The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday



IFit for a king (and a queen): Buckingham Palace was bought by George III in 1761 and, inset, a ball held there in 1856 t is an accepted fact that no one is privy to the thoughts of Her Majesty the Queen, though I would hazard a guess that she is feeling a touch wistful at the moment. The reason? Her return from Royal Deeside to London. Balmoral is her private Scottish residence, and the late summer and autumn that she spends there the only time in the year when she can sleep in the same bed for the better part of two months. Those who predicted a slackening of pace now that the Queen is in her late 80s must shake their heads and smile at her energy – not to mention that of the Duke of Edinburgh at 93. They now both return to the routine of Monday to Friday in London and weekends in Windsor, before departing for Norfolk in midDecembe­r after a family lunch at Buckingham Palace. The year is set out with military precision; perhaps that, in itself, is helpful in keeping the royal heads from spinning. The whole business of moving the Court is a triumph of logistics, and the houses between which the Royal family shuttles have played an important part in the lives of successive monarchs since William the Conqueror built his fortress on the hill in Windsor. Almost a thousand years on, the stone battlement­s that have replaced William’s early wooden structure have become an iconic image in the minds of Britons and foreign visitors alike: a symbol of royal power and influence, however “constituti­onal” the monarchy might have become. In writing a book about the Queen’s houses I’ve been fascinated not only by the history of the buildings and the vicissitud­es that affected their inhabitant­s, but also by their different atmosphere­s and the ways they have been used and regarded by successive monarchs. The hunting that was enjoyed by Norman and Tudor kings and queens might have been replaced by more sedentary pursuits such as riding, carriage driving and polo, but the palaces and parks are still steeped in regality and seem to me to be more impressive than ever. Buckingham Palace, the “shop” that the Duke of Edinburgh has referred to as living over, was bought for a song by George III in 1761. He paid just £28,000 for it – about £5million today. Here, the King and Queen Charlotte lived, and 14 of their 15 children were born within its walls. The palace today owes much to the influence of Queen Victoria, who commission­ed the building of the east front – the vast grey façade that looks up The Mall and from whose balcony the Royal family waves on special occasions. The building behind it – originally by John Nash for George IV – was masked from public view, and it is here that the spectacula­r State Rooms are to be found. State banquets are laid on in the ballroom for visiting heads of state and are designed to impress. Even ardent royalists who are used to such displays of regal splendour are inspired to wax lyrical. According to one guest, Sir Roy Strong, “The tables were an explosion of damask, silver gilt, glass and flowers… By the serving tables stood batteries of footmen… The impact on entering can only be described as dazzling.” The same compliment could be paid to the Royal Mews, where 30 horses are always stabled, along with carriages and coaches. The most spectacula­r is the Gold State Coach designed by Sir William Chambers for George III in 1762, used at every coronation since George IV. For other occasions there are the five State Limousines (Rolls-Royces and Bentleys), two semistate stretched XJ Jaguars, and three Daimler limousines, all painted in royal claret livery. A total of 40 members of staff maintain cars and carriages, coaches and horses to the highest possible standard. Windsor Castle is the Queen’s weekend home and where she resides for the Easter Court and during Royal Ascot. The State Rooms here are no less spectacula­r, furnished with glittering ormolu-encrusted furniture acquired by George IV after the French Revolution. With Ascot and the Garter Service over, it’s back to Buckingham Palace during the week until a brief visit to the Palace of Holyroodho­use in Edinburgh, followed by the summer break at Balmoral. This turreted castle, near Ballater, was built by Victoria and Albert in a part of the country that reminded the prince of his native land around Coburg. It is cherished today by the Queen as a family retreat. Unlike Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, it is a private home and – apart from the grounds and ballroom when the Queen is not in residence – it is not open to the public. Sandringha­m, too, is the Queen’s personal property, as opposed to that which is owned by the state, and, as at Balmoral, there is a chance to relax away from public view. There are timbered lodges on the estate at Balmoral and Sandringha­m, where the family enjoys picnics, whatever the weather. Sandringha­m was bought for Edward VII when Prince of Wales in 1862. He loved it, as did his son, who became George V. It is a funny-looking brick-built house, derided by some as being without architectu­ral style, but it is comfortabl­e and homely as well as being set in picturesqu­e gardens. Here the Queen remains over Christmas, returning only after February 6 each year – the day of her Accession – when the affairs of state are resumed and the royal year begins once more. Visit any of these royal residences and you can imagine something of what it must be like to live there. They are large and they are imposing but, in the rooms you do not get to see, there are the family photos, the tartan rugs and the small electric fires that are practical rather than ostentatio­us. They are not just houses; they are homes. The dog bowls and the dog leads that you will find in each and every hallway prove that. ‘The Queen’s Houses’ by Alan Titchmarsh (Ebury £20) is available to order from Telegraph Books at £17.50 + £1.95 p&p. Call 0844 871 1515 or visit

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