Palace reveals selected secrets: Nation's most prestigious tourist attraction shows a surprising line in red carpets and electric fires

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NO PLACE looks at its best besieged by 1,000 visitors an hour, or even yesterday's 200 journalists, but the lurid red carpets on all the Buckingham Palace floors lend an irresistible suggestion of a down-at- heel railway hotel in a provincial city, revamped perhaps in the 1950s or 1960s, since when there has been only just enough money to keep things repaired.

Where else in the country are there still electric bar fires nestling in each marble grate, suggesting simultaneously a reluctance to modernise and a disregard for the cost of heating a room?

The 19 palace rooms are being opened to the public - at pounds 8 a head - for eight weeks from today to help pay for the fire damage at Windsor Castle.

A number of touches, some inevitable for security reasons, make sure the visitor feels like a paying guest, or a tourist, with not even an illusion of having been invited as a family friend - the railings in the courtyard, the long queues and the bag-searches.

The tour starts at the discreet Ambassador's entrance in Buckingham Gate.

The palace courtyard has red gravel to match the Mall, but is still not peaceful; through three archways at the front you can still see and hear the milling tourists and traffic outside the gates. Out of sight from the road, but clearly seen from the inside, is a white satellite dish perched on the palace roof.

Inside, the rooms look smaller than in the pictures in books, the same illusion as in estate agents' photographs of flats for sale, and always taken from a bottom corner.

The first room is the grand hall, very like a hotel ballroom, sparsely furnished in nouveau French style, and bright gilded mouldings on the ceiling.

The grand staircase leads up out of the hall, its gilt balustrade, the book says, supplied by Samuel Parker at a cost of pounds 3,900 in 1828.

A transparent plastic sheet has been attached to the gilt lest greasy hands should be tempted to touch anything and damage Mr Parker's masterpiece.

Workmen were yesterday still drilling into ancient precious plasterwork around doorways elsewhere, ready to screw in similarly protective plastic sheets.

The music room and drawing rooms are the most beautiful and tranquil, but hard to appreciate in a crowd and towards the end of the tour when fatigue is setting in.

The views across the garden reveal what must be galling to the Queen, that her lawns are overlooked by skyscrapers.

At last, in the drawing rooms, there was a glimpse of the gardens through the windows, and a ripple of excitement as the royal corgis were spotted being walked by a red- coated footman on the lawns.

Among the pictures and furniture there are highlights: in the silk tapestry room, an arresting 1764 portrait by Allan Ramsay, of Queen Charlotte with her two children; an intricate 18th century roll top desk in the white drawing room. But it is easy to be hurried past.

The fireplaces in the green drawing room have funny little paper crowns in them, like something suggested by Blue Peter to brighten up a dull grate.

The eponymous dark green walls, with yet more gilt, lie uneasily with the red carpets. There are still more chandeliers, but new- looking, somehow.

The throne room, where the monarch receives addresses on formal occasions, is splendid, but devoid of courtiers seems very empty. The thrones are labelled ER and P.

The picture gallery, the largest room in the palace, displaying two Rubens, a Steen, a Reni and three Van Dykes, was clearly, from old photographs, once opulent and comfortable, with walls clustered thickly with multi-sized paintings.

It has now been transformed into something more like a corridor, with the paintings selected and hung with geometric precision. The paintings are roped off. So are the seats, so there is nowhere to sit down.

Just before the exit, a souvenir shop will offer pounds 20 silk ties with patterns suggested by the ceilings and walls, pounds 4 coronet-shaped chocolates, pounds 45 cardboard 'desk tidies' in the shape of the palace, and necklaces ( pounds 55) brooches ( pounds 50) and ear-rings ( pounds 450) suggested by detailing from the state dining room. There will be no T-shirts.