Tourism slump delays Kew restoration

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The Independent Online

A 17th-century palace once home to King George III will stay closed indefinitely because of cuts in a restoration programme.

Kew Palace, in the Royal Botanic Gardens in west London, was closed for repairs in 1996 and due to reopen in 2004. The distinctive exterior has already been restored at a cost of £1.3m.

But the £3m renovation of the interior is now in jeopardy because the Historic Royal Palaces charitable trust (HRP) has lost so much income. The trust runs the unoccupied royal palaces at Kensington, Hampton Court and Kew, and the Tower of London.

The number of visitors to the Tower, which has been HRP's main money-spinner, has fallen by almost 30 per cent since September. The slump, with the rejection of an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, has forced the delay.

A spokeswoman for HRP said: "The plans for Kew Palace are terribly exciting. We have lots of details about life in the palace at the time. But with the downturn following 11 September, a lot of non-urgent projects have had to be set aside for a couple of years. It's quite frustrating."

The plans included the complete rewiring of the property and an exhibition featuring new research on the lifestyles enjoyed in the palace by King George III, his wife, Queen Charlotte, and their 15 children.

Queen Charlotte became known as the "Queen of Botany" because of her great interest in the enlargement and support of the surrounding gardens in the late 18th century. Her husband's battle with porphyria was chronicled in the Oscar-winning film, The Madness of King George, starring the late Nigel Hawthorne.

The palace was built in 1631 by Samuel Fortrey, a merchant of Dutch descent, who named it Dutch House. He had difficulty making the exterior look neat because bricks at the time did not come in standard sizes. To disguise this, his builders pressed a thin straight groove into the mortar between each line of bricks and coated the building in brick-coloured limewash to tidy the entire appearance.

Limewashing continued until the 19th century and the experts returned to this tradition of decoration for the renovation. The project is yet another victim of the turmoil to follow the terrorist attacks of 11 September. The Tower of London usually attracts 2.5 million visitors a year, making it one of the most popular tourist attractions in Britain. The fall-off in attendance is a serious blow.

Other palaces do not generate anywhere near as much money for HRP, which claims the cost of accommodating each visitor to Hampton Court is £20. The admission price is £10.80.

The education work at several of the properties will also be severely affected. But the HRP spokeswoman said the programmes would still go ahead if funds could be found from other sources.

The Heritage Lottery Fund has said it would consider a revised application for National Lottery money to fund the project, but wanted to see Kew Palace more closely integrated into plans for the surrounding park, which is run by the Royal Botanic Gardens.