Kensington Palace is the real deal. It is home to the young Royals as the London base of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Popping into tea with William and Kate is not on offer but visiting the historic state rooms inside Kensington Palace is open to all.
Visiting Kensington Palace during Covid
What did I miss most during lockdown? Walking along London’s street seeing some of the world’s most famous buildings as I strolled. Even more I missed going inside those buildings. From Cultural Wednesday Towers it is necessary to catch a train to get to central London and I have been wary of doing that. After the first time I stopped worrying. I have never had to sit next to anyone, everybody has worn a mask and when you get up to London it is empty. Now is time to see London’s iconic sights without the crowds.
The Historic Royal Palaces invited me to visit Kensington Palace which involved by first post lockdown bus journey … again every thing was fine. Once inside Kensington Palace masks have to be worn, there are three one way routes to follow, every room has its capacity clearly marked and there are many hand sanitiser points dotted around the Palace. Before you go, you need to book a timed ticket.
What to see Inside Kensington Palace
From the outside Kensington Palace looks like the rather grand rural retreat that it was to begin with. Inside the interiors remodelled by Christopher Wren and William Kent are dazzling. Once inside Kensington Palace you have a choice of three routes to take the King’s State Apartments, the Queen’s State Apartments and Queen Victoria’s childhood. I would explore them in that order, because it means that you start with two of the most stunning rooms in London and end with Victoria decamping to the other side of the park. You don’t have to choose just one route, once you are in you can do all three. Here are my highlights from inside Kensington Palace.
You can almost hear the walls whisper as you walk up the King’s staircase. Forty five people are painted onto the walls and ceilings. These were real people, you could expect to meet if you came to the Georgian court. Those men in red coats are the Yeoman of the Guard, taller than most and fed meat to encourage their height … hence their nickname Beefeaters. The two turbaned men? They are Mustafa and Mahomet the King’s Turkish servants and confidants. The boy in green is Peter the Wild Boy who was found in German woods having been bought up by animals and unable to speak. Peering down from the ceiling is the artist William Kent with his mistress by his side.
Christopher Wren designed this staircase with plain wood panelling. When George I came to the throne he was anxious to make an impression and embarked on some serious interior decorating. James Thornhill who was busy with the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College was expected to get the job but William Kent, a Yorkshireman new to London came in an offer that undercut all his rivals. William Kent deployed trompe l’oeil to great effect.
The Cupola room was the first room that William Kent redecorated and he pulled out all the stops. He knew that if he impressed with this room then his career was made. Gold and blue walls glimmer, look up to magnificently domed ceiling, except that it isn’t all that domed it is cleverly painted to look loftier than it is in the middle of the ceiling is the Order of the Garter. The centre of the room is dominated by a large ornate clock called the Temple of the Four Great Monarchies of the World not only did it tell the time it also played a series of tunes from Operas popular at the time.
Paintings, history and the fanciest weather vane I have ever seen are the highlights of the King’s Gallery. In Queen Victoria’s day this room was divided into three and the end part was the young Princess Victoria’s sitting room, it was here that she was told that she was Queen, right in front of the Van Eyck painting of King Charles I. The paintings that you see on the walls are the ones that would have hung here in the room’s Georgian hey day. At the centre of the room is an anemoscope, I have never knowingly seen one before. Essentially is a very fancy weather vane, a series of cogs translates the wind vane on the roof to the dial on the wall. It still works, on the day I visited the wind changed direction from South East to South.
The Queens we are talking about here are Mary, Charlotte and Anne. One of the things I like most about a stately home is glimpse down an enfilade of rooms, the Queen’s rooms gives you this in spades. Queen Charlotte entertained the greatest minds in Georgian Britain here. Queen Anne had her final falling out with the Duchess of Marlborough in these rooms. Today’s stars gather for the annual BAFTA dinner for nominees in the Queen’s Gallery.
Queen Victoria’s childhood
You enter the Queen Victoria part of Kensington Palace via the staircase where Victoria laid eyes on Prince Albert for the very first time. You can take a twirl around the room where they first danced. Not quite so romantically you can see the room in which Queen Victoria was born. Princess Victoria’s childhood is bought to live in the rooms in which she lived. You can see the dolls that she played with and a reconstruction of her rather magnificent toy theatre.
Queen Victoria’s Tiara
Prince Albert was a creative chap he designed many pieces of jewellery for Queen Victoria including this rather magnificent emerald tiara and necklace combo. Also on display are the tiara’s given to Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise when she married, a rather natty tiara that can also be a necklace was a gift from the Queen and a magnificent diamond number from her husband.
Princess Diana’s Travolta dress
Every girl of my generation dreamt of dancing with John Travolta. Diana, Princess of Wales actually got to do it at the White House in 1985. Not only that she was wearing a beautiful midnight blue velvet gown by Victor Edelstein. The dress has come back to live at Kensington Palace and is on newly on display.
Make sure you go to the loo
It is not often that a visit to the loo is to be culturally recommended. At Kensington Palace not only do you get to admire the quirky Princess Diana wallpaper designed by Julie Verhoeven. Look up as you leave the loo and you will see an arch, this is all that remains of the Chapel that once stood here. For fans of The Favourite this is where Abigail Hill married Baron Masham.
History of Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace started life as Nottingham House in the leafy village of Kensington. William and Mary bought it in 1689 as a place to live away from the polluted atmosphere of Whitehall and St James’s Palaces. They promptly called in Sir Christopher Wren to transform it into Kensington Palace. When George I came to the throne he was anxious to impress and set about improving the Palace even more with some impressive William Kent interiors. Queen Victoria was born here, became Queen here but decamped to Buckingham Palace almost as soon as she became Queen.
Who lives at Kensington Palace now?
Diana, Princess of Wales and Princess Margaret both called Kensington Palace home. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their engagement to the world in the Kensington Palace water garden (it is being restored this summer but ordinarily we can all pretend to be showing off a large diamond ring by the pond). William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge live at Kensington Palace. Princess Eugenie, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke and Duchess of Kent and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent also have apartments at the Palace. Not that you can see their apartments. Clever shading on the windows stops you rubber necking at the Royal gardens.
Tea Room and Shop
Make sure you take a look at the shop as you leave it has a great selection of jewellery all of it fit for a princess and the most wonderful salt and pepper pots in the shape of Dash, Queen Victoria’s sandwich. The tea room is open but with outside seating only at the moment, although I confess that I choose outside in normal times too.
How to get to Kensington Palace
Queensway and High Street Kensington tube stations are a 10 minute walk away. Bus routes 70, 94 and 148 run along the North side of Kensington Gardens and the 9, 49, 52, 70 and 452 go along the south of the park. If you are feeling energetic Kensington Palace is a 25 minute walk from both Marylebone and Paddington mainline stations and a 40 minutes from Victoria. Alternatively you could jump on a Santander cycle (my favourite) there are docking stations at Black Lion Gate and Palace Gate in Kensington Gardens.
- Kensington Palace, Kensington Gardens W8 4XP
- Open: Wednesday – Saturday 10.30am – 5pm
- Admission: Adult £17, Child £8.50 and members go free
- Timed pre-booked tickets are essential
- Masks must be worn
Membership of Historic Royal Palaces will get you into Kensington Palace, Hampton Court, the Tower of London and the Banqueting House for free as often as you like. For details of HRP membership check out my guide to London Museum Membership