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Kensington Palace has been used by British royalty since the late 1600s, but is perhaps more famous these days for being the home of Diana, Princess of Wales. She moved in after her divorce from Charles in 1996, and is now home to her two sons: Prince William and Prince Harry.
The house was originally a simple country mansion on the outskirts of London, but was converted into a palace by King William III. His architect was Christopher Wren, the same man who built the great St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The State Rooms were added by George I, but George III decided that he much preferred Buckingham Palace and Kew Palace, so it remained empty for many years.
It then became a home for Royal siblings – the most famous of which was Queen Victoria, who was born and raised inside the grounds. The tradition has continued to the present day, with Prince William, Katherine and Harry.
The King’s Drawing Room has a splendid view of Kensington Gardens, whilst the King’s Long Gallery contains an amusing mistake in William Kent’s painted ceiling: the artist spent months drawing out the story of Odysseus, only to realise too late that he gave Cyclops two eyes!
You can see Kent himself on the King’s Staircase (wearing a turban), alongside a famous portrayal of Peter ‘Wild child’ – who was discovered living in a German forest and brought back to England for the aristocracy’s amusement.
The highlight of a visit to Kensington Palace is undoubtedly the Cupola Room, which is decorated in the style of ancient Rome with busts and classical paintings.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
I made the soggy wet trek over to Kensington Palace today, trudging through the park in the muddy flooded fields. I almost sank a few feet up to my knees in the sludgy stuff, it was that wet. But I made it (I’m very brave). You don’t have to worry – I am still alive. Although I did walk some muddy footprints all over the palace’s shiny floors. Nobody chucked me out though, because I think everyone was as wet as me.
The palace is broadly split into three different sections which cover their own king or queen. You can do them in any order you like, but I plumped for the one upstairs first. That’s the one that follows Queen Victoria and Albert.
The palace must have been emptied of furniture at some point (probably when Queen Victoria decamped to Buckingham Palace), because a lot of the rooms are quite sparsely decorated. There are still plenty of historical items to look at though, so that’s not meant as a criticism. But it doesn’t seem very “lived in”, if you know what I mean. You get told that this room housed so-and-so, but where are their chairs? where’s their bed? It’s just bits and pieces dotted around.
The actual objects on display consist chiefly of Queen Victoria’s jewellery and dresses, books and bible. They’ve got a big dolls house, too, and Albert’s shaving kit. They’ve even got a little toy-box for their six billion kids, filled with choo-choo trains and tin drums with tassels. The dresses are quite enlightening because Queen Victoria seemed to be a midget. Her head only comes up to my shoulders, and my shoulders probably only come up to your knees (I’m pretty short, too). That is how short she was. Albert wasn’t exactly a strapping German bodybuilder either, judging by his military uniform.
As you would expect, there are plenty of portraits hanging on the walls, and some old black and white photos of the Queen in later life. She was quite a looker when she was young. I think Albert got lucky there. The photos of her looking mean and moody in her seventies are very iconic (that was her “fat Elvis” period), but boy oh boy was she a misery! She looks like she spent the last few decades of her life chewing a wasp.
They’ve got a room full of her black fat mourning dresses which always remind me of Florence Nightingale. I think she liked a bit of black after Albert died. She was the Johnny Cash of the Victorian age. It’s all black black black. Black dresses, black hats. Black thoughts. She was probably the world’s first emo-Goth.
The next part of the palace is the King’s State Apartments, which covers the Georgians and a bit of William and Mary. The King’s Gallery is the stand-out room – a bit like the Waterloo Gallery at Apsley House, if you’ve ever been there, or a poor man’s version of the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace.
As you venture further into the apartments you come across some increasingly spectacular spaces, all decorated in the same deep reds and golds. The Cupola Room was my favourite. The ceilings are hanging with giant chandeliers, and garish gold statues look down from alcoves in the walls. It’s not the kind of place you’d come for a lie-down, but it would be good for impressing the neighbours next-door. Whilst you’re walking around these bits you’ve got some jaunty Georgian music playing in the background – baroque music by Handel, and bits like that.
Next up are the Queen’s Apartments, overlooking the Sunken Garden out the front. They had a big exhibition on today of royal dresses from the Queen’s own wardrobe, plus some other stuff from Princess Margaret’s and Princess Diana’s. They are all set up in dazzling display cases of glass, with bright white spotlights beaming down from the ceiling. It was quite well done I suppose but I’m a bloke, and dresses + bloke = boredom.
There are lots of copies of Vogue and Harpers on the wall, with little videos playing against the whitewashed walls of Diana dancing with John Travolta and meeting Michael Jackson. I don’t think she dated very well… she looks very 80s with her bouffant bob and shoulder pads.
This is how I would sum up Princess Diana: she had a nice hairdo, but was a bit of a fruit loop. It’s not often a pretty young bird gets ousted by a chain-smoking old granny, but that is what happened to poor Princess Di. So we can only imagine what she was must have been like behind closed doors – she must have driven Prince Charles nuts for him to boot out a beauty like that.
The rest of the Queen’s Apartments focus on William and Mary. Whereas all the Georgian bits are gold, the William bit is all dark and moody browns, with autumnal colors and birdsong playing out the speakers. It looks like they’ve tried to turn it into a magical enchanted palace, with paper toys spinning in the stairwell and model birds flying down the corridors. You can hear whispered conversations drifting out of the record player (the ‘gossip of court’), and in one room they’ve gone totally Narnia-nuts. It’s done up like a wood with twisting branches on a bed of fallen orange leaves.
Strings of holly and roses wind around the barrier, and wooden boxes of paper kings and queens sit precariously in the boughs, their faces peeping out of lamplit windows. It’s all very special looking, but I’m not sure what it had to do with William and Mary. If you could walk around it at night then you’d probably think you were dreaming.
> Read Craig’s latest review of Kensington Palace “How many tourists put Kensington Palace on their must-do in London 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… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of Kensington Gardens “I always think of Hyde Park as stretching all the way from Park Lane to Kensington Palace, but it actually stops at the Serpentine. Anything west of that is called Kensington Gardens. But it’s obviously the same place so I think it’s a bit daft, but hey… I’m not in charge. Apart from the lake, the Albert Memorial and Kensington Palace, it’s actually quite a flat and featureless place. There must be ten thousand trees at least, but they never look like a wood. They’ve spread them out like single strands of hair on a bald head. They need to clump them up a bit and turn them into a forest… continued.”
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If you enjoy your visit to Kensington Palace then there are plenty of the other Royal palaces in London. The best one is definitely a day-trip to Windsor Castle, closely followed by a tour of Buckingham Palace. Henry VIII’s home at Hampton Court is also worth a look, and you can also have a tour of Clarence House during the summer months.
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