisking guests back to their accommodation or transport home at the end of the party. If possible, hand all that to a professional so that you are relaxed and actually get to enjoy the party.
Fair weather hosts who worry about our all too frequently wet summers should be rest assured that there is are plenty of options for shelter. If you want to have an open-sided, floating structure in the garden then a stretch tent is superb. They make you feel as if you’re part of the flowerbeds. By contrast, tipis provide a more chilled, rustic look and have the practical advantage of being able to have a fire inside. Or if you want a romantic pretty white tent, you can create a more intimate evening. The options are endless – you can even rent a mobile glass conservatory, or a ‘Boho’ Mongolian yurt.
We are spoilt for choice when it comes to food – catering companies are abundant. However, the summer months are best time of year to embrace what is growing in the garden. Take advantage of what is in season and use decorative English garden ingredients like asparagus, rhubarb, gooseberry, redcurrents, and berries.
Pimm’s is the quintessentially English summer drink. It will never go out of fashion, but don’t let it constrain you. Cocktails and champagne are always welcome. And on a hot day, many guests will want to opt for a soft drink, so make them tempting. You can do a lot with ice cubes to make effective touches – try freezing petals, herbs and berries inside them.
If the garden itself is stunning, then often the table needs no more than handpicked flowers mixed with lots of herbs and candles, but never be afraid to bring the garden to the table! Why not have trees running down the table, which can provide a full on garden effect if it is not naturally there? A nice touch is to have small bunches of herbs or handpicked flowers on the napkins.
Feast your soul and your senses. I am a great believer when planning a party in breaking it up into stages. For example, smell is very powerful. When you do something like scattering lavender in an old barn the whole building is transformed by its strong aroma. The sound of a vintage gramophone playing jazz in the corner of a garden transports people back in time. You might want to allow guests to pick their own tomatoes from the vines decorating the tables. The simple act of sharing food makes people feel relaxed and at home.
If you are planning on having lots of children to your party, I highly recommend having children’s entertainers, or at least hiring a student you know who has a knack with kids. Some of our happiest events have loads of children, but they are all having so much fun that the parents are totally at ease. Traditional games always go down a treat, and if you want your guests to stay longer and not rush home for children’s bedtimes, or worrying about baby sitters, then putting on a classic film on a big screen inside a tent where the children can all snuggle up in sleeping bags with hot chocolate always works. The parents then scoop up their happy darlings on the way home, or sometimes even the next day!
For me, although I adore a fabulous all night bash and am a great believer in celebrating love and life, I have grown to appreciate and treasure the simple and often under-estimated pleasure of a long, rolling summer lunch in the garden where your guests have all the time in the world to talk, laugh, and revel in the joys of the all too short English summer.