diamond geezer

 Friday, August 30, 2013

No, seriously, they're doing tours? Apparently they've been running them for a few years now, summer months only, but I'd not noticed before. This year's season runs from 1st August to 1st September, so to visit you need to get a move on and book by Sunday. And it's only nine quid to go round, I thought it'd be more, and your ticket allows you to come back again within 12 months. Oh and the name of the building, sorry, it's Clarence House.

Prince Charles's official residence has a chequered royal history. It was built on The Mall in the 1820s, designed by John Nash in trademark pale stucco. The house's first owner was the Duke of Clarence, soon to be William IV, and he stayed here whilst king in preference to Buckingham Palace. Later it passed to Queen Victoria's second and third sons, the latter until 1942, followed by a brief wartime intermission before our present queen moved in. She lived here as the recently-married Princess Elizabeth, hence Prince Charles spent his toddler years at Clarence House. But its most famous resident must be Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who spent almost half a century in this bolt-on mansion beside St James's Palace. Ten years ago the Prince of Wales moved in, joined more recently by the Duchess of Cornwall (but no longer Wills and Harry, for whom Clarence House is now no more than a forwarding address).

So long as you've pre-booked online (presumably so the secret services can check you out), all you do is turn up. Don't go to what looks like the main entrance, where tour-goers line up to take photos of guardsmen, but head instead to the back gate. Here you pass through the usual airport-style security protocols in a marquee in the garden, and then you wait on benches alongside your fellow tour attendees. Eighteen at a time, by the looks of it, and collectively on the mature side. All of my fellow visitors were over 60, and all were female apart from one dutiful husband who looked like he'd taken time out from the croquet club. I can also reassure you that the entire tour is wheelchair friendly, which is perhaps not surprising given that a 101-year-old once resided here.

Nice garden. A couple of huge plane trees dominate the centre of the lawn, providing an ideal space for sheltered entertaining. Outside the front door is a formal memorial garden for the Queen Mother, with low hedged beds surrounding a sundial. Nearby is a magnolia tree planted by the Dalai Lama, and a smaller specimen courtesy of Aung San Suu Kyi. On the far side is the vegetable garden, used for in-house catering, currently ripe with carrots, potatoes, runner beans and marrows. And beyond that are two beehives, obviously, given Prince Charles' 100%-organic green credentials. I'd bring you photos, but there are no photos thank you, either inside or out.

The tour takes you round the ground floor only, five rooms in total, and nowhere near the more private personal rooms upstairs. Four lead off a long central corridor leading to the main staircase, the other is up the 'Horse Corridor' which reflects the Queen Mum's equine obsession. First to visit is a small reception room, where it can be a struggle to stay on the beige protective carpet. Artworks and memorabilia cover every surface, plus there's a bookcase containing royal biographies (including more than one of the Prince of Wales). The Morning Room opposite is still laid out much as the Queen Mother left it, because surely someone would have repainted it by now otherwise. Receptions are hosted here, watched over by unfinished portraits and a selection of posed family photos.

On to the library, a small square room which used to be the main entrance hall. There are only a couple of bookcases, but the Queen Mother's love of Dick Francis is all too plain, as is a penchant for PG Wodehouse and signed first editions. Next up is the dining room, laid out for a posh silver service meal rather than a cosy supper, with two dozen John Pipers hung around the wall. The telephone on the sidetable can be dialled on extension 5508, which I note is 'BOSS' upsidedown, but I doubt that's entirely relevant. And finally into the Garden Room, which boasts a bold tapestry of a historic slaughter across one wall, but "with all the massacre bits hidden behind a sofa and a lamp". Again it's a busy room full of artwork and objects, plus the impressive stringed instrument the royal harpist gets to play.

That's it, you're back out into the garden again in little over half an hour. But it is fascinating to peek inside the royal enclave, to see the sofas that press announcements are made from and view the personal taste of a dowager centenarian. There is a shop of sorts to visit afterwards, in a backroom at St James's Palace nextdoor. It's late in the season so I think much has sold out, but royal baby merchandise is still much in evidence and the Lily of the Valley handcream is half price. Three more days remain to check out Prince Charles' gaff before he returns home and claims Clarence House for another year.


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