My Life at the Palace

updated 07/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When PEOPLE'S London bureau reported this winter that two apartments at Hampton Court Palace were about to be opened to paying customers, editors in New York City decided that there was only one way to cover the story: Send a reporter to do a first-person account of life as the guest of the Queen. Associate editor Michelle Green drew the assignment.

A WOMAN WHO KEEPS THE BUCKINGHAM Palace thermostat at a brisk 65°F, Queen Elizabeth obviously has a sense of thrift. Tea and toast will do for breakfast, thank you. and don't waste that sirloin on the corgis—they dine on tinned food in plastic bowls.

This year, the Queen's parsimony has served her well. Faced with unprecedented demands on her ever-present purse, the chairman of the Windsor family firm has made some tough decisions. With Windsor Castle in need of up lo $60 million worth of repairs, she seems lo have conceded that marketing the mystique of the monarchy may be in order. This spring, for example, her subjects were startled by an announcement that, beginning in August, tourists would be allowed to traipse through 18 rooms at Buckingham Palace (ticket price: $12).

Though that news caused a stir, another development involving royal real estate went almost unnoticed. Early this year, two private apartment at Hampton Court, the redbrick pile once occupied by Henry VIII in 1528, were opened to paying guests. Advertised as a kind of up-market getaway, the properties offer visitors an opportunity to imagine themselves living next door to the Windsors. (As it happens, George II was the last monarch to live at the palace, which was opened to tourists by Queen Victoria.)

Curious to see what the Queen's customers are getting, I arranged an early-June stay in the Georgian House. The larger of the two apartments, it comprises the eastern wing of a three-story building meant to serve as a kitchen for George II when it was constructed in 1719. Converted into a residence in 1834, it was used until last year as a home for Hampton Court staff. The fee for seven nights was $1,225—a bargain, given the fact that the house has five bedrooms, a sitting room and a dining room that can seat 16 people.

On an overcast Saturday morning, my flight landed at Heathrow, six miles from Hampton Court. Dazed and sleep-deprived, I began counting the hours until I could present myself at the palace. Check-in time is 4 p.m.—fine if you're a local, but brutal if you're stumbling off a six-hour night flight.

Set on 480 lush acres on the banks of the Thames, Hampton Court, with its 1,200 rooms, is both wonderfully dramatic and oddly whimsical. To the west, the facade is a kind of Tudor extravaganza—crenellated parapets, brick chimneys and stone goats bearing Henry VIII's coat of arms. From the east, which is bordered by magnificent formal gardens, visitors are greeted by a baroque facade designed by Christopher Wren. Haifa million tourists pay $9 to see the palace each year—making it Great Britain's ninth most popular attraction.

At 4 p.m., armed with a map of the grounds, my husband and I drove past French schoolchildren and British pensioners to the guard post. Before receiving the ID cards that would get us past the sentry, we completed a detailed questionnaire. Among other things, our hosts wanted to know where we had been born and whether we had worked overseas (say, in Belfast?).

It was Dennis Wray, a cordial civilian of 35 or so, who walked us to our quarters and served as our concierge-cum-nanny. Showing us into the stone-floored kitchen, he made us tea and assured us that the tales about ghosts at the palace were true. "But they're all benign," he said.

Instead of being grand, our lodgings resembled a well-appointed English country house. The paint was new, but the look was shabby-chic. Downstairs, there were high ceilings and long windows; upstairs, odd nooks and prints of great moments from the lives of British monarchs. Opening a window in a bedroom with sloping walls and low beams, Wray pointed out the Tudor tennis court beyond our walled garden. "That's where Henry VIII played," he said. "Actually, the royals still turn up—we sometimes see Prince Edward."

Thrilled with the pink fainting couch and old-fashioned dressing table in the sprawling master bedroom. I felt like a chatelaine until I remembered that I had to make the (queensize) bed. At Hampton Court, it's every paying guest for herself: Maid service isn't available, and I had been told to bring sheets and towels. Food comes not from room service, but from a shop in town that doesn't deliver. TVs and radios are conspicuously absent, and forget faxes or phone calls: the telephone is connected only to the security office.

Could this be part of the Queen's austerity plan? I felt suspicious when I went to soak in the deep tub in our bathroom; the hot water turned tepid after three minutes, and I emerged shivering. Since the radiator couldn't be roused, I spent the 50-degree evening trying to ward off the chill.

On Sunday, I rose at 7 and went for a run through the splendid Tudor, baroque and Victorian gardens, avoiding the notorious shrubbery maze. Except for the geese near the avenues of yews planted for William and Mary, I was alone. At 7:45, I walked down the lane and closed the door to the private garden: stretching out on the damp grass, I felt blissful.

Unfortunately, breakfast broke the mood. The kitchen was equipped with egg cups and grapefruit knives, but a coffeepot was nowhere in sight. I tried using codec filters, a strainer and a teapot, failed miserably and spattered grounds all over the kitchen. Total time to produce a single cup: 28 minutes.

Eager to explore alter breakfast, I slipped through a passageway used by residents and joined a palace tour in progress. Lively and funny, the lecturer told stories of Hampton Court life that put the Windsors' missteps in perspective. Charles II, it seems, brought his bride here in 1662. A roué with at least 14 illegitimate children, he presented one of his mistresses to his new wife; when she realized whom she was receiving, the Queen turned white, bled from the nose and lost consciousness.

Although the tour took us through deftly restored rooms hung with magnificent tapestries, my favorite part of the palace was the cavernous kitchens with their pig-size spits and walk-in fireplaces. Built for Henry VIII (who grew so fat he had to be carried in a sedan chair), they turned out dinners for 800—beginning with stewed sparrows and ending with boar and blancmange.

Inspired, I took the train to London on Monday and headed for Harrods, where one can buy anything short of stewed sparrows. That evening, we lighted candles in the dining room and tucked into smoked salmon, roast chicken, vegetable terrine and toffee pudding; by evening's end, we felt like happily dissolute Tudors.

On Tuesday, I bumped into Lesley Ronaldson, the lecturer whose tour I had taken. Like 35 or so others who work at the palace, Ronaldson, 39, lives above the shop—in this case, in the building that houses the tennis court. (The court is open to members who pay a $120 annual fee.) Over coffee, we talked about the peculiarities of life at Hampton Court, where her neighbors include the elderly women—military widows and servants of the Crown—known as the "grace-and-favor ladies. Most (including a woman who was the Queen's secretary's secretary) live in the palace proper, where they pay no rent. "Apart from all the security, it's lovely," said Ronaldson. "You don't need a gardener, and the old ladies are sweet even when your kids run into them with their bikes."

The next afternoon, I met a while-haired woman whom I had spotted earlier feeding mallards in the lane The widow of a retired army officer, Lady Hakewill Smith lives in a grace-and-favor apartment near the Georgian House. "Come for coffee," she said. "The door's unlocked—just stick your head in and shout."

After dinner, when there was little to do save read or wander about, I paged through the visitors' book in the study. Wray had told me that other guests had included "Americans, Australians and people from down the street." A well-behaved lot, he said, except for a French group that rearranged the furniture.

By Thursday morning, I had come to feel proprietary about the place: Strolling through the grounds and watching Japanese tourists exclaiming over the roses, I felt as though the gardens were my own.

I had also come to feel strangely at home in my rented corner of the Windsors' demesne. After just six days, I had explored parts of the palace that tourists had never seen after hours: I had wandered at midnight into echoing halls and cold, dark, passageways, and I had watched the moon rise over the fountain built for William and Mary. I had sat on the grass inside a courtyard and watched the sunset, and I had walked the same gravel paths that Elizabeth I loved to stroll in the early morning.

On the day I left, I fell into a conversation with Frederick Butcher. An elderly member of the palace guards, he was musing about the Waleses' sundered marriage. "You know, Diana has at least as much right to be on the throne as Charles does," he said. "Her blood is bluer because she's descended from Charles II's mistress. But it's all on the wrong side of the sheets, you know."

Feeling like someone telling tales about a neighbor over the back fence, I nodded, and we exchanged the kind of contented sighs that follow a proper gossipfest. When I handed over my keys that afternoon and prepared for the drive back to Heathrow, I decided that, in an odd way, I'd gotten my money's worth: Not only did I know what it felt like to live in a palace, but I knew how easily one could slip into the fantasy that she belonged there.

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