Kensington Palace review
How many tourists put Kensington Palace on their 'must-do' list because of Princess Diana? If that's your only reason for going then trust me: don't bother. It's not much of a palace. It looks more like a Stately home to me -- the kind of country home you might visit on a Sunday afternoon to have a cup of tea.
You can always rate a palace by the fame of the names who lived in it. William III was obviously a hugely important monarch, but let's be honest -- how many tourists know him? Unless you actually paid attention at school then you probably won't have a clue who he is (he's the Dutch guy who successfully invaded England during the Glorious Revolution). George I and II lived here as well. Victoria lived here as a princess but packed her bags as soon as she got promoted to Queen. Diana did it the other way around: she carried on living here after she got divorced. Nowadays it's home to Prince William and Kate, but their apartments are around the back in a totally different part of the building.
The self-guided tour begins with a walk up the King's Staircase to the State Apartments of George I and II. Very grand. A very impressive set of stairs. Everything you see from this point on is the equivalent of Buckingham Palace and Hampton Court, but on a much smaller scale. You still have a Presence Chamber, Privy Chamber, private dining rooms and bedrooms, etc., but there are no big ballrooms, Great Halls or religious chapels, nnor anything monumental that will take your breath away.You'll notice a lot of shortcuts in the decorations as well. Take the Cupola Room as an example: the recesses in the ceiling are all painted on. The dangling chandeliers look like wood and gold leaf. This is what luxury looks like when you don't spend enough money.
William III's rooms are all dark wood and not a lot of furniture, and I get the impression that they've been set-dressed to look like the 17th-century. If you have an interest in William and Mary then trust me: just visit Hampton Court Palace instead, because their rooms are far superior over there.
The most interesting rooms are the State Apartments of Queen Victoria and Albert, but, once again, they are practically devoid of interesting exhibits. I suppose she must have emptied it all out when she moved to Buckingham Palace, because it's definitely not a time capsule. It hasn't been frozen in time. The furniture and artworks that surely must have been here have all been removed and replaced with odds and sods. They've scrawled a few quotes on the pillars and mirrors... put a few dresses on display... hung a few pictures and paintings on the walls... plonked a couple of cabinets around with Albert's razor in it, some music books, and their little kid's toys. But it's just ephemera.
It gets better when Albert dies and she enters her final misery. They've inflated one of her black tent dresses and put some family photos on the walls, and it's quite interesting to see her looking moody and gloomy and surrounded by her family. She looks like one of those mad old nans that your grandkids dread to visit.
I don't think our Royal Family has quite forgiven Princess Diana yet, judging by her absence at the palace. If you're hoping to see her living quarters then forget it. Her private rooms would obviously be a tremendous draw for the tourists, but the only thing you'll see in here is a collection of her dresses. They've pinned them to a plastic mannequin and shone a load of lights on them. You can look at some magazine covers and view a few film clips of her looking doe-eyed at the camera, but that's basically all you get for Diana -- empty dresses in a glass box. Her public and private meltdowns are still too embarrassing to discuss, so they've focused on the least controversial thing about her: her clothes. She's been recast as a fashion model. One day we'll have a proper exhibition about her life, but not while Prince Charles is still around to veto it.
If you're hoping for an exhibition about Prince William and Kate then you're out of luck -- there's nothing. There is no information about them whatsoever.
But listen to me... jeez! This is one of London's Royal Palaces, and I'm trying to talk it down! I guess I'm just extremely hard to impress. I just don't think that it's memorable, in the same way that Buckingham Palace, Hampton Court and Windsor Castle are. Because you need to remember that I'm writing as a tourist guide here, and not as an historian, so I'm looking for totally different things. I want to see twenty quid's worth of memories to tell your friends about when you get back home. I want to see people's mouths fall open when they enter an amazing room. I want to see people taking photos on their phones so they don't forget what they're seeing. But they're not. And they don't.
P.S.: If you want the best view of the building then head round the northern edge of the Sunken Garden (you don't even have to pay if you don't want to -- you can just enter it from the edge of Kensington Gardens). You can then look back towards the palace from across the ornamental garden.
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