Buckingham Palace -- Summer Opening review
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There's an excited line of tourists outside Buckingham Palace. Half of us are dressed for a society ball and the other half the shops. There are people here who seem to believe you need to dress up to get inside. (Trust me, you don't.) The Queen must dread the Summer Opening. It's a bit like having a million in-laws come round your house at Christmas. But she's got a big advantage over the hoi polloi because when we turn up she's already halfway up the M1 for two months in Balmoral. If you're hoping to see the Queen walking around the palace in her pyjamas then forget it -- she's 400 miles away in Scotland. She's gone. She's outta here!
I love Buckingham Palace, and if you've never seen inside before then you're in for a treat. This is the place you'll be talking about on the plane back home. You'll be boring your friends about it months later:
The security is super tight, as you would expect for a place like this. They check your bag, your pockets, check for metal, check for a shifty look on your face, take your jacket off, your belt off, pat you down, smack you about a bit, before finally letting you through. Then you pick up an audioguide and you're on your way.
You're allowed to walk the one-way route at your own pace, but in reality you're kept moving along by the speed of the commentary. You get a quick two minutes of talking in each room before they subtly nudge you through the next door -- so you need to savour everything as you're passing through because there's no turning back. It's as if the carpet is a conveyor belt, carrying you and a hundred other people from room to room in two minute shifts.
They always have a big exhibition that changes every year. In the past they've had displays about William and Kate's wedding, the Queen's Coronation, and her Diamond Jubilee, but this year they've decided to dig out the contents of her wardrobe. They've put a big collection of her dresses in the Ball Supper Room and Ballroom, and if I'm being honest I thought it was a bit bland. She wasn't exactly Princess Diana in the dress department, but hey, I'm a bloke, so what do I know! They've included a few from her youth and every decade of her reign. They've got some buttoned up numbers from the 1960s, a garish green piece from the 1970s, a few blue ones with matching hats, right up to the old lady drapes she's wearing today. There's another 30-odd frocks she's worn on her world tours.
It gets better in the big Ballroom because they've got some of her ceremonial gowns on show. The highlight is her original wedding dress and Coronation gown from 1953. There's a long display case filled with fifty feathered hats as well, which reminds me of that display case at the Natural History Museum filled with stuffed birds. Given that she's only got one head, she sure does own a lot of hats!
It's usually at this point in the review that I have a little moan (I do this every year) because I'd much rather see the Ballroom without the exhibition. I'm lucky enough to have seen it empty on an evening tour so I know how impressive this room can be -- it's where they dish out the gongs and dish up the State dinners. But when the Summer Opening comes along they always partition it off with fake walls and cabinets for the exhibition. Arrrgh! I feel so passionately about this that I'm going to send a letter to the Queen and tell her what a huge mistake it is. I'll tell her if she wants a 5-star review in my guidebook then she'll have to bin the exhibition and show us the Ballroom unadorned.
It was at this stage of the tour that it dawned on me they've changed the route. If you've been to Buckingham Palace before then now you have a reason to visit again, because they show you a few new rooms that I've never seen before. They're just little connecting rooms really, but they're still worth seeing. Then it's back out into the East Gallery and the spectacular suite beyond: the Blue Drawing Room (maybe my favourite room in the palace), the Music Room and White Drawing Room. Then it's into the long Picture Gallery with its Titian's, Rembrandt's, Ruben's, Van Dyck's, Canaletto's and more... it's like the best of the National Gallery condensed into a single room.
After that comes the Green Drawing Room and Throne Room... and another surprise. I must be getting a bit slow on the uptake, because I totally missed that we hadn't seen the Throne Room at the start. Normally they send you straight up the Grand Staircase and into the main attraction, but they've had a shift around this year and saved the Throne Room for the end. Whoever had this idea was a genius, because it's much better at the end. If you listen to the audioguide then Handel's Coronation Anthem will chime up when you step through the door, which literally gave me goosebumps. And I had it coming at me from two fronts today, because the Changing the Guard ceremony was happening across the forecourt so all the military music was drifting in through the open window. If the Queen had came in at that moment then I would have bowed down and pledged my allegiance -- no doubt about it. That room can make a patriot out of anyone.
After that you head down the Minister's Staircase and along the Marble Hall to the Bow Room, where you exit out into the gardens. I do hope you've got your wallet handy because you'll definitely need it now... you can't come to Buckingham Palace and not have a cucumber sandwich on the veranda. They slice them into triangles and cut the crusts off -- that's how posh they are. And you have to buy a cup of Earl Grey tea as well. I know it tastes like perfume but who cares... just hold your nose and down it. It's what the Queen drinks so you're having some (no arguing!). You're sitting inside Buckingham Palace so just pretend you like it.
The veranda looks out over the lawn where she holds her summer garden parties. The view is just green grass and trees from the cafe, but as you head towards the exit you walk past a little lake and some unkempt beds with wild trees and bees and rocks, but that's about it. If you want to see the pretty ornamental beds then you need to stump up some extra money for a garden tour. I tried it a few years ago and it's well worth doing if you're into flowers, but I wouldn't recommend it otherwise. It's just gravel paths and plant pots, and a distant glimpse of the Queen's private apartments from fifty feet away.
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