England: A retreat fit for royalty

By Andrew Drummond

The British royal holiday home of Sandringham is open to the public - but, as Andrew Drummond discovers, not all parts of this four-level grand pile can be accessed.

British royalty has escaped to Sandrigham for the past 150 years. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Drumaboy
British royalty has escaped to Sandrigham for the past 150 years. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Drumaboy

My family has a holiday shack.

It is where the once-loved detritus of our collective lives go to see out their days; dearly-departed Nanna's microwave, odd cutlery, chipped crockery which has lost its pattern after years of daily dishwashing, and that 81cm stereo television Dad bought in the early 1990s which weighs the same as a small car.

Outside, it's a good thing the soil is arid - it means the grass doesn't grow much and no one has to spend time pushing the old Victa.

It is with a sense of disbelief then, that I visit one of the royal family's holiday homes, Sandringham, in Norfolk north-east of London.

"Originally, it is said to have had 365 rooms, one for each day of the year,'' Sandringham Estate Public Enterprises manager Helen Walch says with pride.

Sandringham dates back to the 16th century, and rises from among beautifully-manicured lawns, trees that creak with age, and a network of topiary which looks like it gets a weekly trim.

So this is Sandringham, the estate where the Queen's father (King George VI) died in 1952 and where British royalty has escaped for a jolly good time for the past 150 years.

It is where the Windsors traditionally spend Christmas, visiting the estate's parish church, St Mary Magdalene, and on Boxing Day roaming the extensive grounds to shoot wildlife.

Along with a group of other international journalists, Walch is taking me on a tour of the estate, of which this mansion (let's face it, we are talking about a building some 35 times the size of an average Kiwi family home) is the highlight.

There's to be no photography inside the house.

"It's a security thing,'' says one of the smiling door staff, who could be mistaken for one of the centuries-old artefacts on display.

"You will notice, extraordinarily, there is no real foyer area or entrance hall,'' Walch exclaims.

"Guests to the house have remarked that they have walked in and there was the Prince of Wales, sitting right there!''

A holiday house with no parlour? How inconceivable.

I shouldn't be surprised though, Walch had warned us at the start of the tour that "We (Sandringham) are not a palace, we are a working country estate''.

Just like at the shack, there's a strip of protective carpet to walk on because shoes get dirty when one is on holidays.

But apparently in this case the mat is rolled up and put away when the Windsors are in residence. Muddy soles are acceptable, it would seem, when they are attached to royal boots.

"Now this is exactly how it is when the family are here,'' Walch says.

Well, except for the visitor-proofing measures which include numerous DO NOT TOUCH signs and guard railings creating just a narrow walkway through each room.

My first thought? I'm struck by how cluttered the place is. Italian plaster work decorates the ceilings, china ornaments of dogs and horses and bronze statues sit on every surface. There are passageways lined with shields, swords and daggers and at every turn there's another photograph.

I can hear my mother saying, "You can tell she (the Queen, that is) doesn't do her own dusting!''.

"There's only one dining room in the house and this is it,'' says Walch with a distinct turning up of her nose.

We enter a long room with Spanish tapestries and a dark wood table set for eight.

"It can be extended to seat a maximum of 24 guests,'' says our snooty guide, pre-empting my question about where Lizzy seats all her guests for Christmas lunch.

Walch points out a stained-glass window, including two recent additions which are the coat-of-arms for the Queen and Prince Philip.

The windows filter light into what was once Queen Alexandra's morning room, which is now used by the monarch as an "office'' when she is in residence.

"We move a table in here and a computer and this is where the Queen can be found working while at Sandringham,'' says another guide.

I get a little excited when I spy a huge, felt-topped table and wonder if the Windsor family engage in a spot of that marvellous 1980s hit board game, Test Match.

I should have known better.

"This is her Majesty's puzzle table,'' says Walch.

"I'm told that she does them upside down. She doesn't look at the picture on the box, she doesn't look at the picture on the pieces.''

After passing through what I've named the armoury (every good weekender should have one) where several hundred rifles are displayed in glass cabinets, including a couple with "stocks made from rhino horn'', we reach the ballroom.

There's a mezzanine where apparently a band once played for the crowds entertained by past kings.

These days, the Windsors use the room for the odd cocktail party, and also sometimes put up a projector screen to watch films, Walch says.

Sadly, the tour of the house ends here. There is no access to upstairs quarters, which is presumably where the family spend most of their time during their stay.

I envisage a series of rooms, decorated in a manner similar to a 1990s' Sheraton hotel: dark tones, velour-upholstered sofas and maybe even a beanbag or two.

The view from outside gives nothing away of the contents of the upper floors, with blinds drawn across the small panes of glass.

Nor does our tour extend to the part of the house which was once a pitch-roofed atrium. Removed by Edward V11 whose recreational pursuits I admire, another couple of floors were added and a billiard room was installed.

The same king went on to extend the property, making way for a bowling alley, much like the timber skittle varieties found at English pubs.

I'm sad to report the two-lane alley has since been converted into a library. How royal!

Take a stroll outside to the north of the house to see channels of red-twigged lime trees, severely pared back for winter.

In case the opulence of this country estate doesn't inspire enough jealousy, the stables have become a museum, where the Windsors put bits and pieces from yesteryear on show for the gawking public.

The highlight for me is the car collection. While the 1900 Daimler limousine is impressive, it is the toys of Prince Charles that appeal to me the most.

Countless hours of my childhood were spent driving matchbox cars across the lounge room floor, all too often getting bogged in the shag pile.

As a boy it seems the Prince of Wales had no such issues. His collection of toy cars were mostly fitted with a motor, hand brake, functional steering and were capable of reaching some 16km/h.

There is a replica of James Bond's famous silver Aston Martin, built as a gift for Charles, along with an American style Imperial Midget miniature racing car, painted with his name.

The pathways of Sandringham would be ideal for these little machines. Indeed, driving the trail which leads from the house to St Mary Magdalene could possibly make attending mass a more attractive proposition for a young lad.

The quaint church can be found outside the western boundary of the house, and is adorned with memorials for past members of the royal family, including the Queen Mother.

"It's not a private chapel for the house, it's a parish church, although there are only a couple of other residences nearby,'' Walch said.

This year marks the 150th year since Sandringham Estate was bought by Queen Victoria as a home for the future Edward VII and his wife Alexandra.

He extended the original brick dwelling which has now been used by four generations of sovereigns.

What hides up those stairs and behind the blinds? A rocking chair for Prince Philip? A Nintendo Wii and iPod docking stations to keep the young royals entertained?

One thing's for sure, and that is: the Queen is certain to have an enormous television on which she can watch her beloved horse racing.

IF YOU GO:

Sandringham Estate is open to the public free of charge all year, however when the royal family is in residence at Christmas, the house is closed for public entry. An admission fee of £11.50 (NZ$22.55) per adult applies when the house is open, and concessions are available.

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