Thursday, September 13, 2012

Palace Hopping

Kensington Palace: Queen Vic

I’ve been palace-hopping lately, and Britain is not a bad place to do that. A couple of palaces I visited were royal; the other was ducal, which is almost as good. Well, if you can’t be royal...

Kensington Palace is - now - in the centre of busy London, off the Kensington High Street and not far from the Royal Albert Hall. It is surrounded by ornate gateways, trimmed gardens (literally - a gardener was making sure the trees were an even cone-shape the day I was there), and a very big park with a duck-and-swan pond and bicycle paths. In front is a large white statue of Queen Victoria, who was born in the palace and lived there for some time.

Inside, however, is a series of rather tacky and badly curated displays. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy the room showing several of Lady Diana’s gowns, but the “Lady Di” wallpaper was a bit naff. She lived in KensingtonPalace too during one period of her short, sad life.

Gallery at Kensington Palace
In the wing devoted to the arrival in England of the Hanovers - George I and onwards - I thought we might get a nice sense of the state rooms. There was a long gallery set up well, including whispered conversations between men of state of the Georgian days which activated when you sat on the cushions of the window seats. The rooms devoted to Queen Victoria were also interesting: her first meeting with parliament at the age of seventeen, all those children, the happy days with Albert round the spinet, then the long years of mourning after his death (which produced quite a bit of sniping and some resentful comments from the citizens) - these were revealing. It’s just a pity that most of the displays were marred by bad modern mobiles and caricatures, or silly attempts at light and sound shows, or poor lighting, or objects placed inside boxes with peep holes, and so on...

Blenheim - a country pile.

At Blenheim Palace, the ducal seat of the Duke of Marlborough, we had no such shenanigans. Well, actually we did have a walk-through animated show about the building of Blenheim and the various Dukes, but it was quite well done and only one little bit, so I forgive them. Blenheim was built in the 18th century on land given by and with money given by Queen Anne to the first Duke - who was also given the dukedom by said Queen. It seems she was very grateful indeed to him for leading the troops to victory at the Battle of Blenheim, defeating an upstart Catholic French king. The friendship between Marlborough’s wife Sarah and Queen Anne is also said to have played a part...

Gardens at Blenheim - a small sample
The public rooms at Blenheim, particularly the lovely ornate dining room (red, of course) and the long library/gallery, which boasts its own pipe organ, are certainly impressive. On my visit there was also an exhibition about Winston Churchill, who was born at Blenheim - you can view the actual bed - when his mother (who was, interestingly, American) was caught short with labour pains during a visit. Winston’s father, Randolph Churchill, was a younger brother of the Duke, and so Winston and what we might call the subsequent Duke were cousins. It is said that he visited Blenheim often and enjoyed it there. This subsequent Duke, Winston’s cousin, also married an American - for her money, she was Consuelo Vanderbilt. They divorced after 11 years and Consuelo became a suffragette. You can take the girl out of America and all that...

The gardens, lake and park at Blenheim are all extensive and famous. The estate is situated just outside of Oxford, near a village named Woodstock. On the day of my visit it was raining rather heavily (the car got bogged in the car park) so my stroll in the grounds was brief. But I could see in the distance, on a grassy knoll covered with grazing sheep, the victory column of the first Duke, erected presumably to celebrate himself. The current Duke gave us a video welcome, and he seemed a nice man. He and his Duchess still live at Blenheim. It must cost an awful lot for upkeep, and I hope my twenty quid helped. It was a nice visit. They have a champagne bar out the back.

Buckingham Palace

For sheer luxury and sumptuousness Buckingham Palace, present London home of Queen Elizabeth II, can’t be beaten. For the past twenty years the Palace has been open to visitors in the summer months. You buy a timed entry ticket in advance, and then you are corralled with what seems like thousands of other hopefuls and sent off on a one-way tour through the State Rooms. It is a crowded, hot and sometimes annoying experience but still I highly recommend it. The wealth, treasures and  display are awe-inspiring. The red throne room, where the Royal Wedding photos are taken; John Nash’s lovely bowed music room looking over the enormous park out the back; Queen Victoria’s ballroom (another pipe organ - she brought this one up from Brighton Pavilion, a place she couldn’t stand)....and the picture gallery! Amongst some very large and triumphant Van Dyke portraits, they have a Vermeer. Amazing. French furniture, Sevres porcelain, beautiful upholstery...and this summer they also had an exhibition showing the Queen’s diamonds (Diamond Jubilee - geddit?) I have to tell you, those are SOME jewels. I had to go back and take a second look at the enormous pink, and the drop earrings, and the state diadem...*smelling salts please*

Buckingham Palace - the back door.

At the end of the tour you are debouched into the back garden, a great quiet park in the centre of London. Except of course for the Palace Cafe, which was full to the gills with tourists, foiling my plan to have a cuppa tea “with the Queen”. But I did manage a Buckingham Palace ice cream further down the garden path where things were quieter.

And around the corner you can - as I did, for the second time - visit the Royal Mews and gawp at the Royal Coaches and the Royal Limousines, and - best of all - a couple of the Royal coach horses, doing stoic duty on display for the summer tourists.

Could you say that the Tower of London is a palace? Certainly it was once, though it has also been a fortress and a gaol. Today it houses the real Crown Jewels - these make the diamonds in the Buckingham Palace display look like a few trinkets. The present Crown of State includes the enormous “Black Prince’s Ruby”, and the Cullinan Diamonds, 1 and 2, mined in South Africa. The spooky Korinoor Diamond from India is in the crown which was worn by the Queen Mother. The display is beautifully organised and the crowd control exemplary. The information about the coronations is excellent - did you know that Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” has been played at every English coronation since George III’s (for whom it was composed), with the words, which come from the Bible, having been used at every coronation since medieval times? Me neither.

The White Tower, Tower of London.
"Jane was here"?

The Tower also has darker stories to tell. You can view the spot where Anne Boleyn (and others) lost their heads; the Beachamp Tower where Lady Jane Grey (and others) were imprisoned, with the prisoners’ graffiti etched in the stone walls; the ‘Bloody Tower’ where Sir Walter Raleigh lived his life in captivity (though relative comfort); and where the two young Princes are said to have been last seen. Did Richard III do them in, or has he been slandered by Shakespeare? And how about his brother Clarence, who was drowned in a vat of malmsey in the Tower?

What with ravens, and Beefeaters, and the Traitor’s Gate leading straight out into the Thames, the fortress palace built by William the Conquer has plenty to intrigue.

Visiting with the locals, Tower of London

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