One of the advantages of being Editor-in-Chief is that sometimes one is invited to some rather nice Press visits. That is how on a rainy day in May we found ourselves visiting the kitchens of the Royal Palace at Kew.
The Royal Palace at Kew is the smallest and undoubtedly the prettiest of all the royal palaces. This is perhaps because it was built not by royalty, but by a wealthy city merchant Samuel Fortey in 1631. But it was not far from Hampton Court, so periodically the royal family began renting it for their rebellious offspring until eventually they actually bought it.
The royal palace lies on the other side of Kew Gardens from what is today’s entrance, that is the underground station, but when we actually got there, trudging through the rain, we found that the newly opened kitchens were not really part of what I know as Kew Palace at all.
What happened was that in the 18th century, a new, posher palace known as the White House was built in front of the original ‘dutch’ house, and the kitchens that have survived are the kitchens of the White House, and Kew House was essentially the nursery for the young princes when they stayed there in the summer. Its main period of fame came in the latter part of the reign of George III when he was periodically going mad, and he was hidden away from public sight in Kew Palace, that is the White House. It is here that some at least of his many children were brought up, and it is here that his wife Queen Charlotte died. Soon after her death, the White House itself was pulled down, and the intention of building an even grander house never materialised.
So today all that remains of the White House are the kitchens. The original Kew House still survives and is now known as Kew palace, and is the smallest of the palaces looked after by Historic royal Palaces (not English Heritage) and after a major refurbishment five years ago, it looks stunningly beautiful. But when the White House was demolished, the kitchens were simply abandoned. The upper floor was used as accommodation for the staff at Kew Gardens but the ground floor was used simply as a store house. But in 1898, Queen Victoria suddenly discovered that Kew House was a forgotten royal palace and decided to open it to the public. A plaque in one of the rooms commemorates the opening, and as the smallest of the palaces in the care of Historic Royal Palaces it was five years ago done up and formally reopened.
They then discovered that the rather odd storehouse that no-one knew what it was, was in fact the original kitchens. For two centuries, they had been untouched. The original cooking range, the spits, the ovens, the pantry, the larder were all there. Even the original elm table on which the food was prepared was still where it had been abandoned two centuries ago. They decided to open up and restore it and to open it up to the public.
At one end of the kitchen the original cooking range still remained as abandoned. There was however a second range at the other end that had been demolished, but this has been rebuilt identical to the other one. And because it has been rebuilt it can be reused and fired with a charcoal fire, and when we were there, cooks had been brought over from Hampton Court Palace where they are always on duty in original 18th century dress, and were preparing tasty 18th century tit bits for the visiting journalists.
In the clerk’s office upstairs, placed where he could keep a watchful eye on everything coming and going, the account books were laid open on an auspicious day: Friday 6th Feebruary 1789, which was the day when the King had recovered sufficiently from his illness to be given his knife and fork back. George III and Queen Charlotte were however abstemious in their diet and though a lavish three-course meal was prepared with numerous dishes in each course, most of it was returned untouched.
But most fascinating of all, one of the rooms that had originally perhaps been one of the pantries, had a rather splendid bath in it. This was quite luxurious in size and made of the best tin plate, and it appears that this is the bath actually used by King George III. George was an abstemious monarch who did not like the idea of water being carried across from the kitchens into the palace whenever he wanted a bath. He therefore had a bath installed in the kitchens, and whenever he wanted a bath, rather than having water brought from the kitchens, he went over to the kitchens himself. In any case he probably got a hotter bath in the kitchens than he would have got in the palace.
Visiting the kitchens will in future be part of the itinerary for visiting the palace. To visit the palace, one first has to pay for entrance to Kew Gardens, which costs £13.50. Having walked through the gardens to get to the palace there is a further £4.50 to visit the palace itself. It is quite important to see that the number of visitors is not excessive: the gardens themselves attract several millions of visitors a year, but the palace can only accommodate up to 100,000 a year. But at the end of the visit to the palace, a hosted visit to the kitchens can be undertaken by walking across the lawns in front of the palace, where the position of the White House is outlined by a border of stone chips (which I always think is rather a good way of marking the position of a lost building). The kitchens are surrounded by a walled kitchen garden which is now being replanted with the sort of plants that might possibly have been planted there in King George’s time.
Despite the rain we enjoyed our visit and I have learnt a lot more about the life and times of George III, and his wife Queen Charlotte who produced him 13 children, only one of whom produced a single legitimate grandchild.
More information: Kitchens website