By ROBERT HARDMAN
Palace of varieties: Mail writer Robert Hardman stands by the modern luminous lace piece - a light sculpture made of more than two miles of electroluminescent wire
Not since the Windsor fire of 1992, has there been a royal makeover on this scale. Indeed, the last time a palace went through a facelift of this magnitude, it was courtesy of a German bomb.
In the case of Kensington Palace, however, this £12million transformation has not been prompted by any misfortune but by years of careful planning. Admittedly, there has been one unexpected, 11th-hour alteration to the designs.
But no one is complaining about the decision of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to set up home here — because their presence in the private wing of the palace is only going to draw even more visitors through the doors on the public side.
The restored formal gardens: After years in the heritage doldrums, KP is finally exploiting its true potential as one of the capital's major tourist attractions
A few days ago, the Queen came to Kensington to re-open what used to be the seat of royal power until the monarchy moved to Buckingham Palace. Before she cut the ribbon, she toured the rooms where Queen Victoria grew up and inspected the new displays which feature everything from Prince Albert’s tongue-scraper to a new range of Diana, Princess of Wales, wallpaper and a very creepy children’s birthday party (of which more later).
Centrepiece: The statue of Queen Victoria sculpted by her daughter Princess Louise has been spruced up and is looking as good as new
We’ve set out to awaken a sleeping beauty,’ announced Charles Mackay, the chairman of Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity which runs the place. He might equally have called it a sleeping giant. Because, after years in the heritage doldrums, KP is finally exploiting its true potential as one of the capital’s major tourist attractions.
Splendour: The King's Grand Staircase, The £12 million refurbishment has been paid for with cash reserves, Lottery funding and support from charitable trusts like the Clore Duffield, Gosling and Rothermere foundations
First opened to tourists in Victorian times, Kensington Palace has long been a collection of flats for royal relatives — the Duke of Windsor used to call it ‘the Aunt Heap’ — alongside public state apartments. Now it has not merely been given a new lick of paint. Whole sections have been unveiled for the first time.
More spectacularly, the grounds have been opened out and, from this morning, the public can wander into a royal palace without a ticket, to buy a cup of tea or a postcard. Once inside, they will be steered towards one of the grandest ticket offices in the land, a covered courtyard decked out like a multi-storey four-poster bed.
A staff member in period costume sweeps through the King's State Rooms: First opened to tourists in Victorian times, Kensington Palace has long been a collection of flats for royal relatives - the Duke of Windsor used to call it 'the Aunt Heap'
And from there, they have the run of four exhibitions spanning four centuries, even if some of it may leave traditionalists harrumphing. After all, this is surely the first royal residence in history with talking Whoopee cushions — when sat upon, they burble historic court gossip into unsuspecting vistors’ ears.
Observing the profusion of entries from Queen Victoria’s diaries reproduced in facsimile on the palace walls, Prince Philip remarked: ‘Who’s been doing all this graffiti?’
Royal oddity: Prince Albert 's tongue scrapper
The exterior is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the entire refurbishment. To millions, Kensington Palace is the red-brick block behind the hefty ironwork where all those floral tributes were piled up in 1997 to honour the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Viewed through those elegant bars, the palace had the feel of a gilded prison — remote, aloof and with no obvious way in or out.
Setails: Robert Hardman admires the ceiling in one of the King's State Rooms and, right, Queen Victoria's Wedding Dress
Now, the iron curtain has gone. Only the original ‘Golden Gates’ remain, while unobtrusive chest-height railings stretch around a new meadow. All the hedges and trees which were planted to seal off the outside world have been stripped away.
The palace now has a completely uncluttered view of Kensington Gardens, its Round Pond and Hyde Park beyond. Looking the other way, the public now has a completely uncluttered view of the grounds landscaped by Charles Bridgeman in the early 18th century and the palace itself. Sitting there in pride of place, spruced up and good as new, is the statue of Queen Victoria sculpted by her daughter, Princess Louise.
Exhibition: In what used to be Princess Margaret's garden room there is an exhibition of some of the late Princess Diana's dresses. The walls are covered in wallpaper featuring cartoonish sketches of the Princess by the artist Julie Verhoeven
From today, when the whole thing re-opens, the public can simply walk straight up to the new front door, a covered portico known as the Diamond Jubilee Loggia, or approach via a hornbeam-lined zig-zag called the Wiggly Way. Inside, visitors are greeted by what looks like a glowing tornado. Made of more than two miles of electroluminescent wire, it is a light sculpture called Luminous Lace and apparently replicates a royal lace pattern.
The Historic Royal Palaces team believe Kensington Palace has to appeal to all ages and tastes if it is to boost its annual visitor numbers from the usual 300,000 to upwards of 400,000
Here is a clue that this is not just another roped-off, ‘do not touch’ stuffy heritage trail.
We tend to picture Queen Victoria at her beloved Balmoral or being wheeled around her Solent retreat at Osborne House, where she died. But it was Kensington Palace which had arguably the greatest influence on the Queen Empress since she was born here, raised here, became Queen here and fell in love here.
‘We want people to come away realising she was not just a grumpy old lady but a woman of strong opinions who liked to have fun,’ says curator Deirdre Murphy, leading the way into the Red Saloon at the start of the Victoria Revealed exhibition.
Souvenirs: Visitors can buy an official royal teddy bear or one of a selection of Diana books at the gift shop
Moving in: Soon Kensington Palace will be home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge
Here in a glass case is the tiny dress which (a tiny) Victoria was wearing in 1837 when she was told that her uncle, William IV, was dead and that she had become Queen.
Nearly 100 members of the Privy Council crammed into this room to proclaim her as Sovereign. The historical records show she was dressed in black, while Sir David Wilkie’s famous painting of the moment has her in virginal white. And yet, the actual dress is a shade of bronze.
Deirdre explains that, over time, the chemical composition of the dye has gone from black to brown. It also turns out that the Red Saloon was never red either. It was pink. No wonder foreigners love this quaint British history stuff.
An aerial view of the Kensington Palace which used to be the Royal seat of power until the monarchy moved to Buckingham Palace
The hornbeam-lined Wiggle Walk which visitors can take to the entrance of the palace