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Quest of a Royals Watcher

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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!”

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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.

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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.

We walk two minutes to reach St. James’s Palace, a brick fortress built as a hunting lodge by Henry VIII that is now home to Charles and his sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. St. James’s is not open to the public either, but there always seems to be a happening outside the gates, thanks to the legions of teenage William watchers who smile gleefully as they pose with fuzzy-headed guards. If we cannot get a glimpse of the princes on this day, at least we can experience the excitement of those who wait in vain.

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We can also shop where the royals shop. Long before Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, the royal family knew about product endorsements. When a store is granted a “Royal Warrant,” it can claim its goods are “By Appointment to” either the queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles or the Queen Mother. The practice started with Queen Victoria, and warrants now claim the obscure (“Curers and Suppliers of Sweet Pickled Hams”), the couture (“Dressmaker”) and the practical (“Chimney Sweepers”). The main arteries of London--Piccadilly, Regent Street, Oxford Street--are as crazed and crowded as ever, the goods as tawdry and touristy. But the pockets of royal warranthood are sanctuaries, with the most beautiful store interiors I’ve ever seen.

Warrants are held all over town, though most of the high-end stores are concentrated in the Mayfair and St. James’s neighborhoods, within walking distance (a long walk, I discover when weighed down with bags) of Buckingham Palace. Surprisingly, salespeople are polite and candid, even when they realize that the most you’re leaving with is a brochure.

For starters, we pound the pavement of quiet St. James’s Street near the princes’ palace, with its stores of varnished dark wood and polished clientele in dapper suits with jaunty umbrellas. We ogle the world’s first bowler at the quaint James Lock & Co. (Philip and Charles’ hatter), and the mustache combs at the elegantly appointed Truefitt & Hill (hairdresser to Philip) across the street. The only thing I score from the stunning John Lobb store, bootmaker to the queen, et al., is a bottle of neutral shoe polish for $18.90; their meticulously crafted shoes take nine months to shape and cost $2,700 ($460 more if you want a shoe tree). A young Lobb’s apprentice gives us an impromptu tour of the cavernous basement, with its thousands of wooden molds of customers’ feet--from Donald Sutherland to the Sultan of Brunei--and pulls models off the shelves labeled “Princess Elizabeth” and “Lady Diana Spencer.” Their small form are rather haunting.

*

THOUGH A CELEBRATION OF THE QUEEN MOTHER’S CENTENNIAL brought us to London, we can’t help thinking about the People’s Princess, the one royal highness who came down to mingle with the likes of us commoners. Knightsbridge, a couple of tube stops west of Buckingham Palace, is Diana’s part of town. I can feel it. Walking down the side streets, I recall tabloid shots of her leaving the gym, heading to the psychiatrist, shopping. In many ways, her aura seems just as powerful in London as the Windsors’.

A quick run through the Knightsbridge Harvey Nichols department store (drapers to the Queen Mum and favored shopping stop for Diana), turns into an hourlong orgy at the 75%-off rack. As my husband hands items over the DKNY dressing-room door, I’m guessing that Charles never went out to “look for this one in blue” for Diana. “She used to come in here frequently,” says the salesman as he folds my loot. “Very discreet, usually with friends.” I don’t see royal kin, but I do leave with five shirts, two pairs of pants and a brown sweater totaling $203.

On the bottom floor of Harrods Knightsbridge, the quintessential London department store bought in 1985 by Mohammed Al Fayed, there’s a strange juxtaposition to the brightly lit clothing displays upstairs. Two color photographs capture Diana and her lover, Dodi Fayed, in gold oval frames. They are surrounded by the flickers of four burning candles and a perverse reliquary: set in a see-through glass pyramid is the last wine glass the couple shared at the Ritz in Paris and the ring Al Fayed said his son planned to present Diana that fateful night. The memorial is, ironically, the only place in the store one is allowed to snap photos: Shoppers set down their bags to squeeze in behind the flower displays and pose. If you run out of film, the Harrods camera department is steps away.

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Outside the William III statue at Kensington Palace, the last London home of Diana and a 10-minute walk from Knightsbridge, I try to visualize the river of flower bouquets that flowed here in the days following her death. Some of the palace’s lovely apartments are open for visitors to tour and feature a fetching display of royal children’s clothing, including the outfits Prince Charles and Princess Anne wore to their mother’s coronation. Today Kensington includes the London apartments of Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret, but our thoughts remain with the Princess of Wales. A woman stands next to me at a window in the King’s Gallery, overlooking the lively and expansive park below and its year-round crowds. “Amazing thing is she lived here with all those people around,” she says.

An hour and a half northwest of London, “those people” are still milling around Diana’s ancestral home and burial site at Althorp. One morning we miss the daily train for Northampton, the nearest town, and rent a car to make it by our scheduled ticket time (we’d ordered tickets by phone two weeks earlier).

A year after his sister was buried there, Charles Spencer, the 9th Earl Spencer, opened Althorp to visitors, at $15 per person. The grounds are lush, the embodiment of British aristocracy, with trees that date to 1589. In the converted stables, Super-8 scenes from Diana’s youth flicker, scored with a sorrowful dirge. Here’s her christening robe, 1968 passport and a soft toy cat. Here’s her wedding gown and her Versace couture collection. There’s her unreachable grave on a man-made island in the middle of a lake. Pilgrims--I’m told 90% of visitors are British--lay bouquets at a lakeside Greek Revival monument marked “DIANA.” And here’s her opulent home, set amid rolling green hills, its library and dining room open for gawkers.

A rather gargantuan painting at the top of the grand staircase portrays Earl Spencer in rolled-up sleeves, grasping papers at his side. “What’s he holding?” I ask a guide. “His speech,” she tells me with reverence.

The Speech, you might recall, was the eulogy he delivered at his sister’s Westminster Abbey funeral. An excoriation of both the royal family and paparazzi, it moved those listening on loudspeakers outside to cheer. It has become his defining moment. In fact, because of it, I get an unexpected close encounter with aristocracy. The earl is in the gift shop.

Tall, redheaded and handsome, Earl Spencer busily signs copies of his oration, now available in a silk- covered binding for $30. I buy one, of course, and join the long line of women waiting for his signature. My turn.

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“It was such a powerful speech,” I say. “Did you have experience in speech writing?” I’m not sure how I expect him to respond: “I was so pent up in misery and shock, it just flowed,” or “Yes, I wrote some speeches in class, but one can never prepare for a tragedy like this.”

I find his answer surprising.

“I’d worked for NBC,” the earl says, “and written scripts before.”

*

WHEN MY HUSBAND STARTS HELPING ME PICK OUT PRINCE EDWARD postcards at souvenir stands, leather key chains at the Royal Mews horse stables and Queen Mum birthday stamps, I know he’s a full-fledged convert to royals watching. Of course he’ll accompany me to Buckingham Palace!

Every summer for two months the palace’s staterooms are open to the public for a steep $16 a ticket. While I find the palace’s drawing rooms and dining rooms a bit over the top in gilt and excess--a second-rate Louvre--my husband whispers: “There are homes in Beverly Hills that are less livable than this.” They’ve added the ballroom, site of investitures, to the tour for the first time this year and it’s the only place you’re allowed to sit.

“Is this where they took Lady Di’s wedding pictures?” a woman asks in the Throne Room. “Yes,” a guide politely answers for the 50th time that day. Against the wall sits a red velvet “ER II” coronation chair, one for the Queen Mum and, to the side, Queen Victoria’s. “That’s Vicky’s chair over there?” grinds an American accent passing through. “You go, girl.”

Wedding pictures, baby christenings, birthday luncheons--it’s not as though we’re seeing inside anyone’s closet, but these are personal rooms, which makes their cold size and grandiosity sad. On to the gift shop. I leave with a Queen Mum pillbox ($18.50), a gold Buckingham Palace grocery bag ($15) and a stuffed corgi ($9). We double-decker it over to pedestrian heavy Piccadilly and Bond streets, which intersect a few miles away.

On Old Bond Street, I shop for royally sanctioned chocolate at Charbonnel et Walker and pick out a 4.4-ounce box for, ouch, $10.60. Nearby at the queen’s milliner, Frederick Fox, I fondle his extraordinary hat collection as the dapper Fox tells me that Queen Elizabeth has great skin tone. She can wear “the most violent yellows or greens or blues, it’s never a battle,” Fox boasts. “That’s very unusual.”

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On Piccadilly, I dawdle in Hatchards, the royal booksellers (Queen Mum bio, $15) and gawk at the phenomenal Fortnum & Mason food hall, purveyor of tea and groceries to Prince Charles (birthday biscuits, $16.80).

After a day of shopping, we yearn for one of those Royal Standard-bearing Rolls-Royces to take us home, but we get our royal lift another way, in the form of a Windsor-approved cocktail.

The royals don’t go out much, but they’ve been known to frequent the Ritz and Claridge’s hotels in Mayfair. We stop at Claridge’s, where the staff tells us the Queen Mum lunched two weeks prior, so we toast her birthday week with her favorite drink, gin and Dubonnet. We toast so much, in fact, that the morning after I decide to visit the Queen Mum’s official chemist, D.R. Harris & Co. on St. James’s Street, for a glass of her official hangover cure, the “Pick-Me-Up,” a bitter concoction of camph, oil of cloves and tincture of cardamom. Blech. But an hour later, God save the queen, I’m feeling dandy.

Recovered, we hit a reported William hangout, the hip Chelsea restaurant Foxtrot Oscar, but there isn’t a soul there. Then we drop by the Ivy, a mega-swank eatery in Covent Garden for which, darling, one must call weeks in advance for reservations. We squeeze in on a lunch cancellation, enjoy the roasted peppers and scallops, but register zero royals sightings and must stomach a royal-sized lunch bill ($77.30).

*

IT WAS PROBABLY MY PITIFUL RECOUNTING OF THE “QUEEN MOTHER SONG” that convinced my husband this trip was necessary. I re-created that childhood moment for him flawlessly: a 10-year-old cupping her chin in her palm, elbow perched on the ledge of an open hotel window overlooking Piccadilly Circus, quietly singing:

Queen Mother, Queen Mother/just this very day.

Queen Mother, Queen Mother/I’ll try in any way.

I admit that, at 10, I wasn’t much of a composer, but on Aug. 4, 1980, that didn’t matter. In London with my parents and older brother at the end of a four-week European trip, I, already a royals obsessive, was counting on seeing the royal family in their parade that afternoon, the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday. But my parents, who usually indulged my travel whims, just weren’t up to it. To compound my misery, my brother had gone out for the day and stumbled on the royals as they paraded by, waving. Seeing my devastated reaction, he bought an emergency Toblerone to console me, but I never recovered.

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I retold this sad tale to my husband many years later, around the time we moved into our house and he spied those six boxes labeled “royal” in the garage. Leafing through newspaper clippings from the Queen Mum’s big 80, hearing me sing the song, he promised that we’d be in London when she turned 100.

Even with her reported daily pints of gin and love of the ponies, the Queen Mother has always escaped the brunt of the criticism leveled at the royal family. A cult, if you will, has grown around her. She has weathered every milestone, every tell-all tome, every tragedy. The Queen Mum is the history of England in the 20th century.

This time, I’d help blow out the candles on her cake.

*

“HOLD THE LINE,” I WANT TO scream to the bobbies. Their inability to do so reminds me why we may have won the Revolution. With a crowd that includes mothers with young daughters, middle-aged residents of a home for the mentally disabled and gay couples decked out in flag-wear, we’ve just watched the Queen Mum roll by in her carriage on a half-mile route down the Mall from her house to Buckingham Palace, with Prince Charles at her side. The bobbies have lifted the street barricades and are now escorting the crowd to the front of the palace so that all 40,000 of us can get a better view of the balcony, where the family will make a 12:30 p.m. appearance.

A crowd of interlopers from the right (where were they when we arrived at 5 a.m.?) breaks for the palace gates. The bobbies--in this case, a dozen unarmed guys in funny hats--scatter. We stampede. Someone goes down on my left; bags fly; sunglasses sail. My hand can touch the fence, my husband is even closer, and we’re there. We can’t breathe, but we’ve made it.

I spool film. The merest flutter of a balcony window curtain elicits cheers. After a few minutes, a door opens and the Queen Mum’s tiny hat appears over the balcony ledge, then the Queen Mum with the queen. Then Princess Margaret and Prince Philip. Snap, snap, wave, snap, snap. Then Prince Charles and Prince Andrew and Prince Edward and Princess Anne and Prince Harry and, the crowd surges, Willlllllliam! We’re pressed to the fence, soccer-melee style.

In a flurry I point out spouses and children--in all, 28 members, the biggest balcony showing since Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s 1986 nuptials. Anonymous cameras are pushed over the crowds like a punker through a mosh pit. One lands in my hands, I shoot and send it back. In the midst of the three cheers, the repeated renditions of “God Save the Queen,” the 41-gun salute echoing from Green Park, I find inner quiet. I gaze at that balcony, admittedly thrilled, for the four to five minutes that the family indulges the legions of royalists and roustabouts, of tourists and Tories, of pensioners and pearly kings.

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I am fully aware that the royals are composed of the same essential DNA structures as their subjects. They happened to be born into a world of excess and splendor and titles and isolation. Some of them couldn’t help it, others could. Of the latter, there’s the woman squeezed between the queen and Queen Mum: Sophie Rhys-Jones, who married Prince Edward last year.

To think she voluntarily joined this mixed-up monarchy and all it brings with it. I wanted to marry in, too, but that was before members revealed their unhappiness in BBC interviews and took jobs as Weight Watchers spokespeople. Sophie knew what she was getting into. But she looks quite happy to be up there.

As for me, caught in the swell of London’s royal bosom with 40,000 onlookers pressing behind me, I am quite happy to be where I am, too. Tonight Ed and I can go to Claridge’s for another gin and Dubonnet without a police escort, and that suits me fine. I have a feeling it’s more fun to be a royals watcher than to be a royal, watched.

Guidebook: Looking for Royals in All the Right Places

Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for England is 44. All prices are approximate and are computed at a rate of .65 pounds to the dollar. Hotel rates are for a double room for one night. Meal prices are for dinner for two, food only.

Getting there: American, United, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand have nonstop flights from Los Angeles to London; TWA offers direct flights involving a stop but no plane change.

Althorp is 11/2 hours northwest of London by car, or an hour by train. A train leaves daily from London’s Euston station for Northampton, five miles outside of Althorp, and a bus operates to Althorp; telephone 888-BRIT-RAIL, https://www.raileurope.com.

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Where to stay: Victoria, a convenient neighborhood to most royal sites and home to the Victoria Station subway stop, is a cheaper alternative to Buckingham Palace-adjacent Mayfair and is full of B&Bs;, which cost about $100 without private bath, $125 with private bath.

Royal haunts: Claridge’s, Brook Street, tel. (207) 629-8860, fax (207) 409-6363, https://www.savoy-group.co.uk, Rates: from $507. The Ritz, 150 Piccadilly, tel. (207) 493-8181, fax (207) 493-2687, https://www.theritzhotel.co.uk, Rates: from $471.

The Ivy, 1 West St., Covent Garden, tel. (207) 836-4751, fax (207) 240-9333. Continental dishes in a formal setting; $80. Foxtrot Oscar, 79 Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, tel. (171) 352-7179. Nouvelle cuisine of the sort you might find in West Hollywood; $60.

What to see: The staterooms at Buckingham Palace are open daily for two months, Aug. 6 to Oct. 1, and it’s highly recommended to order tickets in advance, $15; tel. (207) 799-2331, https://www.royalresidences.com. Royal Mews stables, behind Buckingham Palace, open Monday-Thursday year round (the gift shop is open every day); $6.50 adults; tel. (207) 839-1377, fax (207) 930-9625, https://www.royal.gov.uk. Kensington Palace, on the edge of Hyde Park, is open year round, $13 per person; tel. (207) 937-9561, https:www.hrp.org.uk. You must order tickets in advance for Althorp, open daily from July 1 to Aug. 30, $15; tel. (160) 477-0107, fax (160) 477-0042, https://www.althorp.com.

Royal shops: Charbonnel et Walker (chocolatier), 28 Old Bond St., One The Royal Arcade, tel. (171) 491-0939; Fortnum & Mason (food), 181 Piccadilly, tel. (207) 734-8040, https://www.fortnumandmason.com; Hatchards (books), 187 Piccadilly, tel. (207) 439-9921, https://www.hatchards.co.uk; James Lock & Co. (hats), 6 St. James’s St., tel. (207) 930-8874, https://www.lockhatters.co.uk; John Lobb (shoes), 9 St. James’s St., tel. (171) 930-3664; D.R. Harris & Co. Ltd. (chemist), 29 St. James’s St., tel. (171) 930-3915; Truefitt & Hill (hairstyling), 71 St. James’s St., tel. (171) 493-2961; Harvey Nichols (department store), 109 Knightsbridge, tel. (207) 235-5000; Harrods (department store), 81-135 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge, tel. (207) 730-1234, https://www.harrods.com; Frederick Fox (millinery), 17 Avery Row, tel. (207) 629-5705.

For more information: British Tourist Authority, 551 5th Ave., Suite 701, New York, N.Y., 10176-0799; tel. (800) GO-2-BRITAIN (462-2748), https://www.visitbritain.com.

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