Thursday 24 September 2015
Kew Palace is the last of our Historic Royal Palaces, given that we are not about to cross the Irish Sea, so we made our way to Kew Gardens, before our membership ran out, in order to take advantage of the modest discount offered by the Gardens to HRP card holders. Kew was, as usual, beautiful and, as usual, blighted by the unbroken stream of noisy machines heading for Heathrow.
Linda and I decided to head for the Palace first, though pausing to admire the dark leaved dahlias and detouring to the waterlily house. There was a friendly young man in waders doing a bit of pruning in the water, and he told us the name (ipomea) of the pretty pink flowers round the fence. regrettably, this variety would not thrive out of doors in London. We had not realised till he told us that the enormous lilies are grown from seed every year, nor that the leaves start life as a prickly ring; though we did know that they float courtesy of the air trapped in their spokes (which is where Paxton got the idea for the hollow steel columns which held up the crystal Palace)
But it was time to move on, with autumn beginning to colour Kew's maples, to reach our destination, Kew Palace.
People in an approximation of period costumes indicated the route through the house, and we started in a ground floor room with attractive linenfold panelling, with explanations about the domestic life which George III and his large family liked to enjoy at Kew. Next came the King's Library, embellished with paintings and embroideries by some of the princesses and description s of their daily activities.
The video sequence in the next room has Queen Charlotte talking about her life and fifteen (yes, fifteen) children, two of whom died young. Her first was born in 1762, and the 14th in 1777, then there was a brief gap before Amelia was born in 1783. Her life is one of many reminders of how lucky modern Ist world women are: she and her husband loved each other deeply, and pregnancy was the recurring result.
We also learned, in the next room, about George's father, Frederick, Prince of Wales, who died before he could inherit the throne. George III's accession at the age of 22 explain his long reign, beaten only by Victoria and the current Queen.
The dining room was laid out with what Linda calls National Trust food, including a dish of 'spinnage' and some handsome raised pies. There was a Chamber Organ from about 1730 in the room, a reminder that the whole of the family enjoyed music.
A corridor runs along the middle of the first floor from front to back of the house, lined with not very clean pictures of the Gardens made in the 1750s, but they did not delay us long and we continued our circuit with Princess Elizabeth's dressing room and bedroom. Here the wall panelling had been peeled back to enable us to see the servants' stairs and door. The Queen's bedroom,next door, was where she died in 1818 of dropsy (which we would now just call oedema, or water retention).
The next floor up once housed three more of the princesses, but is now left in a pretty unadorned state, with a room full of information about conservation, and the history of the palace since the days of George III and his family. There were also some interesting details about the servants who were employed, and facsimiles of account books, estate maps and other documents. This is also the room with the apparently obligatory chest of wigs and clothes to try on, Also on this floor is the flush lavatory. Since it only 'flushed' into a holding tank, which still had to be emptied by the servants, one could argue that it was only a moderate improvement in domestic hygiene. The unfinished rooms up here are adorned with quotations from the princesses and other observers about their life at Kew. The top floor is not open to the public. Perhaps one day they will set it up as servants' rooms, since presumably that would have been where members of the domestic staff were housed.
But there was plenty more for us to see, and we headed into the gardens, to study the various medicinal plants, growing with details of what they had been supposed to do in the past, and uses which had been found for them since. Plants to protect against the plague did not seem likely to replace antibiotics any time soon, but explanations about the differing types of camomile, and of names like 'feverfew' and 'bedstraw' were very clear and interesting.
Then we moved on to the royal kitchens, set in their own vegetable gardens. It seemed a pity that no-one was picking the runner beans, or doing anything with a lavish crop of late rhubarb. The young man in period clothes who told us it was a health and safety issue was unconvincing....
Inside the building there were rooms for storage, with meat hooks in the ceilings and tables for food preparation. We were also delighted to see the King's bath tub in one of the scullery-type rooms. Apparently he took his bath here, across the courtyard and gardens from the palace, to save the servants the toil of carting gallons of hot water into the main building. He was clearly a considerate man, at least when he was in his right mind and not being tortured by his doctors
Upstairs were the offices of the Clerk of the Kitchen and his staff, where we were able to see the advertisements and business cards (or replicas thereof) of the businesses which suppled the kitchens. There were also recipes and instructions about table setting and table service. At one side of the handsome office was a decanter and wine glasses, and a the other the equipment for making cups of tea. One could imagine that catering for all those Royals must have been quite a stressful business. And there would be the additional strain of keeping a check on all the silver and other valuables, examples of which were in a store cupboard.
When it was time to head out, Linda and I walked through the Princess of Diana Conservatory, where we were more than a little surprised to see some sizeable lizards apparently waiting for someone to open a door and let them out of the tropics into a more temperate zone. But we just strolled through the Palm house and left, as we had come, towards the station.