on September 7, 2010
Buckingham Palace is the official residence of the Queen. It is in full use and a busy place most of the year, but in summertime she moves to Balmoral Castle, and so the State Rooms of the Palace are opened to the public. Generally this summer opening runs from the end of July to the end of September but can vary slightly - the 2010 dates are 27th July to 1st October. Admission prices are not cheap. £17 for adults and £15.50 for concessions can make it a pricey day out. I recently visited with my mum; my dad decided not to come with us as he wasn't interested enough to pay another £15.50. As I was pushing my mum in a wheelchair, I had free admission as an access companion, meaning entry cost us £15.50; had all three of us visited without a wheelchair, it would have been a whopping £48. Entry is timed. When you buy your ticket you are given a time to enter the Palace, in order to control numbers. You can book online in advance to guarantee your entry time. On the busy day we visited, we had to wait 45 minutes for our entry time, having not thought to book in advance. As disabled visitors, we had a slightly different experience to the average visitor. We used a different entrance, and followed a very slightly different route in order to use lifts and avoid the stairs, but we still saw everything. The visit started off in grand style. Instead of using the entrance at the side of the palace which has stairs, we had to go in the front gates where we were taken by golf buggy into the quadrangle. We used the same driveway as important visitors and the Queen herself! Although I suspect she does not use the golf buggies, it was an interesting experience; the last time I saw this entrance on TV was when David Cameron visited to form the government. The rooms which are open to the public are the State Rooms. These are the rooms used for official functions and visits, so don't be thinking you're getting to see the Queen's apartments! There are a number of rooms open, including several drawing rooms, the picture gallery, the ballroom and the throne room. An audio guide is provided, which tells you a bit about the history, features and current uses of the room. There are plenty of things to see in each room, priceless artefacts and paintings. I enjoyed seeing the portraits of past monarchs, such as Victoria and her descendants. Interestingly there were no portraits of the Queen on display - perhaps protocol is that there are none on display while she is reigning. My impression of the rooms we saw was that they were very ornate and rather spangly. There was a lot of gold, and a lot of intricate carving on the walls and ceilings. Buckingham Palace is not very old, as Victoria was the first monarch to live there, and so the decoration is perhaps more modern than the likes of Windsor. We visited the Queen's country retreat of Sandringham just over a month before we visited Buckingham Palace, and the contrast was huge. Buckingham Palace is part of the face of the monarchy; it is everything that the public and visitors would expect from royalty. Sandringham is more somewhere that the Queen can relax and take some rest from her duties. Each summer there is a special exhibition for the opening of the State Rooms, and this year it was The Queen's Year. This aimed to give an insight into the duties the Queen performs throughout the year, and show some items associated with these duties. It was interesting and enjoyable in itself, however the room it was located in was such a bottleneck that it was not a pleasant place to be. We visited on the Saturday of the August bank holiday weekend, and the Palace was very busy. The exhibition room was a place where people were moving slowly and all trying to crowd round the same things. It was hot and cramped. People were in general very considerate to my mum in her chair, moving so I could get her close to the exhibits, but they were strangely inconsiderate to me! They saw the wheelchair but not the person pushing it. I was constantly being jostled and pushed, and spent the whole time pressed against the back of the wheelchair. I was glad when we exited into the ballroom. There was also part of the exhibition in the ballroom, but there was more space here. We saw the robes the Queen wears to the state opening of parliament, along with the ceremonial sword and sceptre, dating back to the 17th century. Very impressive. One thing I have to comment on is the staff. They were incredibly polite, friendly and couldn't do enough to help. They were bending over backwards to ensure that disabled visitors got as much out of their visit as everyone else. I was thoroughly impressed. While my mum does not necessarily like the attention, I felt it was just right, not too over-the-top as some places can be in trying to help disable visitor, and it was so nice to see people working so hard. Every member of staff was very professional, and I can't rate them highly enough. Once we had visited all the rooms, we went out the back of the palace to the cafe. This is a new addition for summer 2010, located outside under a large canopy, which I had read about before visiting. Refreshments are served in paper cups and plates with a pretty Buckingham Palace design on them - not china as too many people would be tempted to nab a souvenir! However, with the paper ones the cafe staff will give you a clean cup to take away if you ask nicely. The cafe was mobbed. My mum sat on a bench beside the entrance while I went to get food. I bought a coffee, a small cup of Sandringham apple juice (lovely!) and a brie and cranberry sub sandwich. It totalled £8.65! Insane prices. Sandwiches are £4.99 each, cakes are £3.99. The sandwich was nice and just what I wanted, but not worth that money at all. The exit from the Palace is not in the same place as the entrance, but rather right at the back of the gardens - you stroll through the gardens to get there. There is a shop in a tent that you pass, which stocks the usual fare we have come to recognise from the royal palaces - souvenirs, jewellery, branded food and china. Every time we are in one of these shops my mum and I admire the china but never buy any - a cup and saucer at £35 is a bit steep. There is another mini-shop within the Palace just for disabled visitors, as the main shop is accessed either by a short flight of stairs from the back of the Palace, or by going right back to the entrance and taking the golf buggy round to the back. It has a very small selection of gifts, but what really struck us was that everything had been thought of for visitors. Of course, I'm sure they were thinking of shop revenue when they put in the mini-shop, but it was still nice to see everything considered for disabled visitors. I really enjoyed visiting Buckingham Palace, having wanted to for some time. It was a very interesting and enjoyable place to visit, and I'm still impressed by the consideration of the staff. However, it may not be for everyone so think before you visit, given the high entry prices. I do not think it would appeal to children for example, so may not be a good family day out.
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