By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Imagine yourself walking through the Ambassadors’ Entrance, the main entrance of Buckingham Palace, standing in line for the red-carpeted Grand Staircase and admiring Queen Elizabeth’s gifts. Except I wasn’t imagining. I was there a few days ago, and even dined at the Queen’s garden.
You might think I have pulled some strings to get in to the palace. And possibly used my journalist’s credentials.
Buckingham was not even a location on my bucket list. By accident and luck, I was there at the right time and the right place. You don’t need the Queen’s permission to visit the palace. You just need to do a little planning.
Why Buckingham was opened
England’s royal palaces are some of the most popular spots on tourists’ wish lists. For some reason, I assumed that Buckingham, as the official London residence of the Queen and working royal palace of 450 staff members, would be off limits to the public.
When I visited England for the first time in 1998, the tour guide took us to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard. It was so jammed packed that I could hardly see the red-uniformed guards from afar. After hours of waiting, I thought it was still an interesting event. In retrospect, it was a waste of time.
The tour guide mentioned nothing about visiting the palace. That’s the disadvantage of joining tours. With any exciting spot, which requires more money, time, and work, including entrance fees and more than a couple of hours, tour operators are unlikely to share that information. Or they mislead you into believing they have taken you to see the best.
The Queen announced that Buckingham Palace would be open to the public in 1993. The purpose was to raise funds to cover repairs at Windsor Castle from earlier fire damage. Tickets for the tours instantly sold out for the first three years.
My husband booked a hotel around the River Thames. I wanted to see the Parliament building and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, right next to the Thames. The river provides memorable walks on both sides, packed with people, history, architecture, and culture.
I wasn’t aware how close we were to the Palace — about a mile and a half. When our taxi driver drove us into London, he said, “That’s Buckingham Palace.” He thought we hadn’t seen it before. I noticed that it wasn’t as packed as before. At the time, it never occurred to us that we could hop into the palace.
We asked the concierge for information about a Broadway play on Aug. 13 in the late afternoon. Casually, he mentioned that he helped another customer buy tickets to get into Buckingham Palace. We asked if he could help us, too. The palace was more appealing than the play.
We booked tickets online for the next day. You can book a specific time slot. It’s £23 ($30) for adults, and £13 ($17) for the disabled and kids under 17.
On Sunday, we arrived at the gate at 10:30 a.m., 15 minutes ahead of time. The wait was short. There were fewer than 100 people. Everything was well organized and efficiently run. After the security check, we were inside the Palace at 10:50 a.m. with an audio guide. There are 15 languages to choose from, including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.
“This is real,” I told myself, as we marched into the entrance, the same one used by Ambassadors of all countries. We were thrilled and amazed that an ordinary person like me could venture into the same room that Her Majesty often passes by, for dining with heads of state, knighting her subjects, meeting with important people, and greeting her guests for her garden reception three times a year.
By the way, the Queen doesn’t even come to Buckingham during the summer. She lives in Scotland and Windsor Castle (which we visited two years ago. It’s another great site to visit).
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert moved to Buckingham Palace after they were married in 1840. They played an important role in transforming the palace for state functions and activities.
Between Windsor and Buckingham, I would recommend Buckingham Palace if your time is limited. Buckingham Palace offers much more for the public to see. The tour features 16 different rooms, from dining rooms for bigger events for heads of state to smaller groups, ballrooms to music rooms, and art gallery and the red-carpeted Grand Staircase for visitors to walk up to meet Her Majesty.
As each room unveils its spectacular beauty, every piece of furniture is a piece of art. The art collections, including the marble sculptures, 350 clocks, chandeliers, paintings, and vases of all sizes, from China and Japan, overwhelm the visitors. Even the mirrors, trim, and carvings on each wall is different. It reveals the care, work, heart, and creativity of the designer in every inch of the space, striving for perfection. As I sat down to rest in one of the rooms, I could imagine the royal family’s comings and goings on the wedding day of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. They were holding hands, getting ready for their family portraits with the Queen and the royal family.
The security guards
Inside the palace, the guards are diverse. There are many people of color, including several Muslim women wearing their hijabs and Sikhs with their turbans. Muslims are welcome with open arms in all types of government jobs. No way would this happen in Trump’s White House. England is way ahead of the United States in that regard.
What are the qualifications to work inside the palace? You don’t need a college degree. You have to be interested in talking to people and enjoy history, according to one of them.
Yes, there are immigrants working as guards. Some of them were from the United States and Australia.
I was fortunate that my past journeys included visits to many Austrian, Russian, French, and German palaces. They are all impressive reflections of each nation’s culture and history. The most extravagant palaces belong to the Russians in St. Petersburg. What it means is that the government taxed the people hard to build such a wondrous structure. How much the people suffered in those eras!
Visiting the British palaces is deeply personal for me. Mesmerized by a 200-year-old palace, I held my breath like witnessing a fairytale, except this was real. As a former resident of Hong Kong, a former British colony, the television images of Buckingham Palace, with white stones and gold and black fences — were always familiar in my mind — except I never imagined what’s beyond those fences. And to suddenly be inside the actual palace seemed surreal.
At the end of the tour, a woman said, “This has been my dream.” Well, it wasn’t really my dream because I didn’t think it was possible. The morning before, I had no idea that I would march into Buckingham Palace, and stay there for more than three incredible hours, including enjoying a lunch at the garden, where Her Majesty hosts her reception for thousands of people.
My former Hong Kong classmate, who lives in London, said I was lucky. Buckingham Palace opens only from the last week of July to Oct. 1. If you plan to visit London, pick that time of the year, so Buckingham can be a part of your trip. It’s worth it.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.