Last weekend I was in London to meet up with an old friend, and we decided to take a look around Kensington Palace, just off Kensingon High Street and on the edge of Kensington Gardens. Kensington Palace has been a home to members of the Royal family since 1689 when the palace was purchased by King William III and Queen Mary II as a refuge with clean air for the King’s health and more recently, it was home to Queen Victoria and the late Princess Diana.
Although I was brought up in London, I’m finding that now when I return, there are so many wonderful places that never even came onto my radar while I lived there and this is one of them. I enjoy playing at being a tourist in my home town and I recommend Kensington Palace for the beautiful State apartments which are manageable in size and brought to life by the different exhibitions you can see there. Even though the day was freezing, the Palace and the park surrounding it had a very peaceful atmosphere, away from the bustle of shopping in Kensington nearby.
If you enjoy clothes and fashion, you’ll be in for a treat, as the first room you see contains a cabinet with a number of dresses that Princess Diana wore on state occasions, many of them instantly recognisable from the press photos you’ll have seen of her wearing them. The dresses were very simply displayed and I wished that they might have shown a few photographs of the Princess wearing them, rather than having to look at the books in the gift shop to find out how they looked when she wore them. Although the dresses were beautiful we soon realised that it was the Princess who brought them to life with her natural sparkle and personality.
There is normally the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection on display but unfortunately this was closed when we visited as was the small exhibition about The Last Debutantes which promised to be interesting. We walked around the state rooms, which were beautifully painted and decorated in the style of the 17th centrury when the Palace was home to King William and Queen Anne. Many of the rooms were quite small and cosy and laid out as if ready for a game of cards or a quiet read by the fire for the King or Queen wanting some privacy from the bustle of court.
Later we passed through the apartments used by Queen Victoria then she was growing up with her mother the Duchess of Kent, including her bedroom from which she was awoken on 20 June 1837 to be told that her uncle, King William IV had died and that she was now Queen.
As we walked on through the apartments, we came across a lady in costume standing by the window and as she was obviously waiting to tell us about the Palace, we approached to find that she was in fact Sarah, Countess of Marlbrough. She told us that her mistress Mary was the sister of the Queen, that they were the best of friends and waiting for King William III to die so that her mistress would be Queen. Sarah, Countess of Marlbrough married her husband John Churchill for love and partly due to her influence, he was given the title Duke of Marlbrough after his success at the Battle of Blenheim. But in 1710 she and Queen Mary had a terrible quarrel at Kensington Palace and never met again.
In reality, we were talking to Annie, one of many re-enactors in the Royal Palaces, who had just completed her PHD studying the food and society of this period. She also sometimes works at Hampton Court and was so enthusiastic about the history of the Palace and the period that it really brought it to life for us, more than reading a guidebook could do. Annie even explained to us the intricacies of the clothes she was wearing and enlightened us on the differences between the corsets worn in this era to the more curvy ones worn by the Victorians. As a mother with a little girl approached we stood aside, thinking that the daughter was going to find out more about this interesting character in costume. But all she asked was where the bathrooms were – what a missed opportunity! Later Annie told us that the most common questions she was asked were ‘Where are the bathrooms’, and ‘Are you hot/cold in that costume?’
We couldn’t leave Kensingon Palace without having tea in the nearby Orangery, built in the 18th Century and now serving breakfast, lunch and tea in elegant surroundings. It’s very popular in summer and you may have to queue but we had both lunch and tea there and enjoyed it immensely. The staff were very pleasant and welcoming although my Debutante’s afternoon tea was a bit disappointing for £15 as it consisted of some tiny sandwiches and snacks and I was left feeling I could have eaten it all again in a few mouthfuls. As my friend observed, perhaps those Debutantes had to watch what they ate to keep their figure. Everyone else around us was having the Signature Orange Tea which looked much nicer and better value at £14.55 with a large scone with cream and jam, two cakes and some sandwiches presented on a small cake stand, which is what I’d recommend you to try.
I’ll definitely be back to take my daughter around Kensington Palace, especially was we both love fashion, so I’m hoping the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection will be open when we visit.
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