"Royal weddings have always been rich in intrigue, romance and the odd scandal or two," says our tour guide, Karen Pierce-Goulding, as we gather around her in Green Park, near Buckingham Palace. They are also, to judge by the stories that follow, rich in illegitimate children, drunkenness and fits of jealous rage.
Green Park, for example, is so called because it lacks flowers. Or at least it has lacked flowers since Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, ordered them all removed after she spied the royal gardener picking roses for one of her husband's many strumpets.
Pierce-Goulding is leading us on a Royal Wedding Tour, one of several walking tours that visit the London haunts of Prince William and Kate Middleton, ending at Westminster Abbey, where they will kiss the carefree single life goodbye on April 29.
But why should intrepid romantics end their exploring with Kate and William? Britain has been home to more regal love nests over the centuries than Charles II had notches on his bedpost.
Herewith, our guide to the boltholes, castles and hidden passageways that allowed royal romances to flourish, sometimes even with the blessing of the church.
Charles II and Nell Gwyn
"Let not poor Nelly starve," were the dying words of the pleasure-loving Restoration monarch regarding his beloved mistress, actress Nell Gwyn, who enjoyed the odd card game. A number of establishments claim to have secret staircases in their basements providing easy escape for Charles from his wife (see the vengeful Catherine of Braganza, above), including the Drury House Restaurant in Windsor, which was built in 1645 ( druryhouse.co.uk).
Nell rose from poverty to become an orange-seller at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, and then a star of its stage; that theatre burned down, but another stands on the site, soon to be home to ogre royalty when Shrek: The Musical opens in May. It's worth a trip to north London to visit Lauderdale House on the edge of beautiful Waterlow Park, where Gwyn and the king reportedly met to play hide the sceptre ( lauderdalehouse.co.uk). The views over London are stunning.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert
Victoria was born at Kensington Palace in London, and here she first clapped appreciative eyes on her cousin and future husband (although he apparently thought she was a bit flighty). Also the home of Diana, Princess of Wales, Kensington currently houses a strange and quite magical installation devoted to the lives of British princesses, called Enchanted Palace ( hrp.org.uk, search for Enchanted Palace).
No trip to London would be complete without a visit to the magnificent Victoria and Albert Museum of decorative arts, but to find the places closest to the hearts of the lusty monarch and her German consort, you have to travel far from the capital. Albert was deeply involved in the building of two much-loved homes, which are open to the public to this day. Osborne House on the Isle of Wight was the Royal Family's summer retreat, where you can see the adorable miniature chalet built for the nine royal children, and Queen Victoria's modesty-preserving bathing machine, which she reportedly fell out of at least once ( www.english-heritage.org.uk).
At the other end of the country is Balmoral Castle, Victoria's "dear Paradise in the Highlands," which has a particular poignancy - she retreated here to mourn Albert after his death at 42 from typhoid and was absent so long from public life that people feared she, too, was dead. The grounds and gardens are open from April 1 to July 31, when the Royal Family arrives for its summer hols ( balmoralcastle.com). The intrepid can go pony trekking on the estate's 20,000 hectares, while the rest of you can just buy scotch in the gift shop.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth
If you've seen The King's Speech, you know that pretty young Elizabeth Bowes Lyon eventually gave in to Prince Albert's numerous proposals of marriage, and then had her worst fears realized when he was crowned King George VI. You can follow the trail of their romance from haunted (and haunting) Glamis Castle, the Scottish seat of the Earls of Strathmore and Elizabeth's family home, where she first caught the eye of Albert during a house party in 1920 while telling ghost stories and putting apple pies in the beds of unsuspecting guests. Glamis (which you might remember from Macbeth) is a castle from a picture book, and on April 29 its perfect lawns will briefly be despoiled by video screens, showing the royal wedding from London ( glamis-castle.co.uk).
Equally important to this romance, though a little harder to get access to, is another Strathmore home, St. Paul's Walden Bury, located 50 kilometres north of London. In June, 1923, Elizabeth finally agreed to marry Albert after they spent the day sawing logs (truly) and walking in the formal 18th-century gardens. Those gardens are now open only once a month, so keep a sharp eye on www.stpaulswaldenbury.co.uk.
Prince William and Catherine Middleton
The pickings are indeed rich and various. You can take one of the royal wedding tours of London, or a bus tour to Middleton's hometown, which has the quintessentially English name of Bucklebury. You might visit the faux Polynesian watering hole Mahiki ( mahiki.com) in London's Mayfair, where posh young things shed their Barbour jackets and drink $195 Treasure Chest cocktails. (Warning: You will not find a prince at the bottom - unless Harry's in town.)
For those with a taste for men in uniform, Sandhurst Academy, where William trained to become an officer in the British Army, hosts Heritage Day, the one Sunday it is open to the public, on June 19 ( army.mod.uk). At
William's passing-out ceremony - his graduation from the military academy - Kate is reported to have said, "I love the uniform. It's so sexy." Ladies, muster your smelling salts.
Far from the frenzied crowds of London, across the elegant 19th-century Menai Suspension Bridge, the sleepy island of Anglesey in Wales is enjoying a bit of a moment in the spotlight (impress the locals by using its Welsh name, Ynys Mon). William and Kate are living here in a rented farmhouse while he's stationed at RAF Valley as a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot. You won't get much out of the locals, who are proudly tight-lipped about their famous residents, but go anyway - it's a magical spot, historically one of the last druid strongholds in Roman Britain, and it won't be quiet for much longer ( visitanglesey.co.uk). The seaside hiking is famous: The Welsh are as rich in beaches as they are poor in vowels. It's a romantic destination, even if you get there by shoe leather rather than glass coach.Report Typo/Error