Himself and Yours Truly have visited the area around Buckingham Palace and have watched for the Royal standard atop the residence every time we’ve gone to London. The presence of the standard, of course, indicates that the Queen is actually in her London residence and accepting visitors for tea—well, very carefully selected visitors, of course. We made our tour of "Buck House" on October 3rd, 1999, the last day of the season that the State Rooms of the palace were open to the public. This tour was one Himself had particularly wanted to make, so we were delighted to slip in just under the wire, as it were. In general, the state rooms of the palace are open for touring only during the Queen’s annual visit to Scotland—roughly during August and September of each year.
Setting the Scene
We reached the palace through St. James Park, a personal favorite for leisurely walks, and found ourselves in the midst of a crowd gathering for the Changing of the Guard. We heard the new guard approaching but really could see very little, so we decided to concentrate on people-watching and admiring the grounds surrounding the palace. The formal beds of flowers were gorgeous, and the crowd was in good spirits.
The large monument to Queen Victoria in front of the palace was literally covered with people hoping for a better view of the guard ceremony, and I could only wonder what the Grand Dame herself might have thought about the resulting spectacle. The oversized statue of the Queen reminded me of a storyteller doll from the Pueblo Indian tradition of the American Southwest—that is, a clay sculpture of a large, typically maternal figure with much smaller figures of children covering the whole of the storyteller's arms, head, and torso. I also wondered how the current Queen felt about the band for her palace guard playing Broadway show tunes and Bob Dylan hits. But as she wasn't home, I suppose it didn't matter.
We purchased tickets that would allow us access to the palace at 12:15 and waited our turn. On entering the gate, we were guided into a tent-like structure that served as a security checkpoint. After inspecting our bags, polite security personnel directed us through metal detectors and, in some cases, pat-downs before we could proceed. (This is the residence of the Queen, friends. You don't just walk in off the street.)
On successfully completing our security check, we were directed to another tent where we were able to purchase guidebooks and thence to the palace itself. At the gate to the Ambassadors' Court, a gentleman in full palace livery instructed us to open our guidebooks to page 13 and we were on our way. Although this was not a docent tour, knowledgeable staff were available throughout the State Rooms, along with occasional cardboard placards to explain areas or displays of particular interest. The principal tool of the tour, however, was the guide book, which made our pace a bit slow.
As we skirted the inner courtyard, we caught what may have been our only Royal sighting during all our trips to Britain. We witnessed a woman in a wheelchair being taken from a large and well-equipped transport van. The woman appeared elderly and fragile, and in general had the appearance attributed to Princess Margaret during the later part of her life. If it was Margaret, we offer a belated apology for our stares. We allowed ourselves to be caught up in the moment at a time when the woman we watched was really entitled to her privacy.
The interiors of the palace truly are lavish. I suppose that shouldn't have come as a great surprise, but gold leaf in such abundance is still an extraordinary experience for Your Truly. In any case, the path up the palace's Grand Staircase simply can't be taken lightly. The art, armaments, and architecture are simply magnificent and make an overpowering impression—which, of course, is the point. The State Rooms represent the public heart of the "working palace." They are setting behind the face of the monarchy as presented during Royal ceremonies and to heads of state from the world over.
As appropriate, I was awed by the Throne Room with its brilliant red and gold color scheme. The throne chair used by Queen Victoria and those currently held by Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh are more modest in appearance than I expected.
The White Drawing Room was my favorite of the State Rooms we visited. It contains a drawing of Queen Elizabeth II by John Merton that is far simpler than anything else I saw in the palace. I very much appreciated the human scale it gave the Queen, and I took note of how the drawing contrasted with and was complemented by the overall opulence of its surroundings.
I also loved the galleries with their magnificent collection of art. Works by Vermeer, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyke as well as countless portraits of the Royal Family over several generations can be seen in these galleries—family portraits on a grand scale. Add to these the profusion of costly porcelain, sculpture, crystal, tapestries, and furniture (many of these being State gifts from representatives of kingdoms and empires that no longer exist) and you have grist for a long and satisfying visit to the Queen's London home.
The Gift Shop
Leaving the palace by an exit from the Bow Room, Himself and Yours Truly made our obligatory visit to the gift shop, which was housed in yet another large, temporary tent-like structure. This was the scene of one of our budget-busting extravagances. We separately circled the items on display, then met to discover that we'd both selected the same item—a boxed set of toy soldiers. After Himself returned his to its original location, I commented that it was amazing we'd each chosen the same gift, a set of toy soldiers for our grandson Jacob. The dear man's face fell a bit as he said, "Yours was for Jacob?"—at which point we retrieved the second set for Grandpa.
We selected a few more small and relatively inexpensive items, then queued to pay for our goodies. I was shocked by the total: £111. It turned out that the toy soldiers were part of a limited edition (complete with certificates of authenticity, naturally), and their price was £32.50 per set. Ouch! We'd misread the sign and thought we were buying two £11 sets. Since we were loath (translate "chicken") to re-queue and return merchandise to Queen, we came home with 1/500 of Buckingham Palace's 1999 distribution of collectable toy soldiers. Jacob, then at age three, seemed largely unimpressed by his windfall.
Wherefores and By-the-Ways
During the 2005 season, the palace is open to the public July 30 through September 27. Admission fees are as follows:
Adults – £13.50
Seniors and Students – £11.50
Children under 17 – £7.00
Children under 5 – Free
Families (2 adults and 3 children) – £34.00
As Buckingham Palace is located adjacent to St. James Park and near Trafalgar Square, the Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey, it’s not hard to find. Access is easy by way of tube (Victoria, Green Park and Hyde Park Corner stations), city bus (numbers 11, 211, 239, C1, and C10), or tour bus. Further information on touring the palace, including special arrangement for the disabled, can be obtained by calling (+44) (0)20 7766 7300.