Monday, September 13

Royal living

Buckingham Palace is one of the world’s last remaining royal palaces. More than 450 people can be found at work most days coordinating The Queen’s ceremonial duties, maintaining the building and grounds and running the royal establishment. Many of the official duties staged at the palace take place in one of its 19 state rooms. Every Summer these majestic, gilded rooms are opened to the public for two months while the Queen holidays at Balmoral Castle. These tours are a recent development. They were originally used to pay for a five-year, £37 million restoration of Windsor Castle undertaken after a devastating fire in November 1992.

Beyond the state rooms are another 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms. These remain off limits at all times. Today Garry and I spent a wonderfully sunny afternoon touring the Palace’s state rooms and gardens. We’d bought the tickets months ago and they had to be used before the end of September. We couldn’t have picked a better day to visit. The warm weather meant that doors and windows were open throughout the palace, offering glimpses of the grounds and giving the stunning, ornate rooms an airy feeling.

The tour gives visitors surprisingly generous access to its west wing. We were able to view the Grand Hall, climb the genuinely Grand Staircase and stand in the Throne Room; venue for many of royalty’s most famous family portraits. Each room was a picture to behold. Even the Ballroom was a highlight. Here the knighting sword used for investitures was on display. Perhaps the most impressive rooms were the State Dining Room and the White Drawing Room. To my eye the design and decoration felt more coherent and pleasing than any other room.

It’s easy to see why the palace’s construction and fitting had cost a heart-stopping £800,000 by the time the first royal, Queen Victoria, took up residence in 1837. John Nash, the appointed architect, originally estimated his work would cost £252,690. Millions more has been spent since finishing incomplete rooms, updating others and undertaking major restoration. The last major building phase was completed in 1913 when the current Mall façade was clad in durable Portland stone.

Today’s tour exited the palace via its West Front. This grand facade opens onto a generous 73 metre long terrace overlooking the private gardens. The gardens themselves are an impressive sight. They cover 16-hectres and include a lake, open lawns and shaded tree-lined pathways; all offering a tranquil green oasis in heart of central London. It’s here that The Queen hosts up to five garden parties every Summer, attended by eight thousand people. For the rest of year, the expansive lawn acts as her majesty’s private helipad.

We finished our day at the Palace with a tour of the Royal Mews. This complex, also designed by Nash, is where the royal carriages and limousines are stored; and the carriage horses are stabled. Perhaps the most impressive item on display here is the Gold State Stage. This rococo gilt coach is by used by the monarch for coronations, weddings and jubilee celebrations. It was presented to George III in 1760 and weighs a staggering four tones. The gilt vehicle is a remarkable sight with its painted panels, cherubs and grand Triton statues. Rumour has it the ride is incredibly uncomfortable. Sometimes royal life only looks grand.

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