Sandringham and the gingerbread villages
The Royal Family always chooses a Norfolk Christmas. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh host princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, earls and countesses, at splendid Sandringham House.
Here’s a glimpse of their festive schedule.
Christmas Eve is Christmas Day for the Royals. They open their pressies on Christmas Eve, and as people who have pretty much everything, the tradition is to go for token or jokey gifts. There are stockings stuffed with small gifts and fruit for house guests on Christmas morning – and then a festive breakfast before the 11am church service at St Mary Magdalene church. Hundreds of well-wishers line the route as the family arrives – some on foot after a bracing walk across Sandringham Park and some by car. There is another chance to see the royals after the service when they take a bit of time to chat to people in the crowds before heading back to Sandringham House for Christmas lunch at 1pm.
The royals sit down in front of the telly to watch the Queen’s Speech – just like everyone else. The first Christmas speech was broadcast by radio from Sandringham by the Queen’s grandfather, George V, on December 25, 1932. Twenty five years later the Queen made the first televised Christmas broadcast, live from the library at Sandringham. It was King George V who said: “Dear old Sandringham, the place I love better than anywhere in the world.” His son, George VI, said: “I have always been happy here and I love the place.” The deeply loved home has seen sad times too as both kings also died at Sandringham.
The Queen traditionally arrives in Norfolk by train. These days the nearest station is King’s Lynn but for around a century Sandringham’s royal railway station was at Wolferton. The village station, now a private home, had elegant waiting rooms for its aristocratic travellers. Even the lamps were topped with royal crowns for the emperors, empresses, kings and tsars who arrived here. The buildings have been beautifully restored to something reminiscent of their royal heyday.
One story is of a short journey Edward VII took with the Tsar of Russia. Catching a train home after a walk they were asked for their tickets. “I am the King of England and this is the Tsar of Russia,” said Edward. The ticket collector replied: “Glad to meet you. I am the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
The Queen is a pigeon fancier, with her own loft of racing pigeons at Wolferton. The hobby has passed down from monarch to monarch and Her Majesty is a knowledgeable owner who visits regularly.
The Queen has also been a member of Sandringham Women’s Institute for 75 years. She attends the January meeting, at West Newton village hall, where she chats with members, enjoys tea and gingerbread and listens to the visiting speaker. This year the speaker was our own Susie Fowler-Watt.
The rich seam of red stone which runs through the region is officially called carrstone. Nicknamed gingerbread, it gives a fairytale feel to villages full of gingerbread cottages. Find them in Ingoldisthorpe, whose name gives away its Viking past, Flitcham, where St Felix visited in the seventh century, and Dersingham, with its historic tithe barn and bog which is a national nature reserve.
‘It was King George V who said: “Dear old Sandringham, the place I love better than anywhere in the world’
Birds fly in from as far afield as the Arctic in the winter and Africa in summer. The coastal nature reserve at Snettisham, run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, is alive with flocks of resident and migratory birds all year round.
Deep in the heart of lowland Iceland pink-footed geese flourish in summer. But as temperatures drop, the geese head south, with many thousands gathering at Snettisham. They roost overnight on the mudflats and are ready to fly out to find food at first light.
The sight of the sky full of soaring pink-footed geese has been dubbed the Snettisham Spectacular by the RSPB, which runs its dawn Wild Goose Chase on December 14, 15 and 30 and January 5.
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West Norfolk has been associated with royalty for more than 2,000 years. Scores of Iron Age gold torqs have been unearthed around Snettisham – of such high quality they are thought of have been the royal treasure of the Iceni tribe. The Snettisham Hoard, including huge twisted gold necklaces, or torqs, was found between 1948 and 1973. See some of the finds in Norwich Castle Museum, with more in the British Museum. A separate hoard of Roman jewellery has also been found nearby.
Sedgeford has the most studied history in Britain. The Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project has been running for 22 years, and uncovered more than 4,000 years of human history from the burial of a Bronze Age 20-year-old around 2300BC through a Roman villa (there are also the remains of Roman villas in nearby Grimston, Gayton, Congham and Flitcham) and medieval manors to a First World War aerodrome.
Every summer the historians return to one of the largest and longest-running archaeological research and training projects in Britain.
St Felix is said to have been rescued by beavers after being shipwrecked on the (tiny) River Babingley in 630AD. He had come, via The Wash, to introduce Christianity to East Anglia when he was caught in a violent storm. He was so grateful to the colony of beavers which saved him from drowning that he made the chief beaver a bishop. Today the village sign for the hamlet of Babingley, near beautiful Castle Rising, shows a beaver in a bishop’s mitre.
And finally… Fancy a real royal Christmas tree? Christmas trees are sold from the sawmill on the Sandringham estate.
To mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Royal Loft Manager Peter Farrow releases a pigeon outside the Norwich Gates at Sandringham
ABOVE, FROM LEFT The Queen on Christmas Day 2013
ABOVE:The Pink Footed Geese fly over Snettisham RSPB reserve at as the sun rises.
BELOW:The Sedgeford Historical Archaelogical Research Project
RIGHT:The River Babingley Picture: Ian Burt