Tuesday 3 September 2019

The State Rooms at Buckingham Palace

While travelling home from London on our last visit we noticed an advertisement for an exhibition at Buckingham Palace about the work that Queen Victoria had done there to make it into the modern home and workplace that it is today. We filed it at the back of our minds until our son mentioned that he would be away on business for a couple of days and that we might like to borrow his home again, so a quick look online for tickets on one of those days, followed by a search of the LNER website for cheap Advance First tickets to get there and we were off once more to the capital.

Complimentary refreshments in LNER First
Class on a short trip: wine, fruit and
sandwich. Other options were available.
It so happens that just a few times a day a fast train to London stops at Peterborough at 30 minutes past the hour, connecting beautifully with our train from Stamford, and that these trains are seldom busy and so have both space and plenty of cheap tickets. So we found our selves on the 14:30 to London and the journey was perfect: plenty of space in our seats; power sockets that worked; complimentary food trolley came round even before the train had left the station, closely followed by hot and cold drinks; friendly and efficient staff who looked after us well. We did leave Peterborough a couple of minutes late but we were in no hurry and I did not notice whether we were late on arrival.

This was a short trip in summer and we combined our luggage in one small wheeled case, so there was little need for step-free routes and I was able to carry everything straight down to the Hammersmith & City Line Underground platforms at Kings Cross, and sitting near the correct end of the train we were down the stairs at our destination in no time and soon letting ourselves into our temporary home. Having had lunch at home before we left for the station, we had not needed all of the food provided for us on the train, so this did well for a light supper.

The following morning we were up bright and (reasonably) early and after breakfast walked to a stop to get a bus to Buckingham Palace, allowing plenty of time for things to go wrong and for traffic hold-ups on the way. The bus is nothing like as quick as Underground train, even if there are changes of train, but it is generally a more pleasant ride and we do get to see something of London. I don't think there was anything on this route, the 148, that we had never seen before, but it was nonetheless a great ride, going through some of London's loveliest residential streets and past Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and the grand hotels of Park Lane. Further, the ride was quite swift and simple and we were well ahead of schedule, so we stayed on past our expected stop as far as Victoria Street, opposite Westminster Cathedral, and went for a walk along Broadway, through the modernist extravagance of St James's Park station to and around the park itself, including a walk along Horse Guards Parade - the only guard we saw was the armed police office at the rear of 10 Downing Street. The flower borders in St James's Park for spectacularly beautiful and we seemed to be seeing them at the very best time, with almost everything in full bloom.

In the distance we could hear the sound of a military band, and as we neared The Mall we saw a contingent of marching troops in ceremonial uniform entering from a side street. Meanwhile large crowds, including many escorted parties, were beginning to gather. The Changing the Guard ceremony was taking place at the palace, and our 11:30 timed-entry ticket meant that we would be passing the front of the palace on our way to the side gate in the midst of this crowd-drawing spectacle. Visitors to London from all over the world will have come to these few street just to watch this hour-long piece of traditional pageantry. We managed to get past the crowds and to cross the road without inconveniencing any marching bands, and although we did not know this end of the palace grounds at all well it was fairly obvious where the entrance to the State Rooms was and we soon joined the small crowd of people entering for the 11:30 start. The Queen Victoria exhibition is simply woven into this year's opening of the State Rooms, so an ordinary ticket to visit those rooms is all that is required, and then as you go round there is extra information and additional artefacts relating to the life and work of Queen Victoria.

Photographs are not allowed, so I cannot show you any here, but I will say that these rooms are well worth seeing. You do not have to be an ardent monarchist or historian, but an interest in British culture or in architecture and design will be well satisfied here. There are many rooms open, and personal headsets are available free of charge to give a commentary and further information as you round at your own pace. If you want to study all the paintings in the Royal Collection, you can take all the time you want, but in the unlikely event that you are bored by these you can just walk through and enjoy the spectacle of the building. The profits from these public openings go to maintain this art collection, and part of the purpose of opening this rooms is to allow the public to see the works of art.

Exit was through the famous Buckingham Palace garden where we had been several years ago at one of Her Majesty's summer Garden Parties, but now the terrace along the back of the palace was host to a café where we enjoyed an excellent lunch, and where the tea tent had been for the Garden Party there was a large souvenir shop, where we bought little gifts for the two grandchildren whose parents had kindly lent us their home for this trip. On the way out we also took time to visit an ice-cream stall by the lake (did I mention that we'd also had a Bertotti's ice-cream the previous evening? No? Well, we did: this ice-cream lark is becoming a habit so ingrained I do not always remember it ...). Back out on the street we took the bus back "home" via a brief shopping trip, mostly to get something to cook for dinner, and our amazing day out was over. Our tickets are valid for 365 days, so if we can return to London on a day the State Rooms are open any time in the coming 364 days we can ring for a time slot and repeat the visit if we wish.

On Saturday I had a small task to do, involving a walk to the Royal Mail office a short distance away, and then I went for a longer walk with no destination in mind, with the intention of returning with something interesting for lunch ... I finished up at the whole foods market in Kensington High Street, on the ground floor of the former Barkers department store. On the way I passed Olympia where people were queuing for the current event, Drag World. Looking at the queue it was clear that this was nothing to do with drag racing but with dressing-up, and while the majority of attendees seemed to be dressed normally (although you could not always tell whether they were dressed in the usual clothes for their sex, of course), quite a lot were very flamboyantly dressed and made a colourful spectacle. I could not help wondering just what might be on display at Drag World, being well outside my life experience, but it was clearly a very large niche and seemed very popular with all sorts of people, including families.

After my lunch-buying trip I caught a bus back to my temporary home and after lunch we packed, locked up, left gifts for our absent hosts and made our to the Underground for the trip home. Our LNER train left Kings Cross bang on time and got us to Peterborough where we had time to buy a few necessities from Waitrose before taking the connecting train to Stamford. On the platform were several Ipswich Town football supporters fresh from their 2-2 draw with Peterborough United and waiting for their train which was due to leave two minutes before ours. There was a heavy police presence for crowd control and although all the fans I saw were very well-behaved their mere presence might have been alarming for some. By the time our train left it was clear that things were not going well: on the opposite platform the train to Ipswich, just three coaches like ours, was not going to cope with all the intending passengers; this was not a special and there were many other folk aboard including children, all squashed into their places and the lobbies overcrowded while some football supporters were still on the platform. The police were having heated discussions with one group as our train pulled out so I do not know what became of those who would not be able to get on this train. It is only an hourly service and some of the trains are even shorter than that one; it is not a service designed for heavy flows of football fans on match days, and yet such capacity problems were easy to predict. Our own train came into Peterborough heavily laden with Newcastle supporters who were changing trains at Peterborough on their way home - a large crowd leaving the platform as the large crowd of Ipswich fans arrived - all good-natured but simply too many people for the trains and platform to cope with. Most Newcastle fans, knowing they had some time to wait, simply stood around until things eased off with the departure of the trains at the platform.

And so home, unpacking once more and preparing for our next trip! Watch this space ...

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