Living Like A Queen in London's Royal Residences

Last summer I spent a fascinating and, yes, fun, weekend exploring some of London's wonderful royal sites. As part of a group organised by Travel Editions – an excellent company that offers what you might call 'themed history tourism' – I was fortunate enough to be transported to each  location from a hotel in Surrey, in the company of my very friendly fellow travellers and the excellent blue badge guide Rita Adam. The Ultimate Royal Weekend promised much and did not disappoint. With a packed schedule that included visits to Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace as well as Clarence House, London home of the Prince of Wales, the historic Frogmore House in Windsor and the lovely Savill Gardens we were all kept both busy and informed. After a quick afternoon meet-and-greet at the hotel on Friday evening we were taken by coach to Windsor Castle. Because of heavy traffic on the M25 we used more minor roads through towns like Chertsey and Weybridge and past famous tourist spots like Thorpe Park and Runnymede. And this is one of the reasons I love travelling in London and its environs. Just about everywhere you look and everywhere you go there is something interesting to see.

 As it happened we arrived at Windsor just as everyone else had left. Our guided tour was to be an after-hours, private affair that afforded us access to some of the areas not normally open to the public with our guides – the castle wardens - unhooking some of the ropes normally used to hold back the public and inviting us to step to the middle of many of the rooms. Rooms which were filled with precious antiques and with walls covered in just part of an enormous art collection by world-renowned artists like Rembrandt, Rubens, Canaletto and Titian. All of the rooms really are magnificent  and, with the guidance of the wardens it's very easy to step back in time and appreciate the history that those walls experienced. After all, the castle has been in almost constant use since it was first built almost 1,000 years ago. 

A private tour of Windsor Castle, after the crowds have gone home, is very special indeed. 

We were shown the area of the castle that was almost entirely destroyed during the terrible blaze of 1992. Approximately one-fifth of the castle's area was affected by the fire – some nine major and more than 100 minor rooms were damaged. It took five years to restore the castle to its former glory but it was well worth the effort and expense. It is now almost impossible to see which parts of the interiors and roofs are original and which are replacements. Quite a remarkable feat. Because our evening was arranged privately we were lucky enough to enjoy a glass of champagne whilst perusing the gift shop. It capped a wonderful evening.

Saturday morning saw the entire group bussed back to Windsor for our tour of Frogmore – the house where Queen Victoria spent much of her time, and in the grounds of which she built her mausolea for her mother, her husband and herself. Nestled in one of the quieter corner of Home Park, it is easy to see why this elegant, and more cosy 17th-century house has proved so popular with successive generations of the Royal Family. 

Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, lived there for a long time with her daughters, reputedly so that they could be isolated from the distractions of Court and the potential temptations of any unsuitable young gentlemen. Queen Victoria gave the house to her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and Earl Mountbatten of Burma was born there. 

Frogmore is used by today's Royals as a retreat from the main castle 

The future King George V and Queen Mary, then the Prince and Princess of Wales, stayed there frequently with their children in the early 1900s. And in 1923 the then Duke and Duchess of York, later George VI and Queen Elizabeth, spent the first part of their honeymoon at Frogmore.

Queen Mary, particularly after the death of her husband in 1936, spent many hours cataloguing the many collectible items acquired by the Royal Family. Indeed most of the items on show still have attached the tiny brown labels written in Queen Mary's handwriting. The house remains a popular location for both family and official occasions.

Our afternoon was spent at The Savill Garden, a beautiful ornamental garden first created in the 1930s. It's an unusual garden because there are many huge trees, which you might normally expect in the grounds of a stately home, or in a formal park.  

But there are also flower beds, borders, hidden gardens, and a large glasshouse. One of the newest additions is the beautiful Rose Garden which features over 2,000 rose bushes each carefully selected both for appearance fragrance. The best view of the Rose Garden is from the overhanging walkway which appears, from the distance at least, to 'float' above the garden.

In 2006 the award-winning Savill Building opened. A very modern building which still seems to blend seamlessly into the landscape that surrounds it. It's here that a coffee shop, restaurant and huge gift shop are located. Sadly, the last hour of our visit was spent huddled under the trees, thanks to a torrential downpour.

Fabulous borders with drifts of vibrant colours are a feature of the Savill Garden 

 Probably the highlight of the trip was the visit to Buckingham Palace. Open to the public only during the summer, (strictly) timed tickets are issued. The tour is free-flowing and self-guided, although you can take advantage of a free audio tour, which I'd recommend highly. You enter the palace grounds through a side entrance on Buckingham Palace Road, where airport-style security checks are made to visitors and their baggage, but you exit further around the corner on Grosvenor Place.

Entrance to the palace building is up the spectacular Grand Staircase.Some 19 state rooms are open to the public and these include many of the more familiar places such as the throne room, in which so many Royal Wedding photographs have been taken and the Ballroom, which is usually the location of state banquets. This year the palace is holding two very special displays. The first is a selection of the Royal Family's Faberge collection – thought to be the most impressive there is. And the other – unsurprisingly the most popular exhibits on show this year – is the Duchess of Cambridge's exquisite Sarah Burton wedding dress along with the tiara loaned to her for the day by the Queen, her tiny shoes – given her tall frame – and the earrings which were made especially for her and were a gift from her parents. 

Visitors to the Buckingham Palace State Rooms leave the palace on the terrace  and walk back through part of the huge, and very beautiful, garden.     

In the next room is the formal wedding cake – itself as spectacular and detailed as any of the rooms in the palace. What the official guide doesn't tell you is that the top three tiers are replicas. The first two have been saved, as is tradition, to be used as a christening cake for the couple's first child, and the other was served to guests on the day. However you can see the large sword cut in the bottom tier where the couple 'cut the cake'. Visitors leave through the terrace and go out into the garden where a cafe, shop and toilets are located before winding their way through part of the grounds and out into the busy London streets once more.

The Palace of Westminster may no longer be a Royal Residence but its spendid architecture  is probably unsurpassed in this part of the capital. 

As this tour was timed to perfection we had time for a brief stroll around St James's Park before meeting at Clarence House. Entrance is by timed ticket too, and since the house is quite small and really a home rather than an official building, tour groups are kept quite small. Doing first the palace, then Clarence House makes the latter seem even more intimate. You are shown several rooms and the very informed guides are able to answer questions on pretty much every single item in them. There are lovely family photographs and mementoes on display, set out just as you would in your own home, and there is much there that reflects the life and tastes of the Queen Mother, who lived in the house from 1953 until her death in 2002. Clarence House feels very much like a family home.

So after all this Royal tourism, it was almost time to return to the hotel and go our separate ways. But our guide had allowed just enough time to take in some of the other sights of London, from the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey to the still under construction Shard on the other side of the Thames. See, that's the thing with London – wherever you are there is always something to look at.