This article first appeared on Saturday 10 September 2016, in the Weekend Argus in Cape Town
Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Pic by Sophie Lemagnen
2016 marks The Queen of England’s 90th birthday year and the atmosphere throughout the land is very festive, even after her two official birthdays have come and gone. If you’re a fan of all things royal, there was never a finer time to visit Great Britain.
Every tourist’s London itinerary includes the iconic must-see spots that remain as captivating as ever for first timers and returning visitors. Between watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, taking a spin on the London Eye, posing with Johnny Depp at Madame Tussaud’s, sipping afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason or ogling the spectacular Crown Jewels at The Tower of London, there is no shortage of fabulous things to see and do.
On a recent trip to England and Scotland I spent time at several castles and palaces, wanting to get a more in depth sense of history, and walking through these grand homes offers a peek into what life was like for the monarchy and how they still live today.
Buckingham Palace is a great place to start. Open daily until October 2016, a walkabout takes in nineteen State Rooms, where The Queen and Royal Family regularly receive guests and visiting dignitaries. The interior, designed by John Nash to King George IV’s taste, is very grand, showcasing gorgeous candelabra, fine furnishings, sculptures, paintings by Van Dyck, and porcelain pieces by Sèvres.
A drive to Windsor, about an hour by car from central London, is well worth it. Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest inhabited one in the world, has been the family home of British kings and queens for almost 1,000 years. It is a fully functioning palace and an official residence of Her Majesty The Queen, whose standard flies from the Round Tower when she is present, which is on most weekends, according to those in the know. Windsor town is a hugely popular destination for families and tourists with children, with special events happening most Saturdays. The gardens of the Great Park are expansive and kids have enormous fun playing games and going on activity trails, and, at the Castle, taking multi media tours, dressing up as knights, princes and princesses, and learning more about the Monarchy and Shakespeare in this, the 400th anniversary of his Bard’s death. In the Castle, Queen Mary’s Dolls House is a major attraction, a miniature palace standing just under one metre that was built between 1921 and 1924 and is exquisitely crafted. It’s filled with tiny replicas of various objects – even the library shelves are lined with original works by the top literary names of the day, and there is a fully stocked wine cellar. 1000 art works and a miniature set of Crown Jewels are remarkable and it even has electricity, hot and cold running water, working lifts and loos. It’s a magnet for kids and a fascination for big people too.
Holyrood House in Edinburgh, a city that’s only an hour and half from London by plane, is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s official residence in Scotland. It was built around 1678 in the Baroque style by James V. Sir William Bruce and is the seat of the Monarchy in Scotland. Every year, at the beginning of summer, Her Majesty spends time at the palace to fulfil various Royal obligations. The Palace of Holyrood is open to the public all year except when the First Family is home. The Palace was originally home to Mary Queen of Scots whose time there was beset by high drama. A tour is extremely interesting as one wanders through the historic apartments, the Great Gallery with more than 100 portraits of Scottish monarchs, imposing towers and turret rooms, and the Augustine Abbey ruins. 10 acres of beautiful gardens encircle the property, with a backdrop of Arthur’s Seat, the adjacent Holyrood Park’s highest point that gives an excellent view of the city from the summit. Running until 16 October 2016 is an exhibition entitled ‘Fashioning a Reign’, showcasing 9 decades of The Queen’s wardrobe, showcasing outfits from her childhood, right up until today. Two other exhibitions of the same name, opening at Buckingham Palace in July and at Windsor Castle in September, will mean that a total of 150 royal outfits will have been on display through the year.
At the opposite end of the Royal Mile, a street 1,8 kilometres long, is Edinburgh Castle, a fortress that presides majestically over the city. Built on top of a 700 million year old volcano, Castle Rock, it has been a Royal home, a garrison and a prison, and has withstood 26 sieges in its 1100 year history, which, by most accounts, makes it the most besieged place in Great Britain. The Castle holds many legends and superstitions too. Edinburgh University students tend to avoid a visit until after graduation as it’s believed any of them who enter the gates while still studying, are sure to fail. The Lonely Piper ghost apparently haunts the fortress, roaming the subterranean tunnels beneath the castle, playing mournfully on his bagpipes. And what about the ‘lairds lugs’ or Lord’s ears? These are the effective eavesdropping holes that King James IV had cut out of the walls, that had Gorbachev and the KGB in a flat spin in 1984 when he was about to hold a conference at the castle. Every August the atmospheric Military Tattoo takes place in front of the Castle on the grand esplanade, with the Scottish regiment in traditional kilts providing great entertainment. Mondays to Saturdays at 1 o’clock sharp, in keeping with a ritual that began in 1861, the Megs Mon Cannon, a medieval supergun, is fired by someone called Shannon the Cannon. Back in the day when the cannon was operational, it was capable of firing solid iron balls three times the size of a man’s head, across a distance of almost 2.5 kilometres.
About 160kms out of town by car is Balmoral Castle, near the small village of Crathie. Surrounded by ancient Caledonian pine forests, moors,lochs, brooks, cairns and an abundance of wildlife…. it’s no wonder that Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert fell in love with the Scottish Highlands when they first laid eyes on it in 1842. When the Royals are in residence at the Castle, their privacy is paramount and so public access is only between May and July. Guided and audio tours are available, the former being more fun and most interesting as the guides are so warm and engaging. The ballroom is the only part of the castle interior that the public may visit and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s the largest room of all and what it lacks in ostentatious glamour, it makes up for in history, heritage and good taste, with a hand painted ceiling, an impressive collection of paintings by masters such as Landseer and Carl Haag, traditional dress displays and cabinets of solid silver artefacts. It’s in the ballroom that The Queen regularly receives honoured guests and where, twice a year, She hosts the much anticipated dance event known as the Ghillies Ball, where locals and staff mingle with Royalty. Balmoral has so much to offer beyond the short castle tour. Outdoor activities for those who want to linger longer and explore the area properly include salmon fishing, hiking, running and ranger-guided tours, and accommodation is available in self catering cottages on the estate.
Last but by no means least, Her Majesty’s Royal Yacht Britannia, long seen as an enduring symbol of the Monarchy, is berthed at the Ocean Terminal Shopping Mall in Edinburgh harbour, and is a stunning way to round off a focus visit to iconic homes of the Royal Family. Over the years, The Queen has graciously received kings, presidents and world leaders like Churchill and Nelson Mandela on board in the State Dining Room. The Yacht made an historical state visit to Cape Town in 1995, the momentous year in which Mandela became President. HMY Britannia served the Royals for 43 years before being de-commissioned in 1997. It was a welcome haven away from the public eye and to my mind, seemed like it must have been a wonderful place for the First Family to spend quality time together. The Queen is believed to have said, “This is where I can truly relax.” The interior is elegant, stylish and comfortable, a home away from home, with a 50’s feel to the décor, influenced by the Queen and Prince Philip. HMY Britannia is a beautiful museum, and an absorbing tour for adults and children alike. End your maritime tour with a splendid afternoon tea in the Royal Deck Tea Room with cakes, scones, soups and sandwiches, or, even better, a glass of champagne.
VisitBritain, www.visitbritain.org.uk for all tourist and castle info in the UK
HMY Britannia: www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk
Airport transfers London: Chirton Grange, www.chirtongrange.co.uk
Accommodation: The Rubens at the Palace Hotel in London, www.rubenshotel.com and The G&V in Edinburgh, http://www.quorvuscollection.com/gandv-hotel-edinburgh
All images, unless otherwise stated, were taken by me.
FYI: I was invited on this trip by Lloyd Orr Communications on behalf of VisitBritain
The Weekend Argus article>