London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

The Royal Borough of Kensington

29/12/2002, By Candice Caster

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 14965 votes

At the beginning of the 20th century, Kensington was a place of "hugely handsome buildings and vistas and distances, a London of gardens and labyrinthine tall museums, of old trees and remote palaces and artificial waters." So said the science fiction writer HG Wells – and this remains true today. Attaining royal status for its distinction as the birthplace of the long-reigning Queen Victoria, Kensington had been an area of farmlands, market gardens and scattered manor houses until the mid-1800s. Today, it has an aura of youthfulness combined with European old-world charm, and perhaps that is why it is so interesting.

We had fallen in love with Kensington during our first trip to London while staying at a bed-and-breakfast on Warwick Gardens. So, on a sunny Saturday during a recent trip, we were happy to return to this part of London, the occasion being the West London Antiques and Fine Art Fair held at Kensington Town Hall. From High Street Kensington Tube Station, we stepped out onto busy Kensington High Street, at one time referred to as "Kensington Di Street" for this had been the neighborhood of Diana, Princess of Wales. She would often bring her young sons here to shop, to teach them to use money and make change, in an attempt to give their lives some normality.

The Elephant and Castle

I darted into a bookshop and bought a new mystery by a favorite British author, a book that would not be released at home in the United States for months. Wondering whether Diana had been in this particular shop, we continued on our way, deciding to grab a quick lunch. Directed by a kind shopkeeper to the Elephant and Castle, a delightful pub, we ordered the chicken, leek and bacon pie that was very good. We marveled over the hanging flowers outside, as this was January and an unusual sight, at least to us.

Eventually, we arrived at the Town Hall and browsed through over fifty booths of antiques, art and accessories that were, as might be imagined, quite wonderful. We spent awhile here before deciding to tour Kensington Palace, which lies to the west of the large area of land comprising Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. Popular with children accompanied by their nannies, Kensington Gardens frequently found JM Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, walking his dog, the Newfoundland that was the inspiration for Nana. Sir Barrie eventually commissioned a sculptor to produce a statue of the boy who would not grow up, and, in an act of whimsy, had it erected in Kensington Gardens at night so that the children finding it in the morning would think it had appeared as if by magic.

To understand the development and growth of Kensington, it is essential to realize how greatly it was enriched by the Great Exhibition of 1851. Heavily promoted by Prince Albert, Consort of Queen Victoria, the Great Exhibition melded arts with science, and was intended to showcase Britain’s industrial and technological superiority. Over 13,000 exhibits were housed in the Crystal Palace, a grandiose iron-and-glass structure six times larger than St. Paul’s Cathedral and covering 19 acres (ultimately dismantled, moved to south London, and destroyed by fire in 1936). Extremely profitable, the money from the Great Exhibition was used to buy the land upon which the three South Kensington museums now sit. Land for the Royal Albert Hall was also purchased, and though completed ten years after his death, was a realization of Albert’s dream for a cultural center and a hall "for the advancement of the Arts and Sciences." At its opening ceremony, Queen Victoria, still consumed with grief that was to last a lifetime, was so overcome with emotion that she could not finish her speech.

The Orangery - Outside

We approached and saw for the first time Kensington Palace, at one time a private country home called Nottingham House until it was purchased in 1689 by William and Mary. Sir Christopher Wren converted it into a royal palace and it served as such until the reign of William III, at which time it fell out of favor and into a state of disrepair. Queen Victoria, whose home this had been until her accession when she moved to Buckingham Palace, petitioned Parliament, which granted the funds necessary for the restoration on the condition that the State Apartments be opened to the public. (Some members of the Royal Family continued to live in the Palace privately, and still do so today; Diana, Princess of Wales, lived in the northwest apartments from 1981 to 1997.) The State Apartments were re-opened by Victoria herself on her 80th birthday.

We passed the marble statue of Queen Victoria created by her daughter Louise, one of the few women sculptors of the 19th century. We entered the Palace and became part of less than a dozen people touring this January day. We especially enjoyed the Cupola Room where Victoria was baptized, the King’s Grand Staircase with its elaborately painted walls, and the King’s Gallery that contains many Old Masters from the Royal Collection. But most fascinating of all was the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. Dating from the 18th to the late 20th century, this collection is permanent with individual items changed periodically for conservation purposes. It is made up of clothes worn by members of the Royal Family, and court dress – the rigidly defined dress required to be worn by the gentlemen and ladies fortunate enough to be presented to the king or queen. Of particular interest were the clothes on loan from Her Majesty the Queen and the charming display of royal children’s clothing spanning 150 years, from Princess Charlotte in 1810 to the present Prince of Wales. Included were the miniature coronation robes worn by the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret at their father’s coronation in 1937, and the clothes worn by Prince Charles and Princess Anne on the occasion of the 1953 coronation of their mother. What fun to see this historical attire, small in size, but large in significance!

The special dress exhibit on this particular day, running for a five-month period, was a small but wonderful display of clothes worn by Diana, Princess of Wales, on both ceremonial and private occasions, and designed by Catherine Walker who was one of her favorite designers for 16 years. Each was presented in an individual case with a background picture of Diana as she had actually appeared wearing the item at the time. These fashionable outfits ranged from the beaded evening gown she wore to the Palace of Versailles in 1994 to a silk dress worn a month before her death.

The Orangery - Interior

We left Kensington Palace and walked the short distance to the Orangery to have tea. Aptly described as "exquisite" by the guidebooks, the Orangery was built for Queen Anne in 1705 and used in winter as a greenhouse and in summer as a place to entertain. Its paneling, cornice and 24 Corinthian columns are painted white as they were originally, and it was an elegant place to have tea. Not only were we served the traditional tea of cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches and scones with clotted cream and strawberry preserves, but the most delicious piece of orange cake was included, as well.

Once outside, we found that darkness had fallen, and we walked down the Broad Walk to exit Kensington Gardens, no one else in sight. We could see, in the distance, the tall wrought-iron fence and wondered if what we were looking at was a gate – and a locked one at that! But fortunately for us, there was a turnstile to walk through; but unfortunately, for another couple a bit further down who took a more obscure pathway, there was not, and they were climbing over the fence!

We walked down Kensington High Street, the noise of the traffic and bright lights once more all around us. I imagined the shimmering glass building called the Crystal Palace that had once stood not far away, and the fine country home that was turned into a royal palace, and thought that, like the statue of Peter Pan that had mysteriously appeared one day, Kensington itself was a bit magical.

Candice Caster

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Re: The Royal Borough of Kensington

By Augusta Eller 01/01/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 14050 votes)

I have stayed in Kensington three of the four times I have visited London and love it. If I had the money I would love to live there for part of the year. It is a beautiful thoroughfare at Christmas time and in the middle of summer.

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Re: The Royal Borough of Kensington

By Ludwig Rödl 04/01/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 14045 votes)

Kensington and Bayswater - the best place in the world.

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