Yes, I’ve been inside Buckingham Palace, and no, I haven’t met the Queen (though I did get to see a fair amount of her closet). How did I get in? Sadly, not via any royal invitation. Since the 1990s, (when she needed to raise money to pay for restoring the fire damage at Windsor Castle) the royal family has offered limited public viewings of the palace’s non-residential areas. Unlike the White House, Buckingham Palace doesn’t require you to go through background checks and get a letter of reference from your local elected official. Amazingly, all you have to do is sign up online (provided you can get in before all the time slots are gone).
Another nice bonus is that it’s a self-guided tour, so you aren’t hearded from room to room like a flock of errant sheep, tended to by not-so-Secret Service agents carrying sub-machine guns, and lead by a snippy blonde tour guide… “We’re walking; we’re walking; we’re walking; we’re stopping.” (See Bonnie Hunt in Dave.)
The Buckingham Palace experience is more like a good old cattle drive. It’s a steady stream of visitors, routed through the place like a giant mudflow through Malibu canyon. Even the audioguide commands you to “please keep walking toward the doors at the far end of the room while I tell you about the paintings here.” Not that you could resist. The shear mass of people coming in behind you prohibits anyone from standing still to admire the artwork.
So, what’s it like inside? Probably about what you’d expect: grander than the White House, but nothing remotely like Versailles. One of the nicer aspects of the tour was that you got to enter and move through the rooms as if you were actually a guest, by which I mean: through the main entrance, up the grand staircase, through the parlors and into the throne room, then on through the smaller galleries and ballrooms, eventually leading out through the terrace to the private gardens (which you also got to see quite a lot of).
It takes several hours to see it all, even with relentless tide pushing you along (towards the gift shop, of course, where you can buy all manor of hideous “royal” china, emblazoned with the kind of overly-ornate gold-and-pastel patterns beloved of Queens and First Ladies). Along the way, you learn some interesting things. (For example, all the dinner menus at the palace are printed in French and must be personally approved by the Queen. She speaks French fluently and routinely sends the menus back with grammer and spelling corrections.) On my visit, the most of the women (It was about 80/20 middle-aged British women vs. every other demographic.) were racing through the 200-odd years of history on display in the state rooms to get to the dress exhibit.
This was the Queen’s 80th birthday, and in honor of the occasion, we got to see 80 dresses from her collection. For whatever reason, they were principally arranged by color: the blue dresses here, the beige ones there, and the yellow ones over there. You quickly realized that the Queen’s fashion sense hasn’t changed much over the years. She’s apparently only had three or four main designers, and the only other information about the dresses on display were the years of creation. So, quickly, the whole thing descended into a game of guessing the year of the dress based on the width of the waist. Awful, I know.
If you have the chance, I do recommend a visit to the palace. It’s not often that you get to see the inside of a real, working royal residence. And, as soon as they fix the last bit of the roof at Windsor, it’s anybody’s guess if Charles will keep letting the rabble trapse through the throne room each year.
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