Sunday, August 12, 2012

‘Britannia’ Ruled the Waves

The sun deck.

A happy Queen.
It is said that the Queen cried at the decommissioning ceremony for the Royal Yacht ‘Britannia’. That was all Tony Blair’s fault, back in 1997, and we can only speculate on how that relationship subsequently went. But one thing is certain - Her Maj loved ‘Britannia’ and was never happier than when on her. This we can see in all the over-sized photographs which decorate the introductory display at the ‘Britannia’, which you can now visit moored at Leith in Edinburgh. In every picture Queen Elizabeth has a radiant smile - can I refer you, for comparison, to her expression during the recent Olympics Opening Ceremony? I rest my case.

Of course, Prince Philip was a big fan of ‘Britannia’ too, being an ex-naval man. Apparently he keeps a ‘Britannia Room’ at Windsor Castle, full of memorabilia. He is credited with saying that “other reigns built castles and palaces - this reign built ‘Britannia’.”

Ship's bell.

The Royal Yacht.

'Britannia's' mooring at Leith.

‘Britannia’ sailed for 44 years, and travelled over a million nautical miles. She not only carried the Royals on official visits to all parts of the globe, but also hosted several Royal honeymoons, and numerous family summer hols, when they’d all go off cruising the Western Isles of Scotland (an area which has the advantage of remoteness, yet is still in Great Britain, and privacy -- though presumably was fairly chilly). 

Members of the public can now crawl all over ‘Britannia’ - in fact, she can be rented out for parties. The Queen’s grand-daughter Zara Phillips had her engagement drinkies there. It is a quite beautiful ocean-going yacht, with a hull of seamless dark blue and a band of gold leaf -- no name. Her fittings and fixtures, including her engines, are practically unchanged from the 1950s when she was built. It is the only one of her homes where the Queen and Prince Phillip had input into choosing the furnishings, and when ‘Britannia’ was in use, it was filled with personal memorabilia. It is still a very personal-looking place, and I for one felt like a peeping tom, spying into Her Majesty’s bedroom...And as for being told that the double-bed in the Honeymoon Suite was brought on board by Prince Charles when he and Diana honeymooned on the Royal Yacht...excuse me, too much information.

The Queen's bedroom.

The Royal couple chose the furnishings.

A home from home.

The drawing room.

But the Official Dining Room is a very public place - it could seat about 120, and many is the famous name that was invited to dine there. It is said that it took three hours to set the tables - each place setting being measured with a ruler for exact positioning. The walls of this formal dining room are decorated with gifts received from far-flung ports: there’s a narwhal tusk, an Easter Island figure, a carved wooden fish from Pitcairn Island inscribed with the name of every inhabitant. In the sitting room, there’s comfy chintz sofas and a baby grand piano once played by Noel Coward (and Princess Diana). When the Royal Family was on board, there were fresh flowers every day, brought from the gardens at Windsor Castle if the yacht was in the UK, or provided locally when travelling.

You can peer into the Captain’s quarters, the bars and dining rooms of the various ranks, in descending order until you reach the ‘yotties’ bunks below decks. The kitchens are still used; the laundry is a massive affair: all those immaculate pressed naval uniforms. A couple of dozen Royal Marines always travelled with the Queen, mostly so that they could provide a military band when needed. They had to have dozens of different uniforms on call. There’s the Queens office and Prince Phillip’s study. There’s a special room for the Spode china, and one for the silverware. Oh, it is a yacht from the glory days of majesty and pomp, and I think those lousy Brits should give the Queen back her yacht - actually, I believe she’d need a new one, since ‘Britannia’ had reached the end of her useful life. 

Strolling the deck.

How the other half lived.

Summer hols.

She was built in Scotland, and the Scots have been entrusted with her upkeep in her retirement. The tea rooms on the sun deck are a delightful place for a cup of tea - as I expect they always were, when ‘Britannia’ ruled the waves.

A lovely cup of tea aboard 'Britannia'.

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