London: Kensington Palace

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Kensington Palace is honestly not somewhere that I was ever all that bothered about visiting.  Prior to this, I’d only been to two of the “historic royal palaces” (Hampton Court and the Tower of London), mainly because they’re so damn expensive unless you get a National Rail 2 for 1, which is only really useful: a.) if you’re going somewhere you’d take a train to anyway, and b.) if you have a friend to go with.  But I somehow found out (it might have been advertised on a poster in a tube station) that Kensington Palace and Hampton Court are offering half price admission throughout the month of January if you purchase your tickets online.  As I’ve been to Hampton Court loads of times already, it seemed like a good opportunity to check out Kensington Palace. After all, 15 quid feels kind of steep, but £7.50 is doable.

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It’s weird, but for all the times I’ve been to South Kensington and High Street Ken (I have a fierce Whole Foods/Ben’s Cookies addiction that drags me out there about every other week), I think I’ve only been in Hyde Park once, and never in the park that leads up to Kensington Palace (which I think is technically Kensington Gardens, and not Hyde Park at all.  Royal Parks confuse me).  Thankfully, the palace is smack-dab in the middle, so it’s pretty hard to miss (plus I was with my boyfriend, who unlike me, actually has a sense of direction).  Once inside the palace, you pass under a lace canopied room that they seemed quite proud of, and then into a central circular room, with various wings radiating out from it.  I began by heading up the stairs immediately past the entrance, to the “Victoria Revealed” section.

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Queen Victoria was born inside Kensington Palace, and spent her childhood there, away from what her mother deemed the excesses of George IV’s and William IV’s courts, and so she held her first Privy Council here after ascending to the throne in 1837.  The rooms throughout the palace were rather dark, presumably to preserve the artefacts, but it was most noticeable here because there was a sizable informational booklet for each room, and it could be kind of tricky to read it in the dim lighting (fortunately, I ignored my mother’s warnings as a child that reading in the dark would ruin my eyes, and so I’m pretty decent at it to this day…let’s just ignore the fact that I had to have LASIK on my left eye; maybe it’s given me crazy bionic vision?).

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Much like Osborne House, this exhibit painted a rather glowing portrait of Victoria and Albert’s domestic life, illustrated with clothing, jewellery, and paintings.  Albert’s wedding suit (uniform?) is shown above, along with one of Victoria’s pre-mourning dresses (not her wedding dress though).

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Much of the text was simply describing the objects in each room, without a tonne of background, so it was probably quite useful if you already had some knowledge of Victoria’s life and reign (for example, if I didn’t already know quite a bit about the Great Exhibition, I don’t think I would have gotten a good sense of its aims and importance from what they had to say about it).  It also jumped around a bit, from her marriage, to her childhood, and then up to the Great Exhibition (which was perhaps necessary because of the way the rooms flowed).  That said, I enjoyed seeing her very elaborate dollhouse, and her extensive collection of peg dolls, each of which she named and invented a back story for (I did a similar thing with my stuffed animals as a child, so I could relate.  Probably something to do with not having many friends/being an only child (I have a brother, but he’s seven years younger, so I was an only child for a while)).

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There were also a couple rooms devoted to Albert’s death and Victoria’s subsequent (life-long) mourning period, which is only appropriate given how much it shaped the rest of her reign.  I liked the collection of pictures of Victoria with various children and grandchildren, some of which I hadn’t seen before, and also the footage of her Diamond Jubilee that was being projected on one of the walls.

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There was a final room summing up her life, but this was the darkest room of all (literally, the room about Albert’s room was probably the darkest metaphorically speaking), so it was all but impossible to read about the objects as you came to them; rather, I had to huddle next to the only lamp and read about everything at once, but I did manage to find out that the charm bracelet shown above was a gift from Albert to Victoria upon the birth of her first child, and a heart in a different stone was added for each of her subsequent children (slim consolation given how grossed out she was by babies, but better than nothing I guess).  I can’t remember whose foot that is a cast of though.  Obviously one of the children, but I couldn’t say which one.

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The next place I ventured was the King’s State Apartments, which commemorate the “Glorious Georges.”  This section was especially exciting to me because I discovered a rack of scratch and sniff brochures next to the entrance, so even though there were no authentic smells piped in, you had your very own scratch and sniff booklet to take home and enjoy (it told you which scratch and sniff patch to use in each room, but honestly they all just stunk like “authentic smells” of varying degrees of intensity.  I still loved it).  Anytime I have a chance to put my big old schnoz to work, I take it.

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These rooms were very stately indeed, and had a fair bit of character thanks to the work of William Kent, and the eclectic artistic tastes of George II (basically, he liked chubby naked ladies).  Although they did feel very spartan with all the furniture pushed to the sides of the rooms, that is in keeping with the period; until the advent of electric lights, furniture was often placed at the sides of the room and pulled into the centre as needed, both to maximise space, and so people didn’t trip over things at night (at least according to Judith Flanders in The Making of Home).

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If you visit, be sure to read all the little signs hidden amongst the furnishings, because that’s how I found out some of the most interesting tid(t)bits.  For instance, George II’s wife, Caroline, moved the picture on the right above, known as the “Fat Venus,” when he was away (as she didn’t quite share his tastes for nude, Rubenesque women), but he threw a fit when he came home and discovered it was gone, so it had to be promptly returned to pride of place.

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Again, even with the additional information scattered throughout the rooms, I still feel that details were rather sparse, and I would have liked to learn more about this space, but that seems to be typical of all the “historic royal palaces.”  Maybe in addition to not using footnotes in her books, Lucy Worsley also has a distaste for decent signage?

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Moving back in time, to William and Mary, I next circled back to the main room again, and then headed off in the direction of the Queen’s State Apartments.  On the way, I passed a hallway full of embroidered cushions, which were delightful, so I had to share with you some of my favourites.  (You can really see where Victoria got her looks from (and lack of a chin) – her father, the Duke of Kent, on the right).  I forget to check if they sold any of these pillowcases in the shop, but they probably would have charged an exorbitant price for them anyhow.

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The Queen’s Apartments had a similar, albeit less grand setup to the King’s Apartments, but with facts about Mary and Anne instead of the Georges.  That’s Peter the Great of Russia looking rather foxy in that portrait above, but the most interesting thing in this section was undoubtedly the four poster bed shown on the right.  This is the bed where the alleged “warming pan” incident took place, when Mary of Modena, wife of James II, gave birth to her son, and people claimed that the baby was actually smuggled in a warming pan.  That wasn’t really the case, but Mary and James were forced to leave the country anyway, and it’s pretty cool to see the bed where such a famous historical incident happened (almost as good as seeing the deathbed of an historical figure).

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The final exhibit was “Fashion Rules,” showcasing dresses owned by the Queen, Princess Margaret, and Princess Diana.  The Queen had some nice dresses in the ’50s, when she was still a young woman, but they definitely frumped out over time.  By contrast, Margaret stayed quite stylish (she was described as a “groovy chick”), and some of her dresses were things I would wear myself.  And then there’s Diana.  I know it was the ’80s and early ’90s, but some of those dropped waist gowns are just unforgivably ugly.  ’80s fashion has a lot to answer for.  Not being a royalist (at least, not in the modern sense.  I’m definitely interested in historical royalty (because why else would I have bothered going to Kensington Palace?), but I don’t care about the current royal family), my primary interest in this section was the clothes themselves, and not the people who wore them, so this was kind of a meh exhibit for me due to the fugliness of most of the dresses.

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(They tried to make you feel royal when you used the toilets.  To be fair, they were quite nice).  The fashion gallery was the last public section of the palace, but to get out, you have to pass through the shop and a cafe.  Because we left near to closing, we weren’t allowed in the sunken garden, but had to walk the long way around to get out again (I think they try to confuse people so you have to stay in the cafe as long as possible, and buy their cakes so you don’t starve to death).  We did manage to get a couple pictures of the gardens generally though.

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To sum up, though I wasn’t super impressed with Kensington Palace (I’d rank it well below Hampton Court and the Tower of London (assuming you skip that awful Beefeater tour) in terms of history that took place here, and the amount of stuff there was to do and see), I do think it was probably worth paying half-price admission for, so take advantage of that deal whilst you can (I think it extends through part of February).  I did really like the scratch and sniff experience, but there just needed to be more information on everything overall, and improved lighting in the Victoria section (even if they have to keep the lighting low, maybe they could add more small lamps, so everyone doesn’t have to gather around the same one).  Worth a visit if you’re a Victoria or George II fan, but I think there’s more to be found on William and Mary in Hampton Court.  Still, I’m glad I saw it once, and for the most part, I enjoyed myself.  3/5.

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  1. I’m not a royalist either, and not a Diana fan – but I don’t entirely agree about the dresses. They may not look much in the display but she was stunning in them. Actually, when we went to Kensington Palace she still had an apartment there. It turned out to be that night she died so I feel a sad sort of connection with her.

    1. I don’t doubt that she had some lovely dresses, and wore them well, but there were only about five of them there on display, and this particular selection suffered from the worst trends of the ’80s. Like I said, it wasn’t a great time fashion wise, and Diana probably did the best she could out of what was available…I know the stuff my mother dressed me in when I was a kid made me look like an actual clown. Frilly day-glo socks, dresses with giant neck ruffles, a particularly traumatising pair of pink terry-cloth overalls…the list goes on!

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