Kew Palace

Kew Palace
Kew Palace

Recently I paid a visit to Kew Palace as part of a special event. The Palace comes under the care of Historic Royal Palaces, and is the smallest palace in the organisation’s collection. It’s very rare that it is possible to visit on a standalone trip – it is located in the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, and you can usually only see it as part of a visit there.

Out of the window
Out of the window

History

Kew Palace is the smallest of all the royal palaces. It was originally built as a fashionable mansion for wealthy London silk merchant, Samuel Fortrey, in 1631. The building is often known as the Dutch House, as it was built in a supposedly Dutch style of architecture. Kew and nearby Richmond, as well as the now-defunct White House (of which the kitchens still remain near Kew Palace), were loved by the Georgians, particularly George II and Queen Caroline, followed by George III and his family. Kew Palace, much more intimate and personal than most royal palaces, proved a useful retreat for the king when he suffered from illness.

Kew Palace in its heyday
Kew Palace in its heyday

My Visit

Pumpkins in the kitchen garden
Pumpkins in the kitchen garden

My friend and I met with the other participants at the Elizabeth Gate of Kew Gardens, which is next to the common, and were taken to the Palace. Our first port of call was actually the nearby kitchens, originally a part of the White House.

Inside the kitchens
Inside the kitchens

We drank wine and wandered through the vegetable garden. There were a few interesting things to see in the kitchens, particularly George III’s bath, which was rediscovered a few years ago. George would come over to the kitchens to have his bath in order to save the servants from lugging hot water over to the palace, and I started to picture King George in Hamilton singing one of his songs in the bath.

King George's bath
King George’s bath

Our tour of the palace itself began on the ground floor and encompassed the whole house. We learned about King George, his wife Queen Charlotte and their fifteen (!) children, all but two of whom grew to adulthood. George and Charlotte tried to set a moral example to their subjects, but their children rebelled, the sons gambling, drinking and taking mistresses and the daughters – trapped at home – embarking upon affairs with members of the Royal household.

Inside the Palace
Inside the Palace

The bedrooms of two of the daughters can be found on the top floor, dismantled now but still containing the ancient fireplace that was brought there from (it is believed) Richmond Palace. Charlotte was reluctant to allow her daughters to marry; her attitude  is harsh but somewhat understandable given her husband suffered frequent bouts of illness and madness (probably porphyria) and she was often frightened of him. Charlotte eventually died in the Palace: en route to attend the double wedding of her sons William and Edward, she fell ill and the wedding took place within the Palace, where she died later in 1818.

The attic
The attic

As part of this ‘hidden’ tour we got to explore the attic, formerly the home of the servants and full of nooks and crannies, as well as graffiti left over from the palace’s use as changing rooms in the mid-twentieth century. We also saw the undercroft, originally built in Tudor times with excellent examples of stonework.

The undercroft
The undercroft

The Palace fell into disuse after the death of Queen Charlotte, and Queen Victoria gave it and the nearby Queen Charlotte’s Cottage to Kew Gardens in 1898, to mark her Diamond Jubilee. The Palace has been open to the public ever since, apart from a break in 1996-2006 for refurbishment and restoration.

Nowadays, the Palace is open to Kew Garden visitors during the warmer half of the year. It is also possible to visit on a special Curious Kew evening tour, as I did. The next is due to take place on 20 September 2018. I definitely recommend it as a small but perfectly-formed place to visit.

Kew Palace
Kew Palace

FACTS

Address: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Richmond, TW9 3AE

Website: hrp.org.uk/kew-palace

Opening Hours: 10.30-7.30 during the summer months

Prices: £16 adults, £14 concessions, £4 children, under-4’s free (prices are for admission to Kew Gardens)

The Lost Palace – Banqueting House

The Banqueting House
The Banqueting House

This summer, a new visitor experience launched at the Banqueting House, part of Historic Royal Palaces, in London. The Lost Palace was described as “a unique combination of immersive audio theatre, interactive technology and architectural installations”, and was an innovative way to explore the history of Whitehall Palace, of which the Banqueting House is the only remaining part.

The Lost Palace
The Lost Palace

I signed up to go after work and arrived in Westminster on a warm day. I entered the basement of the House and settled down to wait until it started, trying to familiarise myself with my headphones as I did so. I didn’t have long to wait, as we were soon called to stand round a model of the old Whitehall Palace and hear a disembodied-sounding voice tell us about the fire that destroyed it. I had no idea just how big the Palace used to be – it encompassed a vast area from Northumberland Avenue to Downing Street, consisting of 1,500 rooms spread over 23 acres. The Palace was the largest royal residence for the Tudor and Stuart courts.

Model of Whitehall Palace
Model of Whitehall Palace

The audio tour-slash-digital guide took us round the neighbouring streets, pointing out places of significance and allowing us to hear stories of those who used to live here. At one gate we touched our audio guides on the archway and heard about the first performance of King Lear; at the other side of the palace, we heard stories about parties and carousing at the location of King Charles II’s sundial.

Partaking in King Lear
Partaking in King Lear

The Palace used to be closer to the Thames than it is now and Queen Mary’s Steps, designed in 1691 by Sir Christopher Wren, are still visible overlooking the river. They were designed to give access from the Royal Apartments to the State Barge.

Queen Mary's Steps
Queen Mary’s Steps

The tour took us to Horse Guards Parade to witness jousts, and allowed us to overhear Guy Fawkes before he was sent to the Tower of London. One of my favourite parts required us to pretend our audio guide was a bird in order to partake of a spot of cock fighting. After listening in on the first encounter between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, the last part of the tour had us listening to Charles I’s hearbeat as he walked to the gallows, the location of which is now marked by a statue above the Banqueting House doorway.

Charles I
Charles I

Finally, we had a chance to sit inside the Banqueting House and take it all in. This was much needed after an intense and engrossing experience which is much recommended.

The Banqueting House
The Banqueting House

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.

***History***
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.

*Maze*
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.

***Accessibility***
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.

***Conclusions***
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.

FACTS

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.

***History***
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.

***Accessibility***
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.

***Conclusions***
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!

FACTS

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.