When my mam came down to see me in London, we visited Kensington Palace along with my dad’s cousin who’d come to stay with her own daughter. My mam had never been to Kensington and really wanted to; my dad’s cousin had been before and wanted to see what it was like after the refurbishment.
Kensington Palace is divided into two: the historic state apartments, viewable by visitors, and the private wing where members of the royal family continue to live. The state apartments have recently undergone intensive refurbishment. I visited the palace last year while work was going on: part of the palace was open for a special ‘Enchanted Palace’ exhibition, in which some rooms were decorated to look like something out of a fairytale, with tree roots coming out of fireplaces and fairy lights suspended from the walls. I thought this was an interesting way to make use of the limited space available at the time, and was looking forward to seeing the palace in all its glory post-refurbishment.
***Location and Travel***
Kensington Palace is in Kensington Gardens; the nearest Underground stations are High Street Kensington (District & Circle lines) and Queensway (Central line). There are also buses that pass close to the entrance to Kensington Gardens. The palace is clearly signposted although you do have to walk a bit to get to the entrance.
Kensington Palace started out as Nottingham House, built around 1605 in the then village of Kensington. Concerned that the damp riverside location of Whitehall Palace would damage the King’s health, William III and Mary II purchased Nottingham House in 1689 and employed Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor to carry out improvements. Mary subsequently extended her own apartments, building what is now the Queen’s Gallery, but died of smallpox at the age of just thirty-two. William died in 1702 after a fall from his horse, and was succeeded by Mary’s sister Anne, who reigned until 1714.
The next monarch, George I, planned extensive rebuilding work, replacing the centre of the old Nottingham House with three state rooms: the Privy Chamber, the Cupola Room and the Withdrawing Room. Because of this work, he spent little time at Kensington, but his successor George II reaped the benefit, spending 4-6 months of the year at the Palace. After his death, however, it was never again used as the seat of a reigning monarch and its most notable subsequent resident was probably Queen Victoria, who spent her childhood at Kensington.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Palace was falling into disrepair but Victoria’s affection for the place in which she had grown up saved it from demolition. Parliament agreed in 1897 to pay for the State Apartments to be restored provided they were consequently opened to the public. Kensington Palace opened on Queen Victoria’s 80th birthday, 24 May 1899, and has remained accessible to the public to this day.
According to the website, Kensington Palace uses the approach of ‘tradition with a twist’ in order to explore the heritage of the palace. When you buy a ticket you get access to four different routes around the palace. These all begin in the vestibule, close to the ticket desk, which has seats on which you can take a breather and plan your next route.
As the shortest route and the one closest to the vestibule, we decided to take this one first. Princess Diana is probably the most famous former resident of Kensington Palace and when she died in 1997 the gates outside of the Palace were strewn with flowers. This small, temporary (until 2 September 2012) exhibition showcases five of her dresses alongside photographs of her wearing them. I enjoyed looking at them, particularly the black ballgown which was absolutely stunning. The pictures provided a context for the gowns and it was interesting to see them close-up. I’m a bit young to remember Diana’s heyday as a style icon but she obviously knew how to make an impact with her outfits.
After Diana, Kensington Palace’s most famous resident is probably Queen Victoria, who grew up in the Palace. These rooms concentrate on Victoria as a girl and young woman, providing an interesting contrast to her later persona as the dour widow. You enter the exhibition at the Red Saloon where the young Queen held her first Privy Council meeting. Long descriptive captions are eschewed in favour of novel techniques including outlines and brief descriptions of the members of the Council. Other rooms, including the room where Victoria was (probably) born and where she grew up, are shown with some of her toys on display including a beautiful doll’s house. Victoria herself was to have several children with her husband Prince Albert and an attractively drawn family tree on one wall shows this. I enjoyed looking at the objects on display, including a pair of Victoria’s black silk baby shoes and her wedding dress, a typical early Victorian design which provided an interesting contrast with Kate Middleton’s wedding dress worn in 2011 and which I saw at Buckingham Palace last year.
Victoria and Albert’s courtship is illustrated, with displays of jewellery and gifts the young couple exchanged. A portrait of Victoria which she commissioned to give to Albert shows an attractive young woman with her hair down: a startling contrast to the traditional image of the Queen. Later rooms show how Victoria went into deep mourning when her beloved husband died, finishing with a wall projection of her filmed Jubilee celebrations in 1897.
As someone who takes a strong interest in the Victorian era, I enjoyed this section of the Palace more than any other. I felt it gave me a sense of who Victoria was, particularly as a girl and a young woman, and was not at all stuffy.
This is another temporary exhibition (until 4 November 2012), designed to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II by exploring the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. It begins with a wooden reproduction of London in the Victorian era, designed so that you can walk around it. Printed on the walls and floors are descriptions of the state of London towards the end of the nineteenth century, describing the city as overcrowded and dirty: a contrast with the lives of the royals. The exhibition also displays Jubilee memorabilia, including posters, mugs and bowls: it seems that the basic design of such ‘tat’ has not really changed over the years! Also displayed are items from parties held to celebrate the Jubilee, including a dress from a costume party. This section was interesting as it showed the way Victoria’s Jubilee was celebrated was not that far off from the way Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee was celebrated earlier this year.
*King’s State Apartments*
This section of the Palace explores the courts of George I and George II. It mainly consists of elaborate rooms telling the story of the court. These were beautiful to look at, particularly the Cupola Room which was exceedingly grand. Highlights for me were a display of costumes in Queen Caroline’s Closet, including a ridiculously wide and highly impractical dress, and the coronation robes displayed in the Council Chamber.
These apartments tell the story of the later Stuarts, beginning with William and Mary and ending with Queen Anne, whose death heralded the beginning of a new era with the accession of George I. The apartments were originally created for Mary II and are now furnished with modern installations, such as a display of blue and white birds in a long corridor, coloured to match the porcelain on display. The apartments used non-traditional techniques to illustrate the story of the royal family. For example, recorded whisperings were intended to depict the gossip at court after Queen Anne and her best friend, Sarah the Duchess of Marlborough, argued and fell out for good. Perhaps the best, and most poignant, demonstration of this unconventional way of displaying history came in the room full of little chairs, with a larger chair at the back. Each one of these chairs represented one of Queen Anne’s children, all of whom died in infancy, while the larger chair belonged to her little boy who reached the grand age of eleven before succumbing to smallpox. Anne was childless on her death in 1714, which marked the end of the Stuart dynasty.
The Palace has a large gift shop with the usual range of souvenirs and tat as well as some genuinely nice items, particularly jewellery including a copy of Anne Boleyn’s famous ‘B’ necklace. Some of the items are part of the general Historic Royal Palaces range, but many are tailored to the individual site: for example, reproduction Victorian jewellery was available here but not at Hampton Court Palace (which I visited later); Hampton on the other hand had medieval-themed souvenirs not found at Kensington.
***Food and Drink***
The Orangery Restaurant, set in Queen Anne’s eighteenth-century Orangery, offers afternoon tea, Pimm’s and champagne as well as breakfast, lunch, dinner, wine and ‘Historic Royal Palaces’ beers. The Palace Café, inside the Palace itself, has a more informal atmosphere and is designed for sandwiches and quick snacks, with children’s lunchboxes available. I can’t comment on either eatery, as we’d had lunch at Strada on Kensington High Street before visiting the Palace, although after walking past the café on the way to the toilet I can say that it looked clean and inviting.
The refurbishment of Kensington Palace means that access has been substantially improved: lift access is now available to all floors, and manual wheelchairs and portable seats are available to borrow. Staff at the Palace have developed Describer Tours for blind and partially sighted visitors and will soon offer British Sign Language tours and a Braille leaflet. Disabled toilets are available alongside male and female toilets, and limited Blue Badge parking is available. More information can be found at: http://www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace/planyourvisit/disabledaccess.
Information on this webpage points out that the Queen’s Stairs at the Palace are shallow because they were built with William III, who was asthmatic, in mind. A PDF document will soon be uploaded containing more information about the accessibility needs of others who used to live there, which I think is a really nice touch.
Responses to the Palace were mixed. My mam and my dad’s cousin said that they were rather disappointed. They didn’t like the modern installations and my mam said “there wasn’t really much to see”. Certainly, when you compare the price of visiting Kensington with the cost of visiting Hampton Court, you get much more for your money at Hampton, where admission is only a pound or two more.
My favourite part of the Palace was the ‘Victoria Revealed’ exhibition, which explored the life of Queen Victoria. I felt that the informality of historical presentation in the Palace really worked well in her apartments, which by their nature were comparatively informal. I felt that this approach was less effective in the King’s and Queen’s State Apartments, which by their nature are formal and imposing, though less magnificent than, say, Buckingham Palace. I think that my mam had hoped for more grandeur, while I had always understood Kensington to be one of the ‘homelier’ palaces. I certainly admired the novel approach, even if I felt that the modern art installations were slightly out of place. The two temporary exhibitions, ‘Diana’ and ‘Jubilee’, added another dimension to the visit.
Overall, I did enjoy my visit to Kensington Palace. I felt that there was a great deal to see and do there, and the refurbishment has been a great success. I do feel it is rather expensive: I feel £9-£10 would have been a more appropriate admission fee. However, if you can get hold of an Art Fund membership or some Tesco Clubcard Days Out vouchers, you can get a day out at a bargain price!
Address: Kensington Gardens, London, W8 4PX
Opening Hours: 10am-6pm summer; 10am-5pm winter
Prices: £14.50 adults, children free; membership of Historic Royal Palaces allows free entry to all five included palaces – Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace, Kew Palace, the Tower of London and the Banqueting House.