Thursday, May 15, 2008

Queen For the Day: Hanging Out at Buckingham Palace

For most of us grovelling commoners, the closest we get to a taste of royalty is buying a good scandal story in The Sun, or hanging outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. However, fate has smiled on the little people. Thanks to a ravaging fire at Windsor Castle in 1993, and the fervour with which the British public raged at being expected to foot the restoration bill, the doors of Buckingham Palace have been thrown open for two months of the year, allowing the public a peek into British royal living.

Buckingham Palace, for those of you who live with their heads in the sand, is Queen Elizabeth II's official London office and home. Set smack in the west heart of London, Buckingham Palace has become a popular tourist destination and symbol of the British royal family worldwide.

The palace's beginnings can be traced back to 1702, a building was built on the sight of an infamous brothel (you won't see that little titbit in the official guide book!) by the Duke of Buckingham to be his city residence. The Duke's son sold the house to George III in 1762, who began the process of enlarging the house.

George IV hired John Nash to remodel and enlarge the house further, with the intention of moving the monarchy's administrative and ceremonial functions from St. James's Palace for the first time. Buckingham Palace was not occupied, however, until 1827, when Queen Victoria moved in.

Things haven't changed much since 1913 to the look of the palace, but it is owing to that fateful fire, that tourists can nose through the inside of Palace today. Although the tour is unguided, only about 18 of the 660 rooms are open to the public, and these rooms aren't going to give you a great idea of how the royals live on a daily basis.

Try not to be disappointed when you fail to see knickers on the floor, or dentures soaking by the sink. Although the tour information states that "rooms are kept as close to their normal appearance as possible," the rooms are most official rooms, and have a very cold, unlived-in look. You aren't going to catch a glimpse of The Queen in a tatty bathrobe and bunny slippers either, as she spends a good portion of the Summer up at Balmoral Castle, in Scotland.

Loitering Outside the Palace

Buckingham Palace has been open since 1993 to the public during the months of August and September. If you want to have a look inside, your first task is acquiring a ticket. There are two ways to go about may call and book a ticket in advance (ticket office: 44 (0)207 321 2233), or you can show up and buy one at the ticket office.

Now, the big question that seems to be on everyone's mind is this: where the *&%! is the ticket office?! It is easy to overlook, and is easily blocked from view thanks to the gigantic monument in front of the place in the middle of the roundabout. As you approach the palace from The Mall, which means that you are facing the front of the palace, the ticket office is on the right side of the roundabout, on the edge of Green Park. Once you walk in that general direction, you can't miss the large, tent-like structure.

When you purchase your ticket (see bottom of article for prices and additional information), you will be assigned a time at which you may take your tour. If you have a little time to kill, worry not, as Buckingham Palace is surrounded by two lovely parks in which to whittle away some free time.

Green Park and St. James's Park are both well worth a visit in their own right. St. James's Park, which you'll find on the southern side of The Mall, is the oldest of all the royal parks. It was originally enclosed and set aside for hunting by Henry VIII. These days, hunting in St. James's is a fast ticket to one of the Queen's other residential areas (a jail, that is!).

St. James's Park is one of my favourite parks in London. Landscaped by Nash in the 1820's, it holds a picturesque lake, plenty of grassy areas (where you can rent a deckchair for a £1 for 4 hours and be a lazy sunworshipper), lovely sculptured gardens, and a seemingly never-ending parade of pelicans, ducks, geese, swans, birds and squirrels. There are plenty of places to enjoy a picnic while admiring the views of Westminster, Whitehall and the London Eye, in one direction, and of course, Buckingham Palace in the other direction. Don't worry if you didn't bring a picnic with you, as it seems on every corner there is a hotdog vendor, ice cream vendor and others waiting to help you out.

Green Park, on the northern side of The Mall, is a more "natural" park. You'll find it full of tall shady trees and benches, and long stretches of grass. There's a fun statue fountain-type thingie near the Mall end that kids love to play in. Because of the lack of sculpted gardens and the wildlife that is kept at St. James's Park, Green Park is much quieter, and many people prefer its restful quality for an afternoon siesta in the sun, or a chat in the shade.

When your assigned time comes for touring Her Majesty's Home, you report to the south east corner of Buckingham Palace (left side of the front facade). From here, guides will place you in the appropriate queue for entering the palace.

A Peek Into Royal Life

The tour through the rooms open to the public is self-guided, and most people spend about an hour making their way through the rooms. Let me warn you in advance that the crowds do make it a bit difficult to do at your own pace. Additionally, this tour is very unlikely to interest children in the slightest. On the day I went, I met up with three unhappy toddlers, and many whining under 8s.

You make your way into Buckingham Palace via the Ambassadors' Entrance, the entrance that is used on official occasions by diplomats and others who have been invited around to watch EastEnders. You'll soon get a view of the Quadrangle, which allows you to easily compare Nash's less than exciting later additions with the older parts of the palace.

The Grand Hall is the first room of interest, and while it is easy to appreciate the works of art and fine furniture that are in these rooms, you can't help but start to think things like, "Eh, I've seen better," "Dang, the Queen is loaded!," "Who the heck are all those people in these paintings," and "I think I'll stick with my Ikea."

The Grand Staircase is magnificent, however, and starts to give glimpses of greatness. Indeed, you can almost picture grand ladies and their escorts posing as they float up and down the stairs in the 1800s.

The highlights of the tour, however, start with the Throne Room, which was used by Queen Victoria earlier in her reign as a ballroom. Royal wedding photographs are usually taken in this room (including the Queen's own wedding in 1947). But no one is going to let you sit in the chairs that are embroidered ER (the Queen's chair) and P (for Philip). Much more interesting and fancier is Queen Victoria's throne chair, which is tucked into a corner - don't miss it.

For some, the best room of the tour is the Picture Gallery, which displays some pretty impressive works of art (by now you are thinking, "Dang! The Queen is REALLY loaded!"). Here you'll find samples of work by Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Vermeer...only a small selection of the most extensive private collection in the world.

As these great works of art were obviously not purchased by the Queen, but inherited, I was tempted to ask the room guide whether the Queen has been adding to the collection by purchasing Mapplethorpe or pictures of clowns crying and dogs playing poker. I kept quiet, though, feeling that somehow this wit would not be appreciated. This year, you'll find a special treat awaiting visitors in this area...a photo collection of family pictures has been put together to celebrate the Queen Mum's 100th birthday. It really is an interesting collection, so be sure not to skip this.

Other highlights of the tour include the Grand Ballroom (a new feature this year), where Investitures are held (i.e., giving people awards and titles). I also thoroughly enjoyed the Don Quixote tapestries in the West Galleries, and the Blue and White Drawing Rooms. In the latter, be certain to admire the Victorian gilted and painted grand piano, which was bought by Queen Victoria.

As you leave Buckingham Palace, turn around and admire the older "back" facade, which, in my opinion, is much nicer looking than the imposing and cold facade which is known to the public. Admire the Queen's back yard, and then you are welcome to purchase video and other memorabilia in the gift shop. It's worth noting that you have a bit of a hike ahead of you as you wind your way out from the end of the tour.

Overall, an hour or two spent at Buckingham Palace is worth the time and money. My guess is that after all the Windsor Castle and Queen's Gallery (closed and being redone for 2002, the Queen's Golden Jubilee) renovations are finished, the palace doors will be shut to the public once it's a case of "catch it while you can." For us adult riff-raff, it's an interesting look into the strange and remote world of how the other half lives and works.

Ticket and Other Important Information

For information about touring Buckingham Palace, you may call the 24 hour hotline for recorded information at 44 (0)207 799 2331, or for general enquiries ring 44 (0)207 839 1377. Tickets may be reserved with a credit card on 44 (0)207 321 2233, or by visiting the web site For Internet information, visit, or email

Tickets to tour Buckingham Palace cost £10.50 for adults, £5.00 for children under 17, £8.00 for seniors, £25.50 for families (2 adults, 2 children), and all under 5s go free.

Marks out of 10 for Buckingham Palace: 6.5

Top Tips!

Usually I skip buying guides to attractions, but felt the full colour, nicely printed official guide book was a bargain at £4.00. It will likely enhance your tour experience, as there's a wealth of information on each room and the furniture and art therein. One of the best times to enjoy Green Park and St. James's Park is probably on Sunday, when The Mall is closed to the insane amount of traffic that nips through this area.

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