During the summer, while the Queen's out of town at one of her other official residences, the doors of BuckinghamPalace are flung open to the public. Not her Royal Bedchamber and not the Royal Breakfast Room, but the official State Rooms where she entertains foreign dignitaries and other important citizens. This year they're open from 26 July to 30 September, and it only costs a small fortune to get inside. I went the whole hog and spent £29.50 on a "Royal Day Out", for which I was entitled to entrance to Buckingham Palace, the Queen's Gallery and the Royal Mews. It's expensive, but my ticket entitles me to go back to all three as many times as I like over the next year, which is pretty good value. I bought it from the temporary ticket office up the side of the Palace, where they employ a nice lady in a blue jacket to say "Cashier number 3 please" in plummy tones. It took a while to fill in all the Gift Aid details (yes, even the Queen claims back tax so that she can pay her taxes), and then a little longer to negotiate the obligatory security wand-check. Headphones on <check>, press play on audio guide <check>, step into palace through side entrance...
There's nothing overly glamorous to start the tour, just a short walk down an access corridor along the edge of the main quadrangle. An elevated outdoor platform gives a good view of the extensive central space where visitors arrive, surrounded on three sides by private apartments and the offices of the Royal Household. Behind at least one of those windows up there the Queen checks the Racing Post and pats her corgis. But the tour instead follows the ceremonial route into the State Rooms, via the appropriately-named Grand Entrance. It's both cavernous and welcoming, with red carpeted passageways and staircases leading further into the building. In this case ascent is via the Grand Staircase (where again the opulence of pre-Empire is on full display) to explore the entertainment suite on the first floor.
Don't think living space, think somewhere to ply important guests with champagne beneath a series of dramatic Nash ceilings. There's a Green Drawing Room, and a Blue Drawing Room, and a White Drawing Room - each of them significantly bigger than my flat. No monarchs sit around in the Throne Room looking important any more, although I bet they enjoy a stroll along the lengthy Picture Gallery after everybody else has gone home. Keep moving along please, the audio guide hints, because the public need to be kept on the go. My weekday morning visit wasn't too packed out and it was possible to see all the fixtures and fittings with relative ease, but weekends and afternoons are probably rather more crammed.
Every summer there's a different special exhibition halfway round the tour, and this year the theme is the Commonwealth. Yes, I know, don't switch off, especially if you like 20th century dressmaking. Here are several of the Queen's outfits worn on 60-years-worth of tours around the world, along with gifts given to her by the grateful citizens of the lands through which she ventured. A nice touch is that the audio guides continue to give detailed information about the background to these items, even though the exhibition itself will only be open for nine weeks. The crowdedest room on the entire tour, this.
The Ballroom comes as a bit of a shock, but then it ought to be no surprise that the royal dancehall is one of the largest single rooms in London. Once devoted to elegant after-dinner entertainment, it's now the place where the nation's great and good queue up to be invested, dubbed and medalled. Lesser visitors can sit and watch some of the Queen's holiday videos on a small TV, or admire some ethnic art along a nearby corridor. Still to be enjoyed are the State Dining Room, where place settings and porcelain are laid out with military precision, and the airy Music Room whose bow window looks out across the palace's back garden. And that's where the hour-and-a-bit tour ends up.
You'll probably never be invited to one of the Queen's garden parties, not unless you're especially charitable or affluent. But here anyone can enjoy a cup of tea and a cake in a cafe overlooking the lawn, even if they're not allowed on the grass. It's only at this point that the taking of photographs is permitted, either back towards the western facade of the palace or out towards the bottom of the garden. Her Majesty has a marvellously serene enclave here, rolling down to a meandering ornamentallake carved from the remnants of the lost River Tyburn. It's an endearing landscape, a mixture of the formal and the private, where it's almost possible to forget that outer London exists. Guests are permitted a final five minute stroll past the gift shop round the wooded banks of the lake, and then it's back to the non-regal side of the perimeter wall. Come October, the lucky Queen gets the whole lot back to herself again.