Ship that broke a royal heart

By Pamela Wade

Nowhere on the navy, maroon and gold-painted hull will you find the name Britannia.
Nowhere on the navy, maroon and gold-painted hull will you find the name Britannia.

Even when you're the Queen of England, you don't always get what you want. Back in 1997, looking even sadder, it must be said, than she did at Diana's funeral a few months earlier, Queen Elizabeth said goodbye to the Royal Yacht Britannia.

After 44 years, it was being decommissioned as an economic measure. But nowhere on its immaculate hull will you find the name "Britannia". There are some things you're just supposed to know.

Coming up to its 60th anniversary in April, the ship is now permanently moored at Leith, near Edinburgh, open to commoners to nose all the way through it.

Most visitors' interest is focused, of course, on the private quarters of the Queen and other members of the Royal Family. Where else do you get to see the head of state's actual bed?

To be honest, it doesn't look comfortable: a narrow single bed with one pillow, covered by an old-fashioned frilled bedspread. Beneath is linen frugally recycled from Queen Victoria's time, but next door, the Duke of Edinburgh spurned the lace-edged pillow cases and foreign nonsense like duvets.

Across the corridor, the ill-fated honeymoon suite used by Margaret, Anne, Charles and Andrew didn't have a double bed until Charles had one installed before his wedding.

Though from the outside Britannia looks imposing, touring the inside gives a quite different impression and an insight into the Royals' private lives because, as the Queen said, "Britannia is the one place where I can truly relax". So it's not smart, but comfortable like a country house, with squashy sofas in the state drawing room and personal items on display, such as the Duke's driftwood collection.

It was still, however, a Royal residence and the tour reveals a host of fascinating detail: the sailors (or "yachtsmen") were given silent hand-signal instructions and if a Royal Personage passed by as they were engaged on some task, they had to play statues until the coast was clear.

Even with 240 staff on board, there was so much double-duty that sometimes there could be 12 uniform changes required in a single day. The laundry, not surprisingly, ran full time, washing 600 shirts a day, on one occasion turning them all blue, it's heart-warming to learn.

The dining room took three hours to set for a state banquet, its walls hung with assorted gifts and mementos, including a greenstone mere from the people of Wanganui district, a ceremonial pig-killer from Papua New Guinea and a narwhal tusk. Eclectic furnishings continue into the officers' recreation room, where wombat tennis was played using the ceiling fan, Nelson's uniform button is framed on the wall, and a wooden monkey mysteriously changed location every day.

It takes the best part of two hours to poke into every bit of the ship, read the history, look at all the photos and build up a feel for life on board and how treasured it was by not just the Queen, but the whole Royal Family. By the end, it's easy to understand those tears.

- NZ Herald

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