Wednesday 2 July 2014
Linda, back from the sunny south of France, and I, decided on a Royal Palace for today's visit: Kensington Palace to be precise.
In 1897, Queen Victoria agreed to open the place up to the public, provided the tax-payer maintained it and left some of it for Royal accommodation, so visiting is not a new tourist experience.
We began by visiting the loos. This sounds easy, but the signage is, to say the least, discreet, and the lights don't come on till you enter the space, so it was all a bit cryptic. And the signs, when you do spot them, are rather twee: ladies, gents, babies in need of changing and wheelchair users all have crowns on. Hmm.
We also found the palace rather difficult to navigate, even with the free map in hand. The reason is that you have to use different staircases to access different wings, and thus have to return to the ground floor in between. It gradually dawned on us that you could follow the coded lines on the walls, different colours and symbols for different areas. But actually, the easiest way is to ask the staff, who are numerous, and very friendly and nice. We had thought we would do things chronologically, and start with the Queen's State Rooms which are the William and Mary bit. But in the event we came to the King's Rooms first, which is George II.
You approach via a splendid staircase, with a painting of courtiers leaning over to watch you. They include the 'wild boy' of Hanover, who was brought over as a kind of mascot for the royal household. Then a series of fine square rooms awaits you: not much furniture, but plenty of information and the aforementioned helpful staff if you want to know more.
The rooms are embellished with models dressed in paper clothes, which seems an efficient and not-too-risky way of creating a mood. We also got snatches of Handel (who was of course George II's pet composer) from time to time.
The cupola room was where dances and parties were held, and there was a gallery for displaying pictures. You would not visit the Palace for the pictures, however, as the treasures of the Royal Collection are clearly elsewhere.
Next we moved back downstairs and, having finally understood the signage, made our way along a corridor to access the Queen's State Rooms. This has a royal time line, or at least a list of monarchs with their dates along the wall, illustrated by cushions with portraits on the bench below. Then it was up another flight of stairs to reach the Queen's Long Gallery. This is the area built for Mary II and her husband William III, and Linda had to put up with a bit of a lecture about James II, the Warming Pan Baby and, as 1066 and all That puts it, 'England ruled by an Orange.' By the way, although you can read the text of that great work of history at the website I have linked to, a bound copy would be better, because of the illustrations.
The Gallery looks out over what appears to be a very overgrown area of beech, so we were puzzled by references to the Queen's lovely garden in the Dutch style but, as we were to discover later, that is beyond the bit you can see from the windows.
The firebacks were decorated with tulips, and there was a lot of attractive blue and white china, which did indeed give it all a Dutch feel. Mary died at the age of 32, a reminder of how deadly small pox was, and her husband then ruled for several more years, on the constitutional pretext that he had insisted on being joint monarch rather than Consort when he first landed with his army. The suite of rooms also included a domestic sized private dining room and the Queen's bedroom. There was some furniture here, though on the whole the rooms are rather bare.
We had noticed that the ceilings had suddenly become plain and dull, so were interested to learn that this was the part of the Palace that was bombed during the Second World War. No wonder the oak paneling looked so pristine!
After you have retraced your steps, you can visit an area about the more recent monarchy, or at least the dresses of the female members, called 'Fashion Rules' and sponsored by Estee Lauder. This was a collection of clothes belonging to the current Queen and her sister from the 1950s on, and then some clothing worn by Diana, Princess of Wales. They were mostly evening outfits.
We decided against visiting the fourth area, which is about Queen Victoria as we had, in fact nipped in to that area on our way back from the Albert Memorial a few weeks ago. Rather we headed out to find the garden, which is rather fine, and includes that tall verbena which some of us find rather difficult to grow.
All in all, a very enjoyable couple of hours.
Now for a Scrooge-like financial tip: The Royal Palaces are not cheap, so if you were to commit yourself to visiting all 5 within a year (or within15 months for the price of 12 if you are prepared to set up a direct debit) then becoming a member is entirely worth while. Linda and I became joint members for only a bit more than it would cost us to visit the Tower of London alone. And of course, you don't queue, but merely wave your card. So expect us to visit Hampton Court, the Banqueting House and the Tower in the next few months.