My daughter-in-law Rachael is a self-confessed Royal Family fan so when she saw that Buckingham Palace was opening its garden to the public for the first time this summer, she couldn’t resist buying tickets. Happily she included me, so with my daughter Nicola and their son Rufus (2¾) we set off to the palace on Friday morning. I’ve seen so little of them in the last 18 months because of Covid that it was really wonderful to all be together for a special family outing and we were especially blessed by the weather as the sun blazed down on London making it a perfect day for a garden visit and picnic.
To make the journey as easy as possible, Nicola had found a brilliant parking space to rent near the palace so we didn’t have to negotiate public transport with a toddler and pushchair. We arrived for our 10.15 entry slot early enough to get a coffee before we went in. The entrance was in Grosvenor Road. It was remarkably quiet, I suppose in a large part because numbers are restricted due to Covid, but even so I’d expected some kind of queue. We arrived a little early but they were – quite reasonably – strict about us not going in until our allotted time. By then there were a few other people but hardly a queue.
Once through the gate we were led through various security checks. This in all honesty is fairly normal now for an important building and not associated with Covid; it was just like going through an airport security check. Everyone was very friendly and we truly felt welcomed. As we emerged finally into the garden itself, a large welcome notice showed us which way to start walking.
Pretty soon the palace itself was in sight. This view of the back of the building and the Main Lawn is very familiar to any British person for this is where the famous garden parties are held and big announcements – like engagements – are made, which we see on TV and in newspapers. There was a slight sense of being somewhere I knew, though I’ve never actually been into the palace before, not even the Gallery where art exhibitions are held.
The garden is laid out over 39 acres of land and is the largest private garden in London. Situated right bang in the centre of London, surrounded by heaving and noisy places like Hyde Park Corner, Victoria and Piccadilly, it’s an amazing oasis of calm and greenery. The building that forms the core of the palace today was built by the Duke of Buckingham in 1703 and known as Buckingham House, though extensions have been added at various times since. King George III acquired it in 1761 and it was used as a private residence for Queen Charlotte. It became Buckingham Palace when Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 and has remained the main London residence of the British monarch ever since – though famously, due to its use, not their favourite, but considered more of an ‘office’ .
There were plenty of palace people – easily identifiable in their uniforms – around to welcome us. It was one of the great features of the day that there was always an official nearby and all of them were wonderfully friendly and also hugely knowledgeable about the palace and garden. Literally, you could stop and ask them anything – Do you know what that tree is? – and they’d know!
We took a look at the large map to orientate ourselves. We had a Highlights Tour booked for 11.00 so needed to check which way to head first.
We crossed the Main Lawn and went to look at the Herbaceous Border, which is 156m long.
It must be a perfect time to see it with its summer flowering, though we were told by an official standing there that it was planted to always offer some colour and planting to enjoy.
Just to the right of the border stand two London Plane Trees. They have round benches circling them. We were told they were planted by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – each planted one tree. They would have been small at the time but have grown so big their branches mix together, still uniting the royal couple.
A little further on is the Summer House. It was unsurprisingly a very large summer house. You can’t go inside but through the window we could see tables, chaises longues and other furniture and a sculpture of a Corgi – the Queen’s favourite dog breed – made from wicker.
We followed quiet paths, hardly anyone else in sight, occasionally hearing some noise from the busy roads outside or planes or helicopters flying above, but I imagine if you know the garden well, you could always find a good peaceful spot to sit.
The Highlights Tour lasted half an hour and we were a small group of about twenty with one main guide and two at the back who were also able to answer any questions we had. We weren’t allowed to take photos during the tour so I can’t show you what we saw. But I can tell you a little. We saw the Rose Garden and learnt about its history and planting. Beyond it lay a wildflower meadow. I stood at one point under a Mulberry Tree and much later, Nicola and I talked about the tree planting being one of the true highlights of the visit. There were some unusual and wonderful trees.
The private tennis court was pointed out to us at one point, now with heavy planting round it, but you could just see the court.
When the tour finished we came out near the Lake.
There was a good view across the Lake to the palace and there’s an island in the middle with several beehives, giving the palace its own honey.
We passed one area where we saw a strange ‘building’: it looked like a sunken small house.
We were intrigued and couldn’t work out what it was but then a helpful official told us it was a sandpit – a play area for the royal children. But it hadn’t been used since Prince Charles was a small boy.
Soon we were back at the Main Lawn and by this time we were ready for our picnic.
We found a spot with a perfect view across the lawn to the palace.
There were a few stalls selling drinks and snacks but we’d taken our own picnic. Nicola and Rachael had bought a number of things at our local Corto Italian Deli the afternoon before so it was an Italian themed picnic: burrata, Tuscan goats’ cheese, marinated artichoke hearts, large Sicilian olives. We had a fresh sourdough baguette from Gail’s bakery and some Italian crisp breads. You’re not allowed to take alcohol into the garden – which we were warned about with the booking – so we’d taken soft drinks and then bought coffee and tea from one of the stalls.
In the large open space we had plenty of room to ourselves, so it was a leisurely, peaceful picnic and we took our time enjoying our food, the views and the glorious weather and, of course, each other’s company. Rufus fell asleep in his buggy and I sat with him while ‘the girls’ went into the shop and came back with a bag laden with souvenirs.
It was fascinating to see the famous garden but, as I discussed with Nicola later, not a particularly spectacular garden in itself. We’re lucky to have the beautiful gardens of Kew and Wisley nearby and the royal garden didn’t really compare to that kind of planting. It was still great to see it though and, as a Londoner, I’ve walked past it so many times, it was a treat to go through the garden wall and see what was inside.
When we decided to leave (around 3pm) it was a bit of a shock to our systems to come out onto a busy road, noisy with traffic. We got back to our car and then driver Nicola took a circular route to drive past the front of the palace for the non-Londoner Rachael to see.
It was a really wonderful day of family fun, a unique experience and a great way to enjoy London on a hot summer’s day.