Kensington Palace: `des res' dumping ground

Kensington Palace is getting rather crowded, with outlying members of the Royal Family seeking a roof over their heads in London. It is full of problem families down on their luck: there is a single mother struggling to bring up her two sons; a divorcee; the Gloucesters, who have fallen upon hard times; and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, among the least popular members of the royal court.

At the end of the last century, King Edward VII dubbed it the "Aunt Heap" - and the nickname stuck. Others call it the Dowagers' Dumping Ground. Some say the Prince of Wales calls it that and worse today.

Ever since the demise of George II, the last reigning monarch to reside there, Kensington Palace has become the haunt of increasing numbers of royal dowagers, cousins and heirs-in-waiting during their stays in London. The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester's plan to forsake their country estate and reside permanently at "KP", as it is fondly known by its residents, has merely sealed its reputation as the dumping ground for "B" list royals.

Only one section - the ground floor of the north-east wing containing the State Rooms and Mary II's court dress collection, which are open to the public (£3.95 a visit) - retains anything of its former palatial grandeur. (Although that grandeur is nothing compared to Britain's other palaces. When it was purchased by William III in 1689, it was mundane enough to be referred to as Kensington House until it got a reworking by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor at the end of the century.)

In the second half of the 19th century, it fell into such disrepair that it was only Queen Victoria's fondness for her childhood memories there that saved it. "The private rooms are not at all grand by royal standards," says Philip Ziegler, the historian. "They look just like a very upmarket private house."

The landlord at Kensington Palace has divided it up into apartments. It is a multi-occupancy residence. At the last count it had 28 flats and eight houses, although the "flats" are not average size. The Princess of Wales's rooms, which face towards Bayswater, consist of four reception rooms, a dining-room, a master bedroom suite, two guest bedrooms and a nursery.

Princess Margaret has three bedrooms and four reception rooms. The Gloucesters occupy four bedrooms and seven reception rooms. Prince and Princess Michael of Kent have five bedrooms and five reception rooms. They are all looked after by 58 servants.

That compares with St James's where Prince Charles moved after his split with Diana, which has 220 rooms.

With all those members of the same family living is such close proximity, one might have expected there would be a lively family atmosphere, shared child care and games of cricket in the grounds. In fact, the atmosphere is rather subdued. Insiders say the various inhabitants seldom meet. "Most evenings the place is remarkably dead. The residents are normally out and about at their separate functions," says one who is there often as a private guest. "Occasionally, there are parties in the reception rooms, but they tend to be official rather than private. It would be unusual for one resident to invite one of the others to supper... it just doesn't work like that. Often the only sight the residents get of each other is as they whizz in and out in their cars. You have to bear in mind that they all have staff so if they need to post a letter they get someone else to do it for them."