A mother/teenage daughter getaway is a royally bonding experience, writes Louise Richardson.
Fresh off the Tube I'm struggling with my suitcase, which is about the same size as me, and on the steps at Kensington High Street Underground Station a nice man puts out his hand to help.
"Mama, don't let him take your bag," says Isabella, looking slightly alarmed.
The man and I both smile.
"He's assisting an old lady. It's what gentlemen do here," I explain.
Sure enough, he returns the suitcase to me graciously at the top of the stairs and she and I walk a couple of blocks to our hotel where the smartly-dressed doormen will soon get used to the sight of us returning each day, laden with shopping.
It's nearly all hers, of course. She's seeing London, my birthplace, for the first time in her life, and has been saving for months.
There are just the two of us, with a whole week ahead, so we've decided to focus unashamedly on girly things, and what better place to start next day than Kensington Palace, which is practically on our doorstep.
I used to see Princess Diana on the local High St many years ago, taking her two boys to the local McDonald's, or to the movies. Now, as we turn towards her former home I can almost imagine bumping into the Duchess of Cambridge in the grounds (although we later discover that she was out at the time of our visit). We have, however, passed her favourite maternity clothing boutique, Seraphine — and Zara Home, where she's been known to buy cushions and tea towels in classic, neutral colours.
Inside the imposing red-brick building with its gleaming gilt trims that is Kensington Palace, we see Diana's dresses in glass cases, displayed in low light in order to preserve them. I recognise the Catherine Walker peacock sequinned number she wore at the Royal Lancaster Hotel on an evening out in the early 1990s. As a near-neighbour at the time I was in the crowd outside, taking very bad photos on my old Olympus, pre-digital camera.
On the next floor there's a tiny outfit worn by the (then) diminutive Queen Victoria for her coronation in 1838. The difference couldn't be more marked in comparison with tall, willowy Diana's gowns.
An "explainer" comes and chats with us. These people, posted throughout the palace, are generous with their expertise.
"Yes, [Victoria] was really that small," he confirms. "The dress is silk but the coronation robe itself was made from woven gold which is phenomenally heavy. I'd imagine that the poor girl could hardly move."
In the palace shop and tearooms — where we stop for a delicate cuppa, there's clearly a new royal on the block.
Portraits of Prince Harry and his soon-to-be-bride, American actress Meghan Markle are everywhere; on mugs, plates, books and even commemorative coins, but, as far as I can see they're not yet on tea towels, which is a little disappointing as I was hoping to add one to my royal kitchen collection.
Having caught the royal bug, we move on to the nearby Victoria and Albert Museum with its remarkable couture gallery. The exhibits here are constantly changing, because the department's collection is so vast.
We know Queen Victoria was small, but clearly so was practically everyone prior to the 19th century. The hand-span waists of the women have us wondering where on earth they kept their internal organs. The men were clearly pleasingly petite too, with tiny feet encased in elaborate handmade shoes — and vertiginous wigs, worn in order to make them appear taller.
It's fascinating to see women's costumes from the 1920s flapper days: a straight and strong, androgynous body type, then the nipped-in, hour-glass waists of the 1950s and the stick-thin shape personified by Twiggy in the 60s.
The 1977-era Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLare punk period, I can clearly recall, and of course, there's the big-shouldered look of the 80s. Power suits, we called them.
"Did you really wear them?" my daughter asks.
"Um, yes," I confess. "But I won't do it again, I promise."
In the grand tearoom on the ground floor we share a splendid slice of rose sponge, with sweet creamy icing and a sprinkling of dried petals. It looks too good to eat, but that doesn't stop us.
Next day it's another palace, Buckingham Palace, in fact. It's not open
to the public in winter and there is not much going on, just a couple of ho-hum guards marching up and down in the courtyard outside. We wander into St James's Park, where Isabella sees her first-ever squirrels, falls completely in love, and spends the next half-hour making cute videos for her friends back home, while I shiver in the cold.
As the days go by we cover a lot of ground; particularly in the gracious departments of Liberty London and Fortnum & Mason. We enjoy the edgy vibe of Top Shop at Oxford Circus, and marvel at the very average-looking £18.50 ($NZ37) mangos in the produce department at legendary Selfridges — where Isabella splashes out upstairs in the footwear boutique, on a pair of super-stunning, very tall, Spanish shoes.
On our next-to-last afternoon it's time to tackle the legendary Harrods in Kinightsbridge.
We'd planned also to go bra-browsing at Rigby & Peller: the Queen's corsetieres, which is right next door in Knightsbridge. However, that very day's newspapers reveal that they've just lost their royal warrant after former owner June Kenton wrote in a tell-all autobiography of fittings at Buckingham Palace, complete with details about a half-dressed monarch and her attendant corgis. Her Majesty, it seems, is not amused by this betrayal of trust — so nor are we.
Funnily enough, at almost the same time, it's announced that Qatar Holdings, who bought Harrods from Mohamed al-Fayed in 2013, plan to return to him the bronze statue he'd commissioned of his late son Dodi — who died beside Princess Diana — depicting the pair of them apparently dancing in heaven. We race to check it out — through menswear, by the escalator in the basement, before it's too late.
Elsewhere in this enormous monument to materialism are wealthy Arab ladies, dropped off by chauffeurs driving giant Bentleys, and strolling into DeBeers on the ground floor, clad in Gucci gear with head scarves, buying £20,000 diamond bracelets — in multiples.
Right in front of our eyes.
Our financial means aren't quite so accommodating, but we gather take-away provisions for a Harrods Food hall picnic, back at our hotel. My smoked salmon and lobster roulade tastes divine, served on a saucer, and eaten with a teaspoon from the coffee station in our room. Isabella has a multi-layer Thai salad, while my bridesmaid Helen, who's joined us tonight, enjoys a delicate porcini quiche; pronouncing it perfect.
On the airport train next day, Isabella and I agree that we've had a right-royal time in London, We both wish that we could be here for Harry and Meghan's nuptials at nearby Windsor in May.
"We have to come back soon, Mama. Every single year, in fact," she says.
"Well, " I reply, "perhaps you should have bought a very big, red London pillar-box piggy-bank at the souvenir store."
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