Over the Christmas break I took my ten old niece on her first ever trip to London. As a princess obsessive, when I suggested a visit to Kensington Palace, London home of Will and Kate, she jumped at the chance.
Kensington Palace is located in Kensington Gardens, one of London’s large public parks. It’s about ten minutes walk from Queensway or High Street Kensington tube stations and is on plenty of bus routes.
We wandered through the park as the sun was burning the last of the morning mist off and sat by the lake for an early lunch before heading inside the palace.
I’d booked tickets online which saved me a couple of pounds and also meant we could go straight in. I’d only needed to pay for myself as children get free entry!
After depositing our backpacks in the cloakroom we went to the toilets. Well, how could we not when the toilet signs look like this …
We were able to walk round the palace at our own pace and take as many photos as we wanted, albeit without flash which made some of them a bit too dark.
The part of the palace open to the public is divided into four sections, each of which covers a century of history and has a colour coded route to follow.
The routes can be followed in any order. We started with the Queen’s State Apartments because there was a live music performance just about to start in the Queen’s Gallery.
The music was seasonal and between each piece the musicians explained how many of our Christmas traditions were brought from Germany by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband. Christmas cards and Christmas trees are just two examples.
In this gallery Queen Mary would sit embroidering, reading, chatting with other ladies of the court and playing with her pet dogs and birds. Today the room has scattered cushions with people lounging on them chatting and listening to the music in an updated, and undoubtedly much less formal, interpretation of how the room was originally used.
Whilst following the Queen’s State Apartments route we got to have a peek at a royal bedroom.
It was in the room next to this that Queen Mary died from smallpox on the 28th December, 1694. It struck me that we were there on her anniversary; she’d died 322 years ago to the day.
It was in this bed that James Edward Stuart, son of James II is thought to have been born, though the bed was in St James’s Palace at the time. His birth in 1688 was seen as a threat to the Protestant establishment and rumours were spread that the baby was an imposter smuggled into the bed in a warming pan after the real heir had been stillborn. The baby grew up and ending up living out his life in exile in France and Italy. He always claimed the throne to be his and thus was known as ‘The Great Pretender’.
From the Queen’s State Apartments we jumped a few centuries and went to explore the route of the Modern Royals.
This section was all about the fashion.
This dress at the front of the display is the one the current Queen wore for her official Silver Jubilee portrait photograph way back in 1977.
The dress to the right of it was worn by Princess Diana when she visited Brazil shortly after they’d lost the World Cup to Argentina. The dress was commissioned from designer Catherine Walker who was instructed not to design anything in yellow and green or blue and white which are the colours of the two football teams.
This attention to detail was elaborated on throughout the displays. Designing a wardrobe for a Royal trip abroad doesn’t just involve thinking about the climate and the events on the itinerary, but also national colours, styles and traditions (such as tartan in Scotland), national insignia and ideas of modesty.
Leaving this section we picked up the route for Victoria Revealed.
Victoria was only 18 when in 1937 she learned she had become Queen. We saw the room where she held her first Privy Council and also her desk and the red leather boxes that held her daily dispatches.
On the desk is a set of dominoes featuring images of her pets. And in another room is a large dolls’ house and a collection of dolls.
Each of the rooms in this section told a different part of Victoria’s life story, from her childhood to becoming Queen; from falling in love and marrying Prince Albert to the decades of mourning after his early death.
For the final part of our tour we followed the King’s State Apartments route. This route covers the Georgian period of the 1700s and is the most ornate.
Just look at this ceiling! This is the cupola decorated by William Kent. His work on the King’s State Apartments led to a successful career.
And what does the room look like underneath that ceiling? Well, it looks like this …
This room had an example of ladies’ fashion at the time.
How on earth did you get anything done wearing one of those? It’s lucky the doors and staircases in the palace are so wide or they’d never have fitted through them. As for going to the loo …? I found this interesting tidbit in the guide book:
“It’s easier than it looks, as you won’t be wearing knickers (not invented yet). You may squat over a chamberpot, or else you use a ‘bourdaloue’. This is a little jug like a gravy boat that you clench between your thighs. Privacy is not essential, and the French ambassador’s wife annoys everyone with the ‘frequency and quantity of her pissing which she does not fail to do at least ten times a day amongst a cloud of witnesses’.”
So now I know where the idea for the Shewee came from.
As we moved through the King’s State Apartments we came across a room with several traditional games set up, complete with old-fashioned coins to gamble with.
We sat and had a go of this one. Of course I lost.
The King’s Apartments were all extremely ornate, but as they were also quite dark it was difficult to get many good photos. The picture above shows the King’s staircase. Those people you can see leaning over the banister are actually painted on to the wall behind.
With our tour around the inside of the palace completed, there was just one thing left for us to do. To head back outside and find the golden gates.
I was living in London in 1997 when Princess Diana died. These gates were the focal point for a nation’s outpouring of grief. I came one evening after work in the week following her death to see it for myself. It was impossible to get near the gates because of the sea of flowers covering a vast area in front of them. People were standing numbed and staring, some quietly sobbing.
I’ve always been interested in the Royal Family because their lives are so different to ours (and I am an anthropologist after all), but I’ve never felt any particular affinity to them and have never really had a strong opinion either way as to whether we should have a Royal Family or not. But the grief that evening in that space was like an electric current passing through the air and it was impossible not to be affected by it. I’d never experienced anything like it before and I doubt I will again.
This time, however, there were no flowers, it was possible to walk right up to the gates, only a few people were around and there was definitely no Dementor like current of grief sucking the joy from our souls.
We explored a bit more of the park, took some more photos and carried on with our day.
Have you been to Kensington Palace? Would you like to? Share your thoughts in the comments below.