In Depth

Inside Buckingham Palace: step into the Queen's home

Public invited to visit royal gardens as the palace is renovated

Few historic landmarks capture the public’s imagination like Buckingham Palace. The balcony alone is “one of the most famous in the world”, says the Royal Household, providing a handsome backdrop for family appearances at royal weddings, state events and national celebrations.

The building - which is both an administrative headquarters and a family home - is undergoing a renovation that is expected to take ten years to complete and cost an estimated £369m. 

The project includes replacing the palace roof, much of the plumbing and electricity systems “which have been in place since the 1950s”, and lifts will be installed “to improve accessibility”, The Independent reports.

Visitors, who have been able to explore the palace since 1993, will from this summer have access to 39 acres of gardens.

But some may find the experience disorientating. Since The Crown - the most popular recent depiction of the palace and its grounds - was filmed elsewhere, most people are still to see what lies behind the black iron gates.

History

Buckingham House was originally built in 1703 for the third Earl of Mulgrave, John Sheffield.  King George III bought the building in 1761 for his wife Queen Charlotte, earning the building the nickname of “Queen's House”. 

State Banquet in the Palace Ballroom

A State Banquet in the Ballroom in 2009

Johnny Green / AFP / Getty Images

After taking the throne in 1820, George IV worked with architect John Nash to “set about transforming the house into a palace”, the Royal website explains. The King secured £450,000 to complete the work, which doubled the size of the main block, adding a new suite of rooms and facade influenced by the French neo-classical style. 

Queen Victoria took up residence in the palace in 1837, the first sovereign to do so. Further work was undertaken to accommodate the Queen and husband Prince Albert’s requirements, including the removal of Marble Arch to Hyde Park in order to add a fourth wing to the palace. The couple “transformed the Palace into the centre of an energetic, cosmopolitan court”, says the Royal Collection Trust

The palace was used less after Albert’s death, but subsequent residents King Edward VII and King George V did much to both the interior and exterior design of the building.

The palace today stands 24 metres high. Its 775 rooms include 52 bedrooms for royals and guests, 188 staff bedrooms, and 78 bathrooms. Forbes estimates the palace’s value at £3.6bn.

Step inside

Drawing on all available information about the palace’s layout, Home Advisor shared a comprehensive floorplan of its known features in 2020. Some, however, “remain a mystery and are off-limits to anyone except palace staff”.

Entering the Central Block, the grand staircase is one of the first stops. Designed by John Nash, the bronze flight of stairs was inspired by his experience in London theatres, the Royal Collection Trust says. The steps are clad with red carpet and the walls feature portraits of Queen Victoria’s immediate family. It is here that the Queen reportedly caught the son of Prince Philip’s valet red-handed flying paper aeroplanes from its height, the Daily Express reports.

At the top of the stairs is the Green Drawing Room, where the Queen holds her weekly meetings with the prime minister, Home Advisor explains. Guests also assemble here before being presented in the Music Room ahead of a dinner or banquet in the State Dining Room, says Royal Collection Trust.

Several of the 19 State Rooms are differentiated by colour, such as the Blue Drawing Room and the White Drawing Room, which is “perhaps the grandest of all”. The former features a number of Sevres porcelain pieces, while the latter is home to a gilded Sebastien Erard piano which belonged to Queen Victoria.

Connecting these upper level State Rooms is the Picture Gallery. The works displayed in the 47-metre long space “change quite regularly” the Royal Collection Trust reports, “as the Queen lends many works of art to exhibitions around the UK and overseas.” The almost 200-year-old roof is being replaced as part of the renovation works. 

The Ballroom is used for prestigious banquets and official visits by foreign heads of state. Here, the chandelier is made up of 9,000 pieces of lead crystal and weighs over half a tonne, according to the Press Association. It is here, or alternatively at the Windsor Castle’s Waterloo Chamber, that the Queen awards Honours each year.

She makes royal addresses from the Throne Room, which features a “dramatic arch and canopy” over two thrones, known as Chairs of Estate. Its decadent design is again influenced by Nash’s background in the theatres, and the room is today used for official entertaining. It was also where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge posed for formal wedding photos after their wedding at Westminster Abbey in 2011. 

Kate Middleton Prince William wedding photo

Hugo Burnand / CLARENCE HOUSE / AFP / Getty Images

Less is known of the Queen’s private apartments. Reports that she uses only six of the palace’s rooms followed the publication of Angela Kelly’s The Other Side of the Coin: The Queen, the Dressed and the Wardrobe in 2019. “The only gentlemen that I have ever known to enter these rooms are The Duke of Edinburgh and other members of the royal family,” Kelly said. 

Before Prince Phillip’s death, he and his wife reportedly slept in separate bedrooms - but “not for tradition's sake”, Hello Magazine reports: “Apparently Philip likes to sleep with the windows open, regardless of the weather.” 

Surprising details

While some of the palace’s secrets remain out of the public realm, it does currently house a number of surprising facilities, according to Hello! Magazine. One unexpected design feature is a doorway to the White Drawing Room, which leads to the Queen’s private apartments. A mirror and cabinet fool the unknowing eye from this cleverly concealed entrance. 

The palace has a full size swimming pool, where Prince William and Kate Middleton have been known to swim with their children, the magazine reports. The Court Post Office is run by royal mail, and is available for all members of the palace staff to use. 

It also has a doctor’s surgery, and in 2001 Coutts bank installed a cash machine in the basement for royal use. An in-house cinema is available for palace staff, although you are more likely to catch a screening of Downton Abbey than The Crown, Emily Maitlis told The Times in 2019.

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