RAF Museum


In June, my mam came down to London to stay with me for a few days. I decided to take her to the RAF Museum at Hendon, north London, as she is very interested in World War II, in particular Bomber Command, and I had found out that the museum held a Lancaster in the collection, which I knew she would love to see.

I had never seen the museum advertised and only heard of its existence because I am trying to visit every London Underground station. I was attempting to tick off some stations on the Northern Line and saw a couple of posters around the Brent Cross area. I looked the museum up online, and what I learned convinced me that a trip would be a good idea.

***About the museum***
The RAF Museum actually occupies two sites: there is another at Cosford near Birmingham. The Hendon site was opened in 1972 by the Queen on the site of the London Aerodrome. It is home to over 100 aircraft from around the world, from the earliest flying machines to modern state-of-the-art jets. With films and interactive activities as well as standard displays, the museum aims to offer an exciting day out for all the family.

Oh, and entry is free – another reason to visit! A few activities cost money, and you have to pay to use the car park if you’ve chosen to drive rather than use public transport, but the museum does offer a very cheap day out.

***Opening Times***
The museum is open 10-6 every day with some closures and shortened opening hours during the Christmas period. Some exhibitions have slightly different opening hours: check the website for more details.

***Getting There***
Colindale is the nearest London Underground station (about a 10 minute walk away). It is on the Edgware branch of the Northern Line, about 30 minutes north from Central London. When you come out of the station, you need to go left: the museum is clearly signposted and it is difficult to get lost (and trust me, coming from me, this means something!).

Helpful directions at the Tube

***First Impressions***
As my mam and I walked up Grahame Park Way we saw the museum on our right, clearly visible with the name emblazoned on a grey building. We entered the grounds and saw a series of buildings, or hangars, behind a car park. The entrance was across the car park, and it had started to rain quite heavily by this time so we hurried inside!

At the museum

The entrance was large and airy with toilets next to the door and an enquiry desk, where my mam purchased a guidebook. This was also the place where you could purchase tickets for things like the 4D show. A free leaflet containing a map was provided. The museum has different themed sections which you walk around in order.

***Milestones of Flight**
This was the first section and comprised a large hangar inside which were hung numerous aircraft covering a period of around a hundred years. Now I am not particularly interested in aircraft, but I AM interested in history and I found this section fascinating. Among the exhibits was a lookout balloon used in World War One – I imagine this would have been very dangerous! There was also a Blériot XI, an early plane that was used by Louis Blériot in 1909 when he became the first person to fly across the English Channel. At the other end of the scale the Eurofighter Typhoon is displayed: this is the most modern aircraft the RAF possesses and can fly at twice the speed of sound.

Milestones of Flight

Stairs up to the next level allowed you to see the aircraft that were hung further up. This area had walls with pictures of fighter pilots in the First World War that shot down a certain number of planes. Many of them died. Along the walkway were interactive screens offering more information on the exhibits. As you walk down the stairs you can see a huge timeline covering an entire wall of the hangar. This timeline is labelled with key events in the history of flying alongside important events in general history to put them in context. This is far too detailed to memorise and a bit overwhelming but it was fascinating to read.

Historical timeline

***Bomber Hall***
This section was the reason I brought my mam to the museum, as it is home to the Lancaster, used during World War II in bombing raids over Germany. My mam knows a great deal about this aircraft, to the extent that when one flew over our house at the time of the Sunderland Airshow she recognised it from the sound of the engine! The Lancaster is certainly impressive and imposing, huge (it had a crew of seven), and I found it quite chilling to look at.

Lancaster bomber
Lancaster bomber

Also on display was a Halifax bomber recovered from a Norwegian lake, rusted and broken but still recognisable. Other bombers on display include a German Messerschmitt, and a Valiant from the Cold War era.

Halifax bomber

Bomber Hall is a kind of memorial to the casualties of Bomber Command. While I was there the wreath which would later be placed on the new Bomber Command memorial in London was on display. Because of the raids on Germany, many of which involved loss of civilian life, those who flew the bombers were essentially ignored after the end of World War II, even though they suffered the highest casualty rate of any of the services, and it is only now that they are getting the recognition they deserve.

***Battle of Britain Hall***
This section holds and commemorates aircraft that flew in the Battle of Britain in 1940. Spitfires and Hurricanes are among the aircraft on display, and there is also a sound and light show about the battle although we didn’t watch this. These planes are much smaller and lighter than the bombers, designed for in-air combat when speed and dexterity were of paramount importance.

Battle of Britain Hall

There were also other hangars: Grahame-White Factory, which contains the museum’s oldest aircraft; Historic Hangars which were part of the original aerodrome and contain various exhibitions about the RAF; an Aeronauts Interactive Centre for children; and a Marine Craft exhibition. However, we didn’t have time to visit these as we had to get back to central London to go to the theatre.

***Food and Drink***
The museum has a restaurant and a café, as well as a picnic area to eat your own sandwiches: this came in handy for us as I had made us lunch to save money and we couldn’t have eaten it outside as it was pouring down! We didn’t visit the restaurant, but did have a cup of tea and a muffin in the café. It wasn’t the nicest café as it was actually inside the Bomber Hall surrounded by all the planes as well as screaming children, and there was a long queue: I felt sorry for the man serving, as he was there by himself and clearly rushed off his feet. I should point out that we were there during half term and perhaps the museum is quieter at other times.

Designated parking is available for disabled visitors, and manual wheelchairs are available for hire free of charge, though you need to pre-book. Aisles are wide for ease of wheelchair access – I witnessed this first-hand myself – and disabled toilets are available. Seating is available at regular intervals throughout the museum.

I was impressed with the museum: it was interesting, well laid-out and there was a great deal to see – too much, in fact, for us to see over the course of several hours! There are activities and interactive exhibits for children, and the children I saw during my visit seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Something to be aware of is that the museum is obviously owned and run by the RAF, and naturally enough emphasises the RAF’s contribution to the history and development of flight. Sometimes I felt that the technological advances were emphasised to the extent that they glossed over the harm and injury that military planes can cause. I felt this particularly in Bomber Hall: while I have immense respect and admiration for those who risked, and still risk, their lives to man them, they are essentially killing machines and I found it sobering to look at them. Some planes, such as the modern fighters, are used today around the world in military attacks and who knows how many deaths they have caused.

Having said that, I’m sure people can draw these conclusions for themselves and the museum is primarily a celebration of the technological development of flight. The history of flight is just over a century old, after all, and it is incredible how far we have come in such a short space of time. The museum does an excellent job of demonstrating this.


Address: Grahame Park Way, London, Greater London NW9 5LL

Website: rafmuseum.org.uk

Opening Hours: 10am-6pm (shortened hours over the Christmas period)

Prices: Free

Hampton Court Palace

When my mam came down to London to stay with me for a few days, I asked her to choose some places she’d like to visit. Top of her list was Hampton Court Palace. Years ago, my dad, who used to be a teacher, visited several times with parties of schoolchildren, but my mam had never had the chance to go – until now. I had visited before – back in 2009 – but was happy to go again.

Hampton Court is perhaps best known for its connection with Henry VIII. The Palace was the main country residence of Cardinal Wolsey, and on his fall it was taken over by the King. However, it also has strong associations with the age of William and Mary, and in fact it has a rich and varied history going back around 800 years. If you live in or have visited London recently you may have noticed the adverts for Hampton Court: some display the Palace’s striking Tudor front and some, its exuberant Baroque-inspired back view. I feel that these adverts are excellent at getting across what Hampton Court is all about – royal connections and contrasting design.

***Location and Travel***
Hampton Court Palace is south west of London, beside the River Thames. If you are coming by car, the Palace is within the M25 near the M3 and M4 and is apparently well signposted with brown heritage signs (though I can’t verify this, having never visited by car). My mam and I arrived via train: there is a regular South West Trains service to Hampton Court Station from London Waterloo, which takes only 35 minutes. For Travelcard and Oyster card purposes, the station is in Zone 6 so if you have a Travelcard valid for that zone – or Oyster Pay as You Go – there’s no need to buy a separate train ticket. The Palace is close by, signposted and easily reached by crossing the bridge to the right. Several bus routes also pass by the Palace: visit the website for more details.

Hampton Court Palace has a long and eventful history. Records indicate that the Knights Hospitallers of St John Jerusalem used the site as a centre for their agricultural estates as early as 1236. They began to rent out the site around the fifteenth century. One tenant, the socially climbing courtier Giles Daubeney, received visits from the royal family – Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth – at the beginning of the Tudor period, and after he died in 1508 the estate was taken over by Thomas Wolsey.

Wolsey was Henry VIII’s right-hand man for a number of years, rising to become a Cardinal and Lord Chancellor of England. He transformed Hampton Court into a vast Bishop’s palace, installing private rooms for himself and suites for the royal family. Base Court, the vast outer courtyard, was built by Wolsey. During his tenure, the Palace played host to state occasions, entertaining important European visitors and serving as a backdrop for political machinations.

After Wolsey’s fall in 1528 (he had failed to get Henry a divorce from Katherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn), the King took over Hampton Court and it acquired a pre-eminence never subsequently matched. His building works were extravagant and included tennis courts, kitchens, a chapel, a Great Hall and a hunting park. All of his wives spent time here and they, along with the King’s children, had lodgings in the Palace. Again, the place was used to host international delegations, such as the French ambassador and his 200-strong entourage in 1546.

After Henry’s death, each of his three children – all of whom ruled England at one point or another – spent time at Hampton Court. The Palace was used but not greatly added to until the reign of James VI of Scotland – in 1603, James I of England – who was a keen huntsman and made the most of the superb hunting to be found in the nearby park. It was used for entertainments, masques and theatrical productions – among the guests was William Shakespeare himself, whose plays were produced at the Palace. James’s son Charles I spent time at the palace as both a king and a prisoner. He is noted for purchasing Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar and displaying them at the Palace in 1630, where they have remained ever since.

After his execution the victorious Parliamentarians removed several of the Palace’s treasures for sale, but when Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector he took Hampton Court for his own use. On the Restoration in 1660, Charles II made occasional use of the Palace, installing his mistress Barbara Villiers in lodgings here. The accession of William III and Mary II heralded dramatic changes to Hampton Court Palace. They commissioned Sir Christopher Wren – famous architect of St Paul’s Cathedral – to completely demolish and rebuild the Palace. Luckily for posterity, neither the time nor the money was sufficient to allow this to happen. Instead, the king’s and queen’s apartments on the south and east sites of the Palace were rebuilt. Wren’s architecture, Grinling Gibbons’ carvings and Antonio Verrio’s painted ceilings ensure that there is a striking contrast between this part of the Palace and the remaining Tudor buildings. The gardens were also transformed during this time.

Neither Queen Anne nor George I left much impact on the palace, but George II and his wife Caroline – as both Prince and Princess and King and Queen – spent a great deal of time at Hampton Court. They oversaw the completion of the long-neglected Queen’s Apartments, and had lodgings built for their second son the Duke of Cumberland. The royal family and royal court spent considerable time at the Palace.

From the 1760s, Hampton Court Palace was used for a very different purpose. It was divided into lodgings, granted rent-free to tenants who had served the Crown or country. This went on until 1838, when the young Queen Victoria declared that the Palace should be opened to the public. For the next few years, Hampton Court was restored, a development which was fuelled by the interest of antiquarians and architects. Another wave of restoration followed towards the end of the century.

The history of the Palace remained largely uneventful until a fire in 1986 – which some older readers may recall – severely damaged the King’s Apartments. Repairs, and subsequent restorations, were largely completed in 1995. The King’s Apartments had been restored and recreated, as far as possible, to their original form, while a similar process had been undertaken in the Queen’s Apartments. Defined ‘routes’ through the Palace were implemented to improve visitor accessibility, and the Privy Garden was replanted to its 17th-century design. Conservation, restoration, and even – on occasion – new building work continue to this day. Staff at Hampton Court continue to explore ways to make a visit here more accessible, enjoyable and educational.

***Visiting Hampton Court Palace***
Hampton Court Palace can be seen as you cross the bridge after exiting the railway station. You go in through the driveway and purchase tickets from the building on your left. After that you are free to explore the Palace. Approaching the front of the building, you get your first taste of the grandeur you are about to experience. The Palace is certainly well situated. You are given a map when you buy your ticket, which is incredibly helpful considering the size and scale of the place.

As with Kensington Palace, Hampton is divided into different areas or routes, which is handy for getting your bearings and planning your visit. My mam and I decided we would like to get audio guides (included in the price of your ticket) and these can be obtained from the centre of the Palace. This area also contains rails of velvet Tudor-style robes which can be borrowed: as we went round the Palace, we saw many people – both children and adults – with these on. I wanted to put some on, but my mam flatly refused, much to my disappointment!

Before heading off on our adventure, we had a look at the small but detailed exhibition on the history of Hampton Court, which tells the story of the area from earliest known times to the present day. This exhibition contained a great deal of information, but was presented logically and in an easy to read format. This done, we headed off on our travels.

*Henry VIII’s Kitchens*
We decided to begin at the kitchens, since we had passed the entrance to this section on our way to retrieve the audio guides. The kitchens were heavily used during Henry VIII’s time to feed the huge number of guests he entertained at Hampton Court. They comprise a number of rooms, enormous roaring fires (one of which was lit on our visit, giving off a considerable amount of heat) and various utensils. Mam and I were amazed at the sheer size of everything, and as a non-meat eater I was somewhat freaked out by the giant roasting spits and the huge tub in which pie filling was cooked. I must say that, apart from the fact that they contained meat, the pies on display looked rather appetising – although as our audio guides told us, people at the time wouldn’t actually have eaten the pastry, which simply acted as a cooking pot. The top would be removed, the contents eaten and the rest of the crust thrown away. What a waste!

Our wanderings took us through the kitchens and out the other side, where liveried servants would be waiting to carry the piping hot food the short distance to the guests in the Great Hall. We passed a room in which accounts were kept – as you can imagine, feeding such a huge number of people required an incredible amount of organisation, and it was essential to keep track of what was available and what was needed.

Finally, we ended up at the wine cellar. I liked this part! Beer was drunk by pretty much everyone during the Tudor period – the water was unsafe – but wine was reserved only for the wealthiest. Whereas the majority of Hampton Court Palace is concerned with the grand surroundings of royalty, the kitchens explored what it was like for the servants below stairs. They clearly had an extremely difficult job!

*Young Henry VIII’s Story*
Continuing the Henry VIII theme, we headed for this section of the Palace, which concerned Henry’s life as a young prince right up to his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. These rooms had comparatively modern surroundings, although they were basic enough not to look odd framed by the ancient stone walls. In each room, three wooden ‘thrones’ represented Henry, Katherine and Sir Thomas Wolsey, the three most powerful people in the land, and carried information about each individual and their role in state affairs. As you follow the story from room to room, you witness the fall from favour of both Katherine and Wolsey: the one demoted from her role as Queen and separated from her daughter, and the other forced to give up his titles and royal palaces (he died shortly afterwards). Henry was never meant to be king – that role was to have been taken by his elder brother Arthur, but Arthur died relatively young, leaving Henry as the next heir. This section of the exhibition did well in exploring the youthful Henry’s exuberance, enthusiasm and successes, before he became the ungainly tyrant-King of later years.

*Henry VIII’s Apartments*
We finished off our exploration of the Henrician age with a visit to Hampton Court’s main draw – Henry VIII’s Apartments. Our audio guides proved invaluable here, as they had done in the kitchens, in telling us about the rooms. They were magnificent, as befits a King’s apartments – particularly the Great Hall (which I had seen from below earlier, on my tour of the kitchens). The tapestries – which were originals – were especially impressive and the pictures were fascinating to inspect. The chapel, too, was beautiful and ornate (you can go onto the top balcony from these apartments; the chapel itself can be entered from the corridor below, near Fountain Court).

One of my favourite things about this part of the Palace was ‘Henry VIII’ himself! The King resided at Hampton Court later in his reign, after the fall of Wolsey, and actors portray an event from this period – the preparations for his marriage to Catherine Parr. This was his final marriage and Catherine actually survived him – a lucky escape considering Henry had divorced his first and fourth wives (the latter was ‘too ugly’ for Henry!), and had two others beheaded, not to mention Jane Seymour who died in childbirth. ‘Henry’ strides about the Palace at frequent intervals, heralded by courtiers crying “Make way for the King”, and occasionally stopping to make a speech declaring how happy he is at the prospect of his forthcoming marriage. My mam found this a bit silly, but I thought it was highly entertaining!

*William III’s Apartments*
The brightly-coloured apartments are in great contrast to the dark wood Tudor parts of the Palace. To get to them, you need to climb up a staircase – this is shallower than most, as it was designed for the asthmatic William. The rooms are in more or less a straight line, the majority containing thrones, though the last few contain beds. The rooms get grander and grander as you go along – they were designed so that less-important subjects could speak to the King in the first room, while only a select few had access to the more intimate bedchamber and adjacent throne room. These rooms reminded me of Buckingham Palace in their formal layout, although the finishings and furniture were less ostentatious. It was interesting to see another side to William’s character, after seeing the King’s Apartments in Kensington Palace, where he also spent time.

*Mary II’s Apartments*
Though these apartments were begun during the reign of Mary, her sudden death called a halt to building work and they were not finally completed until the reign of George II and his wife Caroline. When my mam and I visited, there was a temporary exhibition on display entitled “The Beautiful and the Damned”. This consisted of paintings of court beauties in the reign of Charles II, and featured several scantily-clad ladies draped over armchairs, usually mistresses of the King or other men of note. My mam and I did notice that ideas of beauty have changed considerably over the centuries: with a few exceptions, neither of us would have called these women ‘beautiful’, but I guess that’s a good thing – there’s hope for us all! The exhibition was interesting and provided something a bit different to look at.

*Georgian Private Apartments*
These apartments were built by George II for his second son, the Duke of Cumberland. They have a strong Georgian feel to them, and seem much more private and homely than the other parts of the Palace. They provided an interesting contrast to the grandeur on display elsewhere.

*Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar*
We didn’t have enough time to see these, but they are paintings, held in the Palace since the reign of Charles I.

*Palace Gardens*
Again, we didn’t have enough time to wander around the gardens. However, I spent some time in the gardens on my previous visit, and they were beautifully landscaped and very pleasant to spend time in. I must say though that I much prefer houses to gardens when visiting places like this, so I wasn’t overly disappointed at not being able to have more of a wander around.

One of the cafes at Hampton Court is beside the gardens, and they also offer the best view of the Baroque side of the Palace, so it’s worth popping out for a few minutes.

Much to my disappointment, we hadn’t time to visit the maze either. However, last time I visited – with a group of friends – we DID go in the maze and it was great fun. It isn’t huge like the maze at Longleat, but it’s big enough to get lost in once or twice, although we did eventually manage to reach the centre. I do recommend leaving enough time to have a go, as it is really enjoyable – particularly if you have children.

***Gift Shop***
The Palace has a number of gift shops, including a general shop near the entrance and a smaller shop near Henry VIII’s Kitchens which stocks several items of a historic culinary nature. The main shop has the usual range of souvenirs and tat as well as some genuinely nice items. Some of the items are part of the general Historic Royal Palaces range, but many are tailored to the individual site: for example, medieval-themed souvenirs were available here but not at Kensington Palace, which I had visited previously, while reproduction Victorian jewellery was found at Kensington but not at Hampton.

***Food and Drink***
There are three eateries open for visitors: the Tiltyard Café, the Snug and the Privy Kitchen. My mam and I had a well-earned cup of tea and slice of cake in the Privy Kitchen, which used to be the kitchens used by Elizabeth I and strongly resembled Henry’s kitchens that we visited earlier in the day. An interesting assortment of refreshments was available, and I was half sorry that we had brought our own sandwiches, as the hot meals looked delicious. In any case, our cake was lovely. Prices were average – not cheap (I have never encountered any café within a heritage site in which they were), but not excessively expensive.

Hampton Court is massive – as the website states, if you see all the interiors and a bit of the gardens you will travel over 2 miles. Disabled car parking spaces are available on a first-come, first-served basis and parking is free for Blue Badge holders. There are several accessible toilet facilities across the site and while visitors with disabilities pay the standard admission charge, an accompanying carer or assistant will receive free entry. Service dogs are also welcome.

A limited number of manual wheelchairs and single-person scooters (for use in the gardens only) are available on a first-come, first-served basis. British Sign Language tours take place within the Palace, and a number of downloadable resources are available from the Hampton Court Palace website, including a guide for parents of children on the autistic spectrum.

My mam and I both had an amazing day at Hampton Court Palace. Whereas my mam was disappointed with Kensington Palace, she thoroughly enjoyed Hampton Court. I certainly feel that the entrance fee is better value for money: while it costs a few pounds more to get into Hampton Court, not to mention the cost of travelling from central London by train, you get a great deal more for your money. If you make the most of everything the Palace has to offer, you could easily spend an entire day here, or even more if you want to spend a lot of time in the gardens. If you live in London and think you might visit again I would strongly recommend the Historical Royal Palaces membership, which gives you free entry to Hampton Court plus the other four palaces for a year – you could easily get a lot out of this. Alternatively, if you have a Tesco Clubcard, the Days Out tokens are worth exchanging Clubcard points for.

If you are thinking about visiting, or can’t visit for whatever reason but still want to find out more about the Palace, I highly recommend the website (address given below) which is rich in detailed information about the history of the Palace, what you can see there, current and forthcoming exhibitions, concerts which take place in the grounds, and more.


Address: East Molesey, Surrey, KT8 9AU

Website: hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace

Opening Hours: 10am-6pm daily

Prices: £16.95 adults, £8.50 children; membership of Historic Royal Palaces allows free entry to all five included palaces – Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace, Kew Palace, the Tower of London and the Banqueting House

Kensington Palace

When my mam came down to see me in London, we visited Kensington Palace along with my dad’s cousin who’d come to stay with her own daughter. My mam had never been to Kensington and really wanted to; my dad’s cousin had been before and wanted to see what it was like after the refurbishment.

Kensington Palace is divided into two: the historic state apartments, viewable by visitors, and the private wing where members of the royal family continue to live. The state apartments have recently undergone intensive refurbishment. I visited the palace last year while work was going on: part of the palace was open for a special ‘Enchanted Palace’ exhibition, in which some rooms were decorated to look like something out of a fairytale, with tree roots coming out of fireplaces and fairy lights suspended from the walls. I thought this was an interesting way to make use of the limited space available at the time, and was looking forward to seeing the palace in all its glory post-refurbishment.

***Location and Travel***
Kensington Palace is in Kensington Gardens; the nearest Underground stations are High Street Kensington (District & Circle lines) and Queensway (Central line). There are also buses that pass close to the entrance to Kensington Gardens. The palace is clearly signposted although you do have to walk a bit to get to the entrance.

Kensington Palace started out as Nottingham House, built around 1605 in the then village of Kensington. Concerned that the damp riverside location of Whitehall Palace would damage the King’s health, William III and Mary II purchased Nottingham House in 1689 and employed Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor to carry out improvements. Mary subsequently extended her own apartments, building what is now the Queen’s Gallery, but died of smallpox at the age of just thirty-two. William died in 1702 after a fall from his horse, and was succeeded by Mary’s sister Anne, who reigned until 1714.

The next monarch, George I, planned extensive rebuilding work, replacing the centre of the old Nottingham House with three state rooms: the Privy Chamber, the Cupola Room and the Withdrawing Room. Because of this work, he spent little time at Kensington, but his successor George II reaped the benefit, spending 4-6 months of the year at the Palace. After his death, however, it was never again used as the seat of a reigning monarch and its most notable subsequent resident was probably Queen Victoria, who spent her childhood at Kensington.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Palace was falling into disrepair but Victoria’s affection for the place in which she had grown up saved it from demolition. Parliament agreed in 1897 to pay for the State Apartments to be restored provided they were consequently opened to the public. Kensington Palace opened on Queen Victoria’s 80th birthday, 24 May 1899, and has remained accessible to the public to this day.

***Visiting Kensington Palace***

According to the website, Kensington Palace uses the approach of ‘tradition with a twist’ in order to explore the heritage of the palace. When you buy a ticket you get access to four different routes around the palace. These all begin in the vestibule, close to the ticket desk, which has seats on which you can take a breather and plan your next route.

*Diana: Glimpses of a Modern Princess*

As the shortest route and the one closest to the vestibule, we decided to take this one first. Princess Diana is probably the most famous former resident of Kensington Palace and when she died in 1997 the gates outside of the Palace were strewn with flowers. This small, temporary (until 2 September 2012) exhibition showcases five of her dresses alongside photographs of her wearing them. I enjoyed looking at them, particularly the black ballgown which was absolutely stunning. The pictures provided a context for the gowns and it was interesting to see them close-up. I’m a bit young to remember Diana’s heyday as a style icon but she obviously knew how to make an impact with her outfits.

*Victoria Revealed*

After Diana, Kensington Palace’s most famous resident is probably Queen Victoria, who grew up in the Palace. These rooms concentrate on Victoria as a girl and young woman, providing an interesting contrast to her later persona as the dour widow. You enter the exhibition at the Red Saloon where the young Queen held her first Privy Council meeting. Long descriptive captions are eschewed in favour of novel techniques including outlines and brief descriptions of the members of the Council. Other rooms, including the room where Victoria was (probably) born and where she grew up, are shown with some of her toys on display including a beautiful doll’s house. Victoria herself was to have several children with her husband Prince Albert and an attractively drawn family tree on one wall shows this. I enjoyed looking at the objects on display, including a pair of Victoria’s black silk baby shoes and her wedding dress, a typical early Victorian design which provided an interesting contrast with Kate Middleton’s wedding dress worn in 2011 and which I saw at Buckingham Palace last year.

Victoria and Albert’s courtship is illustrated, with displays of jewellery and gifts the young couple exchanged. A portrait of Victoria which she commissioned to give to Albert shows an attractive young woman with her hair down: a startling contrast to the traditional image of the Queen. Later rooms show how Victoria went into deep mourning when her beloved husband died, finishing with a wall projection of her filmed Jubilee celebrations in 1897.

As someone who takes a strong interest in the Victorian era, I enjoyed this section of the Palace more than any other. I felt it gave me a sense of who Victoria was, particularly as a girl and a young woman, and was not at all stuffy.

*Jubilee: A View from the Crowd*

This is another temporary exhibition (until 4 November 2012), designed to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II by exploring the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. It begins with a wooden reproduction of London in the Victorian era, designed so that you can walk around it. Printed on the walls and floors are descriptions of the state of London towards the end of the nineteenth century, describing the city as overcrowded and dirty: a contrast with the lives of the royals. The exhibition also displays Jubilee memorabilia, including posters, mugs and bowls: it seems that the basic design of such ‘tat’ has not really changed over the years! Also displayed are items from parties held to celebrate the Jubilee, including a dress from a costume party. This section was interesting as it showed the way Victoria’s Jubilee was celebrated was not that far off from the way Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee was celebrated earlier this year.

*King’s State Apartments*

This section of the Palace explores the courts of George I and George II. It mainly consists of elaborate rooms telling the story of the court. These were beautiful to look at, particularly the Cupola Room which was exceedingly grand. Highlights for me were a display of costumes in Queen Caroline’s Closet, including a ridiculously wide and highly impractical dress, and the coronation robes displayed in the Council Chamber.

*Queen’s State Apartments*

These apartments tell the story of the later Stuarts, beginning with William and Mary and ending with Queen Anne, whose death heralded the beginning of a new era with the accession of George I. The apartments were originally created for Mary II and are now furnished with modern installations, such as a display of blue and white birds in a long corridor, coloured to match the porcelain on display. The apartments used non-traditional techniques to illustrate the story of the royal family. For example, recorded whisperings were intended to depict the gossip at court after Queen Anne and her best friend, Sarah the Duchess of Marlborough, argued and fell out for good. Perhaps the best, and most poignant, demonstration of this unconventional way of displaying history came in the room full of little chairs, with a larger chair at the back. Each one of these chairs represented one of Queen Anne’s children, all of whom died in infancy, while the larger chair belonged to her little boy who reached the grand age of eleven before succumbing to smallpox. Anne was childless on her death in 1714, which marked the end of the Stuart dynasty.

***Gift Shop***
The Palace has a large gift shop with the usual range of souvenirs and tat as well as some genuinely nice items, particularly jewellery including a copy of Anne Boleyn’s famous ‘B’ necklace. Some of the items are part of the general Historic Royal Palaces range, but many are tailored to the individual site: for example, reproduction Victorian jewellery was available here but not at Hampton Court Palace (which I visited later); Hampton on the other hand had medieval-themed souvenirs not found at Kensington.

***Food and Drink***
The Orangery Restaurant, set in Queen Anne’s eighteenth-century Orangery, offers afternoon tea, Pimm’s and champagne as well as breakfast, lunch, dinner, wine and ‘Historic Royal Palaces’ beers. The Palace Café, inside the Palace itself, has a more informal atmosphere and is designed for sandwiches and quick snacks, with children’s lunchboxes available. I can’t comment on either eatery, as we’d had lunch at Strada on Kensington High Street before visiting the Palace, although after walking past the café on the way to the toilet I can say that it looked clean and inviting.

The refurbishment of Kensington Palace means that access has been substantially improved: lift access is now available to all floors, and manual wheelchairs and portable seats are available to borrow. Staff at the Palace have developed Describer Tours for blind and partially sighted visitors and will soon offer British Sign Language tours and a Braille leaflet. Disabled toilets are available alongside male and female toilets, and limited Blue Badge parking is available. More information can be found at: http://www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace/planyourvisit/disabledaccess.

Information on this webpage points out that the Queen’s Stairs at the Palace are shallow because they were built with William III, who was asthmatic, in mind. A PDF document will soon be uploaded containing more information about the accessibility needs of others who used to live there, which I think is a really nice touch.

Responses to the Palace were mixed. My mam and my dad’s cousin said that they were rather disappointed. They didn’t like the modern installations and my mam said “there wasn’t really much to see”. Certainly, when you compare the price of visiting Kensington with the cost of visiting Hampton Court, you get much more for your money at Hampton, where admission is only a pound or two more.

My favourite part of the Palace was the ‘Victoria Revealed’ exhibition, which explored the life of Queen Victoria. I felt that the informality of historical presentation in the Palace really worked well in her apartments, which by their nature were comparatively informal. I felt that this approach was less effective in the King’s and Queen’s State Apartments, which by their nature are formal and imposing, though less magnificent than, say, Buckingham Palace. I think that my mam had hoped for more grandeur, while I had always understood Kensington to be one of the ‘homelier’ palaces. I certainly admired the novel approach, even if I felt that the modern art installations were slightly out of place. The two temporary exhibitions, ‘Diana’ and ‘Jubilee’, added another dimension to the visit.

Overall, I did enjoy my visit to Kensington Palace. I felt that there was a great deal to see and do there, and the refurbishment has been a great success. I do feel it is rather expensive: I feel £9-£10 would have been a more appropriate admission fee. However, if you can get hold of an Art Fund membership or some Tesco Clubcard Days Out vouchers, you can get a day out at a bargain price!


Address: Kensington Gardens, London, W8 4PX

Website: hrp.org.uk/kensingtonpalace

Opening Hours: 10am-6pm summer; 10am-5pm winter

Prices: £14.50 adults, children free; membership of Historic Royal Palaces allows free entry to all five included palaces – Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace, Kew Palace, the Tower of London and the Banqueting House.

The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography – The Queen’s Gallery

This year, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of Robert F. Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. For those who are unaware, Scott and four companions reached the Pole on 17th January – having been beaten by the Norwegian, Amundsen, and his team a little over a month before – and died three months later on their way back to their base camp.

To mark the occasion, an exhibition of Antarctic photography is taking place in The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London. This exhibition includes photographs from Scott’s expedition (known as the ‘Terra Nova’) and Ernest Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ expedition of 1914-17. I’ve developed a bit of an interest in Antarctica, and particularly this period in its history (known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Antarctic exploration), after reading a novel, Antarctic Navigation by Elizabeth Arthur, last year. I thought this exhibition looked very interesting and decided to pay it a visit, managing to persuade two friends to accompany me.

Photographs were very important to the explorers on these expeditions. They acted as proof of their achievements and evidence of the breathtaking environment they were surrounded by. They recorded scientific findings, the beauty of Antarctica, and the hardships of the journey. They also helped to raise the profile of the expeditions in the public eye, provided material for subsequent exhibitions, and could be sold as prints to raise money to pay debts.

penguin by Ponting
A penguin, by Ponting

The photographs were donated to the reigning monarch at the time, hence their appearance in the Royal Collection. I will write about the exhibition itself first and the Queen’s Gallery later.

***The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography***

The exhibition takes place in two large rooms in the Queen’s Gallery. As well as pictures, editions of books about the expeditions are on display alongside a map of Antarctica and a timeline. Also displayed are the British flags used on both the ‘Endurance’ and ‘Terra Nova’ expeditions, the last recovered from the tent containing the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers.

The first part of the exhibition covers Robert F. Scott’s ‘Terra Nova’ expedition of 1910-12. It takes place in one large room with two smaller rooms alongside. The majority of these photographs were taken by official photographer Herbert Ponting.

Queen's Gallery
Heart of the Great Alone

These photographs are incredibly beautiful, stunning and dramatic. Looking at them I got a sense of the excitement Ponting must have felt at the strangeness of this new world. Several scenes involve tiny figures standing beneath huge ice sculptures (‘Castle Berg’, a picture of an iceberg that resembled a medieval castle, is a notable example). Another shot shows the ship, the ‘Terra Nova’, taken through an overhang of ice. Two pictures of amusing, adorable Adelie penguins hang on opposite sides of the wall (as postcards, these became bestsellers after the original exhibition). A number of photographs show the members of the expedition in and outside the hut (which still stands to this day). The explorers look happy and optimistic about the future. One shot of Scott’s birthday party is particularly poignant, as it was to be his last.

In a side room are photographs of the five members of the polar party (the rest of the group remained behind): Edgar Evans, Edward Wilson, Robert Falcon Scott, Henry Robertson Bowers, Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates. All of these men reached the South Pole and died on their return. Ponting did not form part of the polar party, so the photographs from this stage of the exhibition were taken by Henry Bowers, to whom Ponting taught photography while in Antarctica. When the photographs were originally exhibited, these photographs were displayed in the centre of the room with Ponting’s around the outside. This exhibition has replicated that and these central photos detail the party on the move, pulling their sledges, and their achievement of reaching the South Pole. The men look exhausted and dejected – perhaps unsurprising as they had travelled all that way only to be beaten in the race to be first. The final photograph is of the cairn built over the tent containing the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers, located in November after a search party was sent out to look for the men.

Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ expedition of 1914-17 is the other expedition covered in this exhibition. Originally aiming to cross the polar continent, it became apparent that it was appropriately named, as the ship ‘Endurance’ became trapped in pack ice and eventually crushed. Without a ship, the only hope the crew had of escape was to use the lifeboats. The explorers made it to dry land, and Shackleton and a number of his men set off on a risky and uncertain trip to South Georgia in order to get help, leaving the remainder to wait and hope.

Photographer Frank Hurley was responsible for the photographs in this section of the exhibition. He documented the adventures of the ship as it became trapped in the ice and eventually crushed. His pictures also have a strong narrative quality which makes them particularly interesting. They capture the beauty of the ice and the smallness and relative fragility of the ‘Endurance’ surrounded by this beautiful but lethal stuff. Several photographs detail the men going about their day to day business, playing chess, exercising the dogs or carrying out scientific experiments.

I do wish a bit more information had been provided. For example, several pictures referred to the ‘Welsh stowaway’ – I would have liked to know more about him and how he ended up on the ship! Hurley was not chosen to accompany Shackleton on his quest for help. Therefore his later pictures show the life he lived for four months with the other men left behind, waiting for Shackleton to return, living in a hut made of the two remaining lifeboats and living off penguin meat. This is fascinating in itself.

Queen's Gallery
Heart of the Great Alone

I found it interesting that some of the photographs were renamed to give the impression that they were images of a different event. For example, the photograph that Hurley claimed was of Shackleton’s return to rescue the men was actually his departure in search of help. This adds to the narrative quality of the pictures but not their authenticity!

I found the whole exhibition fascinating and managed to spend nearly two hours in there, which was impressive considering there were only two large rooms. I thought that the photographs were well presented and the accompanying objects were well chosen. The map and timeline provided made it possible to understand the pictures in context. The two sets of photographs provided an interesting contrast, with Ponting’s pictures that were largely made up of beautiful shots of interesting landmarks, and Hurley’s photographs that generally told a story. One of my friends preferred the latter, as she said that she found them more interesting. I however preferred the former, as I thought that they really captured the beauty and fascination of Antarctica. Overall, though, both sets of photographs were beautiful, informative and fascinating and credit must go to both photographers for taking such care with their work in such harsh and hostile conditions. They must have felt frustrated at not being able to record what they saw in colour, but their black and white shots are stunning and dramatic.

As a slight aside, I found the exhibition made me think about the nature of success. On the way back one of my friends said that Shackleton had seemed to be more successful. But was he? I pointed out that he didn’t actually achieve his aim of crossing Antarctica. However, he and his crew demonstrated great courage and all of his men survived against the odds. Scott, on the other hand, succeeded in his aim of reaching the South Pole (albeit too late to be the first) – but his polar team all died. Who was the most successful? I am still pondering this!

***Overall Conclusion***
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to this exhibition and my experience of the Gallery as a whole was very positive. My friends thought that £7.50 was a good price for a year’s admission, but felt that it was a bit steep for one exhibition alone. I would personally have been happy to pay just for this exhibition as I feel it was worth it – however I do have an interest in the subject matter.

I would highly recommend ‘The Heart of the Great Alone’ which is on until 15th April 2012. However if you can’t make it or aren’t interested I would recommend the Queen’s Gallery in general as it is well worth a visit. The next exhibition is ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist’ from 4 May to 7 October 2012.

The website for the exhibition is available at http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/micros​ites/HOTGA/ and a number of photographs are available to view there. If you are interested in this topic, I would wholeheartedly recommend the novel Antarctic Navigation by Elizabeth Arthur, a fictional account of one woman’s quest to visit Antarctica and recreate Scott’s ill-fated expedition (I want to write a proper review on this at some point). Also, if you live in or near Cambridge, the Scott Polar Research Institute has an exhibition about Scott and the ‘Terra Nova’ expedition at the moment. A book made up of photographs from the exhibition has been released to coincide with it. Entitled, like the exhibition, The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography, it is available from the Queen’s Gallery gift shop and from Amazon.

Hello world!

I ummed and ahhed over having a personal blog for a while, and eventually decided that I think too much, and that I should just go ahead and do it, because  otherwise I’ll constantly be thinking of things that I could write in it, and getting frustrated because I don’t have anywhere to put them. So here it is.

I am a Proper Northerner (none of that Yorkshire/Lancashire malarkey, that’s practically Midlands) living in London. Most of this blog will be about London and all the exciting things (and many of the less exciting things) I do here. If you don’t like theatre, the London Underground or charity shop bargains, go away now. There is nothing for you here.

A few facts about me:

  • I was brought up in Tyne and Wear, which was created in the seventies from bits of Northumberland and County Durham. When people ask where I’m from, I tell them “near Newcastle”, because nobody’s ever heard of my home town – only it’s much-more-famous namesake.
  • I have degrees from the University of York and the University of Sheffield. I will always have a soft spot for Yorkshire.
  • I’ve wanted to live in London since I was about nine, which is when I first visited, but I only moved here about a year and a half ago; my age now can only just be described as ‘mid-twenties’.
  • I am trying to visit every station on the London Underground map. This includes the tube itself, the Overground and the DLR. I have a blog for this here.
  • I am a librarian by profession, an Information Officer by job role, and I’m not going to tell you what my actual job title is, because it doesn’t make any sense to anybody.