Secrets of the Royal Yacht Britannia

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Photo credit: Marc Millar Photography
Photo credit: Marc Millar Photography

Famously described by the Queen as “the one place I can truly relax,” the Royal Yacht Britannia was a home away from home for the royals from her maiden voyage in 1954 until she was decommissioned in 1997. Sailing more than one million nautical miles to 135 countries, the vessel also played a key role in Britain’s diplomatic work, allowing the Queen to serve as a host wherever she went. Now moored in Edinburgh, Scotland as a tourist attraction, the ship remains the last of 84 royal yachts, ending a tradition that first began in 1660.

While plans to build a successor to boost Britain’s trade continue to attract criticism, Britannia is once again attracting hordes of visitors after being forced to close because of COVID-19. And it’s no surprise, because from being able to look right into the Queen’s bedroom to learning about what life was like for the up to 220 yachtsmen on board, this is a boat with some fascinating stories to tell.

Town & Country went aboard to learn the secrets of this much-loved vessel. Here’s our pick of the best royal tales.

Photo credit: Victoria Murphy
Photo credit: Victoria Murphy

The ship was altered with royal skirts in mind.

Many photographs of the Royal Yacht Britannia show the family waving from the Royal Bridge as the vessel departed from or arrived at its destination. And the bow of the ship was specially adapted to make sure these public moments did not reveal more than was intended. “The curved teak windbreak was a later feature, added for modesty’s sake, to prevent sea breezes from lifting royal skirts,” visitors to Britannia are told.

Photo credit: Marc Millar Photography
Photo credit: Marc Millar Photography

It was a struggle to get the royal car on board.

When the 412-ft yacht was built in 1953, it was considered important that it had a garage to house the Queen’s Rolls Royce. However, getting the car on board was no easy feat. “First, the car, in its transporter, had to be hoisted onto the special track that is fitted into the deck. Even then, it could only be squeezed into the Garage by removing its bumpers,” Britannia’s guide notes. Thankfully, in later years the Queen usually traveled in a car from the country she was visiting which meant that the garage was eventually used as a beer store.

Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY

Britannia was designed to avoid any peeking into the royal bedrooms.

Now, visitors to Britannia get a full view of the Queen and Prince Philip’s (separate) bedrooms, albeit through glass. However, when the ship was in use it was important that no-one could peek into these rooms. Pointing out that the windows looking into these areas are “higher than anywhere else on the Yacht,” Britannia’s guide explains: “By placing them at this height above the deck, any accidental glimpses into the royal bedrooms could be prevented.”

Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY

There were lots of people on board—but not everyone traveled in style.

One of the most fascinating things about touring the yacht is looking into the living quarters—from the relatively luxurious rooms of the Queen and Prince Philip and the ship’s Admiral, to the officers’ comfortable sitting room and dining room, to the approximately 220 yachtsmen who lived, slept, and worked, as the guide describes “in fairly cramped conditions.” Tourists are told: “Britannia was a ship in which hierarchy was strongly defined.” And there were plenty of people to accommodate. Some 45 working members of the royal household accompanied the Queen on her overseas visits.

Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY

The Queen favored neutrals while Philip liked darker colors.

As the yacht was build with their use in mind, the Queen and Prince Philip both had a say in the ship’s design and as such, it gives a some insight into their taste. The Queen’s (single) bed has a specially-commissioned embroidered silk panel above it, and her room is decorated in pale and neutral colors. By contrast, Philip’s room features vibrant maroon linen and curtains and, at his request, his pillows, unlike the Queen’s “do not have lace on the borders.”

Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY

There is only one double bed.

The honeymoon suite on the yacht is opposite the Queen and Philip’s bedrooms. “This is the only room on Britannia with a double bed which was brought on board by Prince Charles when he honeymooned on the Yacht with Princess Diana,” tourists are told. “When the Royal Children were small, this bedrooms and the adjoining room were used as nursery suites.”

Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY

The royal children liked to eat jelly on board.

Food on board Britannia was prepared in three galleys—one for the yachtsmen, one for the officers and one for the royal household. Buckingham Palace chefs were flown out to prepare royal food and there was a room that, according to Britannia’s guide, was known as the Jelly Room “for it was in here that the royal children’s jellies were stored.”

Photo credit: Marc Millar Photography
Photo credit: Marc Millar Photography

There is a dance floor that hasn’t been used for 50 years.

The largest room on Britannia is the State Dining Room where lavish banquets were held. It could also be used as a cinema room. “The silver-grey carpet could also be rolled up to expose a wooden dance floor beneath, although the last time this was used was for Princess Anne’s 21st birthday celebrations,” the guide notes.

Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY

Prince Philip kept a reminder of his naval career in his office.

Just like their separate bedrooms, the Queen and Philip had separate offices on board Britannia. Philip’s had a “specially designed display case,” the ship’s guide notes, in which he kept “a model of HMS Magpie, His Royal Highness’s first naval command.” The Duke of Edinburgh famously gave up his active naval career in 1951 to support his wife in her duties when King George VI’s health was ailing.

Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY

The ship was ready for stormy seas.

The royal family and their guests relaxed in the drawing room, which featured a grand piano. The instrument was played by members of the family and even some of their famous guests, including composer Noel Coward. “The Welmar baby grand piano cost £350 when it was supplied in 1952, and is firmly bolted to the deck to stop it taking off in choppy seas,” tourists are told.

Photo credit: David Cairns - Getty Images
Photo credit: David Cairns - Getty Images

Once the royal laundry turned blue.

Walking through the laundry at the end of the tour provides an insight into what was once a “hot and noisy environment.” Some 600 shirts could pass through the laundry in one day, with the royal family’s washing done on separate days to that of the crew. Britannia’s audio guide recounts “one occasion when the royal washing turned a delicate shade of blue, and Her Majesty’s Dresser was less than amused. The cause, it turned out, was a chemical reaction in the copper pipes, which was quickly remedied by adjusting the pH value of the water.”

Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo credit: MARC MILLAR PHOTOGRAPHY

For more information and to book tickets visit royalyachtbrittania.co.uk

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