Royal Tour

Here, as we celebrate the 63rd year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign this week, we walk in the footsteps of Kate Middleton, the woman who would be queen.

Originally published in Zoomer magazine, June 2012

I’m lying in bed in my London hotel room. It’s a bright and balmy March morning, the crocuses and daffodils that grace the window box on my private terrace are in glorious bloom, and any moment breakfast will be brought to me by a footman dressed in formal morning suit. Did I say footman? I meant bellman – or did I?

You see, this isn’t just any bed in just any London hotel. No sir or madam: my body is lying snug atop a giant fluffy mattress fit for a queen. And given the fact that said mattress is in The Goring Hotel, that is not a pun. The Goring is the oh-so-discreet five-star hotel where the then Kate Middleton spent her final night as a singleton last April 28 before marrying Prince William, the man who will one day become king.

My room is called the Belgravia Suite, complete with foyer, formal sitting room with fireplace and red damask sofas, and a marble bathroom with heated floors. While I assume that the now Duchess of Cambridge spent the night in the Royal Suite, the Belgravia is so posh (and yet down-home comfy at the same time) that I wonder if at least one of the Middletons slept here.

But I’m not to find out because the staff isn’t dishing the dirt on any guests, never mind such highfalutin ones. Discretion is key at such a storied hotel, where Prince Charles is rumoured to be a regular in the dining room, which serves traditional English dishes. Given that Buckingham Palace is but a finger sandwich away, it is no wonder the Firm is a frequent customer.

I have the good fortune to be staying here as part of Visit Britain’s media onslaught to drum up interest in the various goings-on in London and vicinity for the summer of 2012 – the two hottest tickets in town being the Summer Olympic Games and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It is the latter that has this royal watcher falling over her scones to get the inside scoop.

As I stroll to Buckingham Palace, I can’t help but wonder what goes through the Duchess’s mind, or anyone involved in the Royal Family, as she or he turns the corner and sees the castle gates and, through it, the pebbled Quadrangle and that famous balcony – scene of many a historic royal wave and a kiss or two. My purpose is less romantic.

I’m here to get the details on the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, followed by a tour of the staterooms. If you’re an anti-monarchist, best to stop reading now. But for the rest of us, the Jubilee is a time to honour Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II who by all accounts – even the naysayers – has fulfilled the promise spoken on her 21st birthday in 1947: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.”

Thankfully, her life and her reign has been long indeed. Long enough so far to have seen the appointments of 12 British prime ministers, 12 presidents of the United States and 11 Canadian prime ministers. Currently she is patron of approximately 600 charities and, at 86, to still be carrying out hundreds of official engagements as Head of State, Head of the Commonwealth, Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Head of the British Armed Forces. And that’s not even touching on how she’s had to juggle her own scandal- ridden family matters throughout.

To mark her longevity on the throne, the official celebrations for the Diamond Jubilee are fittingly both sombre and spectacular. There are art exhibits put on by the Royal Collection Trust at the various castles, a highlight being The Queen: 60 Photographs for 60 Years at Windsor Castle that runs through October. Some of the striking images include Her Majesty with then U.S. President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961 and the Queen arriving at Lady Thatcher’s 80th birthday bash. And Holyroodhouse in Scotland, Clarence House and Buckingham Palace are all opening up their doors to artwork obtained through the centuries by and about the monarchy.

The biggest bash is the Central Weekend of June 2 to 5 when things enter the realm of spectacle. To kick off the weekend, Her Majesty – a passionate horsewoman and horseracing fan – will attend the Epsom Derby as she has always done. Then on Sunday, June 3, the Queen hosts the Big Jubilee Lunch at Buckingham Palace. To spread the cheer to those not able to secure such an exclusive invite,  the rest of the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth Citizens (formerly known as British subjects) are encouraged to host their own lunch – there is a website dedicated to this – and it is expected that this will be a popular activity that will result in a street party atmosphere.

But perhaps the most anticipated event is later that afternoon with the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant, where 1,000 boats carrying approximately 30,000 people will be afloat. According to the pageant master there will be every sort of watercraft from royal frigates to tall ships to fishing trawlers to paddle boats, with the jewel in the crown being The Spirit of Chartwell, the royal barge that will carry the Queen and members of the Royal family as Handel’s Water Music is broadcast along the river. And if that wasn’t uite enough pomp, there will be a floating belfry to ring the Royal Jubilee Bell met with church bells sounding off along the Thames. Then, after loyal subjects sleep off the Pimms and pints, the BBC Concert at Buckingham Palace sounds off on June 4 in front of 10,000 lucky residents who won a lottery to attend.

I feel like a lottery winner myself as I’m given a tour of the staterooms, which are the areas of the palace open to the public when the Queen is not in residence. Our group is escorted by knowledgeable guides and reminded that photography is strictly banned, as is lingering too long in one spot, whether to gaze at any of the dozens of fine art portraits or to imagine the ballroom stretched to capacity with the court in full dress – a temptation matched only by the vigilance of the staff who shoo you onward. So on we go, through the State Dining Room with its table of Spanish mahogany, polished to such a shine that tablecloths are never used, allowing the reflective twinkle of candlelight off its surface to illuminate the room. A large portrait  of King George IV – who began the palace in 1825 – looms overhead. Despite the keen eyes of the palace guards, I manage to stroke the table’s smooth finish before moving into the Blue Drawing Room where guests might retire for après-dinner coffee. It is in this room that the Queen has honoured many people with an MBE or OBE. Indeed, all the staterooms (which house Rembrandts and Vermeers among other masters) are used as reception rooms and are linked by giant wooden doors to host larger events and also overlook the gardens where Her Majesty’s garden parties take place.

But it is the Throne Room that most impresses. There are the official wedding portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip and of Prince William and Catherine. Again, I wonder how Kate felt on her wedding day to have left The Goring a commoner, and following the ceremony shortly thereafter, to enter the palace for the reception a future Queen. She probably passed through this room with the red upholstered thrones of Queen Victoria, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, knowing she will one day sit upon her own. These chairs sit staunchly by as our group shuffles past. One person jokes about sitting down, but I shake my head. That feels wrong.

Not that I’m without guile. As media, we are allowed this glimpse inside palace walls while Her Majesty is safely ensconced in her private rooms across the courtyard. As we enter the White Drawing Room, it is explained to us that a large mirror on one wall conceals a secret door to the private apartments – just like you seen in films. A fleeting temptation to break away from the group and see how far I could get runs through my mind. Our group was surely large enough that one missing journalist would go unnoticed. Due to my best behaviour genes as well as the tightened security, ramped up for the Jubilee and also in response to that ill-fated break-in of 1982 when the Queen had to confront an intruder, I keep walking like the nice Canadian that I am.

The tour continues through the Green Room, site of Cecil Beaton’s famous Coronation Day photographic portraits of the Queen, and finally down the Grand Staircase, where I run my hand down a railing polished by the palms of kings and queens, princes and princesses and all manner of royalty and aristocracy. Then, just like that, it is over, and we are escorted across the expansive pebble Quadrangle, an impressive drive that has been the site of countless arrivals by horse and carriage, out the front gates and left to stare up through the wrought iron at the lighted palace like the commoners we are.

Which brings me back to the Duchess of Cambridge. A friend of mine who resides in London had the good fortune to attend an earlier media reception at the palace where both the Queen and the Duchess were in attendance. My friend was outraged that the young woman was surrounded by people, while on the other side of the room Her Majesty had an audience of only two or three. “There’s the Queen practically alone, while Kate is the star,” my friend scoffed. “Kate has nothing to say!” I didn’t wish to argue but I couldn’t help but think that the Queen might be happy, if not a little relieved, that her family’s role in public life is on an upward swing, and that’s in large part due to the stylish, if not outspoken, Duchess.

It was 20 years ago during a speech given to commemorate 40 years of her accession that she said these famous words: “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an Annus Horribilis.” She was not overstating the facts. That spring, Prince Andrew split from Sarah, then the Duchess of York, only to have photos of her topless and with a man sucking her toes plastered across the tabloids months later. Anne, the Princess Royal, divorced her first husband, Captain Mark Phillips. The Princess of Wales’ tell-all memoir, Diana: Her True Story, was published, and she separated from Prince Charles by year’s end. To top it off, the Queen’s beloved Windsor Castle was severely damaged in a fire.

And, as we all know, things didn’t improve for a long time. The death of Diana in 1997 caused a maelstrom of public grief and a public relations nightmare for the Royal Family that is well-chronicled in the Oscar-winning film The Queen. Then, a few years later in 2002, the deaths of the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, and of their mother, the Queen Mum, one month apart. Following this time of mourning came the carefully constructed courtship and marriage of Prince Charles to his long-time lover, Camilla Parker Bowles, in 2005. To say the popularity of the monarchy had diminished greatly since the Queen’s 21st birthday speech is an understatement. Yet amid the doom and gloom grew the Monarchy’s two aces: the telegenic princes, William and Harry. The engagement and subsequent marriage of William to Kate miraculously brushed away the cobwebs of the past 20 years and cast the Royal Family in a new fairy tale to usher in a new era.

The wedding also breathed fresh air into less obvious places and into less famous faces. Take one particular insider at Westminster Abbey, which was founded by Edward the Confessor in the 1040s. The Abbey walls have seen the coronation of 38 sovereigns, beginning with William the Conqueror, and the weddings of 16 royal couples, including Queen Elizabeth II (at the time, she was Princess Elizabeth) and, of course, Wills and Kate. As I was toured through the Abbey by a verger named David, a very charismatic man in his 50s, he beamed with great pride when telling me that he was the man who escorted Prince William and best man Prince Harry from the Chapel of St. Edmund to the High Altar. He was clearly a fan.

And this resurgence in popularity of all things royal is not lost on the folks who run the non-profit organization Historic Royal Palaces, a group that manages the Tower of London, Kew Palace, Hampton Court Palace, Banqueting House and Kensington Palace on behalf of the Queen. Kensington Palace reopened to the public in March after a £12 million (approximately C$19 million) restoration. The permanent exhibit, Victoria Revealed, seeks to explore the life and reign of Queen Victoria, who grew up within the palace walls and includes jewelry, her wedding dress and letters in her own handwriting. To coincide with the Diamond Jubilee, a temporary exhibit that runs until November explores the 1897 celebrations of Queen Victoria’s own Diamond Jubilee as she was the first British monarch to reach this milestone. The State Apartments have also been given a new twist for visitors by showcasing previous monarchs such as Queen Mary II, who died in the palace from smallpox at the age of 32 and whose childlessness was a cause of her great unhappiness, and the life of her sister, Queen Anne, who reigned for 12 years and gave birth to 18 children, though sadly none survived. There is also a Diana installation with five of her dresses, the entry walls to which are covered in wallpaper patterned with artist drawings of key moments in the Princess’s life.

But what struck me as I entered the vestibule, an airy circular room with a ceiling covered with quotes from a range of palace residents and where visitors begin the tour, were the large portraits of the women who have lived within its walls (including an exquisite image of a glamorous Princess Margaret taken by her then husband Lord Snowden). The fact of the matter was that the women of Kensington Palace didn’t fare well. Queen Victoria is on the record as saying her childhood was a misery. The sister queens, Anne and Mary, lived tragic and troubled existences here and, more recently, Princess Margaret and Diana seemed to repeat the pattern. So when I looked upon the engagement portrait of William and Kate taken by Mario Testino, whose famous image of Diana graced the opposite wall, I wondered if the Duchess of Cambridge was wise to move into Princess Margaret’s former apartments in Kensington Palace. Sure, Prince Harry’s decision to move in will brighten the place or, at the very least, ensure there’s a party atmosphere. But perhaps the Duchess is not superstitious. And if she is at all apprehensive, she need only turn to her grandmother-in-law for sage advice.

Or she could simply read this extract from the Queen’s 1953 coronation speech: “Throughout all my life and with all my heart, I shall strive to be worthy of your trust. In this resolve, I have my husband to support me. He shares all my ideals and all my affection for you. Then, although my experience is so short and my task so new, I have in my parents and grandparents an example which I can follow with certainty and with confidence.”

Those words seem as fitting today as they were then. The Queen was only 27 when she spoke them, the Duchess is only 30 now. Yet the Duchess could easily say the same about her husband, Prince William, whose guidance she has now and will continue to have when he is one day crowned king. She has been well prepared for the role of her life. When she gave her first public speech in March, one could see her, albeit with a voice tinged with nervousness, channelling the dignified composure of Elizabeth II.

As I make my way back to The Goring and one last night spent in aristocratic splendour, the sun begins to set on Buckingham Palace, and the twilight casts a glow across the balcony high above the Quadrangle. I imagine the Queen and the future Queen standing up there and waving to the June crowds gathered outside its gates to celebrate Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. God save the Queen.