For our August Cog Night we explored The Lost Palace at Historic Royal Palaces’ Banqueting House.
The Lost Palace – Historic Royal Palaces
I’ve been waiting a long time to do The Lost Palace experience. It opened last year but I missed out on doing it. It came back for a second run this summer so earlier this month I went on the experience as part of August’s DrinksThing meetup. I loved it so much that I was very excited to go back for a second time with the Cog team.
The Lost Palace brings 200 years of history of Whitehall Palace, once Europe’s largest palace, to life.
The experience starts off in the Undercroft in Banqueting House, situated on present day Whitehall, and takes you around the surrounding area on an 80-minute tour. Part of Historic Royal Palaces, Banqueting House is one of the last remaining buildings of the palace, after the rest of the estate was burned down in 1698.
Equipped with headphones and a handheld device, seemingly made of wood, we started the tour and we meet our guide, Sharon (through our headphones). The experience is augmented through the headphones, synched to each individual’s pace; everyone could take their time rather than following a large group (or being held back by stragglers). The wooden device is, we were told, our historical surveillance device – we use it to interact with objects and buildings, speak into it, eavesdrop on conversations and even use it as a weapon.
A model of Whitehall Palace introduces us to the scale of the site, which spanned between Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament. Projections show how the palace expanded, the style of buildings and overlays modern day London. Most of the buildings would have been constructed from wood, unlike the stone Banqueting House.
Exiting the Undercroft and Banqueting House, we find ourselves in 1660. We witness Charles II’s coronation, he’s returned after 11 years of Commonwealth rule. After Charles I’s execution he’s here to restore the monarchy. The crowds roar with excitement.
Over the next hour we encounter more than a dozen scenes. We’re introduced to Wolsey’s wine cellar – another surviving part of the palace, though now off-limits as its buried under the Ministry of Defence – we encounter William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage readying themselves for a performance of King Lear, and listen in on secret conversations within the Privy Garden.
Our guide, Sharon does a great job at detaching us from the modern world. You begin to ignore what else is going on around the streets. It still requires a certain confidence to wave your historical surveillance device around to get the full experience. Granted you get some strange looks from passers-by along the way, but the story is too gripping to be bothered by them.
Your investigative and nosey side is tested when you’re asked to stand outside the Ministry of Defence and scan the windows for secrets. On any day I’d be a little hesitant to stand outside the building for more than five minutes, so waving a device around with headphones on tests your nerve.
Our nerves are rewarded though with the interrogation of ‘John Johnson’ – later revealed to be Guy Fawkes – as part of the infamous Gunpowder Plot. We hear gossip about sightings of Anne Boleyn’s debut in the English court – whose secret marriage to Henry VIII we’ll later witness – and Samuel Pepys tells of Charles II’s many mistresses.
The experience sends you back and forth through time – combining stories from the 16th and 17th centuries, mixed with the surroundings and knowledge of 21st century London. The experience isn’t told in a linear timeline, it dips into history as you encounter physical sites of the old palace. I feel that if it had been one story then it might have felt dragged out – but these mini scenes feel accessible to everyone, not just Tudor and Stuart history enthusiasts. There’s a mixture of humour, comedy, shock and sadness.
Heading back along present day Whitehall we find ourselves in the company of Charles I, witnessing his final hours before being executed outside Banqueting House. Without giving any spoilers, the device becomes quite precious and you feel a connection with Charles I, that somehow you should protect the king. Though ask a republican and perhaps they would have a different perception of this scene.
Our final scene brings us back inside Banqueting House, up to the Main Hall. A masque is being performed, an extravagant court entertainment combining poetry, music and dance.
We take a moment to enjoy the ceiling, painted by Rubens, before joining a dance. And when I say join, I mean join.
The Lost Palace is one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had in a long time. It’s a really well-executed (no pun intended) event/tour/experience, whatever you like to call it. They also do a kids version, which I’d be quite tempted to go back and do as a third visit.