Buckingham Palace -- Evening Tour review
I thought I'd pop in and see the Queen tonight because she's putting on one of those Evening Tours of Buckingham Palace. It cost me £75 quid so it should be good. That's quite a lot of money so hopefully the Queen will be leading us around herself. If we end up with Prince Edward then I want a refund.
I'm sitting in St. James's Park at the moment, which is as good a place to wait as any. Everyone's taking photos of the swans and ducks, there's millions of them. They are all splashing and flapping on the bank waiting for a bit of food. All they get is pictures though. Flashlights and camera phones - no bread or biscuits for them today. It's amazing how many people fly over from Italy and Spain just to snap a picture of a duck. Don't they have ducks in other countries? Two weeks from now they will be sitting on their sofa boring their friends with photos of the London wildlife.
But anyway... the tour. I've been to Buckingham Palace plenty of times during the Summer Opening before so I already know what it's like inside. The only difference is that this time we are going to get an actual guide leading us around, instead if listening to out on some headphones. And apparently we're all going to get a glass of bubbly at the end as well -- that is what the ticket says.
Here's a tip: the next time you go to Buckingham Palace have a look at the flagpole. If the Union Jack is flying then you know that the Queen isn't home. But if it's the Royal Standard then you might see her peeking out of the net curtains. It's the Union Jack today, which is no surprise (she always spends the Christmas months at Sandringham) -- she doesn't want the hoi polloi racing round here house while she's getting ready for bed.
The daylight is fading now so I make my way to the palace. There's still quiet a crowd of people standing outside the gates watching the guards. They are lonely old soldiers, these guys, just marching up and down in lines all day. They haven't even got any marching music. It wouldn't be so bad if they could test their guns out on the tourists, but I suppose they'd get told off. So they just march up and down, up and down, and up and down. And up and down again. Lots of tourists are doing soldier salutes and stamping on the spot. In five minutes time they'll all be taking photos of the ducks.
It took me a little while to find the entrance to the tour because it's in a different place to the Summer Opening -- you have to go into the Queen's Gallery gift shop, a few minutes down the road (worth remembering if you turn up late). Now we're all sitting in a posh cloakroom waiting for the thing to begin. I'm trying to work out which bit of the palace we're in. The Summer one starts at the Ambassador's Entrance but Lord knows where we are now. It's like a very posh school cloakroom, where everyone hands over their scarves and hats to two posh old ladies. The group is pretty small (about 30-or-so) and is a mix of young, old, and very old. Some are posh, and some not (me). Some are good looking, some not (me). Some are me (me) and some not (not me).
Now the guide comes in and she's a nice motherly type. She explains that the route is a little different today because of some maintenance work going on, so we're going to get to see the Chapel stairs and have our bubbly in a different place. We also get to have a little stroll through the Queen's Gallery and see some of the works of art on display. Then she quick-marches through a few of the State Rooms without stopping, and sits us down in the vast Ballroom. I've seen this room before, but it's still a blinder. This is where they have all the State Banquets and do all the investitures. This is the first time that I've got a really good look at it empty, because there's usually a little exhibition on in here during the Summer Opening. But it's just our small little group and the guide this time, all alone in the vastness of the place.
For the next 20 minutes or so, she takes us through the history of the palace and its inhabitants. It's basically like a school lesson, with the teacher standing at the front. These things can sometimes be a bit boring but I happen to enjoy all this Royal stuff, so twenty minutes of John Nash, Queen Victoria and the Duke of Buckingham is right up my street. She also does a little Q&A session at the end, and there are plenty of opportunities to interrupt and ask her things. We might be sitting in the palace, but it's very far from being formal. After that we all get up and the tour starts proper, and she leads us through the rooms one by one.
The tour is much better when the palace is empty. You can really appreciate the vastness of the rooms when there's no one about. You can even hear an echo when she's talking in the ballroom, and I've never heard that in the Summer Opening. Usually you are crammed in with a hundred people at least, all milling around and filling up every inch of carpet. But we are all alone with the guide, walking the corridors like we own the place. It's all dimly lit too, with warm yellow lamplights bringing out the deep velvet reds and golds. It sure does look pretty in the low light.
After the Ballroom comes the State Dining Room (which is actually a smaller dining room -- not the one for the State dinners), Blue Drawing Room, Music Room and White Drawing Room. It's basically the complete opposite of the Summer Opening. It's the exact same rooms, but in reverse. The guide carries on talking all the way through the walk, pointing about various bits of furniture, jewellery and gilding on the ceiling. She also does a lot of talking about the art on the walls, and the Queen's family history, because it's all family portraits of long-dead kings and queens.
The guide explained that our tour was slightly different today because it usually ends in the Marble Hall, which means you get to see the Grand Staircase and Bow Room too (both beauties), but unfortunately there was a bit of work going on so we stopped in the East Gallery. They had a couple of tables set up with champagne glasses (apple juice and water too), and a couple of made-up pretty birds dished them out. I could have done with a sit down myself, rather than the bubbly, but no one's allowed to sit on the expensive furniture. So you end up with thirty people walking around and chatting like it's date night. I've got no small talk at all so I just milled around like an idiot for twenty minutes looking at the art.
And there's one more treat to come... instead of walking out the back of the gardens like you usually do, you get escorted across the Quadrangle (the interior courtyard) and straight out the front. You get led across the parade ground where they do the Changing of the Guard, and then out the main gates where all the tourists gather to snap their pictures of the soldiers. One of them even mistook me for Prince William and tried to kiss me (no she didn't).
So was it worth it? Well duh... if I had a toss-up between this and the Summer Opening then it's no contest -- the Evening Tour wins every time. It's nice to walk around the place without a having bazillion other people pushing past. You also learn a lot more with a real human guide instead of listening to some suit on the earphones. And it takes a lot longer too -- about two hours instead an hour-and-a-half. The only downside is the cost. But if you don't mind stumping up £75 quid then definitely give it a go.
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