In the spirit of W.H. Auden’s famous poem,* on the Royal Yacht Britannia, the clocks have all been stopped at exactly 3:01 pm, the moment Her Majesty disembarked and the decommissioning ceremonies concluded. That was on December 11, 1997, and the only time the Queen has been seen to shed a tear.
Twenty years later the fully restored ship is on display in Scotland, in the Port of Leith, part of Edinburgh, moored alongside a multi-story shopping mall, itself the former cruise ship terminal. Leith won the rights to the ship, as part of their port revival plans, although many thought she should return to the River Clyde, where she was built in 1953, or her home port of Plymouth. Getting to the ship is an easy run by hop-on-hop-off bus from several spots in Edinburgh. Just make sure you are on a blue Majestic bus and not a red or green one.
Deck access is simple, even for those who find stairs difficult. A walkway leads to each level connecting to a shore based elevator. Starting at the top deck, where the bridge controlled the boat, you can use your free audio guide to discover secrets and trivia.
If you are lucky enough to meet a guide named Tim you will learn even more. Failing that, you can buy his slender volume of anecdotes in the gift shop. One of Tim’s memory tricks is to greet each guest by asking where they are from and then telling them about Britannia’s visits there. The guests before us are from Las Vegas, which stumps him, but when we admit to Toronto, he tells us of the ship’s previous visits. The last occasion in 1991 was the famous scene when Diana, Princess of Wales, greeted her two young boys, Princes William and Harry. The iconic moment is memorialised in a photo gallery leading to the ship.
The wheelhouse is interesting in that there is no view from here. The helmsman takes his instructions from the bridge, where the officer of the day issues verbal commands, or sends messages to the engine room by mechanical telegraph. Close by are the surprisingly modest admiral’s quarters. He’s the only member of the crew with a private bath and bathroom. The ship’s captain held the rank of admiral, first because of the royal presence and second because of his role as ambassador wherever Britannia docked around the world. She travelled more than a million nautical miles, visited over 135 countries and made 85 state visits in her 44 years of service.
There were about 18 officers on board and for relaxation and meals they have their own mess. Their lounge and bar is casual. In the ceiling is a fan with a resident stuffed wombat. Apparently a favourite game, after many drinks I imagine, was ‘wombat tennis’ which consisted of tossing the stuffed toy into the fan and trying to catch it when the fan spat it out. Their dining room is much more formal and they dressed for dinner in full ‘Red Sea Rig’ ** each night. Each officer had his own silver napkin ring and each napkin had its own slot in a special rack.
Further below decks, things were much tougher for the nearly 200 member crew, known in naval parlance as yachtsmen, or ‘yotties,’ although all were volunteers. They were excused from wearing headgear, since in the Royal Navy that signifies ‘undress uniform.’ Members of the Royal party were thus absolved from the need to return every single salute. On the plus side, pictures throughout the ship show yachtsmen having a whale of a time with the Queen’s four children. Clearly, the youthful Royals were off duty and allowed to enjoy themselves and be entertained by the ship’s company.
At the stern is the verandah deck, formerly open or covered with an awning for entertaining and relaxation and now the site of a very popular and well run café, where we have tea and smoked salmon sandwiches, almost as good as I remember from my visit to Buckingham Palace.
The Queen’s former quarters are revealed behind glass walls, so we can peek in and see how she and the Duke of Edinburgh lived. Both slept in narrow single beds, but enjoyed the convenience of their own bathrooms. Special telephones connected them to those in command and included the means to summon a butler day or night. The so-called honeymoon suite includes a modest double bed, installed by Prince Charles for his and Diana’s honeymoon.
The State Drawing Room is just as the Queen left it, with a platter of palace sandwiches and scones to hand for her tea. It is cosily decorated in comfortable chintz. The State Dining Room is much more impressive and can now be rented for posh corporate events. The Queen would sit at one table across the room, below a ceremonial sword hung on the wall, with other Royals and guests of honour to either side. Up to 50 or so lesser guests would sit at long port and starboard tables, one hosted by the Admiral and the other by the head of the Queen’s household. It took three hours to set the table, with each place setting being checked for the exact positioning of every item with a ruler.
In 1994, the government announced there could be no refit for Britannia as the costs were too high. The Royal Yacht’s last foreign duty was to convey the Governor and the Prince of Wales away from Hong Kong after the handover to China in 1997.
In March 2017, then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said he would back the construction of a new royal yacht to boost Britain’s international influence after Brexit. He insisted a new Royal Yacht would “add greatly” to the UK’s “soft power.” He admitted a new yacht was unlikely to get taxpayer funding, the same argument used by the wretched Tony Blair when his Labour government decommissioned her and caused all the clocks to stop. But with Brexit anything could happen, including Boris becoming the next Prime Minister, so perhaps his idea will float after all.
* Funeral Blues by W.H.Auden
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
** Red Sea Rig or Red Sea Kit — In Tim O’Brien’s excellent book Tales on Britannia he describes this more practical form of evening dress as: white shirt, black tie, trousers, cummerbund and patent shoes. In Egypt, in the 50s, we added a white dinner jacket, a style which I have also seen more recently in the Caribbean, where it passes for formal wear on tropic nights.
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