For most of the year, visitors can only look upon the front east face of Buckingham Palace, the London home of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. But for a few weeks each late summer and early fall, when the Queen is in Balmoral, Scotland, the west doors open for the State Rooms tours.
That front face is a later addition from the mid 19th century, added during the time of Queen Victoria. It provided more living space for Victoria’s large family and created a quadrangle where previously was a three-winged palace, itself an expansion of the original Buckingham House that came into royal ownership in 1761, bought by George III. His son, George IV, engaged architect John Nash to lead that expansion: You can see much of this elaborate work on the west wing State Rooms tour, which allows visitors to see 19 rooms used to receive and entertain visitors and dignitaries.
The audio guide starts with a welcome from HRH The Prince of Wales, who thanks visitors for contributing to the palace’s upkeep via their entry fees and gift shop purchases. No cameras or recording devices are allowed, although google “State Rooms Buckingham,” and many photos pop up. Ornate doesn’t begin to describe the gilt-upon-gilt style: I particularly liked the Blue Drawing Room and the light-filled rounded Music Room. There usually are special exhibitions mounted and, this fall, the ballroom was filled with displays of official gifts given to the Queen, sorted by geographic region. Canada’s section had mostly Inuit art, as well as a pair of Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics red mittens.
The Palace is described as the “working headquarters” of the Monarchy, with more than 50,000 people visiting as guests for everything from receptions promoting British business to the annual Diplomatic Reception, where 1,500 representatives from more than 130 countries gather to see and be seen. On the tour, you have a nagging sense you’ve seen these ornate scenes before and, indeed, you likely have: these rooms are the backdrop to everything from investitures for British honours to formal royal portraits. One room on the main floor near the garden terrace that was not on the tour – although the door to it was open when we visited – I recognized as the spot where Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had recently met with the Queen; a staff person said it’s frequently used for such lower-key official visits.
After the tour, you can stay for a luncheon on the terrace overlooking the lawns and gardens, where the Queen hosts summer garden parties for her subjects. Scones, strawberries and clotted cream, anyone?
The gift shop, in a separate pop-up along the garden path that takes you to the end-of-tour exit, was a hoot: there is royal everything for sale, from official wine to official china to official tea to official stuffed-toy corgis.
The 40-acre garden has trees, ponds, swans, and meandering pathways, only a couple of which are open to the public on the tour. But as you approach the exit, you’re reminded again that this is not a museum or a public park, but a working home for a head of state: Mounted on the old stone wall surrounding the palace lands are fearsome spikes, augmented by high frames of barbed wire.
Main photo: The west wing of Buckingham Palace by Kelley Teahen