Centre student tells the tale of talking his way into a private tour of Buckingham Palace
RELEASED: June 1, 2006
[Editor's note: David Horne, a rising senior from Louisville who spent spring semester with the Centre-in-London program, contributed this saga of how, in his words, "a little initiative, charisma, and a lot of luck landed me a private tour of Buckingham Palace and put Centre College in the official guest book of the Royal Residence."]
Part 1: The "Buck" Starts Here
The first part of my favorite experience from my study abroad adventure is a testament to the power of a quality beer and cordial conversation. In mid-February our class went out for a group dinner to a restaurant called the Albert; the traditional English eatery is located in proximity to the British parliamentary buildings, so there are apparently always big wigs dining there. Dr. [Bruce] Johnson, James Graham Brown Professor of Economics, hyped it up with his typical random knowledge. He says that if dining in the Albert and the division bell chimes for a vote on legislation, you could spy your company moving swiftly out the door.
As 35 of us walked through the entranceway I noticed a group of old men wearing suits and red military uniforms at a table near the bar. They were the big wigs. Our group went upstairs to our dining area where we all ordered three-course meals. No one seems to be bashful when the College is paying for dinner in the most expensive city in the world. While we were waiting, I decided to head downstairs to the bar for a drink.
I obviously didn't know anyone, and I decided that the military men would be the most entertaining to meet. To start conversation I walked up to their table and asked one of them which beer they recommended. A cheery old man in a suit told me to get a John Smith. I bought the drink, had a few sips, and could sense my boy watching for my reaction. I walked back over to their table and told him thank you and that I thought it was delicious, just to see what would happen. One of the men slurred something about America and told me to sit down so they could tell me about the war.
So I pulled up a chair and sat there with these old Brits for the next 30 minutes and listened to them reminisce about war stories and sing military songs. I discovered that these guys were apparently war heroes; the guys in the red uniforms were Chelsea Pensioners. One of them, John Newman, parachuted into enemy lines on D-Day. He even showed me his story in a book he had with him. The problem was that I couldn't understand half of what they were saying because they were old, British and drunk. They told me they had been in the Albert since noon and I noticed several of them were drinking brandy. Watch out now. My demeanor clearly communicated the interested and eager American boy. I made sure I looked very engaged, did a lot of head-nodding and looks of surprise; I laughed when they laughed and sternly agreed when they looked to me for recognition.
One of my classmates came down to tell me my food was getting cold so I reluctantly left the scene. These guys were awesome and I knew I had to go back down there, so I did. I talked to one man in particular whom everyone was calling "61." He told me that his last name was Jones and since there were so many Joneses in the army they identified themselves by number. I guess the name stuck, and he told me even Prince Charles call him 61; a big wig indeed. By the end of the night 61 had bought me a beer and given me his business card. As I walked out he casually told me to call him if I was ever in the area and wanted to see Buckingham Palace. The night was a trip, and on the tube ride home my classmates and I entertained ourselves with the mere thought of actually seeing the royal residence from the inside.
Part II: Meeting the Man with the Plan
I could have easily taken that night for what it was and put it in the memory bank. But two days later I called 61. I thought I might as well take a shot in the dark and see what might happen. I went over what I was going to say many times in my head before I made the call, but when he answered my careful planning went out the window. I enthusiastically told him that I was Dave, the American boy from the Albert. I didn't expect the three to four seconds of awkward silence. It took him a minute to remember who I was, but when he finally did he sounded very surprised, yet happy hear from me. I told him that I wanted to take him up on his offer—that I wanted to see Buckingham Palace. He was startled a bit but he gathered himself and thought it over. He told me to meet him at a pub called Adam and Eve in Victoria the following night and to wear a coat and tie. He wanted me to meet some people.
I borrowed a suit, drank a pint, and took the tube to meet this 80-year-old man at a random pub in London. On the way I remember laughing to myself, wondering how I had gotten myself into this one. When 61 arrived at Adam and Eve we had a pint together and talked for a bit. He then said it was time and we headed out the front door.
We walked across the street to the outside of a gated building where we were met by two Irish guards armed with machine guns. They knew 61 by name and cheerily welcomed us inside. They had to be wondering who I could be. It turns out that I was at Wellington Barracks, the residence of the Buckingham Palace guards. We took an elevator upstairs and when the doors slid open we were in a private pub. Wow! The place was decked out with war memorabilia and portraits of Red Army heroes, and, to my excitement, the Chelsea vs. Barcelona football match was on the big screen.
We were met by five men: the bartender; David, the band leader for the changing of the palace guards; Warren Williams, a young sergeant general in the British Army; Keith Griffins, a veteran mail handler at Buckingham Palace; my new friend 61; and me, the smiling Kentucky boy that nobody knew anything about. At least I looked sharp in my suit.
Essentially these guys were drinking buddies. We stood at the bar and had a splendid conversation over pints of delicious English beers. I was naturally an eager and engaged listener as we talked about the world, women, sports, politics and life. They thought fraternities were particularly interesting, so I told them all the wonders of Greek life. These friendly British men embraced me as one of their own, and I felt very comfortable. As the night went on they were calling me their guest of honor, and they wouldn't let me buy a single drink. By 11:30 everyone had their fill. As our rendezvous concluded Warren and Keith wrote down their information for me in the little notebook I always keep in my back pocket. Sergeant Williams told me I could stay with him any time in Wales and Keith, the worker at Buckingham Palace, told me to call him for a private tour of the Royal Residence! 61's plan had worked!
Part III: Did that Just Happen?
Calling Buckingham Palace was an intimidating yet thrilling experience. I have the number if you'd like to try it sometime. The operator explains in her introduction that calling as a "hoax" will result in prosecution, so it was a good thing I was legit. When I dialed Keith's extension, it was nice that he actually remembered me. However, there was a dilemma: the President of Brazil was coming to the Palace that week and apparently I wasn't on the guest list. My instruction was to call Keith back in "two weeks time."
Fifteen days later I redialed Keith will high hopes that he would not have forgotten about me. Fortunately he is a man of his word, and everything was set to go. We set up a tour for Thursday, March 16 at 3.00 p.m. I was to show up on time, dress sharp (in my borrowed suit), and bring my passport. I must say that my excuse for missing class— because I had a scheduling conflict involving a private tour of Buckingham Palace—was a career personal best.
On that typically cool and overcast London afternoon, I took the tube to St. James Park and walked to the front of the Buckingham Palace. I stood amongst the hundreds of tourists who visit each day and marvel at the building. I couldn't believe that I was about to be inside looking out at where I was standing. At the Buckingham Gate on the South side of the Palace and met my new old friend Keith Griffins. I went through relatively heavy security, received my name tag and strolled straight into the Palace. I was in.
Keith took me straight into a contemporary and upscale coffee shop, where the workers of the Palace lounge. We ordered tea; walked into a plush room with chairs, tables, and couches; and sat down together next to a window. As we drank our tea, I learned that this was not going to be a traditional tour of the glamorous Royal Residence. Keith was going to take me behind the scenes and show me the inner workings of the bureaucracy.
Apparently there are over 500 workers at the Palace, and 200 of those workers, including Keith, also live within its walls. It is a much bigger operation than I would have ever thought, and the place is massive. As we navigated through numerous back staircases and hallways, I lost my sense of direction; there were several basement floors and after a while I lost track of which one we were on. Keith never missed an opportunity to introduce me; "This is my friend Dave. He's from Kentucky," he would say.
We entered into several large shared offices with multiple desks, workstations and employees; one that was particularly interesting was the office that received all the mail for the Queen. Five women in close quarters toiled day after day to sort and organize the hundreds of letters and E-mails. Birthday wishes were coming in over a month in advance. We must have visited 15 to 20 offices and had the same small talk with more than 50 people. Keith was a wonderful host.
The highlight of the tour and the climax of the story came at the end of the tour when we were in the foyer of the northern entrance to the palace. I laughed to myself as I looked out of the windows at the hundreds of tourists looking in from the outside gates. What a reality check. Keith introduced me to the doorman and asked if I could sign the guest book of Buckingham Palace. "No," he responded quickly, "there are strict rules for signing the guest book." He said that it requires the starting of a new page, which he would have to title with the name of the event for the singing. Apparently my visit wasn't quite a big enough event for its own page in the guest.
Then, to my amazement, lady luck struck once more. The doorman made it very clear how lucky I was, as he decided that he would bend the rules and allow me to sign my information under a list of names from a past event. I watched as he turned the pages back to a day in early February when American military personnel had been to visit the Palace. On that day, which I regrettably did not carefully examine, there was the title of the event, the date, and the signatures and titles of five of our country's finest.
Then, on the following line, it reads: David James Horne, Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.A. Centre College.One less thing on the to-do list.
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