Finders keepers…

Eleanor Mills, 24.08.2017
…Losers weepers. Visit the Lost Palace experience before it closes on 5 September
The Lost Palace audio-visual experience in London’s Whitehall is about to end its run for this summer. On since 11 July, for the second year in a row, this tremendous cultural jaunt should not be missed – something I do not say lightly.

Put together by Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), this walking tour comprises an audio-led experience divulging the fascinating history of the largest palatial complex in Europe until it was – nearly completely – burnt down in 1698. Populated by successive monarchs from the 1530s until it went up in flames, its importance was heralded with the grand extensions commissioned by Cardinal Wolsey during his residence there, which were recognised by Henry VIII for their opulence and subsequently made into a royal residence.

The only part of the Palace of Whitehall that survives to this day is Banqueting House, where the tour starts. In this grand building’s undercroft there is a surprisingly simple model of the area that projections animate to give visitors a real feel for the site of the old palace and the geography of the area.

At this juncture, I want to say that what is most impressive about the Lost Palace tour is how much HRP have achieved with so little. The only two items each visitor is given is a pair of headphones and a wooden block that “tunes into” location-specific recordings. What arises from this simple equipment is astonishing.

Once you’re directed outside, you, as the visitor, are obviously in modern London, with traffic speeding past, concrete buildings and people in normal, contemporary clothing. But what the recording suggests is entirely different.

A recorded present-day tour guide leads the promenade around the site of the old Palace of Whitehall with useful logistical information, but she takes you back in time through audio re-enactments of moments in history that bring the site to life with such integrity it’s hard to believe you’re not actually there.

Some of these scenes visitors are encouraged to take part in. Whether reciting a tremulous line from Shakespeare (on the pavement on a normal London street), tuning into Guy Fawkes’s fraught interrogation, or sword-fighting with your wooden listening implement versus a wooden pole, these interactive scenes require minimal involvement, but enough to add another facet to an already sophisticated experience.

I went on an evening tour, which is geared more for adults – the Tudor cockfight had some brilliantly suggestive innuendo, as one might imagine. The audio scene with Charles I as he prepares to walk to his execution is particularly touching, and it's in the daytime-run family tour too. I suspect many people don’t necessarily have a great deal of empathy for any monarch, but this re-enactment really does rouse the emotions, especially when your listening instrument turns into Charles’s pounding heart as he walks towards the block.

A feast for the eyes

The tour lasts about 80 minutes, but it’s a fast 80 minutes and I would happily relive all of them. My only tiny criticism is about where you end: the glorious hall inside the Inigo Jones-designed Banqueting House on Whitehall. You’re led through a courtly dance on the audio tour, told about the symbolism of the gods and deities painted on the ceiling above. But what is rather phenomenally glossed over is that the murals on the ceiling are by Peter Paul Rubens (or at least his studio) and depict the Apotheosis of James I of England, as he ascends the English throne to combine with his precedent sovereign rule as James VI of Scotland.

These paintings symbolise and commemorate one of the most important historic unions of this island, that between Scotland and England – a union that we might see split if Brexit unfolds as we fear. I think it is important to emphasise their contemporary resonance. This masterful series was commissioned by Charles I to memorialise the achievements of his father James I, and would have been one of the last sights of Charles’s as he walked outside to jeering crowds before his beheading under the duress of then Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.

But my art historical quibble is a drop in the ocean in what is an immensely inspiring and absorbing experience – there’s even a live intervention on each evening tour, so keep your eyes peeled as you walk. What overshadows everything is how utterly immersive this tour is with the use of minimal technology – your imagination populates London’s concrete pavements so fervently with characters from the past that you feel you’re witnessing events in real time.

I urge you to try to find the time to go to The Lost Palace before it ends on 5 September. Look out though, the entrance to it is not the easiest place to spot on Whitehall.



United Kingdom, London