For me, London’s Kensington Palace will be forever linked with Princess Diana. It was her home, the grounds contain her memorial gardens, and I will never forget attending the candlelit vigil outside the palace the week of her funeral. So even before I visit, I associate this palace with sadness. But the roomful of Diana’s empty dresses marks the end of a long history of heartache for the well born women who called this place home.
A series of installations pick out the stories of the Kings and Queens who once lived here. A line of tiny, golden chairs represent ‘Queen Anne’s Little Hopes’ – the eighteen children who died during her reign. Further into the Queen’s State Apartments, four thrones and abstract images projected onto the ceiling portray the dreams of her eldest Little William. The ‘future king’ died on his eleventh birthday. Legend has it he danced himself to death at his party. Already I’m learning more about history through art than I ever did at school.
We stand on the spot where it’s thought Queen Victoria was born and we share in the loss of her beloved husband Albert through a series of letters, documents and art installations. We step into a miniature Crystal Palace and imagine a visit to the Great Exhibition.
We wander a scale model of Victorian London, peer into a troubled past through doll’s house windows and watch news footage of the Diamond Jubilee (Victoria’s not Elizabeth’s) curling in the wind on long white mobiles.
A recent £12 million refit of the State Apartments at Kensington seems to have given art as much free reign as history. The installations are atmospheric and moving. And just a bit quirky. And unlike some palaces around the world that are open to the public, it’s not all boring royal beds in boring royal bedrooms.
We fill in postcards saying why we are in London, and hang them on the wall with hundreds of others carrying personal messages:
“I’m visiting London because…I have no choice.”
“I’m visiting London because..I like the buses, and the telephones, and The Queen.”
“I’m visiting London because…I heard Queen Caroline had my horn.”
“I’m visiting London because…I will be the next king of England.”
But in those days, news wasn’t spread with postcards. Gossip was more effective. We sit in alcoves and listen to events unfolding for the various Queens through the vicious whispers of their courtiers, through well placed speakers hidden in the drapes.
Although the King’s State Apartments are undeniably grand and extremely golden, The Queen’s State apartments tell a more gripping story of life at the palace. Mostly it’s the stuff of nightmares.
I’ve heard enough and seen enough to know I wouldn’t have enjoyed being Queen Mary II. Queen Anne had a really raw deal, and a wander round Queen Victoria’s former rooms doesn’t persuade me to step into her shoes either. And then there’s the Diana exhibition. This Palace holds family tragedy close.
While I think about all this, my kids skip around doing a treasure hunt, rummaging through character bags and playing with puppets. Can you see Hannah under the carriage?
Before I know it they are being interviewed for a position at The Palace.
“What would you do if you spotted someone comfort eating in the bedroom?” asks the court recruitment officer of Matthew.
I’m suspicious of her motives. Has she been spying on my bedtime feasts?
She continues with a series of options. “Would you get rid of her boring husband, hide the chocolate or practice the cupola?”
Get rid of the husband? Who’d do the VAT returns? But the question is based on Queen Caroline’s diet cheats, not mine, and when Matt chooses the cupola to treat her, he is rewarded with the job of Court Physician (check out the video clip). It’s an officer’s post paying £750 a year and he’s happy; it buys a lot of iTunes vouchers.
Meanwhile Cameron is tested out for the job of lion keeper, putting his fingers in the mouth of the recruitment officer’s colleague to test his mettle. Then, to our daughter’s astonishment, the boys celebrate their new jobs by dressing up as their roles. But they’re not alone. On this cold and blowy day, Kensington Palace is full of families dressing up and chilling out.
As we exit the gift shop, a helicopter rises above our heads, watched by a huge crowd and surrounded by police. According to a couple of Americans in the crowd we just missed Kate; the latest royal woman to make the palace her home; albeit on a part time basis. I hope she has a happier time than her predecessors. And that she pays no attention to the gossips behind the curtains.
Kensington Palace is one of London’s Historic Royal Palaces, situated in Kensington Gardens in West London. Allow a morning or afternoon for a good look around, especially if you want to visit the gardens and get some refreshments in The Orangery. There are family trails to get kids involved and special events and activities for families during half terms and holidays. There are also family activities and resources online to help get kids engaged before or after your visit. You can even follow the Lord Chamberlain on Twitter!
Check the website for current opening times, ticket prices and special exhibitions. When we visited in winter it was open Monday to Sunday 10am – 5pm with last admission at 4pm but there is later evening opening in summer. Tickets are available online (with discount) or on entry and up to six kids go free with a paying adult (if you’re brave enough). Annual memberships are also available and offer unlimited access to five Historic Palaces in the London area.
Disclosure Note: Our thanks to Historic Royal Palaces for their help with access to help bring you this story.