My ten year old is obsessed with the Royal Family. It started when he was three and asked for a royal birthday party with a cake in the shape of a king’s head. He wore a purple cloak and a crown for the whole day – and for most of the next two years. Nowadays he reads everything he can get his hands on about the royals past and present. His favourite are the Queen (obviously) and Prince Harry but he loves reading all the stories about the famous kings and queens of the past, particularly Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria.
We’ve visited Buckingham Palace, Hampton Court and Windsor Castle so it was only a matter of time before we made it to Kensington Palace, the current London home of William and Kate and former home of Princess Diana and Queen Victoria.
The first thing you see are the iconic Gold Gates, so well remembered for being the focus of public grief in the summer of 1997 after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, when they were covered with flowers which stretched all the way into Kensington Gardens.
Once inside the palace there are several trails which take you around the rooms, concentrating on the particular kings and queens that have lived here.
The Queen’s State Apartments are the oldest part of the palace. These are the rooms that were created for William III and Mary II when they were crowned as joint monarchs in 1689.
The Queen’s Gallery was built in 1693 as a large, airy room where Mary could play with her pet dogs and do her embroidery. Further along you’ll find the wood-panelled Queen’s Dining Room. This was where the King and Queen would eat together in private – they had a surprisingly simple diet, often just eating fish washed down with beer.
Harry and I loved finding out the stories of some of the monarchs that have lived here. There are plenty of family tragedies: poor Mary II died of smallpox aged 32 – she only ruled for four years. Her sister, Princess Anne, who eventually succeeded her as Queen Anne in 1702, had 17 pregnancies but only one child survived past infancy. His name was William and he also died of smallpox – at the age of 11.
Anne was often ill herself. She suffered from gout and became so lame and overweight in later years that she had to be carried around court in a sedan chair.
The grand rooms that make up the King’s State Apartments are those that were used by King George II and his wife, Queen Caroline, when they made the palace their home from 1727 until the King’s death in 1760. You enter the apartments by walking up the marvellous King’s Staircase. The walls were painted to recall life in the court of King George I. All the characters of the court are here, including the King’s Turkish servants and Peter ‘the wild boy’, a naked and silent boy who had been found living alone in the woods in Germany and was brought to London as a curiosity.
King George II and Queen Caroline held their court in these rooms and you get a real feeling for what life was like in Georgian London as you wander around. George II was raised in Hanover in Germany but unlike his father, George I, who only spoke German, George II embraced Britishness and insisted that only English be spoken at court. In a quote that endeared him to his British subjects he declared the British to be:
“The handsomest, the best shaped, the best natured, and the lovingest people in the world, and that if anybody would make their court to him, it must be by telling him he was like an Englishman.”
He’s won me over already.
We rather liked the striking red walls in the Presence Chamber where the King received courtiers and foreign ambassadors and we loved the grand tapestries hung on the walls of the Privy Chamber but we were most impressed by the Cupola Room, the most splendidly decorated room in the palace. This was where the composer, Handel, brought his troupe of Italian opera singers to entertain the court. It’s also where Queen Victoria was christened.
Next door, the King’s Drawing Room was only for the most privileged guests. The room was opened up to “suitably dressed visitors” at 10pm several times a week. It was here that the Queen loved to gamble at cards. Courtiers would risk their fortunes playing games like whist and quadrille here.
The King’s Gallery is the largest of the state apartments and still looks as it did when it was decorated for George I in 1727. The dial over the fireplace was created for William III and is still connected to a wind vane on the roof. The King could use it to see which way the wind was blowing, where his navy was heading and when the post was likely to arrive. The map shows Great Britain as the same size as France. An optimistic error given that France is twice as big.
Queen Victoria was born at Kensington Palace in 1819 and Victoria Revealed takes you around the rooms in which she grew up and includes some fascinating objects from her personal life, from her childhood toys to extracts from her diaries and sketchbooks.
You enter via the staircase, where in 1836, Victoria met Prince Albert for the first time, declaring him “extremely handsome.” You then go into the Red Saloon where Victoria held her very first privy council meeting on her first day as queen. In the next room you’ll find a drawing room and the piano where Victoria and Albert played duets together. Some of the young Queen’s dresses are in here. We couldn’t believe how tiny they were – Victoria was obviously very short and slender when she was younger.
We then went into the room where she was born. Victoria’s father died when she was still a baby so she grew up alone with her mother, the Duchess of Kent. The young princess was brought up very strictly. She slept in her mother’s room until she became queen and she was never allowed out of the sight of an adult. She was hardly ever permitted to meet other children so she was very lonely, describing her childhood as “very unhappy.”
You can see her doll’s house and some of the 132 tiny wooden dolls that she played with. She gave them all names and made clothes for them with the help of her governess. Like our own Queen, Victoria was a keen animal lover. She loved riding her pony in Kensington Gardens and adored Dash, her King Charles spaniel, dressing him up in a red jacket and trousers. Dash was her constant companion and the first thing she did after her coronation in 1838 was to rush home and give him a bath.
The later rooms highlight Victoria’s long reign and the grief she experienced when her beloved Albert died in 1861. On display is the heart-shaped crystal locket she wore after his death which contains a lock of the prince’s hair, and one of the black mourning dresses that she insisted on wearing for the rest of her life. There is even some fascinating footage from a video of her Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
We really enjoyed the Fashion Rules Restyled exhibition which showcases some of the dresses designed for Princess Margaret in the 1950s, the Queen in the 1960s and 1970s and Princess Diana in the 1990s.
This is an amazing opportunity to see some of the iconic dresses worn by Princess Diana including the Catherine Walker green velvet evening dress she wore for her Vanity Fair shoot with Mario Testino. I particularly loved the full skirts and nipped-in waists of Princess Margaret’s look in the 1950s. You can even see some of the exquisite drawings created by designers like Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies while they were working on a dress for the Queen.
You must see the gardens after your visit around the palace. Take the Wiggly Walk, a long sloping path in between clipped hedges, up to the Sunken Garden, an 18th-century style garden with flower beds and an ornamental pond with fountains. If you’ve got time, wander around the wonderful Kensington Gardens. See if you can find the Peter Pan statue, go boating on the lake or play on the pirate ship in the brilliant Diana Memorial Playground.
Kensington Palace is open from 10am until 6pm. Adults, from £16.90; children, free. On Wednesdays and Saturdays in term time, under 5s can take part in ‘Tiny Explorers’, creative play sessions involving music, messy play and stories.