This week I had a great treat. I visited Buckingham Palace Gardens. For the first time they are open for members of the public to explore on a so-called “self-guided tour”.
The idea has been so successful that demand for tickets outstripped supply. So there are now additional ticket for dates throughout July to September.
Indeed, it looks as if even the newly released tickets have already sold out. But they urge you to check back for possible cancellations. Given the uncertainty of British Weather – that great Cleopatra, as Charles Lamb called it – I should think there may be plenty
Two go to Buckingham Palace
I went with my great friend and fellow blogger (also co-author of Getting the Point, a guide to punctuation for adults) Elizabeth Hawksley. She often attends previews of exhibitions at Buckingham Palace. This time they invited her to bring a guest.
They were kindly offering a guided garden tour, as everyone can sign up for, when they buy a ticket. But, both being romantic novelists, we preferred to go for the self-guided option. We thought it would be more stimulating to wander, to see what presented itself and what might inspire us to set off on some productive tangent.
Buckingham Palace Garden Parties
This is where I admit that I had attended a Buckingham Palace Garden Party years ago, with my companion, the Birdwatcher. The garden’s 39 acres provide a uniquely undisturbed habitat for all sorts of plants and wildlife, so he was intrigued.
But binoculars and telescope were not on the list of permitted impedimenta and, anyway, I didn’t want to scramble around boggy bits of the lake shore in my Garden Party shoes. I was invited in my then capacity as Chairman of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. As an official representative, therefore, I was garden-partied to my eyebrows for the occasion. Everything but the parasol, believe me.
Anyway, birdwatching isn’t really an option when there are 7,998 fellow guests. That’s Buckingham Palace statistics, not romantic novelist’s hyperbole, by the way.
Buckingham Palace Garden Magnificence
I’m really not surprised they can pack in that number. The garden is huge. Everything, from the vast Main Lawn to the multi-tiered herbaceous border, is giant-sized.
Especially the trees!
There was a truly splendid specimen which could give the Whomping Willow an inferiority complex, as its great arms stretch out, unsupported, nearly as wide as it is high.
That, I said to myself, is a tree I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. It has reach. And a beady eye. Probably muscles as well.
Buckingham Palace Garden Wildlife
The Buckingham Palace Garden is the richest habitat for wildlife in the whole of the London area, according to reports by the London Natural History Society, published in recent years. They found 325 wild-plant species, 30 species of breeding birds, 112 types of spider, 16 types of land snail and many other species. I suspect that, to really appreciate the rare and wonderful butterflies, beetles and other resident wildlife, you would need to take one of those Garden Tours.
Nevertheless. Elizabeth and I saw much to report to the Birdwatcher, including great swathes of uncut grasses, deliberately left to nurture rarities. (One of the few requests made of us was not to trample over the long grass. And it was a gently-phrased request, not a barked-out prohibition. Everyone was so welcoming, so pleased we were there! It felt like a giant virtual hug.)
Visible in plain sight, however, was this splendidly messy coot’s nest, in the middle of the lake. We did ask one of the smartly dressed garden attendants whether there was a heron. It seemed the right sort of place for one. “Not now all the fish have gone,” she said ruefully. It sounded as if the fish shortage was caused by the heron in the first place.
Buckingham Palace Garden for a Family
I found the garden magical, and impressive, and, at odd moments, surprisingly intimate. For this is definitely a place where a family has planned and played and walked with pleasure. The herbaceous borders, one of the helpful attendants told us, provide a posy for the Queen every morning.
And a little further on we came across a roof on the ground. Huh?
“The children’s sandpit,” said a kindly attendant. “Made for Prince Charles originally.”
And then there were the Indian, or Himalayan, horse chestnuts, no longer flowering as magnificently as a month ago, but still with a remaining candle or two, to show how fine they must have been.
Again, they are huge, providing an avenue of shade for a gentle stroll even in brightest midday sun. The original 37 have been thinned out now to just 17. They were planted in the early 1960s and their conkers, we were told, are not spiky but “Corgi-friendly”. One can just imagine the little chaps batting the things about and bundling after them with glee. Delightful.
Buckingham Palace Garden and History
I am sorry that we did not identify the corner of the garden which the gardeners are said to call Clock Tree Corner. Apparently, it had been their habit to climb one of the trees, to check the time on the Clock Tower of St Peter’s Church, at the western end of Eaton Square. Presumably that was before the days of wrist watches, let alone smart phones.
Since the visit I have been reading around a little, most notably an essay by the current Head Gardener, Mark Lane from 2004. It reminded me that the garden would once have been full of wonderful elms. They died, as I remember watching a stand of Oxfordshire elms dying, in the 1970s.
But many trees survive gloriously. Elizabeth and I saw two trees planted by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. That’s me staring awe-struck at the one we christened the Albert tree. It looked the more determined of the two. Victoria is the one behind him.
These London planes are still growing strong, with their branches entwined. No one knows now who planted which tree. I think Queen Victoria would have considered that appropriate for a marriage that was, truly, a joint venture.
Victoria brings me back, as a proper garden tour always should, to where I began, with my friend Elizabeth. For Elizabeth is much more of a historian than I am, and she told me that it was Queen Victoria who had started the Buckingham Palace garden parties. Even more interestingly, Queen Victoria insisted on an all-ranks guest list. This was the same sensibility which, Elizabeth pointed out, inspired her to set up the Victoria Cross, after the Crimean War, which moved her very greatly.
It is still the highest and most prestigious award in the British honours system, awarded “for Valour” in the presence of the enemy.
Indeed on one occasion, the only witness of the action concerned was, indeed, an enemy. Flying Officer Lloyd Trigg of the Royal New Zealand Air Force was awarded a VC on the recommendation of the captain of the German U-boat, U-468, which was sunk by Trigg’s aircraft. There were no surviving Allied witnesses. Sobers you, doesn’t it?
I knew very little about Queen Victoria, except that she was so attached to her first Prime Minister that she very nearly caused a constitutional crisis by refusing to accept his rival, Sir Robert Peel, when the Tories were elected. But Elizabeth convinced me that there was much more to her and sent me to her lovely blog post about Victoria after an earlier visit to Buckingham Palace.
Following Dr Amanda Foreman, Elizabeth concludes that Victoria invited guests to her garden parties, not on the basis of rank, but on on the grounds of what they “had contributed towards helping their fellow men.”
And, thereby, set the Royal Family on its present role in patronage of charitable and socially useful activities. “Changing the narrative,” Dr Foreman calls it. Clearly, Queen Victoria was a more humane, and possibly more far-sighted, woman than I had realised. I must learn more.