Kensington Palace Tour, London
She stares down at me from the picture on the wall, smiling, a portrait of a happier time. A white dress; a thin figure; short blonde hair; pearly teeth; and dazzling eyes. This is the Princess Diana who the people remember.
In a room full of portraits here at Kensington Palace in London, hers draws the most attention. It’s not surprising – her presence here always did.
You only have to cast your mind back to the hundreds of thousands of flowers placed at the gate outside after her death to see how the building and the woman were so intrinsically linked.
Once she became a royal, she never truly stopped being one. Kensington Palace may have been her sanctuary at times but it was also her prison.
There are tributes to the Princess Diana here – the portrait, a collection of her dresses, modern wallpaper created with sketching of her. But, although we may associate the palace with her, many imposing women have come before.
Before Diana it was Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister. She used Kensington Palace as her residence and would host parties with some of the world’s most glamorous and interesting celebrities.
She was a slightly controversial figure, perhaps more interesting in socialising than official duties, but it helped raise the status of the building in the eyes of royal watchers.
King Edward VIII (her uncle) had once previously called it the “aunt heap” because of the number of lesser royals who had been given rooms there.
These are the things I’m learning on my tour of the palace, a guided walk of the building and the gardens (oh, plus high tea!). It’s easy enough to visit the palace on your own and buy a ticket, but I like hearing the stories.
My guide, Alison, seems to be able to answer any tricky question I throw her. (“What does the Queen see when she looks out her window at Buckingham Palace?” I throw in at one point.)
Most of Kensington Palace is private and you can’t access it. The latest residents – William, Catherine, George and Harry – include the second, third and fourth in line for the throne.
It’s actually surprising there isn’t more security (although it might just be hidden well). The areas the public are able to visit are essentially a museum made up of some of the older and more historical rooms. Don’t expect to see Diana’s bedroom, for instance.
The history is just as interesting as the stories you read in the magazines these days, though. The most imposing figure presented through the museum is Queen Victoria, the longest-serving British monarch (for now).
She was living in Kensington Palace when she became queen at the age of 18. Although she moved to Buckingham Palace after her coronation, the rooms where she grew up have now been dedicated to her life.
On display are fascinating items like childhood toys, presents and even her wedding dress. Photographs show her decline in mood after the death of her husband, Prince Albert.
My guide, Alison, explains that Victoria blamed her eldest son for her husband’s because he got sick after travelling to confront him about a scandal.
The Kensington Palace tour is fascinating but ultimately I find it to be more about the people and their stories than the building itself. Many of the rooms have been decorated with modern artwork or modified to be used as exhibition halls.
You don’t get a real sense of what it is like today but you do come away with an excellent understanding of some of the people who once called it home.