A Royal Welcome

Thursday, July 30, 2015 3:21:00 PM

In Windsor some years ago I attended a training course for Blue Badge Tour Guides.  My colleagues and I were learning about the history of Windsor castle and how to show our visiting groups around to give them the best experience. By chance, at the same time, the Windsor Castle staff were busy preparing to welcome a former President of France who was arriving in Windsor on a semi-state visit the following day.

For two days the Castle had been closed to the visiting public but, as we were on site learning as much as we could about the Castle, our training course continued. We had a private viewing of the State Rooms with our Castle Guides, and we experienced some of the atmosphere that goes with the preparations for a formal state visit.  It was fascinating seeing the banqueting table being laid.  We gasped when we were told that the beautiful 18th century hand painted Minton and Tournai porcelain tableware from the display cabinets in the china corridor were to be used for the banquet. These dinner services were irreplaceable and we were very glad that the washing up wasn't our responsibility.  It was a brief but fascinating insight and we realised just how much planning and attention to detail there was to make a state banquet such a regal occasion.

This year, for the summer opening of Buckingham Palace, an exhibition entitled A Royal Welcome has been set up which explains how the palace staff prepare for a state visit.  Having got a glimpse of all the hard work and some of the behind-the-scenes activities at Windsor Castle, this was an exhibition I was very keen to see and discover more.  I was invited along with my colleagues, to a preview, to look around the Palace state rooms and see and hear about the exhibition.

On the Friday, before the public opening the next day, we gathered at the Ambassador's entrance ready to be admitted to the Palace.  Our first sight was the Australian State Coach drawn up in the inner quadrangle alongside the main entrance used by the Queen and her guests.  Visiting foreign Heads of State arrive at the Palace by horse drawn coach sitting alongside the Queen. They'll have been met by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh at Horse Guards Parade, where they will have experienced a welcome involving plenty of British Royal Pomp and Ceremony.  There'll be a Royal salute and an inspection of the Guard of Honour.  A military band will strike up their National Anthem.  After this, they'll be taken in a procession of ceremonial horse-drawn carriages along the Mall to enter Buckingham Palace through the main gates. 

The magnificent, ornately decorated, shiny black and gold coach we saw, one of many looked after in the Royal Mews, had been presented to the Queen by the people of Australia in 1988. We admired the beautiful craftsmanship and its gilded frieze with royal crown placed centrally on the roof. The doors were decorated with the Australian Coat of Arms supported by the Kangaroo and the Emu.  The presence of the coach really gave us the impression that we were following in the footsteps of Her Majesty and her guests.

We entered the grand hall through the main entrance and continued our tour along the red carpet and up the magnificent grand staircase which, halfway up, splits into two. As you turn on the half landing to continue up the staircase you see the dramatic sweeping gilt bronze balustrade that takes you on towards the Throne Room. The landing is decorated in white and gold with portraits of Queen Victoria's royal ancestors hanging on the walls. There is no doubt this is an entrance to impress.

The next part of the exhibition was laid out in the Throne Room.  A number of Investitures take place every year where the people who have been awarded an honour come to the Palace to receive their badges in person.  This section explained the honour system and showed examples of the insignias presented.

Along the gallery leading to the Ballroom we saw a number of display cases including a section showing us part of the Dressers Workroom. The Queen's wardrobe for every occasion is carefully planned in a room in the Palace. Her dresses, coats and matching hats are made 'in house' and are looked after by her personal assistant. For a state banquet the Queen always wears a glittering tiara. We saw two examples - Queen Mary's Girls of Great Britain and Ireland Tiara and the Russian Kokoshnik Tiara along with a necklace earrings and broaches. 

We saw a display case of part of the silver gilt pantry which is looked after by footmen who maintain the Grand Service. This service consists of over 4,000 pieces of silver gilt cutlery.  We were surprised to hear that the pieces don't all match.  Some are contemporary and some traditional in design.  George IV, who commissioned the service, liked the mix and this is the way the place settings are laid out to this day.

The laying of the table begins at least three days in advance for approximately 170 guests.  The table decorations including candelabra, fruit bowls and flower containers are laid along the middle of the table.  There is an allowance of 46cm between each place setting carefully checked with a measuring stick.  Everything must be straight and exactly the same.  Each place setting has six pieces of cutlery, six glasses, a name card and a linen napkin folded as a Dutch bonnet. There is a butter dish for each person, a menu card between two and a salt cellar, mustard and pepperpot between four guests.  Along the edge of the room are long tables for nineteen serving stations and each service station is staffed by an under butler, footman, page and wine butler who between them look after nine guests.  Everything is co-ordinated by the Palace Steward.  The meal is served 'butler style' so each guest serves themselves from the platters of food presented to them from the left hand side.  The wine butler serves the wine and water from the right hand side.  The meal is cooked in the Palace kitchens using seasonal food and where possible fruit and vegetables grown on the Windsor and Sandringham Estates.

The Exhibition also explained about the preparation for a Royal Garden Party which was especially interesting to me because on Tuesday 18th July 2006 my husband and I attended one.  We received our printed gilt-edged and gold-crested invitation which stated that the Lord Chamberlain had been commanded by the Queen to invite.... and our names were handwritten below.

The dress code was formal, which gave my husband the opportunity to wear a black tailcoat and I to wear a new outfit and matching hat.  The weather was glorious and we were able to wander around the private gardens with the other guests. Music, provided by two Military bands, played in the background as we mingled and socialised with the other guests.  At 4 o'clock one of the bands began playing the National Anthem, which heralded the imminent arrival of the Queen.  We gathered and waited for the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh to step out on to the terrace steps.  As the Queen stepped forward the crowd of guests slowly began to separated down the middle. At first this action seemed spontaneous, but was in fact carefully orchestrated by the Yeomen of the Guard, the Queen's personal body guard.  As the Queen walked along the pathway between rows of guests, gentlemen ushers walked ahead of her selecting a few people from the crowd to be introduced. Behind the Queen came the Duke of Edinburgh and other members of the Royal family who all walked slowly towards their tea tent greeting people on the way and stopping every so often to exchange a few words here and there.  Once the Queen reached her tea tent, we were able to enjoy a beautiful afternoon tea of dainty sandwiches and delicious cakes served from a long marquee.  It was a lovely and very memorable occasion.

A visit to look around the state rooms of Buckingham Palace can only take place between 25th July and 27th September 2015.  Tickets have to be booked in advance and there is limited availability.

Windsor Castle state rooms are open for visits all year round except on 25th and 26th December.  However, it can be closed at short notice should there be a state function taking place.

By:  Blue Badge Tour Guide - Anne Bartlett

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