People often ask me what it was like living at Kensington Palace and, in the past, I’ve responded in a somewhat blasé fashion. However, the passage of time has given me the opportunity to appreciate what a truly unique experience it was.
Royal insider Victoria Arbiter is a CNN contributor and ABC News royal correspondent.
Much as the Royal Family is enjoying the current resurgence in popularity, things do feel rather clinical and perfect of late. By comparison, the nineties were a tumultuous and especially colourful time. High glamour, low morals, divisive personalities – real soap opera stuff. A sporting time for avid royal watchers… and we were in the thick of it.
As a child, I grew up with the Royal Family’s schedule dictating ours. Foreign tours, evening engagements, weekend ceremonial occasions, and it stank at Christmas having to wait until 2 p.m. to open gifts when Dad finished work. Still, there was also something smugly satisfying about tearing into presents knowing that the vast population of England had already opened theirs. It was made that much sweeter by tucking into mince pies baked by Anton Mosimann, the man charged with baking Prince Charles’s festive treats.
Victoria lived at KP in a modest two-bedroom apartment in the old barracks and stable block. Above her lived Paul Burrell, Diana’s infamous butler, and his family.
For many years, we lived in the shadow of Windsor Castle, first on the appropriately named Albert Street, followed by King’s Road, before what was known as a “grace-and-favour” apartment became available at Kensington Palace. I would love to paint a picture of an opulent home with ornate tapestries lining the walls, gold gilt-leaf ceilings and priceless artwork, but it was instead a modest two-bedroom apartment in the old barracks and stable block.
Paul Burrell, Diana’s infamous butler, and his family lived above us. Sir Miles Hunt-Davies, Private Secretary to Prince Philip, lived opposite, and next door was Jane, Lady Fellowes, Diana’s sister, and her husband Robert, Lord Fellowes, Private Secretary to The Queen. Factor in Diana, Princess Margaret, the Gloucesters and Kents, and you might call it a rather regal version of Melrose Place.
Driving through the Kensington Palace gates through a flurry of paparazzi hoping to get a glimpse of Diana.
I’m not gonna lie… In the early days, it was quite a novelty to whiz out of the gates to find the waiting paparazzi snapping away in the hopes that Diana was in the car. On what I can only assume was a slow day, I was photographed rollerblading in Kensington Gardens with my father. The pap in question thought he’d scored a major coup catching us in flagrante until Dad duly hauled him out of the bushes, and introduced me as his daughter. Judging by the pictures, Dad looked quite the pro, while I resembled a giraffe finding its legs for the first time. Thankfully, they never made it to print.
It was perhaps friends though who got the biggest kick out of our new address. One in particular was so comfortable with popping over to “KP” that, on one occasion, he made the ill-fated decision to park his old Vauxhall Cavalier out front while he went in to school. He forgot to mention it to any of the on-duty officers. An hour later, he received an alarming phone call instructing him to return to the Palace… quickly.
The scene that greeted him was like something out of an episode of CSI – a vast area had been cordoned off with crime scene tape, and the bomb squad was preparing to carry out a controlled explosion on his much loved car. A helicopter had been brought in to evacuate the members of the Royal Family in residence, and half of West London was in lockdown.
The officer in charge informed him that he had just cost the Metropolitan Police Service a million pounds. For a brief and somewhat terrifying moment, my schoolmate was Britain’s most wanted man.
While the story has become a family favorite, the police response was of course entirely appropriate. In 1994, a car bomb exploded outside the Israeli Embassy just steps from our house. The blast caused widespread damage, and could be heard from over a mile away. No one was home when it happened, but when we were finally allowed past the police blockade, we returned to find the front door blown in, and all the windows shattered. Home life may have seemed relatively normal on a day-to-day basis, but there were those constant reminders that we really weren’t living in a “normal” home.
A teenaged Victoria lived among the royals, including Diana, Princess of Wales.
Inevitably, we would see royals coming and going – a young Prince Harry returning from the High Street with his nanny, or Diana zooming up the driveway with a wave. As she approached in her new Mercedes one day, she stopped for a chat. Dad pointed out her non-British car, to which she quipped with a naughty glint in her eye, “A German car is much more reliable than a German husband.” Touché!
The one quality people don’t seem to bestow upon the Royal Family is a sense of humor, and they all have it in spades. In 1993, we were invited to a small private Christmas party Diana was hosting in the State Apartments. It was that night that William made his very first public speech before the assembled guests. Diana was oozing with pride, but I spent most of the evening trying to pluck up courage to introduce myself to pop star George Michael.
Just before I went in for the kill, I was joined by a giggling Diana who whispered, none too subtly, “Isn’t it a shame he doesn’t like the ladies?”
Victoria met pop star George Michael at one of Diana’s small private Christmas parties.
While I was under no illusions that the Wham! frontman was going to fall for my gawky charms, it was not common knowledge at the time that he wasn’t a lady-liker. I was gutted. Diana instructed a then nine-year-old Harry to introduce me to my teenage crush, to which he promptly said no. It was down to me. I waltzed over filled with bravado only to completely fall apart when I saw Diana in hysterics over his left shoulder. To this day, there’s no telling what I said to the poor man… but I met him.
The countless happy memories do, of course, rest alongside those more sad and poignant, most notably Diana’s death. The evening before her funeral, she was brought back to Kensington Palace for one last night. We waited on the sprawling grass lawn alongside the private driveway to pay our respects, and it was shattering to see that car make its final drive home. It was a long and heavy-hearted walk to her funeral at Westminster Abbey the next morning.
In hindsight, I realize what an enormous privilege it was to live at Kensington Palace. Little did I know that the groundwork was being laid for a career that wasn’t even on my radar at the time. My address these days isn’t half as glamorous, but I will always be grateful for that brief window in time when KP, as it was known to us, was home very sweet home.
If you have any questions for Victoria, please feel free to ask them in the comments section below, and we will be sure to pass them along to Victoria.
photo credits: courtesy of Victoria Arbiter, Rev Stan, Sherwood411, and gwen
Wow, that was an unexpected treat!!
Victoria I love your reporting on the royal family. But I do have a question regarding William. What is your take ob his hunting trip with his ex girlfriend Jecca Craig. I was very taken back by it. I first thought was here we go again, another royal husband cheating on his wife. I was hoping William learn from his momther & father’s marriage and how hurt his mother was. Can you give me your opinion on this. You can e mail me at email@example.com
Did this really happen?? Ooh noo:(
He went hunting with a group of people. She was one of them – but I think we’re reading a little too far into it to start speculating that he’s having an affair.
I hope that you are right. Of all the royal men I would have thought that he would have been the last on to cheat, considering what happened to his beloved mother. I only stumbled on to this by accident. I will be following this with interest now
I agree – I would think he would be the last one to have a mistress. I genuinely think that every action he has taken with Catherine has shown how much he doesn’t want his marriage to be like his parents. Everything from dating for 9 years (on an off) before getting engaged to how he actively tries to shield both his wife and his son from media intrusion as much as he can. Catherine hasn’t been left to adjust to her new role on her own – something that Diana unfortunately had to do. It probably helps that their marriage is based on love and not pedigree as well.
Hi Victoria, loved hearing your stories of life at KP. Do you have anymore stories about William and Harry you could share? I enjoy hearing what they were like as children.
You’re the best! Thank you so much for sharing these stories. xoxo!
Great article. What a childhood you must’ve had! Consider me jealous.
do ordinary people live in Kensington palace gardens? or do you have to be royal/famous…ect?
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