Inside Buckingham Palace: Are you worthy?


LONDON — Preparing for vacations can be a pain. There are the plants to water, there's the refrigerator to defrost and the newspapers to cancel. And then there are the 400,000 visitors who are going to march up your staircase, trample through your dining room and eat your cakes while you’re away.

So it must be for Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, who headed for her annual vacation in Scotland this week, but not before opening Buckingham Palace to tourist hordes willing to wait hours for a glimpse inside one of the world's most famous addresses.

This is the 17th year the palace has been open to the public and to mark the event, there’s a new exhibition charting the queen’s year — and for the first time ever visitors can chow down in a (royally expensive) garden terrace cafe.

It can't be easy for Her Majesty, though. She must lie awake at night worrying about the hoi polloi peering at her old masters; her regal relaxation disturbed by thoughts of sticky hands grasping at bronze balustrades and hovering over gilded silverware.

And on the humid July morning that sees the first tourists — me among them — surge into the palace, it would be easy to view the limp flag hanging overhead as a symbol of queenly disapproval at this defilement of her home. We are simply not worthy.

For many years none of us were worthy. The imposing mansion that has housed British monarchs since 1837 was closed to the public — even though the public actually owns it — until a funding crisis forced it to open in 1993.

This seemingly begrudged opening did little for the queen’s reputation. When Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car crash four years later, many were quick to criticize the monarch for her aloofness and failure to connect with public grief.

She’s done much to improve this image in recent years, but for me and many British people of my generation, the royal family is regarded with deep ambivalence: We’re in favor of abolishing this elitist anachronism, but would miss it terribly if it were gone.

Entering the palace by the Grand Staircase, opulently decked out by architect John Nash, and passing through the silken-walled Green Drawing Room to behold the baroque excess of the Throne Room, these feelings tip strongly towards abolition.

My audio guide makes matter worse, playing pompous classical music over reminders that, as a working palace, the 775-room building hosts state events that affect Britain and the world. I contemplate jumping the barricade to storm the throne.

It’s then that I start noticing the little things; the details that, despite the palace’s lavishly outmoded decoration, reveal an institution that in its own bumbling way is moving with the times and trying to relate to the public now thronging its corridors.

In the Gallery, which houses a dazzling collection including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Canaletto at their best (and Rubens on an off day), my attention is drawn to the single-bar electric heaters installed in otherwise imposing fireplaces.

This incongruous nod to frugality reminds me of the legendary parsimony of the late Queen Mother, who refused to shell out for a TV set and, notoriously, painted lines around bathtubs in the palace to stop people using too much hot water.

As we move into the special exhibition and the elegant ballroom, the audio guide also ditches grandeur in favor of the mundane, reveling in the humdrum details of the queen’s public garden parties: 27,000 cups of tea drunk; 20,000 sandwiches eaten.

In the dining room — where, ahead of state dinners, butlers use rulers to carefully measure the distance between place settings on the polished mahogany table — we’re told that the queen takes a very personal interest in every guest’s comfort.

And in the White Drawing Room, we’re told of a secret door in the corner that allows the queen to quickly enter the State Rooms from her apartment. On close inspection, the door is slightly ajar, as though she’s only just bustled through for a last check.

In the terrace garden cafe where, in the interests of research I part with $6 for a vanilla cream cake topped by a chocolate crown (delicious), the smiling staff is deeply apologetic for keeping me waiting all of two minutes.

It is the attitude of the staff — the plentiful uniformed wardens on duty throughout the building — that confounded me most about Buckingham Palace. It may be their first day on the job, but without exception they were polite, happy and helpful.

I saw wardens helping look for lost children and checking with genuine concern on tired visitors lying on benches. If I had tried to storm the throne, I’m sure a member of staff would have come over with a cushion to check if I was comfortable enough.

Perhaps they’re like that normally, but having experienced the exasperated and sometimes hostile service on display in other London tourist spots, I’m prepared to believe their attitude was ordered by royal decree: “Look after them while I’m gone.”