One of the dilemmas facing a Kate fan when planning a trip to London is whether to try to see Kate or “be” Kate—do we want to spend our time waiting along a parade route or outside of an official visit to catch a brief glimpse of her, or would it be more fun to shop where she’s shopped, eat where she’s eaten, walk where she’s walked?
In earlier posts, I’ve covered the seeing Kate part and the shopping like Kate part; this time I want to share the most special London tourist experience I’ve ever had, an evening that truly let me walk in Kate’s shoes and feel, for a fleeting moment, like a princess: an after-hours tour of Buckingham Palace.
These reservation-only tours, led by docents of the Historic Royal Palaces, are held in September, April, and December when the Queen is not in residence. They are not the same experience as touring the state rooms in July and August–that visit is self-guided and feels like a normal museum excursion. Instead, only two of these exclusive evening tours go out each night, and there are just 30 people on each tour. I personally attest that the small group experience, especially given the size of the large Buckingham Palace rooms, gives you a feel for what it’s like to be a member of the royal family gathering for a lunch or waiting behind the French doors that lead to a balcony appearance.
The first stop of my evening was the Visitor’s Entrance on the side of Buckingham Palace, then through security and the Ambassador’s Entrance into a very lovely waiting room lined with exactly one chair for each tour attendee. Everyone who came through the doors was on pins and needles, checking cell phones for battery power and adjusting camera lenses. But alas, the first thing we were told was that there was no use of cell phones or cameras allowed on the tour. It was disappointing, of course, but in the end, I did feel like I got more out of the experience without looking at the palace through the screen of my iPhone.
At six pm on the dot, we were escorted outside through the courtyard and into the palace proper by way of the Porte Cochere, the covered entrance through which the queen and foreign dignitaries enter the palace during state visits, the very door where Kate and William dismounted from their wedding carriage.
Something about walking through that door affected me deeply. It was like stepping into a book, a secret entrance to a place I’d never dreamed I would be inside. As a historian by training, I was keenly of the many august figures who had come through that door, and the venerable tradition of the building into which I was entering. As a Kate follower, I was—as the British say—absolutely gob-smacked to be seeing the the very private view Kate saw on her very public wedding day.
I was, frankly, embarrassed at the thrill I got from being “on the inside,” and I gained a new appreciation for the barriers that Kate, William, and Harry put up between themselves and the public in order to preserve their privacy. My chagrin was short-lived, however, because the Great Hall in which I was standing and the Grand Staircase I was about to climb were breathtaking. I took my tour on December 30th, so the palace was still decorated for Christmas with fir garlands on the banisters and wreaths under every archway. Even without the extra decoration, the Grand Staircase is a sight to behold. Climbing it, I was struck by the thickness of the carpet laid over the stone stairs, and the hush that carpet brings to the high-ceilinged space. Despite its grandeur, the palace feels cozy and graciously relaxed.
The tour continued upstairs, through all of the state rooms of the place. The docent was extremely well-versed in the stories of Queen Victoria and her direct ancestors, since they were the royals who first lived in Buckingham House–as it was called before George IV transformed it into the palace we know today. George IV was a flamboyant and extravagant monarch who rebuilt the palace for the express purpose of out-doing Versailles. Quirkily, he was the world’s most prolific collector of Sevres, to the extent that when he died, the French government was afraid the company would go bankrupt. The Blue and Green Drawing rooms were decorated to match certain pieces of his Sevres, which are still on display. It was Queen Victoria and Albert who made the palace feel like a family home. They included musical instruments in as many public spaces as possible, and the ballroom they installed is one highlight of the tour.
But, for a Kate fan, the actual highlight is most certainly the Picture Gallery, where her wedding reception was held. The docent pointed out the exact spot where the wedding cake was displayed, and once again, I was bothered the excitement I felt at standing in that spot and feeling personally connected to a moment of royal history. I felt I should be more engaged with the impressive works of art lining the walls and the specifications of the beautiful furniture.
That feeling stayed with me as I saw the White Drawing Room, where members of the royal family gather before state dinners, and was shown the hidden door that leads to the Queen’s apartments, which she uses in order to make an unobtrusive entrance at receptions. None of these details are actually secret anymore—many of us have seen them in photos or videos. Ever since the Queen made parts of her palaces available to the public, their images are commonplace. But I still felt like I was standing awkwardly on a line between The Royal Family’s public and private life.
I let go of that feeling as the docent reminded me that the Queen opened her palaces in order to preserve them. Every ticket fee is used to repair and restore the grand structures and the artifacts they hold. It’s thrilling to walk down the same halls as Victoria, Albert, the Georges IV, V, and VI, Edward VII, Queen Mary, and the royal family of our generation. The unique ambience of this special tour feels like entering a secret garden, indeed, but that doesn’t make those of us who enjoy it into peeping toms. Now when I see the photos of the Christmas lunch, and royal weddings or baptisms, I can say, “I’ve been there”. That feels like an appropriate proximity to the royal family—familiar but not intimate.
Once I’d let go of all my lingering discomfort and embraced the chance to feel like royalty, I was free to drink the champagne on offer in the X gallery and spend some time in the gift shop. Once our glasses were dry, we were escorted out through the porte-cochere and straight across to front gate of Buckingham Palace, a route that allowed us to see the Queen’s view of the Mall and emerge into the picture-taking crowds who must have wondered who we were and what we were doing there.
This tour is officially called an “Exclusive Evening Tour of the State Rooms, Buckingham Palace”
It can be booked through the Royal Collection Trust, here: https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/whatson/event/853849/Exclusive-Evening-Tour-of-the-State-Rooms,-Buckingham-Palace
It often shows as sold out, but keep checking right up to the last minute—I scored my ticket just eight hours before the tour began!
The December 2017 tour dates aren’t listed yet, but will be as the Queen’s holiday schedule becomes final.
Apparently, if you go in September or April, when it stays light after 4pm, the tour includes a walk through the site of the Queen’s garden parties.
This type of tour is offered at many of the Queen’s Palaces. Next time, I’m going to check out the one at Windsor!