Friday, 8 October 2010

Britannia Rules the Waves

‘A yacht is a necessity and not a luxury for the Head of our British Commonwealth, between whose countries the sea is no barrier but the natural and indestructible highway.’
HRH Queen Elizabeth II

And yet the Royal Yacht Britannia was taken off the Queen for reasons unknown, but which probably have a lot to do with mealy-mouthed envy. But you can still look around it and admire the royal floating life, from the docks at Leith, so we did.

The admiral’s rooms (and when the Queen is on board she is piloted – or whatever you do with boats – by an admiral) aren’t so smart and are actually a wee bit shabby. The whole ship retains its 1950s chintzy d├ęcor – the Queen apparently wanted country-house comfort rather than formal grandeur and she rejected the original plans as too elaborate.
It is spotless, however and a junior yachtsman had to scrub the deck every day before 8am. Tasks were all carried out in silence so as not to disturb the royal family, and the crew tried to stay out of sight so that the royal family wouldn’t have to constantly acknowledge their salutes.

In some ways the yacht is actually impractical and the master of modification. ‘Modesty balconies’ prevent skirts blowing up in the wind when the royal family were posing for photographs; high-positioned windows avoid any accidental glimpses into royal apartments; the Rolls Royce or Landrover was housed in a garage – as it was difficult to manoeuvre the vehicle into this space, replacements were ordered for the destination and the erstwhile garage was used for beer storage.

The Queen’s favourite room was apparently the sun lounge with its picture windows, drinks cabinet and rum tub, where she took morning and afternoon tea (not actually in the rum tub). The Queen and the Duke had separate bedrooms (other rooms could be used by other members of the royal family, but these were reserved specifically for them) and all but one room had single beds. Prince Charles had a double bed brought on board for his honeymoon – who says he wasn’t romantic?

There are jolly japes in the wardroom antechamber where the officers met for drinks before dinner. They played tennis with a stuffed toy (meant to be a wombat but looking nothing like one) and took it in turns to hide a wooden monkey around the room. At dinner itself the youngest member had to entertain the others with an amusing anecdote, and the gin pennant indicated who was buying drinks in the officer’s bar.

In the state dining room it took three hours to set the table; there were placings for 56 (guests included Mandela, Ghandi, Churchill, Clinton, Reagan and Thatcher) and menus were given to guests (seated on Hepplewhite chairs) to take away as souvenirs. The walls are lined with gifts from locations visited – The Galapagos, Easter and Pitcairn Islands; Bangkok; Papua New Guinea; Fiji; Australia; New Zealand; Trinidad – and the room could be converted to a cinema or a dance floor.

The Queen did a lot of work on board and she had a sitting room in which to do it. The Duke had a study which is absolutely symmetrical and connected by telephone. Every detail is considered – the centre of the mirror in The Queen’s sitting room is exactly at her eye level.

Chintz sofas and deep armchairs decorate the drawing room used for relaxation and reception, which could accommodate 250 guests, and a piano on which Noel Coward played is bolted to the floor to stop it pitching in high ‘C’s (Ha!). The Queen originally wanted an open coal fire in here but that would have necessitated a sailor to be on permanent stand-by with a fire bucket, so that idea was abandoned in favour of a more prosaic (and practical) electric fire. Flowers were always displayed in this room – they were either given to royals by admirers on their voyages, or they came from the gardens of Windsor Castle and were stored in a cool room – one of the stewards had to double as the royal flower arranger.

Although the chief petty officers were allowed spirits as well as beer, it was an invitation to drink at the petty officer’s mess that was most highly sought-after. Privacy was non-existent and the sleeping quarters were very cramped, but at least it was better than the hammocks (which had been used until 1970).

Some of the men were trained as divers and dived beneath the boat every day, and into every berth before they entered, to check for terrorist devices. The Royal Marines Band played them ashore – they had to know everything from classical to ceilidh and the national anthem of every country they visited, and they played the Beat Retreat after state banquets. The band rehearsed daily (as far from the royal apartments as possible) and had up to 26 different uniforms for band special occasions – all neatly stored in their tiny lockers.

There was exercise and competition to be had – a fiercely-contested Golden Welly was presented to the winning team of six runners who ran four times round the upper deck with the other team in pursuit. A mail office and a shop onboard catered for all incidentals (including sweets which the royal children were allowed to buy, and where fudge is still made and sold).

Britannia could be converted into a hospital ship in 24hours, although she was never used as such, and the sick bay doesn’t look particularly appealing. The laundry, however, was very busy, reaching temperatures of 45°C. Uniforms were changed up to six times a day, and 600 shirts were washed an ironed daily – to preserve decorum the royal family had their laundry done on different days from the crew.

You can take tea in the tearooms, which we did (Britannia lemon drizzle cake and a pot of Darjeeling), then continued our tour with a glimpse of the gleaming engine room. Details include 12,000hp; a team of 80 engineers; a speed of 21 nautical miles and hour; the ability to recycle steam to water and back; and a back-up diesel generator known as chitty chitty bang bang.

The Queen herself chose the blue paint (rather than black) and approved the gold line painted in 24 carat gold leaf paint. She enjoyed visiting the Western Isles and loves sailing generally, as does her husband and children. Prince Philip raced Tui at Cowes, and Charles and Anne learned to sail on the 12 metre class yacht, Bloodhound.

‘Sailing on a sunny day is the nearest thing to heaven anyone will ever get on this earth.’
Princess Anne

Monday, 4 October 2010

Show me the money!

A random aside: The Royal Bank of Scotland may be part of the same financial group as Natwest, but it has no access to their accounts. I know that now after having to make a special trip to the Natwest on George Street to withdraw more money. I am handed a motley collection of twenty pound notes all from different banks in a plethora of purples.

When gangsters flip open briefcases to reveal wads of cash - millions of notes of the same denomination - you will note they never use Scottish pounds; it just wouldn't look right.