As the 89-year-old monarch departs for her annual break at Balmoral in the Scottish highlands, visitors are getting their chance to roam the state rooms at the palace and gain a glimpse of what royal life is like behind the scenes.
And if you thought Downton Abbey‘s upstairs-downstairs life is grand, then you have to see how the royals do things.
This year’s annual opening of the palace gates to tourists (at $32 an adult and $82.40 for a family of five) is themed around “A Royal Welcome,” as staff reveal just how they pull off state banquets, investitures (where those being honored receive their medals and knighthoods) and summer garden parties.
“The behind-the-scenes activities give a sense of what is magical about coming here,” says Frances Dunkels, board member of the Royal Collection, which runs the exhibit.
“We wanted to give some insight into what it’s like to be one of those invited guests,” adds Anna Reynolds, who curated the opening. “And give a sense of the people who work here.”
At the centerpiece of the exhibit is the State Banquet laid out in the ballroom. The Queen has hosted 110 state visits in her 63-year reign, with the most recent being of President Enrique Peña Nieto of the United Mexican States in March.
The planning starts about six months before the big event, with invitations sent out two months ahead.
The silver pantry, recreated for visitors, provides the silver-gilt plates that the first two courses (fish and meat) are served on. (Pudding and seasonal fruit are served on porcelain.) And the design on the cutlery that comes with it, collected by George IV “doesn’t always match,” Reynolds reveals as she points out the drawers labeled for spoons.
Laying out the table for the 170 guests at a banquet takes three days. Each person gets 18 inches of space, with the napkin folded in the shape of a Dutch bonnet.
Six glasses are set: one each for water, champagne, white wine, red wine, sweet wine or another champagne for post-dinner and port. “Each glass is the same distance from the edge of the table in each setting. That uniformity really helps to create the magic, what makes it so special,” Reynolds says.
Below stairs, copper pans dating from Queen Victoria’s reign (more than 100 years ago!) are used. “Staff report that they are lovely to use; they feel weighty and heavy,” Reynolds says.
And even further tucked away are the 25,000 bottles of wine kept in the cellar – the “coldest place in the palace,” Reynolds says. The oldest dates from around 1660 and “will never be drunk,” she adds.
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Once they are seated, the guests are served by one of the 19 serving stations, staffed with four of the Queen’s servants, including an under-butler, a page, a footman and a wine butler.
At garden parties, which are also highlighted in the tour, the Queen might entertain 8,000 guests on each occasion. Then, as her outfits show, she likes to dress in pastel “block colors, which helps her stand out in the crowd,” says Reynolds.
Over in the garden there is a place for kids to hang out and play – and even act out some palace life. They can pretend to lay the table, or hold their own investiture with toy swords. “Hopefully they will knight each other not attack each other,” quipped one palace staffer.
On the way out, they can also try to spot the secret door, through which the Queen and her husband Prince Philip have been known to suddenly appear from, as it links the public rooms with their private apartment.
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