EVER wondered what lies behind the walls of Buckingham Palace? An invitation, as thick as a piece of board and embossed with the Queen's insignia in gold, was to help provide an answer.
``The Lord Chamberlain is commanded by Her Majesty to invite . . . ,'' it began, ``to a garden party at Buckingham Palace.''
Although business suits and uniforms were acceptable dress, very few men resisted this royal opportunity to deck themselves out in top hat and tails.
Their wives were resplendent in colorful garden party dresses and hats with matching accessories.
Bishops in flowing magenta robes strode magnificently across one of the largest lawns in the world.
Music provided by the smartly uniformed bands of the Irish Guards and the staff band from the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers echoed against the palace walls.
Plates of savory snacks, pastries, and tastefully iced cakes kept on reappearing as guests sipped tea and consumed, as elegantly as they could, considerable quantities of food under striped marquee tents.
A neighbor who had been invited on previous occasions had impressed on my wife and me the value of entering the palace from the farthest gate, the one down leafy Constitution Hill, close to Hyde Park Corner.
``That way,'' she pointed out, ``you will see all the gardens before you reach the actual palace. And don't forget to see the flamingo on the lake.''
It was wise advice, for while most guests had waited interminably to enter the palace by the familiar front entrance, we were whisked in at the back entrance in no time at all.
Immediately we felt as if we were in a secret garden hidden from the outside world.
It was really the splendor of the immaculately kept gardens, so vast and so quiet, in the midst of all that traffic swirling around it -- beyond the walls, of course -- that came as one of the biggest surprises on our introduction to Buckingham Palace.
The palace and its extensive grounds cover more than 50 acres in the heart of London, and no other place we have visited in this capital city seemed so far removed from the bustle of a city known the world over for unending activity.
High trees planted artfully, but with apparent random, screened our view of the palace, and increased the illusion that we were buried deep in the English countryside. Between the trees long vistas of emerald-green lawn rolled before us gently slopping down to a lake surrounded by the dense, tangled growth of shrubs and hedges.
A mulberry tree planted in 1609 -- long before the American Revolution -- and long before this area became part of a royal preserve, continues to bear fruit. We didn't see the flamingo on the lake whose eye-catching plumage may possibly have been overshadowed by some of the dresses worn at the garden party, but we did see wild geese screech to a halt, throwing up plumes of water as they landed in the lake.
The other great surprise -- after admiring lawns as thick as cushions, separated by clean gravel paths, magnificent roses, and a stupendous herbaceous border, several yards deep and reaching its apex with giant delphiniums and sweet peas -- was the rear or West Wing of the palace. It bears no resemblance to the front of the palace, the view that the outside world knows so well.
The reason Buckingham Palace looks so different -- depending on whether you view it from the front or the back -- is that it has undergone substantial change over the years.
The back of the palace, soft and mellow with its honey-colored Bath stone is more reminiscent of the Cotswolds. The front of the palace that looks down the Mall, that avenue of trees planted in Charles II's time, is in somber, almost dull Portland stone. Of much more recent vintage, it tends to convey an impression of stern dignity.
The original plan for the palace indicated that it was to be built around three sides of a courtyard. That was back in 1705 when the structure was the property of John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham.
The central block, with its courtyard wings, remains to this day, but was extended by King George IV's architect, John Nash, in 1825.
Marble Arch was built by Nash in the front of the palace to commemorate the great victories of Trafalgar and Waterloo. (In 1851, Marble Arch, now a famous London landmark, was moved from the forecourt of the palace to its present site just off Oxford Street.)
Nash's constructions were considered so extravagant that the Treasury withdrew his commission, and King William IV chose Edward Blore to straighten out Nash's ``chaotic affairs.''
It was Blore who in 1846 redesigned the front of the palace to include the East Wing or front of the palace as we know it today and which masks the Quadrangle and the palace's Grand Entrance.
The reason for this expansion: more space for Queen Victoria's growing family.
Although King George III paid 2,000 back in 1762 (today about $2,800 but then considerably more) for the house and land to provide Queen Charlotte with a Dower House, it was not until 1837, when Victoria came to the throne, that Buckingham Palace became a sovereign's residence.
Even in subsequent years Buckingham Palace was considered something of a private, rather than state, residence. This is why tradition still dictates that the proclamation of a new sovereign takes place at St. James's Palace, and why all new ambassadors to London are accredited not to Buckingham Palace, but to the Court of St. James's.
Despite her very long reign Queen Victoria stopped residing at Buckingham Palace for her last 40 years as Queen (from 1861 to 1901). Mourning the death of her husband, Prince Albert, she lived a life of semiseclusion. During most of that period, she lived at Windsor Castle and at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
Because the palace had been uninhabited and neglected for 40 years, King Edward VII, Queen Victoria's son, and Queen Alexandra were not able to move into Buckingham Palace until 1902.
Although parts of the palace were bombed in 1940 during World War II, Buckingham Palace has been occupied without interruption since the turn of the century. As with prime ministers and presidents, the monarch has changed traditions to suit the times.
In 1958, six years after her accession, Queen Elizabeth II abandoned presentation parties for debutantes. These had corresponded to the drawing rooms of earlier reigns and the sparkling evening courts of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. In place of these selective invitations, the present monarch has added extra garden parties to her social calendar so that she can receive larger and more representative gatherings.
It was on just such an occasion that we took in the gardens of Buckingham Palace and waited in genteel English sunshine for the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, and Princess Diana, to emerge from Buckingham Palace to greet the 9,000 guests on the lawns below.
The royal party emerged from the Bow Room. This is Nash's gracious, beautifully proportioned center piece at the rear of the palace surmounted by a dome.
Guests arriving at, and leaving, royal garden parties pass through the Bow Room's glass doors to reach the terrace outside where the royal family pauses as the band strikes up ``God Save the Queen.''
Then, after brief introductions to some dignitaries that we were unable to recognize, the Queen, dressed in sky blue, and Princess Diana in a suit of cream and biscuit color, and the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles both in light gray top hats, tails, and carrying tightly rolled umbrellas, mingled with the guests.
Prince Charles, bronzed, with piercing blue eyes -- and an unexpected scar on his left cheek -- hovered two people in front of us. ``Do you all know each other here?'' he asked good humoredly. ``It's a good place to meet people isn't it?'' he bantered.
The royals chatted longer than we expected. There was nothing perfunctory about it. In time they moved on, leaving guests to search for the nearest tea tent.
Six p.m. arrived and it was time to leave.
For variety we chose to depart by the front way -- through the Bow Room with its priceless Chelsea porcelain, through the ornate grand entrance with its spectacular flights of stairs, into the courtyard, and through the East Wing to the gates outside where the casually attired tourists reminded us that we no longer live in a world of top hats and tails, except on special royal occasions.