The State Rooms of Buckingham Palace have been open to the public every summer since 1993. What started as a way to pay for the fire damage at Windsor Castle has, thankfully, continued past the cost of those repairs and when the Queen retreats to Balmoral in Scotland for a well earned rest her London home is open for us to visit.
(Top tip: A flag always flies above Buckingham Palace. When The Queen is in residence, the Royal Standard flies. When the Sovereign is not present, the Union Flag flies instead. A flag sergeant has the role of raising and lowering the right flag as The Queen arrives at or departs from the Palace.)
Every year there is a special exhibition and this summer it is Diamonds: A Jubilee Celebration which includes some of The Queen’s personal jewels and others chosen for their historic significance to make up the 10,000 diamonds on display. As diamonds are the hardest natural material known they carry associations of endurance and longevity which seem perfectly fitting to The Queen’s 60 year reign.
Entering the Diamonds exhibition you’re plunged into darkness as the walls and ceiling are all black but there’s a water like reflected ripple on the soft carpet from the sparkles. The Queen Victoria small diamond crown is the first you see and even knowing it’s small won’t stop you being surprised by its size.
Queen Victoria is the only other monarch to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee and many items from her reign are on display including this stunning miniature crown which she wore for her official Diamond Jubilee portrait in 1897. The crown has 1,187 diamonds which is incredible as it is only 9 by 10cm. Queen Victoria preferred this crown as it weighed so much less that her others.
Some of that ‘latest fad’ for writing on the walls is used in here but it probably does help you find the room edges. To ensure more people can view the collection, there are two levels; a raised level for wheelchair users and children, and a lower level for everyone else. There’s no need to cluster around the glass cabinets as all the pieces are placed sideways so they are best viewed from between the cabinets. And it’s not just jewellery, as there are swords and other decorated items, but do look out for the Williamson brooch as it has one of the finest pink diamonds ever discovered.
The exhibition includes jewellery made from the world’s largest diamond ever found – the Cullinan Diamond – which weighed 3,106 carats as an uncut stone. When it was found at the Premier Mine near Pretoria in South Africa in 1905, the mine manager’s clerk refused to believe it was a diamond, as it was so huge, and threw it out of the window! Once convinced, they named it after the chairman of the mining company, Thomas Cullinan.
Seven of the nine principal stones cut from the Cullinan Diamond are reunited for the first time in this exhibition (the other two - Cullinan I is in the Sovereign’s Sceptre and Cullinan II is in the band of the Imperial State Crown – are part of the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London). These seven stones are set in a ring, a necklace and three brooches, one of which, the Cullinan III and IV Brooch, was worn by The Queen for the National Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral, during her Diamond Jubilee celebrations, on 5 June 2012.
The Girls of Great Britain and Ireland Tiara was a wedding present to Princess Victoria Mary of Teck (later Queen Mary) from the ‘Girls of Great Britain and Ireland’. The Princess (then Duchess of York) wore it at the celebrated Devonshire House Ball in 1897 to complement her French Renaissance-period costume. The tiara was presented to Her Majesty by Queen Mary as a wedding present and is frequently worn by The Queen, and be seen on certain issues of British and Commonwealth banknotes and coinage.
This is the last exhibit in the collection, and is the most recognisable piece of jewellery on display, as The Diamond Diadem is worn by The Queen on British and Commonwealth stamps and also features on certain issues of bank notes and coinage. It wasn’t made for the Queen though as it was produced for the famously extravagant coronation of George IV in 1821. The Diamond Diadem has 1,333 diamonds including a four-carat pale yellow brilliant.
About Buckingham Palace
The Queen refers to Buckingham Palace as “the office” as it’s where she comes to work and carry out official and ceremonial duties as Head of State of the United Kingdom and Head of the Commonwealth.
The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh are the Palace’s longest residents. There are 775 rooms in Buckingham Palace, including 19 State rooms, 52 Royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms. The Palace has 1,514 doors and 760 windows which are cleaned every six weeks. (I love these numbers but don’t want the cleaning job!)
A visit to the State Rooms is worthy of every cliché. Yes, it’s “magical”, yes, it’s “fairy tale” and boy, yes, it has a “wow factor”.
As you walk through, look out for the clocks as there are 350 in the Palace, one of the largest collections of working clocks anywhere. Two full-time horological conservators wind them up every week and keep them in good working order.
The Ballroom has nothing on display this year, and no access to the side rooms, but there is plenty of visitor seating available. Look out for the perfectly ‘plumped’ cushions in the Blue Drawing Room and downstairs in the Bow Room, next to the Garden. My favourite is still the White Drawing Room as there is a secret door that visitors can try to spot. They’ve left it slightly ajar this year to try to help you.
The public tour ends in the Palace Gardens and more than 30,000 guests attend The Queen’s Garden Parties at Buckingham Palace every year. I love these statistics: At a typical garden party, around 27,000 cups of tea, 20,000 sandwiches and 20,000 slices of cake are consumed, served by around 400 staff. I’m sure my invitation will arrive one of these days…
There is a fantastic array in the Garden Shop this year and who can resist tea overlooking the lawn, and then an ice cream in the Gardens (available near the exit)? The Gardens are lovely and we’re allowed to walk along a path at the side so can see some of the 39 acres, including the huge lake and 156m long Herbaceous Border, on our way to the exit. As you follow the garden path the noise from the traffic on Grosvenor Place starts to win but the bird song was good competition for some time.
Every Monday morning when The Queen is in residence, the Gardens Manager sends Her Majesty a posy of the interesting plants in flower in the Palace garden. A truly lovely tradition!
Key Info about the Summer Opening at Buckingham Palace
Dates: 30 June – 8 July & 31 July – 7 October 2012
Times: 9:45am-6:30pm (last admission 3:45pm)
Allow 2 hours for your visit, plus time to visit the shop and have tea in the palace gardens.
Costs: Adult £18 / Concession £16.50 / Child (under 17) £10.25 Child (under 5) Free
Family £47.00 (2 adults and 3 under 17s)
Top Tip: Enjoy free readmission for a year if you buy your ticket directly from the Royal Collection.
Getting there: Buckingham Palace is a short walk from these tube stations: Victoria, Green Park and Hyde Park Corner.
From 27 July to 12 August and from 28 August to 10 September, Olympic events are taking place in the vicinity of Buckingham Palace. If you are visiting during this period, it is recommended that you plan your travel arrangements carefully. Advice can be found at www.getaheadofthegames.com.