One of the major highlights at Kew Gardens is visiting Kew Palace, the residence King George III and his family used as their country retreat during his 59-year reign over the country. King George and his wife, Queen Charlotte, had 15 children, but not all of them called Kew Palace home. The bright red mansion was originally just an extension of the White House, a larger palace no longer standing, to accommodate his growing family – only the Queen and Princesses Elizabeth, Augusta, and Amelia (King George’s favorite daughter) had their rooms here.
Kew was one of the royal family’s favorite getaways, and many of the special touches they left around the grounds of the garden can still be seen today – Queen Charlotte’s Cottage remains where the Queen and her daughters would have tea on their walks around the gardens and the giant Pagoda that King George had constructed for Princess Augusta still stands tall, despite the prediction that such a tall structure would never be able to last. Walking through the royal gardens, it’s easy to see why the King and Queen chose this spot to bring their family when they needed to escape the pressures of court life. This love of the countryside and frugal living, for a royal, earned George III the nickname ‘Farmer George’. (I think George and I would have gotten along quite well!)
Despite the many happy memories that were sure to have been made at Kew Palace, a cloud of sadness hangs over this modest residence. It is here that the King was kept sequestered later in life during his bouts of mental illness and was subjected to multiple painful and controversial treatments in an attempt to cure him. It is this particular legacy that is shared through recordings, photos, and objects as visitors walk the halls and enter the rooms where the King spent many of his darkest hours.
On entering, we were greeted with a large bust of King George, molded by the famous Madame Tussaud herself, before making our way into one of the King’s favorite rooms – his library. The books and manuscripts that were once carefully collected and kept here have been replaced with a small museum about Royal Georgian family life. (George III’s vast collection of books are now kept and protected inside a lovely tower within the British Library.) The museum is small, so we quickly made our way through before moving on to the eating rooms where a young King George once received his schooling and later took his meals with family and friends during his more lucid years.
The west wing, the King’s quarters where he was kept and often restrained, has been destroyed, but the rooms belonging to the Queen and Princess Elizabeth on the second floor are open to the public. This is where the story of the King’s illness really comes to life as journals from the Queen and dramatic recreations of the confrontations between the King and his doctors are played aloud over the speakers. (To be ill in an era where mental illnesses weren’t understood must have been torture. Poor King George.)
Although I enjoyed seeing the recreations of the Queen and Princess Elizabeth’s rooms, my favorite part of the palace was the third story where everything has remained mostly untouched for two centuries. These rooms once belonged to Princesses Augusta and Amelia. The original paint and fragments of wallpaper that adorned their rooms are still visible here, and that to me is far more interesting than seeing something that’s been restored to look like it once did. Above the girls’ rooms are the servant’s quarters, also untouched, but unfortunately closed to the public.
While we were at Kew Palace, we discovered that the Royal Kitchens were now open for the first time since Queen Charlotte’s death in 1818, so we immediately made our way over there to check them out.
The Royal Kitchens
The Royal Kitchens are unique in that most of the year they were closed down – they were only open and operational when the King and his entourage would come for a visit. It was quite the to-do to get them up and running, even if he was just staying over for a weekend. The kitchen staff would travel in and equipment would be sent up the river from London on a barge – everything had to be shipshape in time for the King’s arrival.
Today the kitchens look much as they did in the 18th and 19th centuries. The ground floor is made up of special rooms for baking, storing food, and washing up, as well as the Great Kitchen where meals were prepared to be taken to the White House. Upstairs are offices and staff’s quarters. Many original items are displayed, including King George’s bathtub where he took his baths to keep his servants from having to carry heavy buckets of water to whichever residence he was staying in. (George III is quickly becoming my favorite British royal, even though he was the king battling against my own country during the American Revolution!)
Special guided tours of the palace and kitchens are available, but they come at an extra cost and must be booked ahead of time. If you’re not keen on joining one of those, I found the small pamphlets handed out by Kew representatives, dressed appropriately in Georgian attire, of course, to be plenty helpful in guiding us through both buildings.
We’ve now seen two of the historic royal palaces in London – the other was the medieval palace at the Tower of London. Kew Palace is my favorite of the two, mostly because of the stories surrounding the palace and my newfound love for King George III. Both Kew Palace and the Royal Kitchens are free with a ticket into Kew Gardens, but they’re only open during the summer season from April through September so if this is something you’d like to see, make sure you plan a visit before the end of summer!
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