A Country House At Sea

A Country House At Sea was published in Heritage magazine in June/July 207

The Royal Yacht Britannia’s final tour of duty took place in June 1997 for the handover of Hong Kong to China. She had served the nation and the Royal Family for 44 years and had sailed the equivalent of once around the word for each one of those years. At her decommissioning ceremony in Portsmouth, the Queen wiped an emotional tear from her eye. “Britannia is the one place where I can truly relax,” she once said. It was also one of her first projects as Monarch.

Britannia was the 83rd Royal Yacht; the first was a gift to Charles II in 1660 from the people of Amsterdam. However, only Britannia was capable of crossing the high seas, replacing the Victoria & Albert III, the first Royal Yacht not powered by sail. Although the Victoria & Albert III completed her service in 1939, it wasn’t until 4th February 1952 that the John Brown & Co shipyard on the Clyde, received a telegram authorising them to begin constructing the replacement. Confirmed by letter the following day, the sudden death of King George VI twenty-four hours later meant that the Royal Yacht Britannia became the responsibility of Queen Elizabeth II.

Both the Queen and Prince Philip took a detailed interest in the design of the Yacht’s interior, often having the final say. As Prince Philip said, “Britannia is special for a number of reasons. Almost every previous sovereign has been responsible for building a church, a castle, a place or just a house. The only comparable structures in the present reign is Britannia.”

It was their decision that Britannia’s hull should be blue instead of the traditional black, like that of their racing yacht, Bluebottle, given to them as a wedding present. However, the Queen didn’t get her way all of the time. To complete the ‘country house at sea’ feel, she wanted an open fire in the Drawing Room. This was dropped when she was advised that naval regulations would require a sailor to be beside it at all times with a bucket of water.

Britannia is a yacht of two halves. The Royal Navy’s operations were located between the main mast and the bow, whilst the Royal Apartments occupied the rear. It was the only ship in the Navy’s fleet to be commanded by an Admiral at all times (with one exception), recognising Britannia’s precious cargo.

A tour of the yacht provides numerous reminders that this is a product of the 1950’s, when the habits of ‘make do and mend’ and ‘restore or repair’ were still engraved on people’s minds following the Second World War. Communication between the Bridge and the Wheelhouse on the deck below was by metal voice pipe, because the system worked. The wheel itself is ‘second hand’, rescued from King Edward VII’s racing yacht of the same name, before being scuttled in 1936, off the Isle of Wight. Behind the Bridge is the flag deck, where over 2,000 different flags were kept for semaphore communication, as well as national flags for when Heads of State were onboard. A small supply of raw materials enabled emergency repairs to damaged flags, and amendments to National flags, if required.

The Admiral’s Suite was the largest room outside of the Royal Apartments. With a day cabin where he could work and entertain, and a separate sleeping cabin, the Admiral also had the luxury of all luxuries – an en-suite bathroom. This befitted a man in charge of 20 officers and 220 yachtsmen, or ‘Yotties’ as they were known.

Officer’s cabins were less prestigious, with beds converting into sofas during the day, making offices out of their sleeping quarters. Officers also had to share bathrooms.

Further along, the Wardroom has the air of an Officer’s Club, and is where the Officers would dine and relax. Historic reminders litter the room including a ship-shaped silver saltcellar supposedly owned by the last Czar of Russia, Nicholas II, and a gold button from Admiral Nelson’s uniform.
Sailors too had their own space to relax. There were several Messes on board depending upon rank, although on the relaxed Western Isles tours, members of the Royal Family occasionally dropped by for a quiet drink and to pass on their own thanks to the staff for their hard work.

The ambience in the Royal Apartments is comforting and homely. The State Drawing Room has relaxing floral print sofas where the Royal Family rested, chatted, played games or sung. Sir Noel Coward once played the floor-bolted Walmar baby grand piano when Princess Margaret invited him onboard. Diana, Princess of Wales, Princess Margaret and Princess Alexandra have also ‘tinkled the ivories’, although during formal occasions, a member of the Royal Marines Band would tactfully play the Queen’s favourites, such as Gershwin or Cole Porter.

The Anteroom to the State Drawing Room, accessed through a set of folding doors, contains furniture given by the Swedish Royal Family during a State visit to Stockholm in 1956. The antique mahogany bookcase containing James Bond novels however, came from the King’s Study on Victoria & Albert III.

The tour includes Britannia’s grandest spectacle, the State Dining Room. Dominated by the five-sectioned 32-seater mahogany table and Hepplewhite chairs, extra capacity can be provided by adding two more tables to its length. Setting it for a banquet of 56 guests took 3 hours, with each piece of china and cutlery positioned by strict measurements for perfection.

Surrounding this room are several alcoves, dressed with gifts and mementos from Britannia’s travels. Each alcove has its own story to tell, one of which includes a wooden carving of a shark from Pitcairn Island. It was signed on the back by the adult inhabitants living there in 1971, all descendants of the Bounty’s Fletcher Christian. Visitors entertained here have included Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, yet they were probably unaware that once cleared, the room was also used for church services and as a cinema. Rolling up the carpet reveals a hidden dance floor, last used on Princess Anne’s 21st birthday.

The Queen had her own private sitting room where she would work when onboard. Wherever in the world Britannia was, State papers were shipped or flown out for the Queen to sign on her green, leather-topped desk.

The Queen’s floral bedroom contrasts with Prince Philip’s more masculine, dark timbered bedroom, giving a further insight into their own personal tastes. The Queen’s bed sheets were slightly larger because she prefers a bigger turnback, and Prince Philip does not like lace-bordered pillows!

Her Majesty’s favourite room was the Sun Lounge. Here the Royal Family could relax, overlooking the Verandah Deck, where they would often play games, or let the children splash about in an inflatable swimming pool. In the corner, a Victorian Rum Tub can still be found, which was used to give sailors their daily ration until 1970. The Royal Family’s refrigerated drinks cabinet resided in a concealed cupboard!

Although never used as such, Britannia was designed to convert into a hospital ship within 24 hours. Capable of accommodating 200 patients, this dual function was dropped after 1992, but Britannia still boasted a fully functioning operating theatre, consulting room and even a ward.

The Royal Yacht’s laundry was one of the largest in the Navy and the only one staffed by its own crew. Its role as a hospital ship dictated the size, but Britannia also had a high volume of cleaning to do. When on duty, staff sometimes had to change uniforms up to 6 times a day. Working in temperatures of up to 45° centigrade, staff could clean, dry and press 600 shirts in 24 hours.

Britannia was built for banquets. The coldrooms could keep two months supply of fish and meat, bread was baked daily, 100 chickens could be roasted simultaneously whilst 200 puddings could be steamed in one batch. The Royal children renamed the storeroom where their jellies were kept as the ‘Jelly Room’.

Barely changed since 1953, the Engine Room could give Britannia a top speed of 22.5 knots. Churning out 12,000 horsepower, it’s highly polished and gleaming parts made it unlike any other Engine Room. The mat outside the entrance was for people to wipe their feet on when entering. When given a guided tour in 1992, General Schwarzkopf said, “Okay, I’ve seen the museum piece, now where’s the real engine room?”

Britannia’s 44-year journey has not all been State visits, Royal tours and British industry promotion. In 1986, Civil War in the Yemen trapped many British nationals. Despite being a Royal Navy ship, her non-combatant status meant that Britannia could attempt a rescue without provoking the situation further. The State Dining and Drawing Rooms were cleared and over a 6-day period, small boats shuttled between the coast of Yemen and Britannia, during times of gunfire, rescuing 1,068 people.

Today, as a visitor attraction, Britannia entertains over 300,000 tourists annually and still hosts corporate hospitality events. Prince Philip once said that Britannia was, “genuinely ocean-going and able to bring her particular magic to maritime nations in every part of the world.” Step on board today, and the magic is still there.

A Flotilla of Facts
• During her lifetime, Britannia called at 600 ports in 135 countries.
• A full crew comprised 220 Yachtsmen, 20 Officers, 3 Season Officers, and when on Royal Tour, a Royal Marines Band of 26. For State visits an additional 45 staff came onboard.
• Unlike any other vessel on the water, Britannia’s name does not appear on her hull.
• She was the last ship in the Navy where sailors slept in hammocks (until 1973).
• Shouting was forbidden. All orders were given by hand signals.
• Royal children often had chores to do on Britannia, including cleaning life rafts and occasionally helping to steer the Royal Yacht.
• When a young Prince Charles kicked a football overboard, Britannia turned back to collect it. When he did it a second time, she didn’t.
• The only way to get the Queen’s Rolls-Royce Phantom V into its onboard garage, was to remove the bumpers.
• Britannia carried 10 boats and 18 life rafts – more craft than a warship.
• The Royal Yacht was used for four honeymoons – Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips, the Prince and Princess of Wales, and the Duke and Duchess of York.

Visiting Britannia offers a chance to see how and where the Royal Family relaxed when ‘off-duty’, and provides an insight into how Royal State visits were run with ship-shape precision. There are five decks to explore and an exhibition packed with many recognisable and personal photographs of the Royal Family.

Britannia is berthed at the Ocean Terminal, at Leith Docks on the Firth of Forth, just over two miles from Edinburgh City Centre. Car drivers should follow signs to Edinburgh, and then Leith Docks. Ocean Terminal offers free car parking. Bus services 22, 34 and 35 run from the city centre to the docks, as does the Majestic Tour Bus. Majestic Tour Bus ticket holders can get a 10% discount off Britannia’s entry fee. ScotRail offer an all-inclusive, money saving ticket to visit Britannia from all ScotRail stations, including rail, Majestic Tour Bus and admission. Contact 08457 48 49 50 or visit www.firstgroup.com/scotrail/ for further details.

Allow approximately 2 hours for your visit. There is an excellent audio tour available in over 20 languages. Open daily except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. April – October, 9.30am, with last admission at 4.30pm. November to March, 10.00am with last admission at 3.30pm. Pre-booking is advised in August. Telephone the Information Line on 0131 555 5566. The tour begins on the second floor of the Ocean Terminal building. Ticket prices for 2007 are: Adults £9.50, Senior Citizens £7.50, Child (5-17) £5.50, under 5’s free, Family (2 adults, up to 3 children) £26.50, Student £7.50, Armed Forces £7.50, Assoc Royal Yachtsmen members free.

Ocean Terminal offers a wide range of shopping and leisure facilities, including a cinema and Totem, an aerial adventure experience. Visit www.oceanterminal.com or telephone 0131 555 8888 for more information.

© Simon Whaley