Souvenirs at Westminster Abbey Gift Shop, London
A vendor at London's Covent Garden Market said to me, "We don't really care about the royal wedding because we have Mother's Day and Easter both around the same time."
Not true. The Brits care plenty. It's the biggest royal wedding since Prince Charles married Diana in 1981, and the main reason I decided to hop over to London and check out the royal fever. I stayed at The Savoy (recently renovated to the tune of 355 million dollars) because the Queen mother was a regular and the then Princess Elizabeth was first spotted next to Prince Philip at a wedding reception in 1946.
The London Eye
On my way to the wedding venue, Westminster Abbey, I strolled along the Thames and rode the London Eye hoping to see the royal route from the top of this giant Ferris Wheel. I next tried to see some of it from the Thames on the London Eye River Cruise (where I learned that Big Ben is not the clock tower: the clock tower is St. Stephens, and Big Ben is the 1.5-ton bell inside.)
St. Stephens Clock Tower
After, I walked to Westminster Abbey, the nation's Coronation church since William the Conqueror was crowned in 1066. It was closed.
I peered through the window of the Gift Shop, which displayed all things Will and Kate: mugs, plates, medallions, and a William and Kate Royal Souvenir book.
Westminster Abbey Gift Shop: Royal Wedding Souvenirs
Afraid I'd spend my entire weekend with everything closed, I had the Savoy book me a tour guide for the following day.
Paddy Renouf, Exclusive London VIP Guide
Paddy Renouf is considered London's most exclusive insider on all things Great Britain, He's charming, witty, knows the city inside out, and is a man who can magically open doors.
Paddy arrived at the Savoy in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. First stop: Westminster Abbey. It was open, but there was a block-long line waiting to enter. No problem. We were met at a separate entrance by Johnny Aston, a Westminster VIP expert, and whisked into the thousand-year-old church that has hosted 15 royal weddings including that of Queen Elizabeth II to the Duke of Edinburgh in 1947. He showed me where Kate would make her entrance, walk around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, continue through a gate normally closed, and then up to the alter.
How do the Brits really felt about the Royals?" I asked Johnny.
"You have your Hollywood and we have the Royals," he said.
"And how do people feel about Camilla?"
"Like OJ Simpson," he responded.
HRH Prince William and HRH Prince Harry by Nicola ('Nicky') Philipps, 2010 Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London
Next stop: the South Kensington studio and home of Nicola (Nicky) Jane Philipps, whose portrait of Princes William and Harry was commissioned by The National Portrait Gallery. The majority of sittings took place here in her home studio. "The two of them came clumping into the house in their boots and uniform," said Nicky, "Multiple times. And not one neighbor noticed!"
How was she able to get the princes to pose, I asked?
"You don't get much time with them, but you must have sittings. Normally I have eight sittings for two hours, but with them, I was only able to have five sittings for an hour and a half. Although I prefer to paint the face from life, which would involve a few sittings -- 3 or 4 -- I am prepared to use photographs for the rest of the picture if my client is especially busy."
Nicola (Nicky) Jane Philipps with her sketch of HRH Prince William
And how did she decide the pose?
"I happen to be a monarchist. I wanted something illustrating how the monarchy is today. William came in and leaned on the post, and Harry sat. I thought, 'there's my painting.'"
The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is a tradition that dates back to Henry VII. I hadn't watched it since the first time I came to London as a college tourist, but I wanted to see it because Kate and William's post wedding celebration will be held here.
Paddy was dubious. "It's very crowded," he said.
I remembered how people were crammed five and six deep, trying to peer through the Palace gates.
"How about we see it the VIP way?" Paddy suggested. "We'll do a drive-by."
The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace from a Rolls Royce Window
Truly the bespoke way to see the Changing of the Guard: no waiting, no jostling crowds, just us driving in the Rolls Royce along with a double line of horseguards in bright red uniforms and tall black bearskin caps, clip-clopping to the palace.
Paddy knows everyone, including Harry Collins, the Queen's jeweler, so he was able to arrange a special VIP tour of The Crown Jewels. As we walked towards the Jewel House, Paddy pointed to the Tower. "The Royal Family is very resilient," he smiled. "We cut their heads off and they still prevail."
The heavily fortified Jewel House consists of over 2,500 of the world's best diamonds including the 530-carat Star of Africa and the 317-carat Lesser Star of Africa. I wondered what Kate Middleton's "something borrowed" might be. Perhaps Princess Diana's Cambridge emerald choker, her own wedding gift from the queen? Or the King Khalid of Saudi Arabia necklace, a drop diamond necklace from Harry Winston given to the queen in 1979 and loaned to Diana on numerous occasions?
We pulled up to The College of Arms near St. Paul's Cathedral. Centuries ago, a man's "signature" was the sign he marked on his shield and on the surcoat of his armor, which explains "coat of arms." The coat of arms is still a sign of personal identity, including the coat of arms for the British Royal Family. To honor his Mother, Prince William has added a red scallop shell ("escallop gules"), prominent in the Spencer ancestors' coats of arms.
"The Royal Exhibition," Hardy Amies
Last stop: Hardy Amies on Saville Row, a bespoke clothier who originally designed for women, including Royalty from the House of Windsor. On the third floor of this sumptuous Georgian townhouse is "The Royal Exhibition," an archive of bridal gowns Amies designed, including that of Princess Elizabeth's. I wandered among the gauzy wedding dresses on a private tour with Paddy and Hardy Amies' Manager. This was truly the way to catch royal wedding fever -- the bespoke way.