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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | GREAT BRITAIN

Quest of a Royals Watcher

To Truly Experience London, You Must Experience Royalty--Where They Live, Hang Out and Shop

October 15, 2000|MARY MELTON | Mary Melton is a former associate editor of the magazine

A pensioner in Union Jack shorts, shirt, socks and hat is sharing his strategy for maximum royals watching at Buckingham Palace: Carry a tarp in case it rains; stake out a spot for a relatively easy run to the palace gates when bobbies lift the street barricades; and wave, luv, wave.

I've known Terry for 20 minutes and he's kissed me twice. He's one of a handful of royals addicts who have set up camp on a sidewalk across from the palace a few days early to view the carriage ride and balcony appearance of the Queen Mother on her 100th birthday. With him this afternoon is Cheryl, an avowed royals watcher from Minnesota with a phony Scottish accent who asks about the size of my camera lens.

It's 80 millimeters, I confess sheepishly. "Eighty!" she scoffs in a strange Highlander burr. "I've got a 300 and a 500, and a 28 to 80, but I won't even bring that out!"

As Terry stretches on a patio lounge chair, a gate swings open at the palace and Cheryl announces: "Someone's coming home."

Before any of us have time to grab a camera, the gate swallows a Rolls-Royce bearing the Royal Standard. In the back sits Queen Elizabeth II, in blue, I think, which I confirm with another royals watcher. "Yes, navy blue, and her lady-in-waiting in green," the eyewitness reports.

We've been in London six hours. Our quest? Spot as many royals as possible. We're off to a good start.

*

NO ONE CAN DENY THE WONDERS OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM, OR THE stunning new Tate Gallery overlooking the Thames, or the dynamic West End theater. But to truly experience London and comprehend why so many Americans keep coming back, you must experience Royal London: where the Windsor family lives (thanks to the high cost of maintaining those palaces, royal homes are frequently open to the public), where they hang out (mostly with each other), and where they shop. You might not be able to afford to buy what the royals buy, but there are glorious souvenirs to be purchased during the course of a royals quest.

Their presence can be felt almost everywhere. Queen Elizabeth's "ER II" symbol is molded on every bright red postal box and pinned to every tall bobby hat. You can hardly exit a tube station in central London without stumbling onto--and in some cases, into--one of their palaces. Some of the most glorious stores in town boast "By Appointment to Her Majesty" crests on their windows and shopping bags.

Royal London is what Disneyland strives to be--you can't show me crazier pomp, more colorful traditions or tastier souvenir kitsch anywhere.

Yes, the royals live bizarre, isolated lives, surrounded by oodles of security and constant pampering. But really, it's no more bizarre and isolated a life than that of Tom Cruise or Cher. And since the Windsor family regularly parades itself before the public, it's easier to plan a sighting of Princess Margaret than it is Gwyneth Paltrow. Head for the Isle of Wight in the summer and you're likely to see Prince Philip racing a yacht in the Cowes regatta. Then there's the Trooping of the Color, a spectacular pageant staged for the public every June in honor of the queen's April 21 birthday, or the quieter celebration held Aug. 4 to acknowledge the Queen Mother's birthday. A lifelong royals fanatic, I chose to visit London on the occasion of her centennial.

We arrive in London mid-morning and drop our luggage at an unassuming bed and breakfast in Victoria, a gentrifying neighborhood that boasts a few good Italian bistros, an olive oil shop and some chic boutiques. Its proximity to Buckingham Palace, a 10-minute walk to the north, makes Victoria a convenient--and by London's astronomical standards, relatively reasonable--base for royals watchers. No time for a shower, I tell Ed, my beleaguered spouse. We've got royals watching to do.

Though it's not modest or cozy, the royals live in a rather tight London neighborhood and the Mall (rhymes with pal) is their majestic main road, a wide, mile-long expanse of gravel and elms leading northeast from Buckingham Palace, official London residence of the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, to the Admiralty Arch. Though the cacophony of Trafalgar Square is just on the other side of that arch, the Mall (think of it as a Champs Elysees sans stores) is bordered by the lovely and tranquil St. James's Park to the south and the homes of the Queen Mother and Prince Charles to the north.

At Clarence House, the Queen Mum's 50-room Georgian mansion that's not open to the public, we stand outside with other royals watchers. We're hoping for some royal crumbs when an official-looking guard suddenly swings open the gate. "What's happening?" I ask a couple of guys with mustaches who are hanging around the palace. "The Queen Mother must be coming home," says one. "There's her butler waiting at the door."

A butler--excellent! "But how do you know?" I ask.

"Because we're firemen at Buckingham Palace."

Minutes later, a black Rolls-Royce flies through the gates and I end up with a blurry shot of tinted windows.

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