On April 29, 2011, a truly momentous event will take place – and I won’t be there. Somewhere in the heart of London, in a church I know well, the wrong Kate will be marrying the wrong prince, as 1.) I am not a Middleton, and 2.) it’s been my life’s goal to convince redheaded Harry that he and I would have very attractive children.
Of course, the momentous event will not be the royal wedding itself but will instead be the elaborate “William & Kate Wedding Party” my older sister will be throwing in Salt Lake City, Utah. Yes, Utah. The party will be a grand affair full of crumpets and weeping, my sister doing all of the weeping and everyone else eating crumpets and wondering what the hell they’re doing there. You see my sister, while American, is what some would call a Royal Watcher, what others call an expert in the British monarchy, and what I only sometimes refer to as a “stalker nut job.” She is home to a brain that not only holds the entirety of the vast and complex royal family tree dating back to the Battle of Hastings, she is also home to a brain that has spent the last several decades telling her “I am obsessed with Princess Diana.” While this has been mildly amusing over the years (who can forget the never-to-be-outdone “Charles & Diana Wedding Party” she threw in 1982…at 3 o’clock in the morning EST), it was far less fun during the month-long period after Diana’s death in which my sister did not eat, speak, or at any point remember that she was not, in fact, a British royal subject. Yet even through the grief, she could still tell you how many days Lady Jane Grey sat on the throne and what they found under Mary Queen of Scots petticoats after they beheaded her. (Answer: Nine days and a tiny terrified dog).
What does all this have to do with travel? Well, it puts me in mind of the day I woke up all alone in an Oxford Square youth hostel at the just-traveling age of 18 and announced to myself that today would be Royal Day. With no help from my sister, a tour guide, a Lonely Planet, a map, an umbrella, a pair of proper shoes, or an ounce of prior research, my itinerary instead involved knowledge I’d gleaned from books and movies, and a strong desire to see what all the fuss was about. Plus I knew Harry was out there somewhere. So off I set to discover where this long line of filthy rich and sometimes just plain filthy British royals had ever slept, dined, married, divorced, launched crusades, poisoned uncles, pissed off Spain, and eventually died publically, horribly, or both
Please note, this is not a walking tour I would recommend to others…
I knew enough to start my tour at Buckingham, as this is where the Queen sleeps. Buckingham has, in fact, been the official residence of the reigning monarch since 1837 and is considered to be…very full of Persian rugs. Each rug is assigned its own servant, with junior servants assigned tassel duties and anyone from a Colonial country assigned backroom duties that involve not being seen. At last count, 16.3 million people work at Buckingham Palace, making it the second largest employer of British citizens (the first largest being Hollywood movies). Buckingham also has the largest private gardens in all of London, which is good considering that royals and young servants seem to spend a lot of time chasing one another through hedge mazes in slow motion with flowing locks and bursting britches. This is what I knew of Buckingham.
I also knew, of course, that Buckingham is where the guards in the black fuzzy hats are—so do go there first, if only to establish that you are capable of seeing one of those black fuzzy hats atop the head of an unwavering royal guard and not having your picture taken with him. Save yourself the time because he won’t move, you’ll lose your dignity, and the guard will spend the entire incident wishing he’d gone to medical school like his parents wanted.
Now, in days gone by the Queen did a lot: waged wars, created treaties, and had people killed without Anderson Cooper finding out. Today’s Queen, however, does mainly ceremonial things such as throwing parties and pretending to have influence over the Houses of Parliament. She greets people, conducts state visits, and disapproves of everything except fine cashmere, hot scones, and The Real Housewives of Northern Glasgow. The only strong maneuver the Queen has made in the last three decades was to banish her sister, Princess Anne, from Buckingham when one of Anne’s bull terriers attacked one of the Queen’s beloved corgis and royally ripped off its hind leg. The corgi was put down and nobody really liked Anne anyway.
Yet standing there peering through the bars of the palace, I felt for Anne. I wanted inside, if only to mess up the tassels. For those who feel the same way, my suggestion is to forget your Lonely Planet and instead follow the tour route established by one Michael Fagan, who in the early ‘80s managed to scale a back fence, climb through a window, blithely pass King George V’s $20 million stamp collection, and make his way to the royal bedchamber where the Queen awoke to find him holding a broken ashtray and bleeding all over her 800 thread-count sheets. The Queen greeted Mr. Fagan cordially, realized he was about to commit suicide, and promptly rang for tea. When that didn’t work she yanked on the “Christ Help Me” cord, and when that didn’t work either she finally called down to order Mr. Fagan a cigarette at which point a well-spoken maid wandered in with, ironically, a Parliament Light and shouted, “Bloody hell ma’am what’s he doing in here?” and ran away screaming. (This is actually what she did, please look it up.)
If you do manage to break into Buckingham, however, I would suggest doing so at exactly 5am when the Queen’s bodyguard is off walking her remaining corgis—and for god’s sake take something on the way out besides a cigarette and a broken ashtray. The $20 million in royal stamps would be a good start.
After Buckingham I went, as you do, to the next most famously named site I could think of and ended up at the Palace of Westminster, because a whole hell of a lot seems to happen in that Abbey. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that Westminster no longer has anything to do with the monarchy, instead being home to the Houses of Lords and Commons who occasionally get together and scream at the Prime Minister like he’s a peewee football player running the wrong direction. It turns out that the Palace of Westminster was the main Royal residence from the 11th to 16th centuries but (in what would quickly become a running theme of my tour) the palace was almost completely destroyed by fire in the year 1512. So they cleaned it up, moved the King, and gave the whole estate to Parliament who said they didn’t want it. Parliament eventually relented when the monarchy threw Big Ben into the mix, as the Lords serving at the time were diehard Steelers fans.
And I suppose the detour was not entirely un-Royal, as the Abbey does indeed hold the relics of most of the Kings and Queens of the time period, including those of Edward the Confessor, who was fantastic except for his annoying habit of calling up local media outlets and claiming to be the Unibomber. A King named Harold was also buried in the Abbey, but the Brits later dug him up, cut off his head, and threw his body in the fen. Given that Westminster Abbey is soon to be the site of the wedding between William and Kate, it’s too bad they didn’t keep the head, which would have served quite nicely as something old, borrowed, and blue and yes that joke simply had to be made.
Thus far my self-guided tour had a success rate of 50%, but I assumed Whitehall would make up for it—a palace to surpass all palaces—its jousting runs, bowling greens, and gilded glory on full display in Showtimes’ The Tudors, where everyone is a lot hotter than they could possibly have been with no toothpaste or self-tanner. At the time of my tour, however, all I knew was that Whitehall was enormous (its 1,500 bedrooms surpassing the sleepover capacity of Versailles, the Vatican, and Elton John’s house combined) and that it was basically Henry VIII’s Buckingham after he got sick of Westminster, called a realtor, and arranged for a subprime mortgage. As the story goes, Henry toured the complex arm-in-arm with his beloved Anne Boleyn, after which he purchased the estate, expanded the grounds, and immediately installed three guillotines. Anne was a little disconcerted, but having been raised rather sheltered she assumed it was a contraption for cutting potatoes and moved on. It is also a little known fact that Henry managed to kill more wives in Whitehall Palace than he actually wed, this after a particularly bad opium trip in which he ran around the palace cutting the head off every woman he could find in case he one day accidentally married them and they caused a problem.
My problem, of course, was that Whitehall served as the main residence for British monarchs from 1530 all the way until 1698 when it too burnt down in a flaming heap of “not surprising.” My problem, in other words, was that I walked there to find nothing left, as the only section of the sprawling complex still standing after the fire was a Banqueting House belonging to a man named Indigo Jones who, with a name like that, shouldn’t have been trusted with matches in the first place. If you do care to visit the location and what’s left of the palace, you’re sure to win bonus points with the Contiki-ite standing next to you by dropping the fact that the Whitehall also has the distinction of having hosted the first known performance of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Casting Oliver Cromwell as the female lead was ill-advised, but it was still an historic occasion.
By this time it was well past lunch, my success rate was dropping, and I considered skipping the next site just to piss off my sister. Kensington Palace was, of course, home to Princess Diana—a fact I knew because Diana once got so upset about Camilla that she hurled herself down the palace’s grand staircase in a temporary fit of “Notice Me.” Apparently Charles had missed the other signs of his newlywed’s discontentment, such as body language, bulimia, and the giant I Hate This Shit tattoo she had emblazoned across her forehead.
Rather than focusing on sad things, however, I chose to peer through the bars at Kensington Palace thinking about happier things, such as my dear Prince Harry, once a young cherub running up and down the hallowed halls of the palace, now a grown man who spends far more time in strip clubs, the tabloids, and Hitler Halloween costumes. Granted, it must be difficult being the second son—and perhaps my recommendations are self-serving—but staring up at the grandeur of Kensington, imagining how incredible it must be to royalty of any kind, I couldn’t help wondering why Harry hadn’t spent his entire life focused on one and only one goal: NOT LOOKING LIKE JAMES HEWITT. Hewitt, of course, is the man Princess Diana had an affair with in the 1980s and if Harry has made efforts in the direction of not looking like him, those efforts have failed wildly. While there is no real proof of anything, it is somewhat suspicious that Harry hasn’t visited Buckingham since the Queen had a DNA sequencer installed in the palace basement.
Please note that none of this should be mentioned to my sister.
ST JAMES PALACE
Next up was St. James Palace – and I really needn’t have bothered. While St. James Palace is currently the home of Charles and Camilla, and while it is considered to be the administrative centre of the monarchy, the building is boring, the guards are less impressive, and no one interesting lived there when I visited. The only notable things inside the palace are the heart and bowels of Queen Mary I, which you will find interred in the pantry just off the main kitchen. The rest of her was used to put out a fire.
Unlike the London-based sites discussed thus far, one of the most famous names in English castledom is in the middle of nowhere. Granted, everything that isn’t London feels like the middle of nowhere—feeling, in fact, like the middle of nowhere’s middle, only with really big stones from Wales that no one can explain. Either way, the above facts will derail a day-tour in a hurry. I stopped walking after about four hours and looked up the following facts in a book years later….
Nestled in Berkshire County, Windsor Castle it is both “highly medieval” and “the Queen’s preferred weekend home.” I’m not sure what this says about the Queen, but if there are photos of her on the internet in leather collar, I don’t want to know about it. While inconveniently located, the castle does hold many distinctions, being both the longest-occupied castle in all of Europe and the largest inhabited castle in the world. (Although to be fair to other less impressive castles, the majority of its 500 inhabitants spend all day polishing chafing dishes and waiting for Cate Blanchett to arrive.) Windsor has also survived a lot including bombings, invasions, neglect, 95 Henrys, 300 Georges, and, you guessed it, a fire—this one sparked by spotlights on a curtain. Apparently William the Conqueror insisted not only on the Norman domination of Britain, but also the establishment of discotheques in all pillaged strongholds.
Standing in the middle of nowhere’s middle in inappropriate shoes, however, I did long to at least see Windsor, 1.) because I wanted to know the difference between a palace and a castle, and 2.) because I will one day be Mrs. Harry Kate Windsor and have the feeling this will quickly become my preferred weekend home, as well. Being non-photogenic and highly short-fused, I don’t think I will do as well with the paparazzi as Ms. Middleton. Here I will slowly back out of the discussion, as mentioning princesses and paparazzi in the same sentence will inevitably lead to the referencing of a certain Paris tunnel and my sister (who might be reading) will collapse like corseted chambermaid and never reach our final destination…
…which is Balmoral – also not the best stop on a walking tour as it turns out to be located in Aberdeenshire, an area of Scotland where no one should ever go for any reason because it’s damp and dreary and the local Best Buy only sells sheep shears. The current Queen does tend to retreat there a few times a year, usually during quiet and uneventful news cycles—like, say, the entire five-day period after Princess Diana died in the tunnel we don’t mention. It was during this agonizing period of silence, in fact, that Balmoral acquired its new official title of “Where the Fuck is the Queen Castle.” (Thank you Tony Blair for fixing that and very little else…)
Thoughts of Balmoral also made me a little sad, as we had all seen the Charles and Diana honeymoon photos—truly the first, last, and only images in which I actually believed in them. She loved him. She loved something. But he was already too busy sending sexy messages to Camilla and wondering when the hell the Queen Mother would die. Sadder still is the fact that Balmoral is where they tend to send Prince Philip—the Queen Consort, otherwise known as the Queen’s husband—whenever he opens his mouth and disaster spills forth. Being the husband of a reigning Queen has always been a thankless task full of no responsibilities, no power, and nothing to do except screw up. But of all the Queen consorts in history Philip does seem to excel at this, having once greeted a Nigerian official (who was wearing traditional garb) by exclaiming at the top of lungs “You look as if you’re ready for bed,” and once telling a group of British students in China that if they stayed much longer they might become “all slitty-eyed.” There are entire websites devoted to Prince Philip quotes.
Perhaps another well-known consort—Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria—made similar gaffs, as his one great goal in life was to run Balmoral, or any other castle for that matter. His exact quote was “I am very happy and contented, but the difficulty in filling my place with the proper dignity is that I am only the husband, not the master of the house.” But alas, Victoria instead put her former governess in charge of the castle, a woman Albert referred to as “the house dragon” until he grew tired of being emasculated and chose to die young. (This is also all true and was leaked to the press by Edward the Confessor.) Upon Albert’s demise, Queen Victoria famously fell into a deep depression and ordered the non-stop damp and dreary weather that lingers to this day. It is also worth noting that Albert and Victoria were first cousins and had nine children (eleven if you count all the extra limbs) and these people now run the country.
And, at that, darkness had fallen and my Royal Day walking tour had come to an end. Wandering back to the youth hostel all alone in the rain, I wondered what I had learned and why I felt such a strange and empty ache. What I’d discovered wasn’t so much a royal tour as a royal mess full of lies, murders, fens and affairs, oppressed servants, amputee lap dogs, and headless wives who never asked to be on the throne for nine days in the first place. Did I still want to marry Harry? Diana’s brother was a redhead after all; perhaps there was hope for his DNA. Did I now have an understanding of what all the fuss was about—or just more vexing questions, such as “When will the monarchy invest in some smoke detectors?” Most importantly, would my sister have me marched to the guillotine for not visiting the Tower of London, where most of the royals spent most of their lives anyway? For god’s sake, in 1647 they found two little bodies beneath a long-forgotten Tower staircase – and the mystery of what happened to the Duke of Gloucester’s nephews was finally solved. What was wrong with this family?
The hollow feeling, however, had nothing to do with any of this intrigue and tragedy. It had to do with the dying nature of this dying breed; the perhaps coming end of this royal family that had somehow, through all of this, been keeping up the madness for more than a thousand years. There’s a comfort in knowing that someone else’s family is crazier than your own. There’s a comfort knowing that someone in this world still wears a tiara; still gets bowed to; still gets buried next to a relative from the year 1512. Mostly importantly—at least for the 18-year-old me on that particular day—there is a comfort to the thought of a world in which one is never, ever, ever…alone. When you’re royalty, it just doesn’t happen. The system prevents it. Between the guards and servants, the scheming cousins and screaming paparazzi, being royal means being surrounded by people whether you like it or not. They polish your dishes and listen to your conversations, but they’re also there in the middle of the night when you need to pull the “Christ Help Me” cord.
So I retired to my not-so-royal bunk bed in an Oxford Square youth hostel, feet blistered and heart slightly broken, and listened to the sleeping sounds of 25 strange backpackers from around the world, all grappling with the same Lonely Planet. It might not make me royalty, but for the moment it helped just a bit.
If they build a new castle, I’ll kill them.